'You Can't Wear That!'
Updated: Sep 25
My recollections of upsetting people with my outfits begin at ten. At ten, there was the Joseph fleece. It was a magnificent multi-coloured thing of beauty, lovingly made by my mum with a 'you'll grow into it' generosity. It got nicknamed 'the Joseph fleece' because other kids actually yelled 'hey Joseph!' at me across the street when I wore it. That I could deal with in good humour. 'You look like an idiot!' wasn't quite such a fun one. But hey, kids are kids right?
The comments really started in earnest when I hit puberty and had my first major growth spurt. Feeling uncomfortable in your body is tricky enough without well-meaning people noticing that your clothes are a bit small or on the short side, and 'oh, dear, better keep that covered!' as a pair of hands hastily tugs your t-shirt down over your belly. My parents did get me new clothes, but I spent a good three years constantly growing out of them!
Teen girl fashion being what it was in the early 2000s, you couldn't move for low-rise fit and flare jeans, platform shoes, and Steps-style hip-skimming boob tubes. I either couldn't fit in them, didn't feel comfortable in them, or wasn't allowed them. I did get some platform boots, which were my pride and joy, but whenever I wore them adults would complain at how tall they made me. 'Sit down, you're going to tread on me!' was the usual refrain.
Spending my teens wearing M&S blouses and an auntie's hand-me-downs after she'd been on a diet didn't bother me as much as you might think. That might be because as a homeschooler from ages 11-17 I was shielded from the fashion inspections of non-uniform days and school discos. I was surrounded by women who liked to wear hats and long skirts or denim dresses, and it was rather free and lovely.
But there were different sets of rules wherever I went. On one occasion I was sanctimoniously lectured by a stranger on why women wearing jeans were trying to be masculine, and on another a lady taught me and some friends that it wasn't appropriate to wear anything even remotely fitted because it would make boys look at your body, and it was our job as girls to help them not to be lustful. I attended a pool party where the girls had to wear t-shirts over their swimsuits, and we couldn't go into the pool at the same time as the boys.
Being tall, I often found that skirts were shorter on me than my mum was happy with. I understand she was trying to be protective, and (luckily for my siblings!) the view was relaxed over time. I lost several lovely skirts to the raised eyebrows and shaking head with which I was greeted when I wore my new acquisition for the first time, even thought it was always with thick tights. The word 'provocative' was given in explanation when I appealed one decision, and the skirt was reluctantly handed to my younger, slightly shorter sister.
I don't resent my mum for those decisions. It's a mum's prerogative to ensure her children aren't running around half-dressed, and we may have just held different views on what that meant. As for the others, I'm sure all these people were well-meaning, and I'm not against a degree of modesty - but for the right reasons, i.e. the considered decision of an individual. Those reasons should not be the imposed views of others, or a gender-skewed view of the world that makes girls and women feel that their body is wrong in some way. Dress codes are one thing; the effective oppression of our bodies is quite another.
I don't think I consciously considered that getting dressed might be a political act, but I realise now that it is, particularly as a woman. We have such a complex code of interpretation when it comes to appearance that it's impossible to avoid judgement from one corner or another. As willing as I am to consider the opinions of a few key people that I trust - my husband, or a close girlfriend for example - unless I'm about to turn up at a funeral in a bikini or flash my underwear at work, I really don't see why I should have to take into account the supposed rules to which I ought to adhere.
As a size 14-16 woman, I've had plenty of strangers express "helpful" advice that is aimed at enabling me not to embarrass myself by making it so obvious that I'm carrying fat on my body. Sometimes it's a 'you're so brave!' to a bodycon dress, or a 'perhaps a block colour would be better' from a shop assistant when I'm trying on stripes (I hadn't asked). 'I'd never wear that, it's so unflattering!' aghast from a girl two sizes smaller than me. The list of "don'ts for fat women" is both exhaustive and exhausting: don't wear tight things, don't wear short things, don't show your upper arms, don't show your stomach, don't wear big patterns, don't wear anything that doesn't balance your figure (what am I, a set of scales?)
I didn't ask for these opinions - they find me. And because I like to post my outfits and fashion interests on Instagram, and once in a blue moon on Facebook, I also find myself batting off sexual comments from men I don't know, on photos that are not at all revealing or sexual. I have more than once been called a whale online, and a couple of girls had a conversation in French in the comments of one post, saying that if they were as pale and fat as me they would never wear such a thing. I dread to think - although sadly I do know - how badly many women who are bigger than me are subjected to these judgements. But I also have thin friends who have been told they ought to wear a certain thing 'to give you a shape'. It turns out that however you look, as Tay-Tay would have it, haters gonna hate.
The fact is that we cannot escape these judgements, but we can choose not to accept them. I am very much an advocate for appreciating and being as comfortable as possible in the bodies we have, however they look, and that includes dressing them as we wish. We are absolutely worth more than the sum of the judgements made about our physical appearance. To my mind, this frees me to express myself creatively and happily in what I wear as just one part of who I am, and I intend to ignore as far as possible any of the 'you can't wear that!' which gets thrown my way.