Early on I learned that if I could wear the right clothes, look the right way, at least in part, I could pass as normal.
When my best friend Emily was pregnant with her first child, she was very sick, most notably during a Globe Theater performance, which she valiantly sat through in order to entertain me while I very insensitively chowed through a carton of strawberries. Em lives in London, but we’d met years before working for international aid agencies in Switzerland.
Em and I were inseparable that year, in part because we were young, and in part because we were exposed to issues of the world that on their face felt unsolvable. Since 1998 we have continued what has been for me an unparalleled love story of friendship. On one of those freezing cold winter afternoons after a long day of fielding whatever crisis in the world triggered a flurry of activity in the office, I suggested a shopping trip. Nothing elaborate, although in Geneva it’s easy enough to drop a cool million on one small stretch of idyllic, cobblestoned street, and possibly on a single piece of jewelry.
I’ve always been a collector of clothes, a “clothes horse,” a lover of all things to wear on the body, to adorn the body, and for a long time, to hide the body. In this I feel connected to many artists with disabilities, like Frida Kahlo, who was never seen without a festive flower, a full skirt, her hands heavy with thick jewelry. I have felt guilty about my love of clothes, spent too much money (main source of guilt); I’ve worried that I was a hoarder (before I saw the show, erasing my worry for good), and then worried that I was turning into my grandmother, who used to spend $400 at the Lord & Taylor in her small Illinois town and then return it all the next day because she didn’t “deserve it.”
Clothes seemed to be a strange risk and reward strategy for her, and although she had a nice figure, it was the only thing she had, and she obsessed about it (too fat, too skinny, too old, etc.) She was embarrassed by my artificial leg, but proud of my face and my hair. Many times we’d be out to lunch with her friends and she would not allow me to get up from the table—to pee, to go back through the pizza buffet line, nothing. She didn’t want anyone to see my body.
That sense of shame has stayed with me all my life. Early on I learned that if I could wear the right clothes, look the right way, at least in part, I could pass as normal. And for a little disabled girl, there was no feeling more addictive than that. If clothes were the solution, give me a wad of cash and send me to Maurices (in the ’80s, at least).
It might seem strange that clothes offer a kind of solace, if not a solution. It is just blind consumerism? Am I just buying into the whole greedy business of buy, buy, buy, knowing that it will never bring me true happiness?
Well, sure. Sometimes, yes. And of course the whole fashion industry, taken at face value, would seem to be dominated by the desire to see emaciated women prance around in outfits that are far out of fiscal reach for most people.
And sometimes, not at all. What we see in magazines and on runways is only part of the story. Fashion can, and always has been, a form of rebellion, which is related to, if slightly different from using what you might wear, no matter your body type or issues, to “pass” as normal.
As I’ve aged, as I’ve seen a body through two pregnancies, so many fitness and yoga classes, and as I’ve seen the bodies of my friends through the same, I’ve learned something: As embodied beings, it feels good to own your embodiment, and sometimes that ownership comes through fashion choices.
That same afternoon of the Globe performance, I took Em shopping at H&M, our old go-to. She had a big job, no time to shop, and plus: She was pregnant and tired and sick. I knew the sweatpants had to go, and quickly. I installed her in a changing room, and much to the great chagrin of the attendants, I walked back and forth from stall to floor, finding combinations of color, cut, and style that would make my friend feel like the gorgeous badass she was and is, not just physically uncomfortable and trembling with anticipation at the way her life was about to change when she became a mother. All Em needed to do was sit and try things on, standing up as little as possible. We walked out with some great outfits, and she felt good. That doesn’t feel frivolous to me; it feels like friend-care.
We still like to do this—go into a random store in Kensington or a charity shop in Brixton—and Em lets me select items for her (which probably ranks in my top five favorite things to do), and she steers me away from my more questionable choices (like a dog collar choker, for example, although when I realized the leather maker thought I wanted it for sexy times, I was easily dissuaded). It’s a gift I love to give to my dear friend, and to others, too.
It’s also a gift I give myself, now, as a grown woman who doesn’t feel yoked to style trends, but is attracted to shapes and fabrics and vintage clothes, both for the uniqueness of the pieces, and also for the sustainability factor. I do much of my shopping on Instagram, and it’s like sharing closets with a bunch of women you may never meet, but interact with out of a shared love of pretty stuff that has meaning and story across time and history. It’s fun, and it feels good.
We are embodied. It’s an obvious statement, but surprisingly easy to forget. Some of us have non-normative bodies. Those of us who have uteruses are now seen as having pre-existing conditions, so that means that half of the world’s population is non-normative. In light of that, I say we adorn ourselves. I say we wear the clothes that make us feel good, powerful, sexy, true, and right in our skin.
Fashion for me has always been a form of resistance, but it is more so now than ever before. I don’t hide my disability, even if my exposed leg in a pair of short shorts makes people look twice, think I’m gross, maybe fear me or feel sorry for me. Wearing what I like, what shows my body, is a way of saying I belong here. I have a place.
What I love best about going shopping with my friend Em is that she is beloved to me—her mind, her spirit, and her body. Finding clothes that suit her makes me feel like I am paying tribute to this woman who is loved. And it is that gift that I feel my love of fashion gives to me, as a person who has always struggled with her body, and likely always will. There is no better feeling, when you have a body that you often loathe, battle with, hate, abuse, and just don’t always understand (and therefore fear), than a dress that fits you perfectly, or a pair of jeans that says, This is my body. Mine.
Role Reboot regular contributor, Emily Rapp Black, is an Assistant Professor in the MFA Program at the University of California-Riverside and the author, most recently, of The Still Point of the Turning World.