“Why is your wife so intense?” asked my husband’s class of graduate students. He had just finished describing my response to their lecture request. I admit I had a strong reaction, but one I am still willing to defend. Students should learn how to confront material, formulate questions, and through discourse or writing come to meaning. (I have a favorite line from the movie State and Main: “Everybody makes their own fun. If you don’t make it yourself, it isn’t fun. It’s entertainment.” Analogously, there’s no passivity in learning.) My husband reported my outrage (a hyperbolic way of stating my case, but it makes for a better story.) Their response is not an unfamiliar one. I often have strong, and I’m not proud to say, black-and-white responses to situations. Not that my responses don’t respect a gray area, but they do so in a decidedly adamant way.
Pregnancy and an 8-month old baby have noticeably tempered this tendency. Take my dietary habits: A vegetarian for 27 years, I now eat meat. I especially love steaks and hamburgers. I fed my son grass fed steaks just today for breakfast. This morning, as I considered my so-called intensity and this laissez-faire approach to my new diet, it occurred to me that they directly relate to my identity as female. The bodily entanglement required by motherhood* generates ‘femaleness’. We know a mother shares her body with someone else in pregnancy. We’ve heard about the fourth trimester. My selfhood is indeed moderated, quite literally by someone else’s. I am not me. Not entirely at any rate.
A friend recently remarked that it must be exhausting being a mother, constantly considering another’s needs. I am exhausted, but my relationship to my son’s needs is not one of active consideration any more than I consider what I’d like for dinner. I won’t draw the comparison between the consideration of my own respiration, or better yet, my heartbeat, because his needs are not quite so automatic, but they are firmly in the territory of sustenance, of biological imperatives. There is a diffusion of identity, of ego, that comes with sharing your body with someone else. Extending it into autonomous space inhabited by another will, another ego.
I’m sure there are plenty of examples of this physical extension. As I sat in a group Vipassana meditation session, I marveled that someone else’s sneeze, across the room, should send such waves of feeling through my body. It really is as simple as an adrenaline rush from being startled. But, regardless of how I describe it to myself, the bottom line is that I’m very affected by others, who are ostensibly outside of myself.
I continued this musing as I walked my four dogs this morning, baby strapped to my chest. I experienced the slow growing rage that accompanies these walks, the subtle sensory onslaught, the gauntlet of perils that besiege the springtime morning. So let my description to follow sound less like a rant and more like a meditative investigation of my bodily response to this routine.
It begins while trying to leave the apartment, gathering the coats, definitely the baby’s and sometimes all four dogs, depending on the season. A process no one is particularly keen on, making the challenge of lifting everyone’s spirits while completing tasks they’d rather not, all the more daunting. Coats, baby carrier, leashes, poop bags, house keys, and cell phone. I arrange this efficiently, minimizing the always looming risk of crankiness (canine and human). I also try to minimize the number of squats I do holding a twenty pound baby.
Next, it’s getting down the five flights of stairs and two doors (heavy doors that open towards me and threaten closing on dog tails and noses.) I watch my steps amidst a tangle of leashes. I cannot see ahead of me as I step out the door, not onto a landing, but down another short flight of steps, occupied by neighbors sitting, trying to enjoy their morning. Here I come, pack in hand, bursting towards the sidewalk propelled by four urgent bladders. The wild card: will a passing dog incite this already precarious circus act into complete chaotic lunging, barking, and frantic snapping, tethered ineffectively by deep breaths. I attempt to keep my balance and some charade of equanimity. If all of this goes as smoothly as possible, it is nonetheless accompanied with the kind of hypervigilance that knows, bodily, how tenuous any calm.
The rest of the two mile journey is about the same. A woman passes by, “You’ve got a lot going on,” she cleverly observes. I laugh to myself: “Man, I’m making it look easy.” (Although, thank you to the young woman who remarked to her friends, “that lady is the MVP – she’s got four dogs and a baby!”)
Our walk (in all manner of weather conditions) is punctuated by squatting to pick up dog feces in what I’ve learned is called a hell strip. Some people call this patch of terrain the road verge. However, as I squat (remember that twenty pound, squirming baby and picture my sweater now grazing the ground), the breeze-stoked gyre of dog feces, cigarette butts, chicken bones, grease stained paper, and fluttering plastic feels more like a hell strip to be honest. I’ll give you one more image; congestion, both human and canine, approaching from all directions as I maintain this delicate balancing act. I take refuge in oncoming traffic, letting others pass as I wait to resume our morning perambulation.
I try to metabolize the energetic shrapnel. The phrase “emotional contagion” running through my mind, lest my displeasure ruin my child’s chance’s for emotional self-regulation and become a text book “don’t” for Cesar the Dog Whisperer.
Here I am. Fully dispersed by 9 AM.
The demands on women are overwhelming. Be thin, but not too thin, cook, clean, nurture, be more aggressive, but not too aggressive. Women aren’t fairly compensated, they do more of the household chores. Maternity care and family leave are abysmal. The work of the so-called stay-at-home-mother is not calculated as part of GDP, and frankly, things are primarily valued in terms of productivity. This we already know. However, it’s the response , the counter-demands, that feel simultaneously oppressive and less achievable. We are called to love our bodies as they are, to care about health and not appearance, to embrace imperfection, and to generally act in consciousness of the double standards, the oppression. Reveal our too-fat and our too-thin, show our scars, our acne, share our #metoos, and declare #timesup. Any lack of self-acceptance, self-care, self-esteem, or self-advocacy is just another way we can fail. On top of it all, it has been proven that practicing gratitude is how mentally strong people lead healthier lives. If we fall from this high wire, it is surely through our selfishness and mental weakness.
As a palliative, there’s the endless babble about how to find, or more accurately, how to achieve (our character is hence invoked and our success or failure measures our very integrity) the ever-elusive ‘balance.’ Now, let me throw out a suggestion: balance is not desirable. We actually already have balance; we hate it. Balance is a state of perpetual tension. We actually want integration. We don’t want to be further fractured, further pulled in multiple directions that simply pull equally in all of the directions, like some sort of new age drawing and quartering. We want all of the parts to work together instead of at opposite ends of the horse-drawn rope. Even our zen is preposterous: Be here, now. Live in the present. Don’t forget to make the maximum contribution to your 401K, your IRA.
There is one final, perhaps ultimate demand: Forge an identity. If my identity is actually moderated by this fundamental dispersion, this inexorable confluence of mutually exclusive imperatives, identity is truly a Sisyphean joke.
Last Saturday, I sat in a group Vipassana meditation. Afterwards, there was a speaker, he said, “the path is not ‘be here now,’” but instead “the path is suffering, this [Vipassana] is a way out.” Finally, the resonance of truth.
Where does that leave me but to embrace my bodily reality for its implicit wisdom. Surely there is power in the invisible extension into space that has become the special place relegated to women, if not by nature then surely by nurture. It seems increasingly important to inhabit that space rather than retreat into a singular, if visible, entity. This grace seems the only appropriate ground for the future female.
An Interview with Maura and Abigail of the Rational Dress Society
Maura Brewer and Abigail Glaum-Lathbury, of the Rational Dress Society, were in New York City for a workshop at MOMA at the same time I was writing a post for a popular women’s lifestyle blog. When I wrote topically and in the blog’s signature style everything seemed to walk a line between Christopher-Guest-styled parody and political critique of the very elements for which I was purporting enthusiasm. After all, I chose to speak with these two artists, who have for years worn little else but their ungendered monogarment, for a decidedly cynicism-free, what-does-she-wear-in-a-week column.
It’s of course not that the perspective of these women is irrelevant, the opposite in fact. However, their perspective is self-conscious of the lifestyle blogs’ implicit principle that identity resides awfully close, or at the very least, is expressed by the ever-elusive personal style: “. . .my clothes weren’t a distraction or a shield, but a mirror instead — a mirror held up to reflect me, just as I am.” In another iteration: “I love being the colors girl.” Sometimes the correspondence between identity and commodification is made explicit: “. . . people start to develop personal brands – and brands try to become more human.” Albeit this certain genre of women’s lifestyle blog has a liberal, enlightened, and self-determined affect: “When I find clothes that fit well, I feel more comfortable and confident . . . when someone looks at me now, I know they’re seeing the version of me I chose. Not the only version I had access to.” They duly take stock of the environment, sustainable manufacturing, avant-garde design, small business ownership, support-local, and support-women. Often items are thrifted, or a mix of high and low (which usually feels to me like a nod to a barely-latent class issue.) Finally, they don’t forget to keep at least one eye on all of the gazes (call me Man Repeller!) They deftly keep their blog-heads above intersectional waters, while still garnering tangible support from sponsors.
They are not wrong. I, too, believe critical enthusiasm for self-styling has implications for identity and one’s psychic life. As one who has not fully given herself over to the monogarment (although I highly endorse it), I know (thank you Stacy London and Clinton Kelly) that what I wear reflects something to someone no matter how I might protest or repress. In a market driven culture not-choosing and choosing are not only effectively the same, but bear a startlingly similar relationship to our awareness of that choice. (Just think of the billions of dollars in marketing aimed at making those choices for you, while chanting “freedom” in its various forms: free market! free will! Don’t read it here, instead become a comrade in Rational Dress.)
If the dichotomy is false between mind and body then surely, by extension, it is also false between mind, body, clothes, and everything. Why else does a haircut or parting ways with an item of clothing have the capacity for causing pain like a phantom limb?
Believing that costuming oneself for daily life, as it were, is a worthy task, or at the least, an unavoidable one, it’s therefore deserving of our full political engagement and even our informed consent. I follow these lifestyle blogs for their thoughtful musings on the subject. After submitting my application, I left the interview with Maura and Abigail parked in google drive. Until this week when I read two articles on Man Repeller about finding identity through clothes. (There is a murky ontological area in respect to whether identity sits waiting to be discovered through our material choices or something to be created by them – but that point seems less of a concern so long as identity is won in time for cocktail hour.) The quest for distinction, for getting “to wear something that expresses how you feel as a person” allowing that you “never look exactly like someone else” starts to chafe. One thought in particular from Maura on choosing clothing everyday has since become the gadfly’s voice: “I wasn’t getting a huge amount of creative satisfaction out of picking out my outfits every single day because I have other stuff that I do.” It gives me pause to consider my life as a style. The world of “other stuff that I do” suddenly expands as it passes through the finite and myopic threshold of individuation.
I offer their interview here:
A Week of Outfits: Maura and Abigail
Designer Abigail Glaum-Lathbury and artist Maura Brewer
Designer Abigail Glaum-Lathbury and artist Maura Brewer happened to be in town leading a workshop at MoMA as I was compiling writing samples to send to a women’s lifestyle blog. As I re-read posts from my favorite “A Week of Outfits” series, I became curious about interviewing them. After all, who better to ask about outfits than these Rational Dress Society collaborators who not only co-founded Jumpsuit, but who have worn the “ungendered, multi-use monogarment” every day for the past three years. They’ve gotten plenty of press on the critical, humorous, and political nature of their activism. Their timely “Make America Rational Again” campaign collects gently used and “emphatically discarded” Ivanka Trump-branded garments in order to transform them into jumpsuits sold to support fair labor practices in the United States. However, I wanted to find out what it actually feels like to wear the same outfit every day. What happens to the self-revelation and identity forged in a woman’s closet? Maura and Abigail joined artist Cameron Crawford (a comrade in rational dress and jumpsuit wearing) and I for lunch on a bomb-cyclone-cold day to talk about rejecting choice.
Maura and Abigail
MB: It’s great. I love wearing a jumpsuit everyday. It’s super easy. I don’t think about what I’m wearing. But I think we’re also creative professionally and so I wasn’t getting a huge amount of creative satisfaction out of picking out my outfits every single day because I have other stuff that I do. You know that thing where you wake up and you feel like none of your clothes fit? And whatever hole there is you’re trying to fill, it’s still empty. You try on like seven things before you go out? That hasn’t happened to me in three years. It’s a big relief.
AG-L: I thought I would miss it. Miss clothes. Because I’m a fashion designer! I love clothes. I just love clothes. You know? It’s not about not loving clothes.
MB: Yeah. That’s exactly right. It’s just you don’t have to consider it everyday.
Getting married in white Jumpsuits
AG-L: The only time I had anxiety about wearing a jumpsuit was when there was a couple we know that was getting married in jumpsuits and I thought, what do I wear to the wedding? I wore a polka dot jumpsuit! I wouldn’t have thought about it if it weren’t a wedding. Now I sort of think, how beautiful? In another 13 years if Dave and I ever decide to get married, (26 is going to be our number), I mean how beautiful would it be if there were an entire room full of people wearing the same jumpsuit? That’s lovely. That’s beautiful. I like that idea.
MB: I hate doing laundry. I really hate doing laundry. I have a bunch of jumpsuits. But it’s just one garment. I mean how many t-shirts and jeans do you go through in a week? You can just hang them and shake them (she says stinking!) You don’t really have to wash them that much. The people I know that wear jumpsuits everyday, I think they have three or four.
Abigail with student at the Jil Sander Showroom, Chicago
MB: There’s less anxiety. As an artist, a lot of times, what you’re going to wear to an opening or to a dinner is a difficult question because you don’t have any money and so many people do. And so it eliminates that problem totally.
AG-L: The jumpsuit is a chameleon. The current one is really basic. It’s very intentional that it walks a line between casual and formal. It’s supposed to not be flashy. I can teach in it and then go to an opening. People don’t really respond unless they already know what it is. A bunch of my colleagues have them and my students will come bursting into the classroom saying so-and-so is wearing your jumpsuit and they’re so excited!
MB: Sometimes people come up to us and ask if it’s a “Jumpsuit” jumpsuit. Generally people are really nice. It’s lovely. People are really sweet.
AG-L: Social interactions are typically so awkward and if I’m introduced as Abigail-who-makes-jumpsuits and I’m a wearing one, it’s almost rehearsed, it’s an easy thing. There’s something nice and easy about it. It actually puts everybody at ease. People are very positive. Dave gets more compliments when he wears his than I do. But I get compliments, too.
Maura with two members of the Rational Dress Society
CC: I get negative comments. There’s the person who said: “What is he wearing that for, he’s never worked a day in his life.”
CC: Because they think I’m wearing coveralls, but like I don’t work hard enough to wear coveralls, or I’m wearing them with dress shoes or something like that.
MB: In what context?
CC: On the street.
AG-L: I feel like men’s fashion is way less permissive. I feel like you guys police each other more.
Maura reading from Ivanka Trump’s Women Who Work: Rewriting the Rules for Success
AG-L: I would have thought I’d get into really accessories. Jewelry, brooches. I like to get my glasses from Lab Rabbit Optical in Chicago, and Fabulous Fanny’s or Surreal Optical in New York. I have two pairs that are in regular rotation. We both have a deep love for Fabulous Fanny’s.
MB: I got my glasses at Society of the Spectacle in Los Angeles.
AG-L: Neither of us really wears lipstick on a regular basis, but we do have matching tubes of this stuff in bright orange. We both thought we were going to get more into accessories than we have.
MB: It’s the opposite. Yeah. Don’t care. We do spend a lot of time talking to each other about haircuts, though.
AG-L: We do. We do.
CC: I remember that day we went to five stores to find the right black bucket hat for you.
MB: That’s right. That was a good day. I still have that hat. That’s a good hat. But you have to go to five stores. You’re not just grabbing anything. It becomes more important.
AG-L: Sweaters are the thing I have to think about. Because the jumpsuit has a structured sleeve so it has to fit over the sleeve.
MB: We love nice looking things; we’re artists. I’m a totally acquisitive materialistic person. It’s not about pretending that doesn’t exist. It’s just about eliminating a major element of it and it feels more manageable. It’s also way cheaper.
AG-L: It’s incredible actually. You save a lot of money. Especially in my line of work! In my line of work the clothes aren’t just clothes; they’re expensive clothes and I don’t have that.
The official Rational Dress Society patterns for JUMPSUIT are currently being digitized and will be available to download as an open source document in the coming months.
MB: Women’s garments aren’t made to fit them. Almost ever. Abigail did all of this work. She’s really super talented. So much mastery and technical facility. She looked at real sizing data, from the government, from NASA, from uniform companies, anthropometric studies. If you look at people’s body measurements it doesn’t make sense to have male/female measurements.
AG-L: The way the patterns work it’s a ratio between your chest, waist, and hips. Jumpsuit embraces the physiological differences between bodies, tall and short, round and narrow. The patterns fit the individual while still maintaining visual uniformity. It’s just practical for having a garment that fits you. It’s a truly well-fitting garment, customized to the individual form. It’s really available to all, regardless of body type. So the first jumpsuit I made, the crotch was too low, and I made it shorter and thought it was beautiful; then I went to get on a bicycle, and so it turned out it was just a beautiful “stand” suit.
Photos courtesy of the artists.
I will practice replacing girls with other girls. With moving them into the background. All of them, so there is nothing to be distinguished between a landscape and a swath of hair. The hills around my house and the back of an animal.
A puppet theater in the bathtub: two twins moving back and forth between personalities with a simple incantation “you be me.” And then to switch, “ok, now you be me.” Mimicking each others speech and manner. Telling one another’s story. Becoming one another like jumping rope double dutch style.
Just the body sitting in for another body, learning to speak the language.
“We, however, are not prisoners. No traps or snares are set about
us, and there is nothing which should intimidate or worry us.
We are set down in life as in the element to which we best
correspond, and over and above this we have through thousands of
years of accommodation become so like this life, that when we
hold still we are, through a happy mimicry, scarcely to be
distinguished from all that surrounds us. We have no reason to
mistrust our world, for it is not against us. Has it terrors,
they are our terrors; has it abysses, those abysses belong to us;
are dangers at hand, we must try to love them. And if only we
arrange our life according to that principle which counsels us
that we must always hold to the difficult, then that which now
still seems to us the most alien will become what we most trust
and find most faithful. How should we be able to forget those
ancient myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into
princesses; perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses
who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps
everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless
that wants help from us. ”