Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. ~Rilke
How I went from what’s in the mirror to who I am on my own terms
Plenty of books will tell you everything you need to know about your best colors, lines, and ways of presenting yourself. Actually, it seems there is way too much (and conflicting) information out there. So what am I telling you that’s new? Well . . . check out my page on Style Freedom (available in the header menu under the link “Way Finding”). It’s one of those conundrums of life I solved for myself and decided to make a manual of sorts for others. When you understand who you really are, you discover where you want to go. Things start to get very, very simple after that. In fact, you’ll see that the answers were apparent all along.
This is my own story of how I switched from assessing my style solely from what’s in the mirror to who I am and what I’m supposed to be about.
A Raggedy World
“Don’t people look awful!” someone remarked.
It’s really true. If you compare audiences from old television shows or look at photos of regular people from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, people looked so much better then than they do today. Even the plainest people were generally better groomed and carried themselves with more poise. Since the color analysis craze of the 1980s came and went, it is as if the rest of whatever was left of personal dignity and good grooming went out with it.
I remember the latter part of those years, and today I am a little ashamed to say that I am one of the people who did my best to break that mold of social appropriateness. I questioned everything. Why did we have to dress a certain way to go to church or to school? Who decided such things for everyone else? I dreaded growing up and having to wear pointy bras, girdles, and garter belts like my mother. No wonder, for they were detestable constrictions, and I had no idea that there was any other way for women to live.
Be a Model (or . . . Just Look Like One)
A beautiful spring day, 1973. I was driving to the local modeling school just off McCullough Avenue in San Antonio. What did I hope to achieve? Indeed, even now I sometimes wonder what I was thinking. They gave us makeup lessons and taught us about colors, though there was no real color or style analysis as we know it today. We learned to walk, sit, get up from a chair, carry a purse, do the Conover crossover. For some reason I feel a little hollow remembering it now.
I’m sure I was the worst model they ever turned out, which is why I didn’t actually become one. There were really two reasons for that: 1) I still didn’t feel good about my appearance, and 2) they sent me on a job for a sight-unseen haircut one time (“free” as my payment) and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. It felt wrong, wrong, wrong to have some total stranger impose a cut on me that would take months to grow out if I hated it. My insecurities made me unreliable; they never called me for another job after that.
What is Wrong with This Picture?
My first inkling that something was “off” with the whole idea of modeling was when I arrived at a special presentation at the studio with other models and students to hear a snake oil — er — Hollywood makeup artist – share his tricks and tips. He had something to sell as much as to teach, and my antennas went higher the more he talked. When a fast moving, fast talking little man announces that he wears lifts in his shoes and shoulder pads to look taller you start to wonder if anything about him is real. He dropped a few names along the way—notably, the actress Loretta Young’s, whose bone structure he said was similar to that of one of the ladies present. He had even invented a special lipstick for Miss Young and recommended it as universally flattering to all women. It was a caramel color, available only through him (naturally). Ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching. Then he showed us some other makeup tricks, and I learned that you could swim under water with perfect eyebrows like Esther Williams if you painted them with clear nail polish.
This slick character had all sorts of ideas about what every woman there should be doing differently. The voice ebbed and flowed; the audience oohed and ahhed. A high school friend sat next to me that evening. He suggested that both of us get our hair cut like Elizabeth Montgomery’s in the television series Bewitched. I didn’t want to get my hair cut like Elizabeth Montgomery. It took me a long time to grow it out, and I thought Elizabeth Montgomery should get her hair cut like Elizabeth Montgomery. Even today, I think I was right.
It never occurred to me to share that story with anyone until now, but there you have it. I was staring into a world of utter emptiness covered over with so much glitter. And that’s what “beauty” seemed to me then. Artifice. Fakery. Sequins pasted over gaping cracks in plaster. I felt that the only way to be beautiful and acceptable was to be fake; and if I had to be fake, then it meant I must be uglier than I ever dreamed. No wonder that modeling school did nothing for my confidence. What a wicked betrayal!
I was all over the Color Me Beautiful movement that came and went in the 1980s. It became a huge influence in retail fashion and soon fizzled out. Later I picked up Kibbe’s Metamorphosis book, which also came and went. Even as I was intrigued, I also found the whole thing frustrating. I laid all of that aside pretty much until my fine artist fiance, some years later, said something about the way I dressed. One day he posed me for a photographic study, draping me in long swaths of cloth held together with clothespins.The results were wonderful and the colors beautiful on me. Yet I still couldn’t see it.
But because he brought it up, I looked up color analysis online again and was amazed to find where things had gone. By 2010, style consultation had come a long way, but there were still so many conflicting schools of thought. I ran across trained consultants who, like their own clients, had had to relearn everything because they got it wrong the first or even second time around. It cost a lot of money for everyone-–services, wardrobe, makeup, hair color, etc. That wasn’t supposed to be part of the deal, was it?
Many women I met after that visited one consultant after another, never satisfied and always chasing an elusive something with the next one. Perhaps the problem was themselves, perhaps it was trying to merge conflicting color or style philosophies, or maybe it was like going to a finishing school and ending up with someone else’s brand upon you instead of your own. On the other hand, there were many wonderful fellow travelers with great minds and hearts who genuinely helped me find my own way. They opened up new perspectives and helped me develop an “eye.”
On the Road to an Idiosyncratic Philosophy
Still I kept wondering, “Are we there yet? ” It took about ten years, but eventually I figured out my own endgame and it boiled down to a general philosophy: I am a living masterpiece, not a still-life. My tastes and perspectives are ever changing because I am growing, expanding my knowledge, and refining my preferences. (One happy result was losing the distorted image I had of myself — probably a huge factor in why many women are never satisfied with any style analysis.) At the same time, some things about me will never change: my basic coloring, my body build, the way I walk and talk, certain things that make my heart smile — like sunshine in the early spring, the smell of petrichor before the rain, or the sparkle of glitter on the sidewalk.
Even better, I ran across a style consultant who admitted that people were disappointed that she wasn’t glamorous. Another consultant admitted to wondering if she looked as good as other women at a convention. (I felt so good when I heard all that!) Now do you believe me when I say there is no end to the thing unless you define it for yourself? As a living masterpiece, you may or may not be glamorous. You may have days when you, frankly, don’t feel like standing out with a statement piece (I sure do). We have the tools, but we don’t have to use every one of them all the time. We just need them when we need them.
When I figured out the basis of my style my own way, I wanted to run around the block! It was like I had been on this big loop and had come back to everything I instinctively felt about myself. I just couldn’t explain it to myself. I kept buying things in different styles, thinking I was getting myself out of a rut. Had I realized that wearing the same outfits all the time was a clue to authentic style, I would have been better off. Now I know that we wear some things a lot for good reason: they work. The answer to ruts is not to change the style, but to change accessories, fabrics, textures, proportions, or colors.
Detour in the Road
As this site was underway, I had an unlikely accident preparing a spring flowerbed. I wasn’t going anywhere for the next eight weeks with two broken bones, including my regular part-time job. I laid aside all writing projects and racked my brain trying to figure out how I could have hit the ground so hard falling over a tiny ornamental fence. At this point in time, only one major limb in my body has never been broken. Because of that, I was terrified to leave the house by myself for weeks on end. But as the days grew warmer, my fears subsided into something manageable. I began venturing out again for walks in the park across the street.
Solitary walks are great for thinking, but I still felt unsteady and preoccupied with the possibility of falling again. After all–if I couldn’t figure out what went wrong, how could I make sure it wouldn’t happen again? I wanted to finish this work, but now I felt so inadequate. On top of that, news from the orthopedist took a negative turn: the bones in my wrist had moved out of alignment. My deformity might be visible for life. Who cares about personal style when you look like a freak?
I had a massive clash with my orthopedist, who had no bedside manner and failed to make me aware of my options (I won’t even go into what he did that made me scream in physical pain). Once we got the miscommunication straightened out, I underwent surgery (yes, he’s a great surgeon, though), and all was going to be well. Better, my interim of recuperation brought a new perspective as I refocused my thoughts on the idea of a personal style philosophy. The niggling questions about why I had started this topic in the first place became clearer and so did the answers: Why do any of us spend time searching for our best colors and lines? And what are the terms upon which we seek them?
Near the park trail where I walk is a certain rock formation I stop at sometimes. The other day a marmot crossed my path, stretched his body out for a few moments in the sun, and then wandered into some tall grasses. I sat on a boulder and waited for him to come out; he never did though I could hear him rustling in the grass. How wonderful my time off work had been. I felt like myself once more and wondered how I had managed to lose everything my life is supposed to be about to the demands of a part-time job with a schedule that twisted the rest of my life out of joint.
Like that marmot, I had ventured out into the daylight and been exposed as the person I truly am. I was stretching myself in that warmth, as he did, and disappearing into the tall grasses of life-giving wonderment. By nature, I tend to measure time by the next song I hear playing, or whether a favorite project has finally gotten finished–not by the clock. I wondered how I would live if no one was expecting me on the hour. What kind of life would that be and what kind of clothes would I need? I let my mind run wild on the possibilities. I wouldn’t need nearly as many clothes as I often think I do. Most of the extra clothes I think I need are for other people—usually for situations I wouldn’t be in if I had a choice. People pleasing. It’s the devil’s work.
I decided to quit my job.
I feel royally good about it. (Wicked smile.)
As with my job, my obligations, my need for money, my need to save someone all the time and more– These are the terms upon which we seek so many things that are actually good. But we seek them too often for the wrong reasons.
Fear! (huh yeah) What is it good for?
The fear of not being desirable to others is really a fear of death on some level. Of being abandoned by the tribe. Forgotten, left to starve or die. Eaten by wild animals. Unconsciously, it drives most of our social transactions so that we become enslaved to relationships out of an attitude of scarcity instead of abundance. We must impress others, measure up, toe the mark — even if we’re doing a great job already. It’s never enough. All relationships pay dividends of one kind or another, and all of them involve a cost if you get it wrong — in somebody’s estimation. Yet, acceptance can sometimes be worse than outright rejection. You might please that community or individual once or twice, but what if that approval then locks you into a false security that enslaves you emotionally or financially to someone who can never be pleased again? It is a recipe for abuse.
I once developed a tremendous crush on someone who had this marvelous knack for making me feel less-than. My ego went through the wringer with his psychologically teasing and ignoring me at the same time (“Come hither; go away“). Finally I got sick of this game and discovered that I had actually been happier with myself before I met him. That spoke volumes about what I was doing to myself — talk about a “recipe for abuse”! When I got rid of him, I embraced my own authenticity and vowed never to trade it for anyone’s good graces. Know what happened? I stumbled onto the man I was supposed to be with even though I’d been single about 26 years and wasn’t particularly looking. Know what happened to the fool I ditched? He married a woman his daughter’s age and the marriage went south. Best choice I ever made.
Lesson: When you are authentic, you show up in the world as yourself and attract the people and circumstances you are meant to attract.
Don’t forget to visit my page Style Freedom.