Thursday, October 21, 2010


W.S. Merwin is coming to town in November (I guess people who live in Hawaii need to be reminded of why), and he's giving a reading. There was a community-wide book giveaway, and so along with everyone else who got to the farmer's market early enough, my family got a copy of his volume The Shadow of Sirius, which has many good poems that I intend to share with you over the next month or so. The one for today is entitled "Raiment" and it comes first because I've been thinking about a comment on my post about Daddy-Long-Legs--that the main character, Jerusha, seems, to one person at least, unduly focused on appearance (the words used were "shallow and frivolous").

I think that whether one appears frivolous to others depends largely on the self-image (and perhaps the mood) of the person looking. And self-image is something I've been thinking about lately as I continue to recover from years of sedentary work, commuting and over-eating.

As I was on my way to do an errand this morning, I had the thought that my body is getting closer to what my mental picture of it is like. When a woman gets to be a habitual over-eater, her ability to see herself as she really is diminishes. Often she only looks at herself in parts, never full-length and all at once. It takes something like seeing herself in a photograph to bring it home to the over-eater just how divergent her internal image of her self is from the outer image.

This summer, while we were on vacation at the beach, an old friend was sitting with me, watching people walk by; at one point he gestured toward a very tall, thin, and regal-looking older woman and said to me “that’s what you’ll look like when you’re old.” He understood that the way I looked right then was not the way I felt inside. His remark is still giving me the strength to bring my physical self more in line with my mental image of myself. I may never get all the way there; but the closer I get, the more like myself I feel.

In the same way, I think, the urge to distinguish yourself with clothing can be the opposite of frivolous. Read the poem and see what you think:

Believing comes after
there were coverings
who can believe
that we were born without them
he she or it wailing
back the first breath
from a stark reflection
raw and upside-down
early but already
not original

into the last days
and then some way past them
the body that we
are assured is more
than what covers it
is kept covered
out of habit which
is a word for dress
out of custom
which is an alteration
of the older word costume
out of decency
which is handed down
from a word for what
is fitting

apparently we believe
in the words
and through them
but we long beyond them
for what is unseen
what remains out of reach
what is kept covered
with colors and sizes
we hunger
for what is undoubted yet dubious
known to be different
and our fabrics tell
of difference
we dress in difference
calling it ours

I love the way Merwin uses the word "apparently" and the phrase "what is unseen," with their connotations of the intellect.

I've never believed that being an intelligent woman means you don't care what you look like. (Maureen Dowd might argue that such an attitude has developed in opposition to ignorance as chic.) It seems to me that the way pop culture stars like Lady Gaga are manipulating their audiences' ideas about what is "fitting" (the meat dress) might be a sign that we're emerging from the long, dark night of the soul to which no one wears formal dress because "things like that don't matter."

They do matter, and smart people shouldn't be ashamed to demonstrate that they know it.


kittiesx3 said...

At one point, I’d have argued with you about clothing and frivolity (really I’d have been arguing that such concerns are vain); I don’t hold that position any more. How I present myself in dress, hair and make-up isn’t any less important than how I present myself in words or body language or attitude. I want the inside me to be consistently represented by the outside me and all of those things add up to who I am.

Regarding body image, well I’ve struggled for years with anorexia and can tell you flat out that my mental image of my size has zero to do with either who I am as a woman/human being or with reality. If I relied on my own ideas of my body, I’d be in muumuus or something similar because my mental image is so very flawed. So I find myself slightly envious in a really good way that you can adhere to your mental image of yourself to return your physical self closer to that image. Honestly, that is a very good thing you have and I’ll keep working on learning it for myself.

FreshHell said...

I find it less important to me. I like to be comfortable - that is more important to me than looking stylish or whatever but I also hope I don't look like a bum.

I dress these days in things I hope don't make me looker fatter than I feel (as opposed to how fat I actually am). Nothing will hide the ass but somethings hide the fat rolls better than others.

I am totally with you on self-image. I used to look different than I do today and my sedentary job is not going to change any time soon. When I need an ego boost, I visit my chiropractor (believe it or not) because he is good about putting things in perspective. Anyone who spends all day with people worse off than me does wonders for my self-image.

Harriet M. Welsch said...

I do think we are more aware that fashion matters and I offer as evidence the proliferation of academic fashion blogs. I liked the "apparently," too. Such words rarely appear in poems, deemed unnecessary in a form that requires economy. But here the word is not a throwaway -- do we appear to believe? Or do we believe apparently?

Jodie said...

I think I get where you are with your body right now, but I think you're better than me, because there will come a point where inner and outer match, while I know even when I lose weight my two image never quite fit. Seeing myself in photos the change is more shocking when I notice how much weight I've gained, but I never really noticed how much I'd lost when I was at what I'd describe as my peak body a few years ago. I'm avoiding being shocked into noticing just how far removed my outer image is from my inner image right now. I know what the reality is, but I need a little delusion to get me through the day because I just don't have the energy required to change right now so I appreciate your ideas about how women who over eat avoid looking at ourself full length. Good luck on making your pictures match up and being able to project who you are inside into your physical appearance (it sounds like you have great friends who understand just where you are - good on them).

And yes outer matters do matter and they should (I mean to us, we shouldn't be overly preoccupied with judging others on how they dress - but that's not what you're saying). And there are lots of ways to present ourselves well and dress up. I saw this girl from a local band with the most amazing tuxedo waist coat, ruffled blouse, bow tie combo the other day and was reminded about glamour outside of the typical pretty dress idea.

There is going to be a film based on 'Blonde'? I mean I'm very excited about that, but I'm just not sure how they're going to translate it to screen because it's a book entirely made up of thoughts and internalisation (it is the book that made me worship Marilyn Monroe). Interesting.

Marie said...

how i look is a little more important to me than it used to be, but not much. we judge people too much by superficial things like clothes and body size. it would be nice to be evaluated for something else.

Jeanne said...

Elizabeth, as we've discussed, we're on opposite ends of the same spectrum with body image, and it's never going to be something with which we can stop struggling.

I think in the business world, and maybe especially in your current kind of business, most people acknowledge the importance of appearance more than we tend to do in the academic world.

FreshHell, since you work in the academic world, you have the kind of "comfort above all" attitude that I'm used to. I object to it when it interferes with putting on formal clothes for a formal occasion. Of course, I came from a family where we were taught to revere Stanislavsky and we all still dress up to show respect for the arts when we go to the theater.

Also the self-deprecating pose is one many of us use to fend off the remarks of others.

Harriet, yes, I like the way you can read that word to mean both.

Academic fashion blogs? Now that you mention it, I think I have heard of one or two of those. Ha!

Jodie, I hear ya. I've worked up the energy to lose significant amounts of weight three times in my life--at 18, in my late 20s, and in my late 30s, after the birth of my second child. There have obviously been times where I just wasn't paying any attention.

And yes, I'm talking about not only dressing up when it's appropriate but being able to wear things you like that aren't necessarily in style or would work on other people. Being very tall has always made me have to look harder for anything that will look good on me, so I had a head start on developing an individual style.

Marie, people in the academic world believe that they're evaluating you on a non-superficial basis, and sometimes that's actually true. Often, though, they have their own kind of requirements, especially about dress. The campus where I work has been called the "most beautiful" in the country recently, but the women who work there go around in perpetual mourning. Black is the only really serious color to wear; it shows you don't care about superficial stuff like what you put on in the morning. It has become a standard, and if a woman deviates from it--like wearing a lot of red one day--she is taken less seriously.

Which I think is pretty silly.

Amanda said...

I don't think that finding someone else frivilous or shallow or vain necessarily has to do with self-image. I don't, for instance, find Jerusha all those things because of the way I look. I've looked many different ways in my life - both to my satisfaction and dissatisfaction - and in all of those phases I would have felt the same way. I don't think her interest in material things makes her shallow or unintellectual. I think the fact that she applies what she loves to all women as a stereotype makes her a really disgusting human being. That's what really upset me, quotes where she says all women love clothes and all women care about fashion and all women do x, y, and z. She's wrong. Not all women are the same. I've never once in my life cared about clothes or fashion. Do I care about how I look? To a certain degree - yes. I want to look more like I picture myself. I want to be thinner. But clothes? If they're comfortable, I couldn't care less about them, and I resent being told that because I'm a woman, I do, or should.

I take issue when anyone applies blanket stereotypes to whole classes of people, and Jerusha did that constantly. That's why I couldn't stand her and found her frivilous and shallow.

Jeanne said...

Amanda, Oh! What you say makes sense, but I took it differently. I thought Jerusha's generalizations were charming and funny because she didn't realize that not everyone who was raised outside of an orphanage was privileged in exactly the same way.

If you're going to find her charming, you definitely have to see her as an unreliable narrator.

Her comment about what "heaven" it would be to have unlimited money to spend on hats, for instance, is a common kind of misconception. Those who can't afford something at all do sometimes assume that people who can afford that thing don't worry about the price. I thought that's what made it funny and touching when he sent her money for a hat and she sent it back.

Amanda said...

Yeah, I couldn't see her that way. She seemed really blind and self-absorbed to me. Even her returning the money felt like a nod to her own little charity, a way to make herself feel good rather than an honest not-wanting-to-owe. Perhaps she just rubbed me wrong.

Jeanne said...

Amanda, that's part of the point about appearance, though, isn't it? That it's so easy for someone else's perception of how much attention you pay to it to tip over into perceiving you as self-absorbed?

Sometimes people do rub us the wrong way. I don't actually object to people wearing black, you know! It's the attitude that I should wear black too--or else be considered frivolous--that rubs me wrong!