Freeing the body of dress codes

Two weeks ago, I sat on the stairs in front of a house belonging to dear friends in Santa Monica in a favorite sleeveless dress and thrift store heels and was both interviewed and posed for a new Nissan ad campaign/mini documentary that will debut in 2019.

Three years ago I couldn’t have imagined doing such a thing — having the audacity to be in a commercial, to think my chunky, middle-aged self with a prominent crooked front tooth — had a right to be anywhere near a camera. Who do you think you are? The voice in many women’s heads demands.

To say yes to the camera is to say no to the inner critic. I’ve been learning that these past three years as I’ve interviewed dozens of women for a non-fiction book I’ve written about plus size alternative modeling and burlesque dancing as a way to body positivity.

In the mainstream world, modeling and dance belong to the young and the emaciated. The camera belongs to obvious proportional beings that are the right size and the right age.

That thinking permeates our culture from the fashion magazines at checkout stands to the local high schools dress codes to our interpersonal and business relationships.

Women (of all ages), we are told, are expected to dress a certain way depending on their age, size and sometimes even ethnicity. Research, interviews and mothering a teen daughter led me to these questions: To whose benefit are dress codes? At whose expense is the enforcement of social norms? In our policing of women and young girls, how are we any different than the Taliban and their burqas?

The women I interviewed for my book were mostly fat — dress sizes from 10 to 26 — and often mothers, ranging in ages from late 20s to 60s. Some had tattoos and piercings. Some had scars and birth defects. All of them seemed to have been policed at one point or another by loved ones and business associates. For most it started in junior high or high school by both teachers and peers.

These women gave voice to something I hadn’t put words to: Fat girls and girls who developed faster than their peers are policed by school dress codes and school staff differently than their thinner or flatter-chested counterparts. To develop an hour-glass figure in this culture is to be derided and sexualized.

For girls, it’s as if their bodies betray them. Of course, bodies are just bodies; they can’t betray anyone. It’s the culture that betrays.

We police when we tell a fat girl she can’t bare her belly but don’t say anything when a thin girl does it.

When it’s 100-degree tank-top weather and we’re telling the developed girl to cover up and saying nothing to the undeveloped, we are policing. We are telling them to feel shame for something they have no control over, for bodies that should be celebrated.

Did you know the best way to be banned on social media is to pose — not nude — but either breastfeeding or exposing a fat belly? What’s that say about us?

Did you know some school districts — including our own — force girls to wear bras whether they want to or not? That staff are entitled to comment on girls’ bodies and question whether they are wearing bras? Imagine if we forced all boys to wear jock straps whether they were playing a sport or not. Kind of ridiculous, and yet…

My own high school experience was easier. Catholic school. White shirts. Navy blue plaid skirts or God-awful navy blue gabardine pants. The uniform equalized rich and poor, developed and undeveloped, fat and thin. The end. No policy on undergarments. I guess I was lucky.

The women I interviewed speak of a lifetime of people telling them they aren’t worthy and should be ashamed. They were too fat. Too old. Too tattooed. Too much. Too inappropriate. The women speak of years of eating disorders, starvation, depression, bulimia, hatred of their own bodies, surgeries to correct what they’ve been teased for. They spent a good deal of time in principals’ offices.

They’ve moved past it by embracing the camera and their “flaws” that teachers and peers and coworkers and bosses and boyfriends and husbands told them was ugly or wrong.

There’s that audacity again. It’s not about whether the gazer is comfortable, it’s about freedom to be one’s self or the freedom of an equitable rule to which all are subjected equally.

Fashion is about necessity. self-expression, comfort and occasion. I want to look like me walking through this world. I want other women and girls to feel they can do the same.

Somewhere along the way, the women I interviewed met strong women with the same societal “flaws” who showed them how to embrace themselves.

That’s what I thought about while sitting up tall and smiling for the camera two weeks ago in Santa Monica. This is what I look like. This is who I am. I have a right to the camera.

I made it through high school unscathed, but I’ve been asked to lose weight for jobs, ignored for my fatness, called all sorts of names, told to hide my chest, and at one point referred to an orthodontist by a near stranger to fix my front tooth because I had “such a pretty face and so much potential, it’s a shame about your hick tooth and your fatness.”

I’m making it my business to learn from these women and advocate where I can. I’m almost 50. Who cares what people think of my body? I am not fixing my front tooth — it, and I, don’t need fixing.

And girls? None of you need fixing either. I hope you learn that sooner than I did. That shame adults try and make you conform to is their issue, not yours. You look fine. In fact, you look beautiful.