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FASHION

The MET gala, and experiencing fashion differently with body neutrality


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#TransparentTuesdays

Last week was the MET gala, which for those of you who don’t know, is a yearly fundraising event for NYC’s Metropolitan Museum of Art’s costume institute, known for wildly elaborate and inventive celebrity red carpet looks. 


Photo of a person looking at a museum exhibit
Photo by Nertila Kabashaj

I’ve seen a lot of posts by people talking about how uncomfortable and wrong it feels to throw (or care about) an event celebrating such conspicuous luxury and opulence, given the brutal atrocities happening in Gaza and elsewhere, and I completely understand that. I’ve also seen a lot of pushback to that idea from people saying the human spirit requires nourishment, and that it’s ok to take a break from the despair of ongoing genocide to appreciate the artistry and accomplishment of pretty dresses. 


I understand that too, and while I didn’t personally spend more than a few minutes browsing red carpet pictures to see what everyone wore to the MET gala, I ultimately decided to write about my relationship to fashion today, so I’ll start at the beginning. 


I’ve always been fascinated by fashion. 


If I’m being completely honest with myself, my love and appreciation for fashion, at least when it first developed in early adolescence, was fully rooted in my own self-objectification, my insecurity, and preoccupation with how I looked. I certainly enjoyed the creativity of fashion as an art form, and spent a lot of time pondering the psychology and sociology of evolving fashion trends, but mostly I was interested in discovering the secrets of how to look hot. 


I read all the articles on how to dress for my body type, even when they compared me to shapes and fruits, and I took their advice on how to “hide my flaws” and “highlight my assets” seriously. I pored over “model off duty” street photography, kept up with “it girl” fashion trends, and studied how celebrities were doing their hair and makeup so I could try to emulate it. 


This information felt incredibly important to me, because I had absorbed and internalized the message that how women look (and by extension, how I looked) is incredibly important. I had learned to see women as decoration, and as dark as I know that is now, I enjoyed seeing and learning from this top tier of decorators, as they fulfilled their duty to the world. 


I especially loved seeing the evolution of red carpet styles, as A-listers went from the wearing jeans and cute tops or sundresses of the 90s and early 00s, to the glamorous designer gowns and statement pieces of today. How wonderful it must be, I thought, to work with a stylist and makeup artist to create a fabulously jaw dropping look. 


Photo of a person looking away, wearing glam
Photo by Pixabay

I knew these women were more likely to get torn to shreds on a “worst dressed” list, or end up shamed on the cover of a tabloid for the unforgivable sin of having a normal human body, but the fact that it was such a high stakes game only made it more exciting to me. After all, if nobody could “fail,” then nobody could “succeed,” and because my self-worth was all tangled up with my appearance at the time, I was deeply invested in succeeding. 


It’s been many years now since I felt that how I look has anything whatsoever to do with my worth or value, or, indeed, that how a person looks means anything interesting or important about them at all. And as my perspective of people’s bodies and appearance become one of neutrality, my relationship to fashion shifted too.


I still loved seeing the myriad ways a person might choose to express themselves visually (both in the fashion/celebrity world, and in real life), but I lost all interest in learning or emulating. The concept that clothes could be “flattering” lost all meaning, and even the idea that a person could look “good” or “bad” went out the window completely, and eventually all I was left with was an appreciation for interesting visual stories. 


Instead of admiring fashion’s beauty or glamor, I now find myself wondering about the ideas and impact. I wonder where the designer came up with such an idea, and if it’s rooted in some obscure bit of fashion history I don’t know about, or if it was the result of an original creative impulse. What inspired them, and what story were they trying to tell? What does it reflect (if anything) about where we’re at as a society right now– about what we value and where we want to go, or about what we’re scared of, or trying to distance ourselves from?


I wonder how it makes the person wearing it feel, too. Is she comfortable, and can she take a deep breath? Does she feel confident and beautiful, because this look is in her fashion comfort zone, or does she feel brave and determined because she’s taking a risk and trying something new? Does she feel grounded and present, or is she distracted by anxious thoughts about her body, what other people think, or the constant urge to check and readjust her outfit? 


I also wonder about the impact these visual stories have on me, as the viewer. How does my body respond, and what comes up for me as I look at it? Does it make me feel excited and happy, or tense and uncomfortable? Why?


I always find it interesting that there tend to be two completely different responses inside me as I take in fashion—two related but separate channels of somatic information I can tune into, get curious about, and learn from.


One is my somatic or intuitive response to the visual story itself, which is to say, the feelings that come up in response to this specific and unique arrangement of colors, textures, curves, lines, and features. An intriguing combination of joy and sadness might be evoked in me by someone contrasting a brightly colored party dress with moody makeup and body language, for example, or I might find myself surprised and delighted by an unusual design. 


The other channel of information is more interesting to me though, because it’s related to mirroring and empathy: it’s all about how I feel while looking at the person wearing the clothes. 


I’m a very tactile person, so I’ll often experience a sort of empathic and imagination-driven skin sensation, a sort of “trying on” the sensation of how the fabric might feel against their skin in my own body, the same way we instinctively sort of “try on” a version of the emotions another person is feeling, in order to better understand and empathize with their experience. 


If something about the outfit looks satisfying or pleasant to touch (think: soft, smooth, fuzzy, etc.) my fingers will itch with longing to touch it, even if I’m just looking at a picture! If it looks unpleasant however (think: sequins or itchy fabric), I might feel a pang of repulsion mixed with sympathy for the wearer. 


This somatic mirroring response goes for textures as well as the fit and feel of an outfit, too! 


I might experience a swirly, sexy feeling upon seeing a woman in a silky twirlable gown, for example, as if I could feel the fabric softly shifting around my own body, and I might experience a constricted or trapped feeling in my own body upon seeing someone wearing a skintight or corseted look. Sometimes when I go out, I’ll see someone in a crop top sucking her belly in so hard my own guts hurt, or women in minidresses who look cold as hell, and experience a powerful impulse to bring them a hoodie. 


I love getting to notice these feelings, because I’m not sure if I had access to this kind of somatic information before body neutrality. It’s possible that these feelings were there in my body, but I just didn’t pay attention to them, because I was too distracted by my thoughts and judgments about what I was seeing at the time. 


Either way, I hope that if you’ve been feeling any shame or inner conflict about caring about something that feels frivolous, or out of alignment with your values, my story inspires you to explore your own relationship with fashion through a lens of self-compassion, curiosity, and (of course) body neutrality.


Big hug,

Jessi

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