My late mother once insulted the way I dressed, saying: “You wear all those tight clothes, trying to look sexy.”
(Mothers say things like that. The saccharine verses on Mother’s Day cards never mention it, but probably even the sweetest mothers said some version of “You’re going to wear that?” My own mom was more plainspoken and once she told me and my college friend, all dolled up to go out on the town on Saturday night: “I think you look like a couple of sluts.”)
(Though why the Mother’s Day verses have not made use of such phrases I am at a loss to say. “Going out wearing that” rhymes with everything from “ridiculous hat” to “drug in by the cat,” while “couple of sluts” could be paired quite harmoniously with “them thongs in your butts.”)
But back to my mother’s insult. When she said that, I was in my 30s, long gone from her house, and I made a great show of affronted innocence. I’d have my husband take pictures of me in the comfy flannel nightshirt and tube socks I wore on winter evenings and I would send them to her with righteously indignant notes like: “This is ‘trying to look sexy’?”
But after all these years I am willing to admit it was a case of the lady-doth-protest-too-much. I was of course guilty as charged. I’d have purely loved to be a sizzlin’ slut—just never enough to stick to my diet or get up sufficiently early to put on makeup. Yes, I wanted to be a hottie, but I didn't have a real shot at it so I never gave it more than a half-assed stab.
And really that’s what the tight clothes were about. I think the garment that prompted my mother’s remark was a pair of black what I called rock-and-roll jeans. (Have you ever noticed that to make it as a rock star you have to have really thin thighs? Think of the Beatles as caricatured in their animated TV show. They looked like pipe cleaners holding guitars. Jim Morrison’s thighs looked more like mine but you’ll notice he died young.)
Anyway, I had a friend back then, an artist named Sandy who looked like Cher. She wore those black jeans and she looked great in them. On top she wore the cutest little half-shirts she designed herself, with drawings on the front in gold paint, cut to reveal most of her long brown abdomen. She was hot! So I bought jeans like hers, and I also bought a bunch of those little shirts off her and wore them until people began to make hurtful comments. Once my niece, then a very little girl, asked me why I wore “that shirt that shows your belly like that.”
“Because it makes me look sexy,” I joked (but also yearned to believe).
She was only 4 or 5 but she said, “Try another one, Bob.”
So I retired the crop tops eventually but I clung to the black jeans. I was always on a diet (or off it) and I figured I was in the process of looking good in them. My weight went up and down. If you were looking at it from a distance of many years (like now), you’d have to admit that the overwhelming trend was up. But back then I focused on the troughs rather than the peaks and I clung to the hope that the jeans would someday allow me to exhale.
So in a way my mother was wrong because it wasn’t so much a matter of thinking tight clothes were sexy as pretending that I was the right size for them and therefore one hot tamale. I was skipping ahead. A serious hottie would starve her way into the jeans. What I would do is jam myself into them with a shoehorn and say MISSION ACCOMPLISHED. I remember buying one pair of jeans so tight I zipped them up by passing a shoelace through the eyelet in the zipper and pulling it with both hands while looking at the ceiling with my breath sucked in. Waste of money! The zipper gave way before I had to solve the problem of what to do about sitting down.
And that’s been the pattern of my life. I like to say I was a size eight when I got married but it would be more accurate to say my wedding dress was. I’d starved myself for months to look good on the big day. But then I’d wallowed in beer and pizza for the week or two before so that during the reception I came thundering out of the center seam like Niagara.
I’ve told that story before in these pages. I’ve gone through the whole diet ordeal. I promise not to do it again. But I’ve been thinking about it today after buying six pairs of the most perfectly enormous panties. (Nothing half-assed about them big girls; more like ass-and-a-half! If you rigged them to a mast you could sail ‘em to Australia.) What I realized putting on the first pair was that this was a rite of passage: It was the first time in my life, faced with the reality that clothes were too tight, I had reacted: “So buy bigger clothes” as opposed to “Where's that shoehorn?”
My long, futile, half-assed quest for hottiehood had ended, not in a flash and not in a whimper, but in a pair of purple cotton briefs the size of Rhode Island.
It’s a serious goodbye. I was never much good at being a girl but by fits and spells I’d try. Who doesn't want to be pretty? Society lets us know it’s important. In the South particularly we’re eat up with beauty contests, Little Miss This and Junior Miss That, Homecoming Queen and Prom Queen all the way up to Miz Blue Rinse, the hottest broad at the nursing home.
I figured out early on that sashes and tiaras were not in my future, but you can’t entirely opt out of the Pretty Girl thing. Not if you go to school, shop in stores or read women’s magazines. Even the feminist ones. Revlon and L’Oreal advertised in Ms.
The beauty thing is so pervasive that growing up female you can’t help associating being an astronaut or a doctor or even something as abstract as a feminist or a Free Spirit with some kind of fashion statement. When I read “woman doctor” I see not a female in scrubs but one in a starched white lab coat over a smart summery dress with medium-heel blue pumps. Must be some pic I saw in a mag. My Free Spirit mental image is definitely from one—I remember seeing a photo of a cute girl in hippie skirt and tank top swinging a hammer above a caption that explained Josie was a free spirit who made her living as a handyman.
From real life, I remember being at my wits’ end in my 30s about how to make a living and reading advice from a women’s career consultant: She said to wear stud earrings, not the dangly kind. I’d thought she was going to say something about computer science!
And I bet you’ve seen this picture. It’s not from a women’s mag, it was on the cover of Time, for a feature article on the concept of mindfulness. But the minute I saw it I knew its purpose was to make women say holy s--t, I want to be mindful, too, look at that hair. And I personally will always think of that shade of lipstick as “Mindful Pink.”
Fashion, though, is one part of Pretty Girlhood it became painfully obvious from the start I was never going to wrap my tiny brain around. I remember after one of my initial experiments with lipstick my mother telling me (good old Mom!) that it wasn’t supposed to go on my eyebrows. I examined my eyebrows anxiously until she explained it was a figure of speech. Then, just earlier this year, a lady at the board of education office told me I had lipstick on my chin. I thought it was a figure of speech but it turned out I really had lipstick on my chin.
So I was never good at makeup and as for clothes! I never quite figured out what I was doing wrong but I got to where I could tell by people’s faces and their terrible silences when I had made some particularly ghastly mistake. Or sometimes I didn’t have to guess. Once when I was an office temp, the supervisor called the agency and said I was a good worker and could come back but not in those blue pants. It was some sort of interior design place and I don’t reckon I went with their drapes.
That sort of thing was how I settled on my working uniform of jeans and a shirt. The only thing you can do wrong with jeans is be too fat for them, and even that doesn’t really matter if you don’t come exploding out of them in public. Jeans have the additional benefit of being suitable for wear with comfortable shoes, and comfortable is the best I can hope for these days.
Which brings us back to those big old panties. They’re comfortable.
How I came to resign myself to this life of comfort and seaworthy underwear was this: I’d been putting on weight for years but last year was the bonanza. I broke my leg and sat around helplessly for four months while my bone mended and my butt billowed out of control. I had this chirpy idea that the extra weight would fall off once I resumed my active lifestyle. Not! I don’t have the kind of body that weight ever “just fell off” and it’s gotten more stubborn with every passing year.
So back to the diet mines! But I just didn't have it in me anymore. My temperament, like my body, had also gotten ornerier with the passage of time. The first time I tried to explain to it it had to drink its coffee black to start the day off saving calories, I got my head bitten off. “What do you mean I can’t have my coffee the way I like it? It’s seven o’clock in the f—king morning.”
So I gave in about the coffee and it went on from there. When I tried a vegan diet I got: “What do you mean I can’t have cheese melted on it? What else is there to eat on this (bleep) plate?” Or: “Why don’t you just give me a nosebag?” Then, when I went to a low-carb diet: “What do you mean no rice with the (expletive deleted) chicken? Buy some bigger panties, bitch!”
I bought the panties.
So here I am, a woman of a certain age in huge purple panties, having finally given up a quest for hotness that wasn't realistic in the first place and that I am now willing to admit I never pursued in more than a half-assed way. I suppose this is a clue from the universe I should turn my powers to something worthier.
Instead I keep thinking of a newspaper story I read about the mayor of some small town whose wife had shocked the local citizenry by posting photographs of herself online clad only in the American flag. I Googled the story to get what he told them right and couldn’t find it again, but it was something like this:
“My wife is six feet tall and weighs over 300 pounds. If anybody here thinks they can control her, have at it! I’ve been trying for 30 years with no success.”
So there you have it: A new paradigm for a new phase of life! A powerful woman so confident of her own hotness she poses nude though I’d bet the farm at 300+ pounds nobody is urging her to. (You could say it’s her own version of skipping ahead: After a certain age and weight you don’t wait until they ask you.)
In any case, I leave you now older and wider, but wiser, too. I am myself and liberated, having finally stripped off like jeans that were too tight the constrictive stereotypes imposed on me in youth. I am strong! I am free!
And I bet I’d look seriously hot in an American flag...