A Feminist’s License to Look Good

Welcome to the new me.  This might surprise some who knew me in my nose-to-the-grindstone, civil-rights-lawyer past, but the new me likes fashion, of the socially-conscious nature, of course.  Old me always looked presentable, and even received occasional compliments, but looking good was not a priority, or at least not one I cared to admit.  In high school, I read the famous feminist works and misinterpreted them, thinking a feminist wasn’t supposed to care about clothes or looks.  I wore untucked flannels and chunky hiking boots that inspired snarky serenades of These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.  In college, I stopped shaving my legs, armpits, and lady parts.  Makeup?  That was for vapid girls who wore Juicy sweatpants.

I also suffered from survivor’s guilt.  I grew up with a troubled brother, for whom every life step was struggle.  Whereas I, like the baby girl found among the reeds and rushes, was Born at the Right Time.  I felt guilty about my charmed existence and hid behind a sea of grays and blacks, my uniform of guilt.

The other thing about me that interfered with my personal style was that Fred and Carey could base an episode of Portlandia on me.  In eighth grade social studies elections, I ran for President as a member of the Peace and Freedom Party, playing Harry Chapin’s The Shortest Story at our pretend campaign events.   In law school, vandals replaced my name on my law review editor placard with “crunchy hippie chick.” I’ve stood at farmer’s markets collecting signatures for a moratorium on the death penalty.  I’ve considered raising chickens in my suburban backyard.  Someone like me, I thought, wasn’t supposed to care about clothes.   I tried to look as pretty as possible without trying to look like I wanted to look nice, an exhausting and time-consuming process.

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Back when my mom still dressed me.

After having kids, I subtracted more time from self-care, wearing a nursing bra well after I’d weaned my babies and pants that always sagged.  I learned that I could go a full twelve hours without using the bathroom and would lose track of when I’d last showered.

Change came with the confluence of self-mellowing around age forty and a good therapist who helped pry my brother’s troubles from my conscience.  I also discovered a way to shop that didn’t make me feel dirty.  Malls depress me with their endless racks crammed with labels that have become more important than substance.  I was invited to a trunk show at a friend’s home where I shared wine with friends and bought some beautiful clothes untouched by the middle management of big fashion, clothes I loved.  Supporting a shared economy, taking part in a community-building experience, and supporting a local mom in her family-friendly business venture spoke to my crunchy sole.

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Earrings (Kimaya Kama, Maplewood), Bun Cuff (Chloe & Isabel, Maria Kensey, South Orange), necklace (Melissa de la Fuente, Maplewood), Frye boots (Second Time Around, Madison), Slim Boyfriend Jeans, Portrait Jacket, Parlor Top (cabi)

I’ve embraced fashion on my own terms, making it my crusade to buy with several criteria in mind; sold by local businesses, especially from female entrepreneurs; made locally; or from companies with philanthropic missions.  And the item must be made to last:  Quality is the antidote to a disposable, unsustainable economy.

My love affair with one brand, cabi, became so intense that I started selling the clothes myself.  I pushed past the self-imposed barrier of what a former lawyer should do, and chased a dream.  cabi is a company owned, run, and comprised almost entirely of women.  The company culture struck me as satirical at first, like an SNL skit of a female-run business.  We hug, we donate huge amounts clothing to women in need, we fund micro-loans for women in the developing world, and we cry together.  We’re encouraged to collaborate and can lose our license to sell the brand if we engage in competitive behavior.  This is the matriarchy carving out an alternative retail space.

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Protesting with the power of my pocket-book by purchasing from Maplewood’s female-owned boutique Perch home.

I think Betty Friedan, my high school idol, would approve of my new-improved self and business.  In The Feminine Mystique, Betty describes how women have forfeited self-actualization to care for husbands and children.  The book, written in 1963, spoke to me as a teenager when I’d misinterpreted it, and now almost thirty years later when I truly understand.  Betty wants us to fortify ourselves, meet our needs, not put the needs of others or societal expectations in the way of our own development and happiness.  Being a feminist doesn’t mean I should disguise my true self.  If I want to look good, I’m going to go for it, as long as I purchase in a socially-responsible way and from companies that don’t undercut women and their dreams.

Have I become a fashionista?  Absolutely not. I’m just a person who likes to fill my environment with simple beauty.  I’ve extended that license to appreciate beauty to myself and my appearance.  My wardrobe staples remain Converse and distressed jeans.  I’ve simply upgraded my operating system and allowed myself to be the best should-free version of myself.  Consider this your license to do the same.

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Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique open to Chapter 13, The Forfeited Self