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Clothes & Patriarchy

Why shopping & getting dressed can be so stressful and upsetting.

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In our appearance-obsessed society, developing a healthy, positive, and authentic relationship with clothes and style can be tricky.

Image of a woman with her hands over her head, looking in the mirror

Some of the reasons for this are pretty obvious, like the pressure to conform to unrealistic beauty and body ideals, the constant evolution of fashion trends, a lack of accessibility for clothing in bigger sizes, and ethical issues in the fashion industry. 

But in my experience as a body image coach, the most common reason people struggle with shopping, trying on clothes, and figuring out what to wear is a more subtle and insidious one: the compulsive centering of other people in the experience of self-expression.

Those of us conditioned as girls and women were taught we only have value when we’re giving other people a pleasant or positive experience. Even in childhood, the vast majority of positive attention we get centers someone else’s experience of us, rather than our own:

  • We’re complimented for being adorable, pretty, or beautiful. These compliments center the experience of people who look at us, and teach us that we are valued for being decorative.

  • We’re praised for being “good” and “well-behaved,” which is to say obedient. These compliments—which may include praise for being quiet, polite, happy, or good at following rules—center the convenience and experience of the adults around us. They teach us that our value is dependent on our ability to suppress our impulses, conform to expectations, and never be a burden. 

  • We’re celebrated for being “nice” and “sweet.” This praise centers the experience of the people we interact with, and teaches us (again) that we are valued for our ability to make other people feel good. 

Given this, is it any wonder that so many of us learned to measure our own worth by how well we’re able to conform to what other people like, want, and expect from us? Or that we come to think of fashion and style not as a fun way to express ourselves, but as a very important tool for giving other people the positive experience we feel like we “owe” them, in order to be valued?

In this way, shopping and getting dressed often becomes a part of an ongoing existential transaction with the universe; a key aspect of our unconscious strategy to manipulate people into thinking we have value, so they’ll give us what we want and need. 

Most people aren’t aware they’re doing this, of course. They just look in the mirror and feel upset, or stressed about the ways in which their appearance might fail to get them what they want and need. But this unconscious strategy for manipulation is an extremely common example of internalized patriarchy, in which we take on the beliefs of our oppressors, agree with their assertion that we only have value when we’re giving other people a positive experience, and then try to follow the “rules” they’ve given us. 

It’s worth mentioning here that “being manipulative” is often seen as tantamount to being a terrible person, but we actually only turn to manipulation as a strategy for getting what we want and need when we’ve learned we don’t have the power or agency to get those things more directly. (Think about how toddlers, who literally don’t have any power or agency, are often seen as being manipulative!) 

I say this because, given what patriarchy taught us about who has power and who doesn’t, it makes sense that so many of us would come to view clothes and style as a tool for manipulation. And that brings me to the crux of the strategy: creating a facade. 

Most of us learned that the goal of clothing and style is to create a pleasant optical illusion for others. 

This may be a hard pill to swallow, but most people who feel stressed or distressed around clothing, hair, and makeup are trying to create a false impression. They’re not trying to “look their best,” they’re trying to make people think they look different (or better, according to conventional beauty and body ideals) than they actually do. 

We learn to create this optical illusion by following the “rules” dictated to us everywhere from fashion magazines to beauty influencers and TikTok influencers, about how clothes must be used strategically to “hide our flaws,” “highlight our assets,” and “flatter our body type.” 

Because we’ve learned our appearance is about other people’s experience, rather than our own, we may love a particular aesthetic, but feel like we “can’t wear it” because it would ruin the illusion we’re trying to create. So instead of buying and wearing clothes that make us happy or express our authentic selves, we end up with clothes that “visually lengthen the legs,” “make the waistline appear smaller,” “smooth out belly rolls,” or “give the illusion of height.”

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that this approach tends to make the whole topic of clothes and style feel stressful, anxiety-inducing, and overwhelming. But it doesn’t have to be that way!

Today’s episode of my podcast This Is (Not) About Your Body is all about breaking free from this phenomenon, and using clothes and style as a tool for connecting with yourself, instead!! 

Featuring Dacy Gillespie, who is an anti-diet personal stylist and owner of Mindful Closet, the episode is called “Intuitive Style & Fashion,” because her approach is like the Intuitive Eating of developing a personal style!

Dacie Gillespie
Dacy Gillespie

Ready to listen and learn how to develop a positive and healthy relationship with clothes? Listen to the episode here, or watch the video on my YouTube channel here!

Oh, and in case nobody has told you this lately, the patriarchy is wrong. 

You do have innate worth, power, and agency, your value is not determined by your ability to give other people a positive experience, and you don’t owe the world an optical illusion. If you’re ready to break free from this kind of internalized oppression, reclaim your power and agency, and recognize your worth, I’m currently accepting new coaching clients! Check out the package options and apply here to get started!

Big hug,


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