All Dressed up for a Bout with Clothing Insecurity

In the realm of insecurities, the eternal question — “How do I look?” — stands high on the list.

As I dove blindly into adolescence, my mom reflexively gave me two answers: “Oh, your fine.” Then the follow-up: “People wear anything these days.”

I learned not to ask.

Many clichés offer more helpful advice, unless taken together. Here are a few:

  • Dress for success.
  • Don’t garb yourself better than the boss.
  • Clothes make the man. Remember that women came from Adam’s rib, so ancient scrolls tell us. Here then is the corresponding answer to every boy’s early question, “Where did I come from?”
  • Choose attire for the next job, not your current one.
  • Use a wide-brimmed hat. My first dermatologist made the suggestion, the better to avoid sun damage. If you meet me outside, you’ll notice either a fedora or a baseball cap.
  • No one cares, so put on anything you want. The voice of wisdom?
  • I don’t give a crap what people think. This is closer to the attitude of the Medicare-eligible crowd. Well, not always true for me, but often.
  • “You don’t dress-up because the occasion is special, you dress-up to make the event special.” The words of Lee Sechrest, a grad school professor of mine. Good perspective.

Sixteen-year-old young men, if I can remember back, want to drape themselves with something to disguise uncontrollable projectile erections. What is a projectile erection, you ask? Any phallic enlargement moving from zero to 60 mph in the time it takes to say “boo!” I’m relieved kids on Halloween don’t know this.

Not only beautiful women produce the unwanted upsurge. A thought, a memory, or a sentence in your book will do the job. Your penis does what it wants when it wants, a thing untamed. Spring-loaded, rather like the abrupt opening of an automatic, switch blade knife. The type of display causing a woman of antique years to demand, “I know what’s under there. Put that away young man!”

Where? How? In a backpack or a paper bag or my pocket? The latter enclosure recalls a legendary movie scene. May West, the cheeky sex symbol of her time, asked the actor opposite her “Is that a pistol in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?”

Clothes can be thought of as having a few different purposes. Mae West authored the first one:

  • “Its better to be looked over than overlooked.”
  • Comfort of fit.
  • Appropriateness for the weather.
  • To show respect.
  • Display your body to advantage.
  • Cover up a less than ideal shape or aspect of your physical self. Kind of like the tailor’s equivalent of a comb-over.

I don’t buy attire too often, other than another pair of blue jeans and more underwear. Standards of adornment for classical concert-going, for example, now permit almost anything. Holy cow, my mother was right! Just 40-years ahead of everyone else.

A stalwart few continue to don a suit and tie when attending the opera, too, but they are dying out. Literally.

When I courted my wife the jacket and tie issue arose in an upscale restaurant. We went to dinner at the Blackhawk in downtown Chicago. The snooty middle-aged maître d’ told me I needed a sport coat, “at least.” He gave me one to put on.

I did, but was bummed out for a few minutes. My future wife said nothing about the embarrassment. A lovely person even then.

The Blackhawk is long gone. The maître d’ by now is departed, as well.

Moral: if you can’t beat ’em, try to outlast ’em. And don’t slip into a hoodie made of red meat if you want to work in a zoo!

Before I sign off for today, here is a tender piece just published by Chicago Tribune columnist Rex Huppke on the loss of his father: Holidays, Loss, and a Tattoo My Dad Would Hate/

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The top photo is called Mystery Man and His Wife, All Dressed Up, from September 10, 2010. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons and displayed there by whatsthatpicture.

17 thoughts on “All Dressed up for a Bout with Clothing Insecurity

  1. Your wife sounds like a real gem, Dr. S!

    Some women (though certainly not all) are impressed only with the image that men send out, as opposed to the real man that exists underneath all that clothing. It’s sad how our insecurities derive from what we’ve learned when socializing with others regarding “appropriate image”. To me, those images are masks.

    Sometimes I wonder if men cross their legs to hide their erections, or perhaps to prevent them. Women wear bras or cross their arms sometimes for similar reasons, though their hardening of nipples can also occur when it is cold outside, or when they are elated and/or happy. Clothing helps. But even when embarrassing moments do occur, we are still human.

    I hate it when my blouse’s button pops open accidentally. This happened to me at an important meeting with two superiors on my final day. I didn’t realize it until after they had left and I turned to put on my jacket. Who knows what they thought, but I wished I had some female in the room with me at the time to tell me what happened. The men said nothing. At least my scarf covered most of it, but probably not when I stood up to shake one man’s hand as he left the table.

    I’ve been disabled for about 15 years now, and I’ve been on Medicare for about 13 years. I didn’t have money to dress up nicely, but I tried to purchase what I could afford at thrift stores or department stores (when they had clearance sales). Most days, however, I wore anything that felt comfortable to me. I only dressed up when necessary, and sometimes I overdressed for the occasion. I had no idea that blazers were not appropriate for poster presentations and academic interviews, and my feet are no longer able to handle tall heels. I also spent so much time in my house that I forgot to pay attention to fashion changes. I was judged harshly by some classmates and even some professors, and I was forgiven by others. Still, I could feel the weight of their judgments. That didn’t stop me from being me, but it certainly caused me insecurity. I never knew how “institutionalized” I was on disability until I tried socializing with others at school or in restaurants. You learn from rejection, I suppose.

    Today, I wear clothing that covers my “muffin tops” and scars. I rarely wear skirts or dresses, and when I absolutely must, I wear stockings underneath (so as to protect me from rape – which is sad, I know). I miss wearing heels, but my weight coupled with my foot problems prevent me from dressing “womanly.” I dress more conservatively, but I really don’t know how to dress (in today’s time) for special occasions, such as to movies, job interviews, black tie events, academic interviews, etc. When I tried asking graduate students, they rolled their eyes at me after stating, “You should already know this.” When we learned how to write a mental status exam, I had no idea how to tell whether a person was “dressed appropriately.” I wondered about cultural sensitivity, the poor, the recently discharged persons who were institutionalized for long periods of time, and the isolated lonelies. Did their dress style attribute to their diagnosis, I wondered? I also wondered if I was being analyzed, judged, and diagnosed by my professors in school. I felt more like a token than I did a scholar, though that may have been my own insecurities and sensitivities building up.

    When I consider “gang attire” or “nudists’ birthday suits,” however, I become the person who judges. I do get scared. I also feel intimidated by those who dress in uniform, expensive suits, or couture dresses – though I’m also a tad bit jealous and envious, I must admit.

    I’m aloof when it comes to dressing appropriately. I am more concerned about the temperature, about hiding my bodily flaws, and about remaining less “flashy.” I am also concerned about whether or not my style of dress will entice criminals to mug or rape me, even though I’m against blaming the victim. In criminology, I’ve learned that capable guardianship prevents victimization, and that capable guardianship includes dressing appropriately, being aware of your surroundings, being vigilant, and not encouraging (or making it easier for) criminals to target you as a victim. I’ve lost some of my freedoms, such as being able to wear skirts and dresses, being thinly shaped (because being heavyset reduces my chances of being attacked or robbed), and sporting nice handbags and jewelry. I’ve learned to look frumpy with some class, I suppose. I do what I can to fit in just enough, but to not make any impressions on potential perpetrators. This thinking and insecurity of mine limits me, but society has taught me this in some ways. I know that I’m supposed to utilize the coping skills I had learned in therapy, but sometimes those coping skills make me vulnerable again. It’s easiest when I isolate, which is what I’ve now become more comfortable doing, but it’s lonely. I’m hoping to be free and learn that lesson.

    Dr. S, sometimes I think it is important to feel flattered (especially as a child) with words like, “You look stunning!” or “You look handsome!” And then sometimes it helps when we get constructive criticism about our dress (especially when older), such as what to wear and what not to wear, followed by complements after selecting what flatters our figures for the occasion at hand. But maybe such praise isn’t always necessary; maybe we can feel secure in ourselves, even if we embarrass ourselves or dress more for comfort. I felt like your mother’s statement was both wise and elusive when she said, “People wear anything these days.” That was my first impression. If it were me, I would have expected either a compliment or a correction followed by a complement after my correction. I wondered if that is what you wished, or if that is why you didn’t ask your mother again.

    My parents weren’t fashion savvy though, and we often shopped at thrift stores. So I learned to deal with what we could afford and be content. I was picked on and bullied in school, but I knew that my parents didn’t purposely try to embarrass me. I was just poor, and so I dealt with it.

    What I didn’t like, however, were the “sexy” complements I received from my dad when I started buying my own clothes as an employed teen. I expected such statements from my peers, but not from my father or my godfather. Flash forward to today, I was retraumatized when our POTUS mentioned something similar about his own daughter. I wonder if that is “normal” or inappropriate. I still don’t know. My ability to figure out what is appropriate, ethical, or not is tainted by the mixed messages I hear from many different parties in society. That alone drives my insecurity.

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    • The link to a photo that represents my last statement can be found here: https://multinomial.wordpress.com/2018/11/24/evidence-in-a-photo-sexualized-before-my-time/ (It’s blurred enough to where no one can really recognize me or the others in the photo.)

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      • From the very tiny photo, I can only tell that your folks should not have allowed or encouraged you to sit on the man’s lap. As a friend of mine used to say about his mom, “What was she thinking?”

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      • I was thinking the same thing. In treatment, however, a therapist before last at the VA told me that my “mom must have been traumatized,” as if to make excuses for her. –That was not the response I was looking for when I called my therapist in 2017 to discuss how I, alone, initiated a conversation with my mother about the struggles I had with being sexually abused. Previous therapists were very comforting, and indicated that my mother should have been responsible for my well-being and protection. However, some therapists are being trained today to avoid placing blame on parents (as evidenced by some posts on certain psychology-related media outlets); they believe that this creates narcissism in their patients, or potential rumination, or false memories, etc. It’s sad when parents should be held responsible – not the child. The emphasis on individual responsibility in treatment cannot be ignored, but equally important (at least to me) are the needs of validation for the client, including placing blame and responsibility for traumatic experiences and resulting losses where they are due. For parentified youth, including spousified children (most often sexualized or adultified, and most often sexually abused), the blame and responsibility are never the child’s fault, though abused children most often blame themselves. As a survivor and potential thriver of CSA, I realized that (at least for me) blaming myself for my parents’ abuse and neglect was easier emotionally than blaming them; if I blamed them as a child, I’d feel even more betrayed than I am today. I also realized why latent PTSD is a reality among those who don’t present with symptoms related to complex trauma or childhood polyvictimization until years later – because the adult mind has had time to process more information than a prior stage of development, and such information consolidates memories from the past; when that consolidation takes place, in my own words (not necessarily the words of a professional or of research), the adult victim begins processing all these traumatic memories (not necessarily repressed) in new ways. Some new ways are felt like shock, others are responded with denial. I wondered why my mother and father allowed that, or why my father and godfather said that, or why my sister shared this photo with me right before telling me that I was an “oversexualized person” – which is the excuse I suppose my father told her, and the lie she buys into when she was always jealous of me spending so much time with my father and other male members of the family (when it wasn’t my intent nor my desire to spend all that time). I don’t even remember that, but I must have dissociated. So as not to conjure up false memories, I will just say that my sister’s perspectives may be true to her, but my own perspectives tell me that my emotional memories (i.e., how I feel when thinking about images or photos like this) are more in line with what happened to me (e.g., shame) than what I did myself (e.g., guilt). I no longer feel guilty, but I still feel shame, because I know it wasn’t my fault or responsibility. I don’t know who bought me that dress, or who conditioned me to smile and enjoy those moments, or who allowed all the stuff that happened to me go on. What I do know is that my father kept telling me that I was the “strong” one in the family, especially when comparing me to my sister (who was born disabled with a hole in her heart, that has thankfully healed since childhood). My sister is doing well and has a husband and four children. I, however, have not done so well. Anyway, I am responding with a lot of things here, but I really wanted to say thank you, Dr. S., for confirming what I believed in my heart to be true – that my “folks should not have allowed or encouraged [me] to sit on the man’s lap.” I like what your friend used to say about his mom. I’m so sorry that so many people have struggled in similar ways that I have. I’m hoping that new generations learn from historical and transgenerational traumas – and therefore stop them. Sadly, the stats show that childhood sexual abuse is still prevalent today. But it’s never the child’s fault, and it is most certainly is some adult caregiver’s responsibility to protect when they see a child being abused.

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    • I’ll respond to a little of what you wrote, though it is all quite interesting. Suggestive comments about a daughter are never OK, whether from your father or POTUS. My own background, as a first born child of a family hard hit by the Great Depression (though it was long over in terms of years) was that fashion was irrelevant as compared to survival and preparing for the next Great Depression. Guidance as to how to dress, and much else, was absent, beyond the encouragement to succeed academically, win a scholarship to pay for my education (I did), and (interestingly from my father) learning to type (keyboard, as it is now called). The rest I figured out for myself and from observing others and from making some mistakes. I was intellectually talented and lucky in many other ways. The parents of mid-20th century America had little clue about how to raise children. Not their fault, though they needed to make an effort to figure it out, as all parents do. Yes, it is desperately important to believe you are worthy of a compliment and be gracious about accepting it even if you aren’t sure you deserve it. You’ve had a hard road. Take a breath and, when you are ready, I’m sure you will push on. You will learn more, as we all need to. Always.

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      • Thank you, Dr. S! And I do recall (now) that you mentioned in previous posts about your family’s struggles with the Great Depression. I can’t imagine what that was like for all of you, but what you said and explained make sense. You have such an amazing history with all the triumphs you’ve made in academia and in your profession. It’s just amazing to also read how much you’ve overcome along the way. Yay for scholarships – and winning them! My father would be in his 90s, I believe, if he were still alive today. My mother is in her early (now approaching her mid) 80s. I’m not sure what they’ve lived through, though I can imagine that they had a tough time figuring out how to raise me and my sister when they were middle-aged parents in their 40s (mother) and 50s (father). Most people thought my parents were my grandparents. I only recently found out that my mother was raped by someone, and some of my half-brothers and half-sisters have speculated that maybe my real father was my uncle. I doubt that; I have my father’s nose. It doesn’t really matter to me, anyway. It’s so interesting how different generations raise their children, and how us children grow into being the adults we are today. Despite all your struggles, I think you deserved to be told how great you looked as a child, teen, and young adult. In today’s time, I think it is important for such praise (even though researchers are also saying how “narcissistic” and “entitled” the new generations are because of “too much praise” among Gen X’s kids). I wished my mother or father would have told me, instead, what was inappropriate to wear, what was appropriate, how to dress, and how great I looked when I dressed appropriately. Instead, I got the kind of praise that children shouldn’t have. Eek. I guess praise depends on context (and conditioning). Thanks so much for your encouragement, Dr. S!

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      • You are welcome, multinomial. And thanks for your kind words.

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      • Very well said. One can sometimes — if we know enough about the background of parents and their own psychological damage — understand why they might have made some enormous mistakes. In the end, though, there has to be responsibility taken by them — there is simply no one else available! Indeed, as you suggest, the child would often rather take the blame for things than to believe the parent is incapable of being a parent. That way the child feels that she has some control to change herself. Otherwise, she is left to believe and feel that she is entirely on her own and vulnerable without adequate adult competency, understanding, and protection. With heroic individuals such as yourself, I sometimes wonder how you survived as well as you did, even if there remains work to do to repair the damage.

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      • Aw, thank you Dr. S. I’m a “wannabe hero,” not a real one. But I think dissociation did help me survive, as did some really narly television programs. The TV programs and movies that involved heroes, the battle against good and evil, and the natural growing pains we all go through (e.g., “The Facts of Life,” “Leave it to Beaver,” “Growing Pains,” “Different Strokes,” “The Incredible Mr. Limpit,” “Starman” [the TV show], “Wonder Woman,” “He-Man,” “She-Ra,” “The Twilight Zone,” “Star Trek,” “Pippi Longstockings,” and other shows in the 80s). I learned moral development from those shows, and from some really kind teachers who asked me about abuse at home, but didn’t press for answers when I lied to them or remained silent. School was a safe haven for me, as was television. You could say that I daydreamed a lot, had a few “imaginary friends” when I was younger and in middle childhood, and prayed a lot. When I told my mother about my perceptions and my disability, I was gentle with her. I knew she was dealing with her own problems at that time, and her own traumas, but I gave her every opportunity to acknowledge her shortcomings and ask me for forgiveness. That never happened, but I figured that it might be too painful for her today to acknowledge that pain. At least I had the opportunity to tell her about my pain, and she bravely discussed the traumas and pain she had encountered as well. I felt privileged to hear my mother speak about her struggles, which felt like a sort of acknowledgment – even though it isn’t the same. I may never get an apology from my mom, but I also know enough to know that I cannot force one out of her either. It must come naturally. I opened the door. Who knows where that would lead. For now, I’m okay with releasing some secrets with my mother. To this day my mother and I have a stronger relationship – though certainly not perfect, but a heck of a lot more healthier than before. That’s good enough for me. I only wished my dad, my godfather, and my uncle were alive to confront them – even though I’d be scared to death. I knew that I would survive all of my childhood adversities, and I knew that I could make up for it later. I was a forward-thinking and resilient child; it was certainly easier back then than it is now. Christians who told me in the past that I had a “spirit of lust” and “demons” were wrong, but there’s no way for me to confront them since I’ve already confronted them, which backfired. I don’t attend church anymore, but I do recall a few scriptures (mostly from the Old Testament) that are meaningful to me. One is in Isaiah: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” I feel like a bruised reed and smoldering wick at times, but I feel that I’m still here and alive. The other one has to do with King Solomon or perhaps King David (one of the two), which may be found in the book of Proverbs: “With much wisdom comes much sorrow….” –Such is the story of my life and developmental history and healing. I wished that Proverb closed with something more positive, but I can’t remember what it closed with. The sorrow can be turned to revelation, growth, and joy, in my opinion, but I’m no theologian. I think I survived because I had the drive to survive. I think I will heal because I have the drive to heal. I can’t blame my abusers for all the mistakes I made after the abuse; I did make choices that I need to own up to and repair. And I am the only one who can take steps to heal and live a healthier life. I wish no one ill will; I do wish for enlightenment – for all, however. I wished we were all privy to knowledge and wisdom; maybe life would be peaceful and forgiving.

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  2. Your writing today reminds me of one of my favorite book titles: “Love and Loss and What I Wore.”

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  3. Oh lordy, I’m so glad I don’t still have to deal with having a penis! 😛 That meat hoodie freaked me out! Maybe that’s the point. I’ve never been too concerned with what I look like… As long as it’s comfortable (made the cut for my sensory issues), I couldn’t give a damn what others think.

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    • Well, as problematic as the penis-thing is, we all (so I’ve heard) have early and often continuing problems with the sexual apparatus and associated features. Glad you are comfortable. Not an easy state to achieve.

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  4. Thankfully, I’ve reached that age and self-confidence where I can dress to please myself. Enjoyed the Mae West video clip. A “looked over” is much better than being overlooked 🙂

    I immediately thought of a former female Brazilian boss, when I read the tidbit of advice, “Don’t garb yourself better than the boss.” I could never afford to deck out in expensive, foreign-brand clothing and accessories like she did. Yet, the first day I arrived at the office in stylish, locally-made, professional clothing, she quipped: “Dressed up for a date after work?”

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  5. Glad you liked Mae West. An astonishing presence, especially when you consider the time of her hey-day and the place of women at that moment in history. Unfortunate about your ex-boss, but you probably understood who she was even before that misplaced comment, Rosaliene.

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  6. I am at the stage of life where a good comfortable pair of shoes that will accommodate my orthotics will please me just fine. 😊 Here’s to minimalism.

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