catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 19 :: 2007.10.19 — 2007.11.02


Dressing up

The superficial, the superlative

“Clothes and courage have so much to do with each other.”

–Sandra Jeannette Duncan, An American Girl in London

I have been dressing myself for almost 22 years. It’s something to be proud of. When I first began my career as a self-dresser, I was glad to be an iconoclast. Why wear underwear? Who needs it! I laughed at my kindergarten classmates who felt compelled to, day after day, wear their pants frontward—didn’t they know how much more comfortable they could be if they just turned their pants around once in awhile? And socks. Why wear socks when you could just slip on your little red flats and saunter out to the bus stop? Once I began dressing myself, there was no stopping me. The act of getting dressed soon became one imbued with power—the more often I did it, the more in control I felt. Although neighbor children were at first confused when I ran home half way through the day to change my clothes, they eventually got used to it.

As time went on, however, I lost my nerve. This is not to say that I didn’t try, I just couldn’t follow through. My sixth grade education is full of holes, gaps in attendance indicating the days that I came home “sick”—sick meaning sick of my outfit, the one that I had spent hours deliberating over the night before. There were nights when it would take nearly four hours to decide on my clothes for the next day, the clock ticking while I tried on one thing after another until I broke down into exhausted tears. In my mind, every article of clothing meant something—semaphores used to convey my identity to the outside world. Name brand Keds meant that I was, at least, middle class (although just barely holding), French rolled “Guess” jeans meant that I was cool, big hoop earrings meant that I was mature, t-shirts with strange messages from the adult world of concerts and ironic jokes meant that I was artistic and mysterious.

High school came, my family moved, and I switched schools. It wasn’t long before I whittled my way down to a size zero, a black hole of a number where a person can easily forget oneself. Hypnotized by fear, it was not hard to choose my clothes that year, having little energy to stand, much less coordinate elaborate clothing combinations. Then, deus ex machina, I switched schools again, and I began to remember what it was like to be human. I fell into a group of friends who prided themselves on being independent thinkers. My best friend and I (not so independently) spent hours scouring thrift shops for clothes that would reflect our unique perspectives on life. As long as I didn’t look like everyone else, I felt okay.

When I hit my sophomore year of college—the height of many a person’s psychoanalytic phase—I came to believe that the whole clothing “problem” was evidence of my neurotic need for control. I attributed my neuroses to a chemical—the same one that makes my sister mentally ill, the one that makes her buy more clothes than she will ever need only to pile them in stacks nine or ten feet high all over her house. This could also be the same chemical that pushed my great grandmother to steal her children away, to drive them cross country all over the United States to sell cosmetics. In any case, my sophomore year is the year when I decided that I was only allowed fifteen minutes to find my outfit for the day. If I hadn’t done so in the allotted minutes, I had to walk around the outside of my dorm three times. Strangely enough, this little trick seemed to work.

Several years—eight, to be exact—have passed since that time. Most days, getting dressed is now a matter of throwing on the items closest to the bed or the shower or wherever I happen to be when the time comes to interact with the world outside. Today, however, is different. Today I broke my longstanding fifteen-minute rule, and it’s all because of my assignment.


“The externals are simply so many props; everything we need is within us.”

—Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life

See, we’re (my husband and I) taking this photography class. We bought an expensive “bells and whistles” camera a couple of years ago—actually, my husband got it for me as a birthday present—and have been blindly fiddling around with it ever since. Now that we’ve moved, I’m unemployed and my husband no longer has a soul-deadening three-hour commute to work.  Because of this extra time, we can do these things—things like making pictures, taking long walks, and sleeping for a solid eight hours—the “low hanging fruits” of life that are first to go when things get busy. In any case, we’re taking the photography class, and I knew it was coming—from day one of the course I knew to expect it—that terrifying assignment: “take a self-portrait and bring it in for critique.” Sure, we have teachers who expound on the virtues of interpretation: a “self portrait” can be a picture of “one’s shoelace, one’s eyebrow, the back of one’s head” they say. “Think differently,” we are told. “Capture your true essence,” we are instructed. They make it sound so easy.

Some peoplegroups, as all good world citizens know, believe that to take one’s picture is to take away a part of one’s soul. I think there might be something to that belief. I spent several hours this morning stalking my essence, trying to discern just which “tools” exactly I needed to “capture” her. But how do you dress for a self-portrait in which you are supposed to radiate the truth of your own small existence? I’m not really sure. I did come to the conclusion, however, that black Lycra pants were not part of my true self.

I think about the many identities that I’ve played with over the past twenty-two years (of course I’m assuming that, until age five, I was self-actualized, and that it all went downhill from there). I will be twenty-seven in a few short days. Have I embodied my true self during my short time here on earth, or have I merely been playing dress up—substituting one identity for another, switching wardrobe depending on the situation, weather, barometric pressure? How do I capture my essence when I don’t know what she looks like?

So I took my picture—my self-portrait. I don’t think it’s exactly right. In fact, I know it isn’t. This time, however, it’s not about what I am or am not wearing that matters. In the picture, I’m alone on the couch. That’s what a self portrait is, right? You, right there, in front of the lens for the whole world to see. But because the instructions were not simply, “take a picture of yourself,” but rather, “capture your essence,” it is obvious to me that there are several glaring omissions in this photo.

In order to capture the essence of my self—my whole self—the photograph must be comprised of much more than me, alone, on the couch. It must include my mom, and the way she smells like bleach and coffee. Also, my dad needs to be present there, too—my dad with his moustache wax and penchant for moldy books. And there should be a place for my grandma and her molasses cookies; also, my husband’s strong arms should be draped around me. The photograph must be big enough to hold the words and laughter and punchy sarcasm of my five sisters, and the determination of my nine-year-old niece as she fights brain cancer. It must also contain the fragile spirit of my nephew, the intentionality of my uncle, the creativity of my cousin, and the hot booming heart of my great aunt Viola. And, somehow, Christ. Christ should be in the picture too—or, would be, if we could fit the rest of them in. This would be my true self-portrait: love spilling and dribbling and drooling all over me, messing up my sweater and dirtying my jeans, my heart captured in the net of all those warm bodies.

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