One of the ways in which motherhood has made me feel less me is the way I look. More specifically: the way I present myself. It’s had unfortunate effects on my body, too, but those are honestly less of an issue than the way I dress, how I look in public. Which, unlike my post-partum, post-breastfeeding silhouette, is entirely within my control. And yet.
“Women in Clothes” is a fascinating subject (thanks, Ruth, for raising it!). Women, as a group, are simultaneously expected to look “put together” and mocked for “primping”. We’re derided for being “frivolous” or “extravagant” if we show interest in clothes or buy too many shoes (however many that may be), but scorned if we “let ourselves go” or “don’t make an effort”. Whatever we do and wherever we live, we are judged, implicitly, every single time we appear in public. Most of the time, nobody says anything to us; but we’re well aware, all the same, of what’s expected of us, of how our appearance is being read.
In the working world, self-presentation can affect opportunities and respect. Depending on the industry, that might mean navigating a corporate minefield – “professional” but not “masculine”, “glamorous” but not “sexy” – or it might mean taking care not to look too “feminine” lest you are seen as girly and un-serious. As a hausfrau, it would seem, my choice of outfit isn’t going to cost me anything. And yet, I’ve felt far more constrained by this role than I ever did in an office.
I’ve always liked clothes – I even wanted to be a fashion buyer. (It took me a lot longer to figure out that I actually like clothes, not fashion. Big difference. But this interest in design has always been part of me.) At university, I delighted in wearing conspicuously costumey, over-the-top outfits: Victorian skirts and velvet waistcoats, hippie dresses found in charity shops and flea markets. As a drama student, of course, I fit right in. Then came the working world and, while I toned it down a bit (largely because building a worthwhile wardrobe from flea market shopping requires an investment of time, but you can find something that fits pretty fast on the high street, and as a working stiff I suddenly had more money than time), I was usually the most dressed-up sub in the newsroom. By far. Journos are a pretty casual crowd, but I liked to wear outfits. Maybe those were A-line skirts and embroidered cardis instead of Victoriana, but it was still a Look. With accessories. And lipstick. And even if I did look slightly out of place, I enjoyed the heck out of it.
Pregnancy threw a major spanner in the works. I struggled to find anything that wasn’t black or “putty”. As if that’s even a colour. And dressing to accommodate breastfeeding was, if anything, worse. There was also the small issue of my new (and constantly changing) body shape. And – oh yes – my new “lifestyle”.
“Lifestyle” is such a loaded word. As used in media it tends to imply things like choice, and leisure, and comfort (or even glamour). None of which have much application to the life of an at-home mom. Well, maybe comfort. I suddenly found I was all about the comfort. Although I’ve never been one to suffer for beauty, days that were all about trudging around with a toddler and getting sticky fingers all over me required rather more basic approach. My requirements for getting dressed became: can I put it on quickly? Will it ride up on my tummy or dig into my muffintop or expose my vast, ugly breastfeeding bra? Is it vulnerable to damage from stains or tugs or accidents or any kind? Basically, will I have to be aware of it at all, in any way, or can I just pretend I’m still in pyjamas?
These principles of mommywear put paid to any notion of “outfits”. I wear jeans and T-shirts. Without jewellery, because babies pull. And frequently with small holes in, because cheap crappy T-shirts wear holes really quickly when you’re often carrying a baby, with their weight rubbing your T-shirt against your jeans’ waist button. And there’s another thing.
When my days are all about babywrangling and laundry and a short walk to the shop counts as an “outing”, I feel really, really uncomfortable dressing with any kind of style. It’s another kind of self-censorship, like editing the things I most want to say out of this blog. Of course, I don’t want to risk damaging the few garments that I actually love, or to be constantly washing them, so it’s safest and easiest to stick with the T-shirts. But even with a tugging baby, I could accessorise. (And the baby’s not a baby any more.) I could wear lipstick. I love lipstick.
But dressing “up” (which seems to mean making anything that could be construed as an effort) triggers this outraged voice in my head: Who does she think she is? Wearing THAT to the playground?
I don’t know where this comes from. Maybe an ingrained suspicion of “yummy mummies” (what a nasty phrase). Maybe a little bit of cultural insecurity; Swiss style is very conservative, conformist and underdressed. But I felt this way in London too, although it might be getting worse. Maybe it’s just another expression of my own deep ambivalence about where I am in my life right now.
But I think it needs to change. Because for someone who’s always loved clothes, it’s pretty miserable to be miserable about what I’m wearing most of the time. Last year I saw someone having a mommy date in a community centre, breastfeeding her infant, wearing bright red lipstick. She’s my icon. If she can wear red lippy to have coffee with toddlers, I can wear a necklace to the playground.
I’ve made a start. After hunting fruitlessly for a spring parka that didn’t make me want to stab my eyeballs out from sheer boredom, I suddenly remembered I had this coat… so much better than a parka.
And I’ve been rocking the playground.