Until I moved away from home, at 19, I was extremely depressed (I think in colors and when I think of my adolescence the color is a thick black, in spite of having had some very good experiences). In my last year of high school, a very good friend gave me a piece of advice that (I can only now admit) I never really understood until very recently: “Just pluck your eyebrows and shave your legs and you’ll feel better.” I thought it facile, useless advice, as I did take some pride in putting myself together back then (although, I’m 46 now and I’ve carried this advice, without understanding it, with me, in the forefront of memory, since I was 18…that says something about the real value of this advice: read on and you will see it is priceless!).
The “putting myself together” took a back seat – in a metaphorical vehicle about the size and length of a long-distance Greyhound bus – in terms of priority when I became pregnant and had changed careers into a very low-paying (but stable, I kept reminding myself, and much more grown-up, responsible) teaching position; “I just don’t have the resources to take care of both my own wardrobe and my going-to-be-here-in-the-blink-of-an-eye baby’s needs,” I kept repeating to myself. But, in hindsight, that is exactly where my sometimes-seems-down-on-my-luck-but-always-turns-out-miraculously-lucky, downright charmed, life took a turn for the worse: no matter what I did, my “lucky” breaks turned into nightmare situations, professionally.
Out of fear of being thought of as irresponsible, a dreamer, or worse, being labelled an “older” (read: who should have known better!) single mother who puts herself before the welfare of her child, I didn’t listen to my instincts. Instead, although I could see my supervisors’ and others’ agendas, I did what I had done in my adolescence and internally said “They must be right. They are successful, older, [insert positive adjective here] and must be able to see some black inner part of me that I cannot and just know that I am really the problem.” This is the beginning…and the middle…of what I term “inner wilting,” when your optimism and resilience are tested not only by external circumstances but, mostly, and most dangerously, by your own inner messages to yourself.
Those of us who have had negative messages programmed into our psyches in childhood are most susceptible to this precisely because the negativity is what we firmly believe is “true,” without examining it (or, as in my case, even if we have examined it ad nauseam and, we think, rejected the childhood programming), and so it resonates as “true” (even though that “truth” is false), especially when it comes from a source that we do not expect, or suspect, wants to undermine us. That’s when we most seriously question: “Is there a remedy for this cycle?” Take heart! For there is, indeed, a remedy; it just takes work!
The Remedy, Steps 1 and 2: “Fake It Till You Make It”
The first answer to this question of remedy is cosmetic…er, cosmetics! That is, to give yourself energy that is being zapped more quickly than you can replenish it by those external forces (circumstances, people, environment), you need to take surface steps first. This seems counter-intuitive, as, of course, one wants to re-organise from the inside-out, to make sure it sticks…but it is the first necessary step: look the part you want to play and both the internal and external feedback you receive about yourself will change…and will help you to regain optimism.
The phenomenon of what your clothes can tell you about yourself has been dubbed “enclothed cognition” in a study conducted at Northwestern University and published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. This study found that “enclothed cognition involves the co-occurrence of two independent factors – the symbolic meaning of the clothes and the physical experience of wearing them.” The researchers tested this by using a lab coat, which a pretest had shown represented the characteristics of “attentiveness” and “carefulness” to most people (the symbolic association or meaning of a lab coat in general). They told one group that the lab coat was a doctor’s coat and later told another group that the lab coat was actually a painter’s smock. The upshot was that the group who thought they were wearing a doctor’s coat sustained the qualities of attentiveness and carefulness in their assigned tasks.
The phenomenon of what your clothes tell the world about your psychology, about who you are, has been recently documented by Dr. Jennifer Baumgartner in her book You Are What You Wear: What Your Clothes Reveal About You. She has termed her studies “the psychology of dress.” Through her studies, Dr. Baumgartner has identified a few key types of clothing behavior and what these say about the psychology of the wearer.
I recognize myself in a couple of these types, described as “If you live in your “mom outfit” of jeans and a hoodie” and “If you wear only neutrals, largely devoid of accessories;” in my specific case, this describes my “Maddieform” of grey yoga pants and a black t-shirt (I recently branched out into a purple t-shirt) with no makeup and absolutely no trace of my former badges of unique long earrings and a wake of expensive perfume that everyone always stopped me to ask about. (When I was in the classroom, “dressing up” involved wearing a wash-and-wear long cotton black skirt from NY & Company (of which I had bought not one but three!) and a “cool” long turtleneck sweater (in what color but a banded brown, taupe and very, very light periwinkle blue that looks grey) in winter or a sleeveless burnt orange mock turtleneck in summer; what was I thinking?!)
I know Dr. Baumgartner has hit a Truth because she says that wearing neutrals states “you might be stuck in a psychological rut…or too afraid to draw attention to yourself” and that wearing my “Maddieform” states that I “put the needs of [my] family before [my] own.” This is all too true in my case! My biggest excuse, besides weight gain, for not shopping for myself is that I don’t know what my style is now that I’ve passed the 40 year old mark….and, God knows, I don’t want to be perceived as dressing too young for my age or inappropriately for my (“portly”) body type!
Now, my dilemma: who has the time or the money right now? It’s the worst year for me ever, financially, and all my fragmented energy is going to trying to hold it all together! On the plus side, I also have no elegant or work clothes that fit since I’ve lost 28 pounds in the last eight months (starting in September 2011 when I launched my recently-aborted-but-now-re-launched self-reclamation programme)…but is that really a plus right now?! But I am nothing if not resourceful, so, step 1, I decided to get a hair cut in a sassy new ‘do!
I refused to spend more than $20 of my already cut-to=the-bone budget, so I found a great solution: a nearby beauty academy! For $8 I got the cut of a lifetime…and the external perception of me began to shift; now, I am perceived to be speaking out of fear whenever I’m crazy enough to mention my current woes to the outside world. Not bad for a start. Of course, as you could see from my previous posts on homelessness (“The Homeless Dilemma,” http://wp.me/p2xBwh-W and “The Stigma of Homelessness,” http://wp.me/p2xBwh-11), last week I gave my fear full reign. So, step 2 on a budget: go to a mall and get a skin/makeup consultation!
I went first to Shiseido, but I don’t recommend them as an uplifting experience if you’re short on cash (though they are a great targeted experience if you have the extra $260 in your budget for a new skincare system). I next wandered to the NARS counter at Nordstrom’s (wearing a too-large, as I noticed in the mall mirrors, elegant skirt and sleeveless top combo from Jones New York that I had bought in heftier – financially and girth-wise – times) and found the pick-me-up (and free samples!) I needed to push my internal dialogue into positive gear! I came out of that experience looking and feeling energetic, energized, and, most importantly, happy and capable! (For single dads, I highly recommend getting a massage or some other pampering…a friend with great hands is worth his/her weight in gold!)
So, forget the tired old axiom that “clothes don’t make the man [or woman],” because social psychology has proven that they do! Clothes have a huge impact on how we present ourselves to the world and, most importantly, on ourselves. My friend (shout out to Lucy Ring!) was so right, and so wise, all those years ago, about how to get back on the right track: “Pluck your eyebrows and shave your legs” – sage advice indeed!
Wishing all of you Peaceful Parenting
The Original Maddie