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Lauren Cahn Headshot

When You're Not What You Wear

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Researchers at the University of Kansas found that people were able to accurately assess a wide range of personality traits in strangers just by looking at their shoes. Granted, the study was small (63 subjects looking at 208 pairs of shoes), and some of the observations were obvious (expensive shoes were correctly identified as being worn by affluent people, for example). However, it stands to reason that people would tend to dress themselves in a manner that expresses who they are. Even under the constraints of a dress code, people tend to make choices that reveal information about themselves. For example, in an office setting, a man can choose to wear French cuffs or button-cuffs, lace-up shoes or loafers. A woman can choose to wear a dress or a suit, low heels or high. Each decision is a data point that others will absorb, whether they mean to or not.

But what happens when one's sartorial choices do NOT reflect one's identity? What is the effect on one's psyche of dressing one way and feeling another?

I started to think about this when a friend of mine recounted an anecdote about her night at the ballet. An East Village graphic artist with the lithe body and prurient sensibilities of a 12-year old boy, Linda has never been comfortable in a dress or heels. Therefore, in jeans and a pair of Dansko clogs, she trotted off to Lincoln Center, where she sat in the center of the third row alongside society-types decked out in full designer regalia. When she came home, she blogged joyfully about all of the attention she received, from the woman taking tickets to the elderly gentleman in the elegant suit who sat to her right. Linda was comfortable in her clothing and in her skin, and people responded to that with positive strokes.

Subsequently, several comments appeared on Linda's blog entry, asking if she would ever consider wearing a dress and a pair of heels, say, to impress a man. One of the comments came from a man who said that he assesses a woman's eligibility based on her willingness to don a dress and heels for him. Linda's response was, essentially, that she couldn't be arsed to walk around in heels in New York City. Clearly these two would never become a couple (which anyone who knows both of them already has known for years). But it got me thinking about what would happen if Linda took some of the advice being doled out by well-meaning friends.

So, what WOULD happen if Linda shucked off her jeans, clogs and spaghetti-strap tank top and put on a strapless Lily Pulitzer dress and a pair of strappy sandals and headed out on a date? My best guess? It wouldn't turn out well. Even if Linda were able to become physically comfortable in her "costume," she would be presenting a faux version of herself. How long would she be able to stay in "character"? An entire date? A week? A month? And if this man liked the "faux-fem" Linda, what would happen when he met the real Linda?

This spawned a whole lot of thinking about the other sorts of "characters" women play, often in order to attract male attention. All over Facebook, for example, we see women displaying provocative photos of themselves, photos that seem to scream, "Hey boys! I am here for your sexual pleasure! Call me, maybe?!" But do these women truly aspire to be every man's sexual plaything? In fact, I am willing to bet that many of them (if not most) are looking for a meaningful relationship. Unfortunately, I would not be surprised if these photos attracted men who are looking for nothing more meaningful than a f-ck-buddy. Thus, the "sexy vixen" character they assume does them a disservice. Their message is a misfire.

Speaking of misfired messages, lately, I have been finding myself bothered by the sight of women with aggressively muscular bodies who have had their breasts surgically amped up to the size of cantaloupes. I'm not sure if this "look" is more prevalent than it used to be, or if I am simply allowing myself to become more attuned to it now that I am finally done with a near-decade-long struggle to reconstruct my breasts after my 2002 double-mastectomy. In fact, I have been giving quite a bit of thought lately as to WHY I am bothered by the juxtaposition of manly muscles and feminine curves.

And then it occurred to me. An ample bosom is a traditionally feminine trait. It conjures up images of nurturing mothers with cooing babies. But putting a set of giant breasts on a body does NOT make that body feminine. Nor does it make the person "wearing" those breasts feminine. Like a tom-boy wearing a dress, a set of oversized implants does not a feminine woman make.

Femininity is an intangible quality of which one possesses more or less.

I was born with a high degree of femininity that no amount of coaxing by my politically progressive parents could change. At two, they tried to put me in lace-up shoes, and I cried for Mary-Janes. At three, I had my first cat-fight, with a girl named Rhonda, over a pink princess costume in the make-believe station at our preschool. At five, for Halloween, they dressed me as the lawyer they always hoped I would be, and I cried because I wanted to dress up as a ballerina. At 10, they bought me my first pair of Levi's, but I refused to wear them. I would only wear dresses, and preferably with a sash around the waist. Even better if it was pink. I didn't aspire to be this way. This is who I was from anyone's earliest recollection of me.

When I lost both of my breasts to cancer at age 36, I was too busy trying to survive a life-threatening illness to pay much attention to the question of whether my clunkily reconstructed breasts would send a message to the world that I was no longer feminine. It has only been in this last year or so, since I have been fully recovered from a 9-hour surgery to construct two tiny, girlish breasts out of my own buttocks flesh, that I have been able to even grasp the magnitude of the hit my ego took when I lost my breasts. And it has only been in the past several months that I have begun to hone in on exactly what part of my ego took the biggest hit: my feminine identity.

At the same time, I am well-aware that even though I do not have the body of a pin-up, I am undeniably feminine. I don't pretend to be anything but what I am. Even when I was working as an attorney (my parents got their wish!), I was most comfortable doing the work that I was assigned, as opposed to aggressively drumming up business. I've never been a "Peggy" (see AMC's Mad Men). And when I was diagnosed with cancer, and I began stripping down my life to its essentials, the first thing I did was chuck my law job and become a full-time stay-at-home mom to my two children.

I cried when my parents put me in Levis. And I would cringe at the sight of my friend, Linda, in a twinset and pearls. I cringe for the women who want nothing more than to find a life partner but then send out the message that they're up for casual sex. So is it really so surprising that I feel the hairs stand up on the back of my neck when I see a woman faking her femininity by wearing a pear of cantaloupes on her sternum?

As my parents have always told me (without even a hint of irony), "Be who you are. It's what you do best."