look fabulous or go home

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"Why on EARTH she'd think box pleats were acceptable in society is beyond me!"

I’ve been meaning to write a post about Nice White Lady Syndrome, a condition I myself struggle with. Hell, I used to be a walking Typhoid Mary (I’m trying to heal, people).  NWLS is elusive for me to describe but it’s real.  I could easily off-hand name some of the common traits. We with NWLS are concerned with being “nice”, of course, and will go to great lengths (including avoidance of subjects or people) to ensure the facade does not shatter.  We are incessantly – internally or aloud – policing the bodies, clothes, manners and appearance of ourselves as well as other women, thereby making sure any concept of “sisterhood” runs concomitant to the pledging of a sorority that allows some (worthy ladies) in, while some are most stridently refused.

Yet despite the desire to be “nice” many afflicted with NWLS will devolve to hateful language and ad hominem attacks if you call out – however respectfully and accurately – problematic behaviors. In fact in our rigidity against admitting wrongdoing we have a core of steel that matches the most unapologetic purveyor of hate speech.  Now I hardly need point out that not all white ladies who are nice suffer from NWLS (so please don’t be bringing me that bunk). 1  I shall leave it for another post to write much more about my thoughts on this little syndrome but I will say: you see its true colors when you disagree with our most treasured bigotries, perpetrations, and prejudices.

Case in point, I enjoy following Gertie’s Blog for Better Sewing, a lovely series of entries that are akin to one of those entrancing, snapping insect-killer lamps for so many American mid-to-upper class white ladies like myself (we’re in the “working class” category if you’re curious). On May 28th Gertie wrote a bit about her experiences in classes with (illustrious and amazing) professional Kenneth King. In brief, her post stated the following: that as she pursues an interest in fashion and fitting clothes for oneself, inevitably she begins to find problems in the fit of ready-to-wear (RTW) clothing she sees out in the world.  Thus her passion for personal clothing construction becomes a nit-picking enterprise on other people’s clothing – and this troubles her a bit.  Or as Gertie herself says, “It makes sense that as we become more proficient fitters and sewers, we’ll become more observant of the garments all around us. (Unfortunately, we might also become more annoying, petty people in the process!)”2

Gertie makes a good point but the issue is not so simple as mere “nit-picking” or “petty[ness]”, since the intersection of a whole mess of issues comes to the fore when we begin to look at other (usually female) bodies and decide what looks good or bad (I think of sexism, racism and classism FAIL right off the bat, but of course homophobia and transphobia rate quite high).

Sure enough, many comments following this post exhibited quite the buffet of harmful worldviews: mostly with regards to body shaming, a whiff of slut shaming, and socio-economic class insensitivity to put it mildly.  Essentially the reader is treated to many lectures on people who wear too tight jeans and too-small stretch fabrics which means they are basically Letting Us All Down by not looking good enough.

Wait, why am I writing “people”? The vast, vast majority of the eighty-three (so far) comments on this post concern women’s bodies, full stop.  The list went on: people (women) are in denial about their size; thus they wear ill-fitting clothes which are somehow a grievance committed against us, the viewer; people are gross for being fat but they’re really gross for not disguising this fat in some way according to the standards of the poor innocent bystander who has to see this body.   All women should consider body shapers or getting their bra fitted. People should make sure to have their pants properly hemmed because please – “spare a few bucks”, your dry-cleaner can do it for you. Shaming and dehumanizing language abounds: “embarrassing sausage-in-a-casing look”, “trashy”, “rubbish”, “gross”. Muffin-tops, camel-toes, and skeletal women are all disgusting. Anyone and everyone outside of the parlances of what fashion provides should either learn to sew or do whatever it takes to not look slovenly.

I won’t deny that, as a seamstress myself, fit analysis is a huge subject and once you get some chops you may notice poor fit all around you.  It’s where one crosses the line into the many types of dehumanizing language and assumptions, insensitivities, and unacknowledged privilege that things get gross.  Along with this nasty stuff comes the adjunct prescription that all women owe everyone, everywhere the duty to wear something flattering or becoming according to – well, I’m not sure who gets to decide that part (the “flattering” prescription for ladies is a feverish mantra in our society).3 In these four-score comments only one (Tasia’s) pointed out there might be financial and lifestyle considerations that might excuse someone for not making Looking Their Absolute Best a high priority.

There were glimmers of hope in the conversation.  Several commentors laid the issue of poor fit in part at the fashion industry’s ill-service to women in particular aspects.  But many comments were kind of muddy – like this one, which took me on a roller coaster of hope before quickly plummeting into more typical territory regarding fat people and compulsory-DIY4:

I also deplore baggy shoulders and shapeless side seams on plus size women, myself included. I don’t blame the women for this, they can’t help it because many manufacturers offer poorly executed plus size designs. And at certain income ranges that is all that is available to them. When I see this I want to grab the women and tell her, “Yes, you can buy a t-shirt for ten dollars, but if you make your own it will actually fit you and look good and you will feel better about yourself when you see how sleek you really can look!”

Oh dear good Lord.

Then there was: “there is nothing more tragic than a larger busted woman with a seam that SHOULD go under her bust…”

Nothing! More! Tragic!

Believe it or not dear reader, I could go on with more problematic content.  Wondering what might happen, I sent this email to Gertie:

I think it’s awesome you are starting to really SEE clothes and fit issues – and that you have the means, time, and privilege to explore a self-education in creating well-made, homesewn clothes. It’s also wonderful you are sharing your experiences with your readers! I have you in my feed reader and look forward to your writings.

But with your last post, I’m sure your intent was not to start a classist bunch of fashion-and-clothes policing. Where I live lots of people are just trying to pay the bills and feed their kids and have clothes on their backs and try not to freeze their asses while they wait an hour between buses (and of course, I’m a white American and surrounded by far more wealth and privilege than many global citizens have). I seriously cannot imagine looking at ANY fellow human being and picking on their “rubbish” or “trashy” or “cheap” sense of style.

I know there are ways to talk about fashion and the pursuant fun of achieving it that respect all human beings. I am sad to see your comment stream is not a respectful space in that manner.

I love your writings and I hope you take my comment knowing I come from that place.

Gertie wrote back almost immediately and asked if she could publish my email in an Op-Ed on the site. I agreed, although my stomach sank because You know? I’m not super-awesome about wanting to speak up about social justice a crowd of inter-netz anonymous who had committed such egregious class and size acceptance FAIL already. But hell, I know I’m okay with what I wrote so I said Sure.  The morning of May 31st the little “Op-Ed” was published with my email and a sparse introduction from Gertie.5

Since most my Underbellie readers are beyond 101, you can imagine what happened next.  A very small series of comments granted my points; many sent up defensive arguments and of course, ad hominen attacks on yours truly (one commenter described me as “insane”! Shoehorning in the ableist pejorative – w00t!). A handful of people said I was “unfair” and handing out “badges” of wrongdoing (so apparently, no matter how politic you point something like this out, you’re being – let’s face it – a pesky bitch to cite it at all). Notable too were the many who said there was “nothing wrong with Gertie’s original post” (although I’d made clear I was speaking about the reader comment stream specifically), a classic Derail that carried through the discussion over. & over. & over.6  I was accused of taking myself too seriously, told I should take on a “real” social issue, and that everyone should wear “sackcloth and ashes” to meet my standards of social justice.  I expected a few attacks, but I will admit I was surprised to hear how many people claimed style and clothing options have nothing to do with socioeconomic class.

Interestingly enough, those who defended my points said when it comes to commenting on other people’s clothing, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” (this happens to be another adage in the NWLS canon). Although I have often employed the “don’t say mean shit” strategy at specific instances in my life, what’s funny is of course, we absolutely can discuss fashion and fit and style – holding there are good and poor strategies and builds for clothing – whilst respecting other human beings who inhabit clothes we personally wouldn’t wear (and due to our various degrees of privilege may not have to).  Eschewing describing a woman as “trashy” is something I can commit to while discussing an erroneously-drafted or ill-fitting empire waist – this latter an interesting subject to me in terms of garment fitting as I don’t often wear this particular style myself. And yet again, discussions on this subject often devolve into that policing bit; that is, a woman who fully knows well where her empire seam is and doesn’t give a Good Goddamn is thrown under the wheels as Unsightly; so too is her sister who is busy thinking about things other than clothing like – oh I dunno for example, food, shelter, her job(s), her family, her passions, her aging father she’s providing round-the-clock care for in the home, her chronic pain issues, her looming layoff, etc. etc.

Most odd of all were the accusations I was this kind of lurky dark-sided outlander trying to make Gertie “feel bad” for her silly hobby (someone claimed I said “frivolous” and of course as you see – I didn’t).  As most my readers here know I share the same exact hobby (garment sewing). Sewing is a life-blood creative source of joy for me; incidentally, I also share some of the same types of privilege Gertie does. I don’t require her to feel bad about any of these things to make my points.

So you know, my whole speaking up thing just felt like oh, making-fart-noises-with-my-mouth. Fail.

But you know?  Amongst the comments following the “Op-Ed” were some diamonds in the rough:

purplesews wrote:

I grew up steeped in the idea that the best thing to do was go home and stay indoors until you’d lost blankity pounds and then buy clothing – and it’s taken me some time to unlearn that and learn to fit my own unique figure without jumping right to disliking myself – so yeah, that comment thread did make me sad in places. The idea that you owe it to other people to wear “the right” clothing for your age/size/coloring/whatever tends to annoy me – while the fact that the market can’t presently provide most of us with the right clothes for our bodies is one of my hobbyhorses. But then, I feel this way about a lot of kindly-meant fashion advice, right down to good old Stacy and Clinton: I feel like if you walked up to the average poorly-dressed person and handed them $1500 and walked away, they would – well, probably pay off part of their mortgage, but if they had to spend it on clothes, they would probably be better dressed immediately, advice or no advice. I also think it’s interesting that we as a culture look down on vanity – there’s definitely some puritanism to the everybody-in-t-shirts aesthetic – but are very gung-ho about having some duty to others to look nice. It’s a strange dynamic.

emadethis wrote:

This is well-said. I shudder to think of people stopping others on the street and pointing out the defects in their garments. I’m distressed when I see poorly made garments on the rack. The deeper you get into sewing, finding these defects becomes just an outgrowth of your learning. A lot of people cannot afford well-constructed items, myself included. I consider myself blessed that I can sew for myself, but many are not in that camp either, and we need to respect where people are on that continuum.

Solitary Crafter writes:

Maybe I just have low expectations of people on the internet, but I avoided the comments on that post because I assumed that it would devolve into critiquing body size and that comments would be made about people shopping at walmart and all the rest.

As much as I enjoy sewing and crafting magazines and blogs, it’s always clear that people like me – poor, redneck, white trash – aren’t considered to be the ‘class’ of readers or commenters desired or expected and the issues faced by poor sewers and crafters, those of us who shop at walmart and thrift stores for fabric and patterns, tend to be either ignored or brushed away as unimportant.

No, I don’t expect everyone to cover the issues facing people like me, I have other resources for that, but neither do I expect understanding when the issue comes up.

Maybe I’m a coward and maybe I’m just pragmatic, but this is one subject that never can be resolved, even among people with the best of intentions.

A handful of comments like these in an otherwise rather dismal showing gives me hope that what I write and speak about is important (enough).  In particular Solitary Crafter’s comment tugs my heartstrings – I know exactly the exclusion and dismissal she speaks of and indeed was pointing it out.

Part of me aches for the person (woman) who is defensive and angry at my observations. I really do know what it’s like to suffer the pain of having my “niceness” bubble popped, especially in an exposed setting. I know what it’s like to be called out in public (which the inter-netz obviously is) and while many can shake it off, I have on occasion blanched and felt my heart race at such things.  In short, I really do have empathy for how upsetting this sort of thing can feel (and I was only calling comments out primarily with regards to classism; you want to see NWLS in full-blown danger mode, speak up when a white lady has said or done something racist and yes I’m aware by even suggesting “white” has anything to do with these kinds of behavior I am inviting some indignant denial-screeches!).

An investment in being “nice” is/was a seductive condition.  There were so many perks (if I had good “intentions” my actions could not, I repeat not be called into question) even while it took away my ability to handle constructive criticism and listen to other worldviews. Additional “perks” came in the form of believing I was someone who Meant Well and was Part of the Solution and it was totally other people who were Part of the Problem. Since I had a black boyfriend or a few gay friends or since I came from a “poor” background I’d passed some kind of test where if someone ever brought up those issues with regard to my behavior I’d know I wasn’t in the wrong(, ever), so please do not ever point that out.

I won’t say learning differently wasn’t painful. It was (still is sometimes). In my case (personal story), I became active on a social networking site that had a significant proportion of women of color and queer women and unmarried women with children and I got schooled more than once. I was told when I had said something racist, or classist, or elitest, or using heteronormative language or being a garden-variety asshole. It hurt.

Funny thing is even after I left this community I kept seeking out those types of spaces online.  I kept wanting to learn more even if it meant being called out (sometimes in error, but often with a fair bit of accuracy), yes “publicly” and often not nearly as politic as I myself tried to intervene here.

In attempting to shed my biases and denials and sense of White Lady Sainthood (and I hasten to add I am still working through these things) I’ve become a much better listener and I have a broader perspective. I’ve experienced a greater diversity of friends online and IRL who value what I bring to the party.

But some, it seems, still prefer to stay “nice” – until they have to shout rudely over someone else. I wish them the best in their journey.

Do read the links below, especially the writings of Tasha and Natalie.


Thanks Arwen and Paige for your personal assistance in writing this post.

Photo credit: clotho98 on Flickr

Mentioned/Further Reading:

“Body Image, mothers, classism, fashion, Karl Lagerfield, and social inclusion” at lisaschweitzer.com

“Nice White Lady to the Rescue!” at Alas, A Blog

stuff white people do, a blog

“Defensiveness as a Signpost of Privilege” at Shakesville

“Where My Sistas At? The Underrepresentation of Black Plus Size Models in Mainstream Fashion” at racialicious

“Are There Class Cultures?” at classmatters.org

Very brief primer on how classism functions within feminism or women who consider themselves pro-woman, at everything2.com

“Women and Class” (and the avoidance to discuss the latter) at classmatters.org

Tangentially and to sort of soul-destroy anyone still clicking through my links, while searching for a CC-licensed picture I found this charming series of comments under the photo titled “Fatties”. If yer so inclined you can sooth your eyeballs on the photo caption of this treasure: “My Neighbor Is A Big Fat Ugly Pig”. OK, I’ll stop now. Promise.  Just: it was rough finding a photo.

A little ray of sunshine – because there are many people out there working for the Good: definatalie is writing some of the best articles re: fashion snark. Besides her “skinny jeans” post you can read “Confessions of a Former Snarker” recently published on her blog.

  1. This is similar to nice guy vs “Nice Guy“, as explained here and many, many other places.
  2. You can find “Like ANTS Crawling on Your SKIN: Clothing Pet Peeves.” at BfBS.
  3. One of the  most amazing, wonderful rebuttals to this very common and socially-enforced meme is definatalie’s “You Can’t Bully Me Out Of My Skinny Jeans”
  4. Concomitant but not in response to Gertie’s post, blogger Tasha Fierce wrote beautifully on this subject the next day: “The Class Dynamics of DIY”
  5. Op/Ed Column: on Fashion Policing at blogforbettersewing
  6. Derailing for Dummies