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Women And Fashion

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After seeing a preview of the film Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, based on Lisa See's novel about the practice of female foot-binding in pre-revolutionary China, Arianna Huffington recently wrote a post on her thoughts about women's friendships and the ways that women are willing to deform themselves, literally, for fashion. I want to address both topics here.

In a previous post, I wrote about ways that people can improve their relationships with their bodies. To me, Ms. Huffington's post is on a related topic, and highlights additional ways that people can improve their relationships with their bodies: Be a critical consumer of fashion trends that require you to be uncomfortable when dressed, and ask for support from your friends as you try to become more comfortable with your body -- and encourage them to do so too.

Fashion first

What's in style comes and goes, but what's "in" for women typically has at least one element that's not comfortable, as Ms. Huffington's post points to: footwear. High heels have been around for decades (even longer, actually), and they are neither comfortable nor practical. Wear a pair for more than an hour (if that long) and your feet will start to hurt. Walk around in them -- on stairs, on city streets, on a dance floor -- and your risk of falling increases. So why wear them? In my unscientific, nonrandom sample of women I've asked, the answers range from "I like the way they make me look/walk" to "it's expected." (I didn't bother asking men about high heels since they don't wear them. But it's a safe bet that if men were expected to wear high heels, that type of shoe would have long ago gone out of fashion. Can you see Arnold Schwarzenegger or Christian Bale in a tux and heels? That's a funny image. I laughed out loud when I imagined by husband in heels.)

Yes, it's true that high heels, by virtue of the physics of walking in them, lead women to walk differently than in low-heeled shoes; in fact learning to walk in high heels takes practice -- there are many YouTube videos explaining how to do it, but even experienced models sometimes lose their balance. The walk is "feminine" because it's unlike that of a man (although men would walk that way if they got the knack of wearing heels). To which my reply is "So what?" I like dressing up, but dressing up and looking nice are in a different category from enduring pain or discomfort for beauty's sake or because it's expected and part of the conventions of culture. This seems pretty close to the explanation for why (well off) women in pre-revolutionary China broke, bound, and deformed their feet. This process is described in gory detail in Lisa See's novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and I assume will be similarly shown in the film.

From foot fashion, we can go on to other elements of fashion that can be uncomfortable, although perhaps not as physically damaging: panty hose; girdles or their more modern equivalents (which are spiritual descendants of whale-bone corsets in the quest to make a woman's body conform prevailing cultural views of the perfect body); certain kinds of bras, tight fitting clothes of any kind (which make you more conscious of your body when you move and are uncomfortable after eating if not before); heavy pocketbooks (do we really need to carry all that stuff around?).

If your clothes make your body hurt or feel uncomfortable, you're more likely to become annoyed with, or not like, your body. You're certainly going to become more conscious of your body in a way that isn't necessarily positive. If your waist feels uncomfortable because your pants or skirt are a tad too snug, you'll feel as if you're "too fat." (I am aware that for some people, wearing clothes that are snug at the waist helps them regulate their food intake -- they become more aware of when they've had enough. My point is more general.) If you have wide feet and try to fit them in to narrow shoes, then you'll probably dislike your feet and notice them more as they hurt.

With A Little Help From Your Friends

As Ms. Huffington points out, women can serve as wonderful sources of support for each other, sustaining and helping each other grow. I think it would be amazing if women challenged their female friends about some fashion choices. For instance, rather than compliment a friend on her new high-heeled shoes, what if you said, "Those shoes are nice, but I think it will be hard to be comfortable in them. Your feet will hurt and that'll put a damper on things. Why not wear something that looks nice and is comfortable?" or "Your new pocketbook is nice, but it's so big -- it could throw off your balance and hurt your shoulder." See what I mean? And if you decide to wean yourself of damaging fashion trends, let your friends know (and why) and ask for their support.

While we're on the subject of sacrifices for fashion, I've got one more topic to discuss: pockets, or the lack thereof, in women's clothes. Men's clothes have functional pockets, which is why they don't need pocketbooks. (Men might carry briefcases or backpacks for additional items, but their most important items -- wallet, phone, keys -- are likely carried in pockets in their clothes.) Their pants have nice big front pockets, their back pockets may even have buttons so things like a wallet won't fall out, their sportcoats and suit jackets have breast pockets big enough for big wallets, and assorted other pockets. Their coats have pockets.
Women's clothes? I can only wish. Yes, I know that the goal for women's fashion is to make women look sleek and not boxy. But surely there must be a way to design fashionable clothes that look good and have functional pockets somewhere, so we can keep our wallets, keys, and cell phones on our persons without having to wear men's clothes. Then we can have our important stuff with us at all times. Think of the advantages! Less need to guard our pocketbooks. Less rooting around for our cell phones or keys. Less shoulder fatigue. I look forward to those fashion designs.

Robin S. Rosenberg, Ph.D., ABPP is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Stanford, Calif. Rosenberg specializes in treating people with eating disorders, depression and anxiety. She often writes about the psychology of superheroes and has co-authored several psychology textbooks, including "Abnormal Psychology" and "Introducing Psychology: Brain, Person, Group." To find out more about Dr. Rosenberg and her work, read her Psychology Today blog and visit her on Red Room. For Dr. Rosenberg’s brief, easy-to-read guide Improving Your Relationships with Your Body, click here.