Finding a Skin that Fits, or How I Tried on Every Size There Is and Learned to Be Comfortable In My Own Skin
Fully thrifted outfit! Romper by Madewell from Second Time Around in Philly, Tote by Kate Spade from Twice as Nice in CT, Sandals by Jimmy Choo from Buffalo Exchange in the East Village, Necklaces from Etsy, Baby by me
I am sick of women and girls hating their bodies.
I propose that we no longer accept that as normal, as default, as our sad, go-to, every day emoji face we all wear, the I've-been-so-bad face.
We're in a new century, and I hope that attitude is a leftover attitude from the last, and that one day saying you're bad because you ate a goddamn cookie will seem as quaint and constraining to us as corsets did to my mother's generation.
My grandmother wore a girdle, which was her generation's updated version of her mother's corset. Self-loathing is our generation's version. It's an internalized corset, whittling down our voices as much as it whittles our waists.
I encounter it all the time in the course of normal conversation, this intense self-loathing, and while I do not necessarily always love my body or think it's anywhere near "perfect", after having two babies I no longer hate it. Because I no longer hate myself, I can see it so clearly when other women do. I saw it at the beginning of this summer when fully-clothed women hung in the shade at the apartment complex's pool, saying they had to hit the gym first before they dared to bare. Meanwhile, all the men, some buff and some less than buff, some hairy and some waxed, some tanned and some... well, not so tanned, you get the picture, cavorted like baby porpoises.
Regardless of the corporate state-sanctioned state of their bodies, every single man felt free to let his freak flag fly in the bright sun and fresh air.
And so did I.
Yes, I felt a little self-conscious. I'd recently had my second baby. On the other hand, I hadn't had a chance to sit by a pool in years. I wasn't missing that chance because of a couple extra pounds (or, more accurately in my case, a couple extra twenty pounds).
As the summer went on, I was happy to see that the sun won, and in the heat of a Philadelphia summer all body types went on display at the pool.
I was less gratified by all the comments on my body every time I took my infant and toddler along for a swim.
You mean from all the construction workers lined up, shouting inappropriate things?
These comments came from other women. Other moms. College girls. Grandmothers. Apparently in this world, if you're a woman, not only does your uterus belong to Republican legislators, usually be-penised* Republican legislators at that, but, as a mother, your appearance also becomes the provenance of every other woman on this planet; it's like you're a celebrity without any of the consoling perks to go along with being evaluated on your looks like free designer clothes and sparkly jewelry. The world is your neverending green carpet from hell, and every woman is your potential Joan Rivers.
First the comments were, "You don't look like one of those amazing women who loses all the weight immediately." As if a woman's ability not to appear to have any utilitarian purposes for her body is what defines her ability to amaze others.
That stung, especially because I was in the shape of my life even if the scale didn't reflect that-- in their eyes at least.
Then, as I kept running to cope with low-level PPD, it became: "You don't look like a mother." That didn't feel any better, and I couldn't put my finger on why until I read Louise O'Neill's column in the Irish Examiner recently. As she puts it:
If someone I don’t know comments on the fact I’ve lost a few pounds, I’m not comfortable telling them that it’s due to stress or feeling overwhelmed.
Worse, it makes me feel as if my body is being monitored and if someone notices that I’ve lost weight, so too will they notice when I’ve gained weight and that leaves me feeling as if I’m unable to do either.
Commenting on someone’s body in that way is never helpful.
The compliments made me feel as self-conscious as the stinging criticisms had. Most of all, the sense of being judged when out with my babies even more than women feel judged in general, is something I'm learning to have to juggle. Most of all, it's a rudeness men never have to deal with. When I repeat some of these comments to my husband, he laughs hysterically-- not at me, but imagining strangers coming up to him and saying these kind of things about his body to him.
In his eyes, such comments are absurd, risible, unthinkable.
I hope it will be that way for our daughter, but these critiques are still my everyday experience and the everyday experience of a lot of women.
No wonder so many women are self-loathing, right? I refuse to loathe myself, so I've had to learn to skew the internal dialogue about my body, since I can't control the external one. In this one way, fitness has been an incredible way for me to take control and feel comfortable in my skin.
I could post a before and after picture to illustrate how much I transformed after gaining and losing 70 lbs, and then, less than a year later, gaining and losing 70 lbs. again, but fitness isn't about that for me-- the scale or being a certain size. (On a related note, I also wrote about my attitude change, weight gain, the plus-size category, and, incidentally Amy Schumer, over at xojane.com).
Here's what it is about: the other day, actually Labor Day ironically enough, I drove up to the small house we're attempting to sell in New England. I hadn't been in a while, and the garden was a tangle of weeds and overgrown branches.
"You'll never be able to clean that up yourself," my little old lady neighbor sighed, a glass of ice tea shaking in one of her arthritic hands as if it was a barbell. Soon after, she went inside, and, less than an hour later, I had OWNED that garden in more than the technical sense of the word, because, of course, I also own that garden. I felt the unique thrill of being able to rely on my own two hands and my own strong back to pull out pestiferous, deep-rooted baby amur maples and hundreds upon hundreds of thick, and weirdly juicy, four-foot high dandelion stalks.
So, in that spirit, the spirit of strength and fitness, not of weight loss, judgment or eating disorders, which is the last thing I want to trigger-- and let me point out that in the pictures above I am still technically overweight but I think I look fly-- here are some of the basic things I did to go from barely being able to hold an 8 pound baby post emergency c-section to eviscerating the hell out of 1/3 of an acre of invasive species of jimsonweed and fanwort (not to mention overcoming mild postpartum issues).
Here are the things I did to feel comfortable in my own skin:
1. Eff the Scale
Ironically enough, my first wake-up call on this subject came from a Victoria's Secret super model.
Please keep reading, it gets better.
Everyone is always oohing about those ladies' post-baby bodies, so, naturally, I was curious. I think it was Adriana Lima's trainer who told her not to stress about the scale, and, dammit, if it was good enough for Adriana Lima, it was good enough for me.
Moreover, after being every weight there is, I began openly discussing my real weight with friends.To my surprise, my friends all responded in kind. Also to my surprise, I learned that most 5'9" or taller women weigh 160 lbs and up, overweight according to the online weight index. I also learned that the weight index online is some bullshit and does not take into account things like body frames or muscles.
I have been every weight from 128-215, and I can report it really doesn't matter. Your weight does not define your fitness level. Some of my most athletic female friends weigh amounts that surprised me, given my experiences with disapproving OBs (which I wrote about here). So, again, if the scale rules your life, take a deep breath, curse it into non-existence, and repeat after me: whatever is good enough for Adriana Lima, is good enough for me. It's not about the number. It's about stomping the hell out of runways or gardens, wherever your path takes you.
2. Drink Water. A Lot of Water.
The more in shape you get the more you'll actually feel which foods truly fuel your body. While sometimes a lot of fun, if bingeing on whole boxes of Annie's Bunnies is a daily ritual (guilty) it's worth curbing. It's just a dry mouthful of sodium in the end, and it will leave you feeling sluggish. If you're hungry, eat! But the more fit you get, the more you'll want to eat things that add to, rather than detract from your energy level: oatmeal cookies, cheerios, sweet potatoes, apples, cheese, and crackers, hummus and carrots, peanut butter. (Mmm, peanut butter). Those are all snacks that will fire your afternoon up. I have only done one cleanse ever-- the vegetarian GM diet, because you get to eat real food while you do it. I did it for all of (almost) three days before I felt like a theater in which the lights were slowly going out. Like any sane person would, I desisted and began to stuff shrimp tacos in my face. Post-cleanse, I did lose some cravings for salty carbs at 5 o'clock. That was the best outcome from the experience, because I maybe permanently lost all of one pound.
However, you don't have to do a cleanse to feel the effects lots of water-drinking can have on your body and psyche. In that spirit, I bought a venti reusable cup from Starbucks. It's both environmentally-friendly and makes keeping track of water easy and kind of fun-- in that I am tricking myself with the bright cup into thinking I'm drinking something a lot more entertaining than water. I've heard that some hunger pangs and some sugar cravings are disguised thirst sensations. I don't know much about that, but I know drinking 60-80 oz of water (or 3-4 venti cups of water) a day helps me not snack as much and feel better in general (but should never replace food). That leads me to my next point.
3. Keep Your Calories For Your Favorite Meal of the Day But Practice Moderation (Not Denial)
After my first pregnancy, I did think I might return to acting on film and in TV and did count calories for a while. I sometimes tracked my calories using the MyFitness Pal app. I didn't keep it up for long, fearing it might turn me into one of those people who can quote the calories in a boiled egg on command, On the other hand, I did discover a couple "fun" things about the sugar and sodium in prepared foods.
Now, instead of a spinach feta wrap at Starbucks, I'm now more likely to grab their cheese plate. Still plenty of calories, less scary additives.
I still eat some junk food, but I now keep my biggest meal of the day for dinner, because I know I'll feel deprived and grouchy otherwise. I know conventional wisdom says to eat a big breakfast instead, but it doesn't seem to matter what I eat in the AM. I'm always starving at dinner.
I'm flying in the face of conventional wisdom, because I've learned it's easier to keep to a diet of moderation if I don't make myself miserable but go with my body's rhythms. In that spirit, I tend to eat a small breakfast, a medium-sized lunch, a 4 or 5 o'clock snack and a big dinner, usually with dessert. (I do try to avoid seconds, but not if I genuinely am starving.) Sometimes I have dessert, but I try not to eat after 9:30 or 10 (depending on how hungry I'm feeling. Again, it's not about denial, but about being healthy. If you eat too late, roasted peanuts may trigger nightmares Donald Trump is tweeting about you.) I try to aim for around 2,000 calories a day, not to starve myself, but because overeating, again while occasionally fun, makes me feel a little sick. When I was pregnant one of the nurses told me to stick to 1,800 calories A DAY, not a meal, ha, and those were the only two days I was sick out of two pregnancies. It has made me permanently wary of that approach.) Again: eff the scale and eff calorie-counting.
4. Try to Have Fun/ Break a Sweat Every Day
Exercise is no fun at all when you are severely out of shape. I know this. Also, if you are more than 50 lbs heavier than you maybe should be, and you go to the gym, some jerks might try to fat-shame you, although in my experience those kind of nitwits are in a very small minority.
I have a deep-seated hatred for only one person on the planet, and that is a Zumba teacher who asked me at only a couple months postpartum, in front of the whole class, whether I had just jumped in the apartment complex's pool, because I was sweating so much. This was at the end of her class, mind you, not before, and would have required me to run outside in the middle of her stupid, uninspired Top 40 playlist, dive in sneakers and all, and race back, dripping all over the floor like I'd just invented some kind of bizarre zumba/ swimming biathlon.
But if publicly bouncing around on your toes while other parts of you bounce around makes you cringe, there are lots of fun exercises you can do in the privacy of your home. There are so many online exercise videos now. Experiment with teachers and styles until you find something you actually like. There's even plenty of free, fabulous stuff on YouTube.
It's also helpful to have a daily backlog of things you like doing. Here are some of mine: walking the dog, yoga on YouTube (or yoga out of a book/ my brain), walking on a treadmill while watching bad reality TV, using an elliptical while bingeing HGTV, taking yoga/pilates classes (again these can be expensive, but there are great, free options on YouTube), doing a ballet video and pretending to be a ballerina (I LOVE the NYC Ballet one and have been doing it for years), running on a track, swimming laps in a pool if you have access to one, doing strength-building moves for 15-20 minutes on your living room floor, pretending to race 5ks to roaring crowds dazzled by your 12-minute mile-time while blasting Pandora. Those are some of my favorites. Every day I try to squeeze in one or two activities based on my mood. Even 15 minutes twice a day can be a game-changer. Once you've gotten a taste of the endorphin high you get breaking a sweat, you will start to crave that feeling, and you will feel better in your skin, whatever your weight, guaranteed.
5. Do Not Obsess
If you find yourself obsessing about your weight-- and I have been there, not only from my own poor social conditioning but from doctors giving me a hard time about my rapid weight gain while pregnant-- then you need to get out of your own head. I have found the more I obsess the more weight I gain anyway. Again, I know it is so hard, but try to enjoy your food. Actually enjoying your food will help you lose weight, because it will again become food instead of a frenemy you love to hate and hate to love.
Aim for portion control but not appetite control. If you're hungry, eat. Avoid nutty ingredient eliminations unless you have a medical reason to do so. Don't pretend you can't eat bread, unless like Marie Antoinette you prefer to eat cake. (Mmm, cake.) Go for a walk if you feel like you overate for dinner. Again, try to move around twice a day. Even dancing to Pandora playlists for fifteen minutes or taking the stairs counts! Anything that makes you feel strong and good counts! Once a day doesn't really cut it, anymore than eating once a day would satisfy your body. Change the focus to feeling good not worrying about your weight. If you keep it up, your fitness level and weight will settle it out themselves. If, like me, you have gained an unhealthy amount of weight-- and 70 lbs is the kind of weight that drags you down and makes your feet hurt after standing on them for short periods of time-- then I'm not going to lie, there's no overnight cure, but, even with those extra pounds, the strength-training will be liberating. You will find yourself liking the body that can do all these new, interesting things.
6. Last, But Not Least, Accept the Size You Are Meant to Be and Work It
That might seem easy for me to say, because I lost the weight, but, when I was working as a model I was always literally the biggest girl in the room. Briefly, and very, very badly, it got to me. Pressured by agents and clients to take "just 3/4 of an inch off my hips" in order to get hired as a fit model for a designer you have definitely heard of, I tried really hard to lose weight. However, anything less than 135, and I look as gaunt as a Hollywood actor angling for an Oscar. I am not making this up to sound peppy, but I genuinely like my curvier post-two-baby body better than the gaunt, skinny, pale unhappy one that modeled in New York.
What I do not like is how, in the apartment complex where I've been living, people have watched, and commented on, me whittling down in a matter of only ten months or so. I have hated the intense scrutiny, even as it's felt familiar after working as a model. My weight aside, I've noticed most of the girls in my classes at the apartment's gym have not dramatically changed in appearance in that time, even doing the same exercises I'm doing. They are all beautiful, healthy girls-- some are slim and slight and some are curvier. I wouldn't have minded staying a curvier, pin-up-ier size myself, but that's not my choice. Twice, I've shrank in the space of a year, and it's now very much led me to believe, when we're fit, we are the sizes we're meant to be. I have friends just as athletic as me who are a size 12. Our bodies have their own intelligence we should honor. I have been a size 14 and a size 0, and I was not meant to be the latter much more so than the former. At a size 0, I looked awful and felt worse.
These past three years, fluttering between all the sizes there are, I have felt like my own personal sci-fi story, like I've been switching bodies almost. As a writer, I have loved it. There are a lot of reasons my chapbook is titled The Voices of Women, but my constantly changing shape is one of them; sometimes I feel like I have experienced more than one life. Most of all, I have learned to appreciate having energy and enthusiasm after post-surgery weakness and pre-pregnancy bouts with eating disorders. So no,none of the practices I've listed above are a way to achieve skinniness. Rather, they will lead to gustatory delight and a stronger physique,
I can't help with the constant comments, though. Maybe it will just take time, a few more decades before the corset of critique will be removed, and we can be human beings without facing mindless constant criticism whatever shape or size or gender or color or religion we happen to be.
In a sense, I've gotten an honorary MFA in nutrition and exercise after what I've been through the past three years, experiencing such intense physical changes. Some of them I could control and others I couldn't. I had that brief glimpse through the veil when my daughter and I almost died on a cold operating table, and while it didn't change me over night-- there's a fascinating podcast on Modern Love about near death experiences and they all share that aspect in common with mine-- I did change from someone who's miserable about her weight all the time to someone who is comfortable in her skin, even if the change wasn't as dramatically or instantly as TV shows make out.
If you're heathy, celebrate it. Focus on it. Keep it! Live your life! Love your body!
It's the only one you get.
*I hope bepenised catches on.
Part I: Getting ready to visit the Philadelphia Museum of Art on a hot summer's day!
This gently used Chanel bag from www.ricebeansandvintage.com always inspires me to dress up a little and make an effort to get out of my sweats. Figuring out exactly what I like or need and then hunting for it on eBay or vintage sites or occasionally in person at consignment stores like Second Time Around or Shop Green Street a. makes shopping more fun and more like a treasure hunt, and b. takes away (some of) the guilt I feel about indulging in not only a frivolous activity but an activity that contributes to some of the worst pollution of the planet. (Only the oil industry has the dubious honor of being a worse polluter of the planet than the fashion industry.)
With two kids in diapers, I haven't been able to manage to shop secondhand/ sustainable 100% of the time, but in making an effort, I've learned to find beautiful things cheaper (and just as beautiful, even if gently used) and educated myself about the environment and the fashion industry.
I'll be writing more about that soon!
On that note, I'm excited to spend an afternoon browsing children's sustainable fashion sites in the next week or so as I figure out what gaps I need to fill in my two babies' fall and winter wardrobes. My three-year-old is starting school, too, so it's my first time doing back to school shopping!
I'll be sure to share my finds on Instagram. You can follow me @isabellamdavid I've already found almost an entire fall wardrobe for only $30 for my (soon to be) 1-year-old at the Nesting House in Philly!
Part II: Now on to the Philadelphia Museum of Art!
Up the Rocky steps... (I still have never seen that movie, and now I really have to.) Inside you're greeted by a giant gold statue at the top of another sweeping set of stairs with a huge white, modern mobile dangling above. It's dark and gloomy, a weird mishmash of the Louvre and the MOMA, doing justice to neither piece, but there were a lot of small, quietly beautiful spots, I was happy to discover.
It's worth a visit! Now through September 25, there's also an African fashion and art exhibit in the neighboring building. (A guard told us we'd have to ride a bus to get to it, but we could have just walked across the street with our stroller. I will definitely head back to see it.)
While my beleaguered husband wheeled our double stroller around, I had fun taking pictures of small details that struck me. I loved this mother and son in marble. The figure looks exactly like my son right now, fat, round chin, pasty white shade and all. I couldn't tell from the way it was tagged if it was a Rodin or not. In fact, I started getting very frustrated, which struck me as being stupid and pointless, After that I decided not to worry about it and to take in colors and shapes without processing everything. For example, I loved the attitude of this long ago woman, swishing her skirts, letting her colorful shawl tumble down her back, but I can't recall the name of the artist who painted it.
Something I noticed in the medieval wing is how very,very few works are signed or given provenance. I've read somewhere before how the idea of the artist's identity being as important/ more important than the art is a relatively recent one, starting around the time of the Renaissance and the rise of humanism. So, while some of the details (above) like the blue boater or the ballerinas (below) are obviously Chagall and Degas, otherwise I just let myself look around the museum more for details that drew me in without trying to analyze why too much. (BTW the Chagall is worth a visit to the museum just by itself. It's a huge canvas, stuck in the back of the museum by the back entrance behind a staircase, and it takes up an entire wall. It was one of four backdrops for the ballet Aleko, which Chagall painted while in exile during World War II. The boater is just one small detail from it.)
There were a few other spots here and there like this group of bathers by Cézanne, positioned on the wall in a way that was reminiscent of the much more popular (and much more crowded) Barnes just around the corner
That's how these bronze hands inspired a quick poem, actually (see below). I liked something about this quick gesture, solidified in bronze captured against the disintegrating skirt... My hands were full of babies and cameras, so I wrote a different poem in my head than the one that came out below when I sat down to put pen to paper. That was part of the fun of it, too...
(Incidentally, I also wrote an essay for Easy Street about taking my toddler to the Barnes and my surprise at how her presence transformed the experience. You can read it here.)
Part III: Poetry In Place*
She clasped her hands,
stretched shoulders like a bow,
self-conscious of the arrow
her small, pointed breasts made,
but felt dark eyes on her wrists instead, the oval
nails ragged from biting, catching
in the tulle skirt, his gaze
piercing the ordinary gesture
until it burst into a cloud of giggles.
"How old are you?" he asked
the little dancer, singling her out,
raising her round arms high above
as if he were her partner
and she the prima donna of all the
goslings, lanky, gap-toothed, awkward.
Stuck her nose in the air.
Who was he, after all? A painter,
they whispered, as if that sanctified
his peeping ways.
He liked to watch the girls
stretch and twirl and change, too, she'd
heard, imagining slipping her tutu
down the suddenly hot river of her legs.
"Fourteen," she said. "So there."
"And so you will be forever."
It sounded like a curse.
But the little dancer gave him
her white silk ribbon anyhow.
"They'll give you thousands more," he swore.
And that sounded like a lie.
Her cheeks grew warm as her thighs,
Her voice caught in his sudden softness
like her ragged nails in her costume.
When he asked, she clasped
her hands again, feet in fourth,
nose in the air position, he teased.
This time she didn't laugh.
The curse captured the laughter,
too, in the sticky honey of his thoughts.
She knew somehow she'd
never laugh quite like that again.
Already she existed now
in his gaze more than ever she
had in her own faltering, fumbling will
that had groped towards
a womanhood as woven, solid
as two hands brought together in prayer.
The Voices of Women, my first chapbook of poetry, was shortlisted for the International Venture Award by Flipped Eye Publishing and published this year by Finishing Line Press. It's available here.
*An unedited poem from my sketchbook.
Bohemians and bread.
Two words on my mind this past week, both laden with layered meanings, so much so that their original meaning are almost obscured.
I remember the first time I encountered the word "boho"-- used outside the context of a fashion magazine at any rate. I was wearing a dress I'd made myself out of an old skirt, and a girl at a party said to me, "I don't know. Isn't boho-chic out? That's what the magazines say." Now, I know in the context of "magazines" and "party", an image of some really sophisticated mean girl might spring to mind, skewing this story, but that girl wasn't being mean. Or not intentionally so. She had a Moaning Myrtle quality-- borrowing Harry Potter shorthand to arrive at my character description here, which is a cheap trick but bear with me. Anyway, I didn't take her comments to heart. Mostly, she made me grateful I'd lived in New York, where (and I think the experience is duplicated in any large city) peacocking display is not confined to a magazine but tangible in the streets, where no rules truly apply beyond those of swagger and style.
But we weren't in New York and that experience at a dull party in the suburbs-- in a basement drinking beer out of red cups and refusing to play beer pong again-- was only memorable, because it made me HATE the word "boho" and refuse to ever use it (until now).
But Bohemian? Does that word have the same whiff of fashion magazine fold-out perfume stinking it up now, too? Does "Bohemian" mean anything anymore beyond a style trend? Has our culture's love of meaningless fashion labels stripped the word of its original, chic-or-not-chic-free origins?
And that actually brings me to "bread"-- another word that's lost its original meaning: the staff of life. Nowadays, it's more like "the bane of existence".
I was at a rehearsal dinner recently where delicious but tiny portions of food were served. Starving, I gnawed the roll on my bread plate, eyeing the tempting untouched rolls on the bread plates of every other New York City girl at the table.
I guess I am now a Philly girl, and we eat bread.
Perhaps not coincidentally I was the only girl with a considerably-sized ass at the table. Then, in the same spirit that made me turn to my husband reading in bed one night and say in a demon voice, "Ned Stark dies" I set those girls up. "Gosh, I'm so hungry I could eat your bread, too." That sounds pretty innocuous, except I knew pointing out they wouldn't eat their bread because it was bread was me pointing out... well, they wouldn't eat bread, period, and that they were silly. That was my version of being mean. (Although the Ned Stark thing is the meanest thing I've ever done.)
"Oh, I love bread," one painfully thin girl said, her clavicle sharp as a bread knife, so at least more likely to have direct contact with bread than any other part of her. "I just ate so much bread today."
Let me tell you from bread-lovers. There is not a bread-lover on this planet who would not have at least nibbled a wee nibble from that golden, crusty, soft but hard, delicious decadent piece of oven-warmed heaven on their plate, especially on a cloudy day on the shore when fresh fish is being served in a white sauce, and... I'm making myself hungry.
"I'd rather have a tiny ass than a nice face," another girl at the table moaned later after telling us she'd given up smoking.
"Oh totally," my neighbor agreed, her bread whisked away by a waiter before I could make good on my threat.
"But, but..."I stuttered as if, like Hodor, my brain could only champion one cause at time. (Sorry for the pun.) The next night, at the wedding, the seating chart punished us with each other again, and no one, including the self-professed bread-lover, ate their bread. Again. Even the New York men didn't eat their bread. It was like the bread was now the equivalent of what kale garnish used to be when we were growing up:something vaguely edible and decorative but not entirely palatable.
I was forced to conclude loving bread has become more subversive than calling yourself a Bohemian. I made the link, because, in my weekly selection of stories from the New Yorker's archive, emailed to me every week as part of my subscription, this introduction to "Bohemians" made me curious to explore what Bohemia means now and if it still exists as a state of mind.
First, here's the description of the old Bohemians:
'“To be young, to be fond of pleasure, to care nothing for worldly prosperity, to scorn mere respectability, and to rebel against rigid rule,—these are the qualities which alone may be regarded as essential to constitute the Bohemian.” That’s how the WestminsterReview, a British journal, defined Bohemianism in 1862. It’s striking how much that definition still rings true—and yet it leaves out the seriousness and nobility of the Bohemian enterprise. Bohemians reject conventionality the way artists paint over their canvasses; they erase because it feels good, but also so they can make something new. The Left Bank Bohemians of nineteenth-century Paris (where the term originated) would recognize in the Bushwick Bohemians of today that common sense of purpose.'
I'm not so sure where they got the last part: in my experience, most of my friends from Brooklyn regard those so-called "Bushwick Bohemians" as an invasive, gentrifying species akin to the kudzu vine razing forests in the American South. I kept searching, hoping Bohemians still exist as more than just a fashion label.
If you Google, "new Bohemians" the search results are varied, unhelpful, and amusing. There's a band called Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians. I'd never heard of them, but I've heard their most famous song plenty of times. Plenty. Of. Times. (It's a good song, I'm sure, but sticks in my head. I hate that.) Although I do like the bridge and the chorus. I'm not really sure what's Bohemian about it, either, except that it makes fun of philosophy and religion, and the refrain kind of reminds me of a Donald Trump speech, "I know what I know, if you know what I mean."
There's also a new book out called "The New Bohemians". Not sure what's truly "Bohemian" about it, either, as in the spirit of wiping away the old to create the new, except that it does sound visually sumptuous and creative in terms of decor.
"Designer, artist and all around rad human Justina Blakeney just released her long awaited book The New Bohemians and boy, is it good. The 300 page bohemian bible showcases the homes of 20 creatives in cities all over the country – each with with interior style that is free of rules and full of spirit – as well as twelve amazing DIY projects and a Plant-O-Pedia, which explains every plant in the book and how to care for it! Justina has also divided the homes into six glorious chapters, redefining the different kinds of bohemians: the modern bohemian who favors clean lines and functionality, the folksy bohemian who is distinguished by stories of family and tradition through art and artifacts, the earthy bohemian who lets plants take center stage, the romantic bohemian who possesses a sense of sweet nostalgia, the nomadic bohemian whose home is like the grand bazaar, and the maximal boho who believes in more is more. I’m a folksy bohemian through and through. What kind of new bohemian [sic] are you?"
What kind of new Bohemian am I? No, no, no, no, no!
I don't mean to sound like a snob, but I really don't want to label myself as folksy bohemian or earthy bohemian.
Once upon a time I wanted this, exactly this, instead: "Bohemia is a district in the Department of the Seine bordered on the north by cold, on the west by hunger, on the south by love, and on the east by hope"
Finally, eschewing the new and embracing the old, I look up, "What is a Bohemian", and I find this fantastic blog immediately and the stunning portrait of this woman with the severe gaze of a goddess below. "Bohemians", I am told, "are known for their vagabond lifestyle, for their merry poverty, for their disregard of money for the pursuit of music, color, and relationships. They are groups that have different priorities than the dominant cultures of their societies, groups that inspire both disdain and envy.
Disdain and envy. What a combination. Actually, it made me think of my table at that wedding as those girls watched me gorge on carbs and augment my ass. So disdain then because Bohemians eschew aspirational living? And envy... why? Who envies the poor? (The New Bohemian is decidedly not poor.)
Can there be more to this human experiment than an attempt at full material saturation? I tried being a true Bohemian once myself and nearly starved, but, funnily enough, those difficult, challenging, restless days in my tiny apartment in the East Village without health insurance or a couch or a car or enough money to buy mustard, are the days I dream of all the time. I can't really imagine returning to that kind of feckless existence now that I have children, but there's something to say for living with your head in the clouds, so long as you keep your feet grounded. It seems to me the old idea is busted anyway-- New Bohemians are just girls in jangly earrings. And Boho...? I can't even go there. But the spirit on high and the bread-bloated body grounded below: maybe we can come up with a new, living, un-archived, un-label-worthy word for that.
My very short poem "Bohemian Days" explores the question, and that time in my life, in a more succinct way. You can read it here. It's also included in my collection available on Amazon here.
Wearing a thrifted Ella Moss dress and thrifted Hudson rain boots both from Greene Street Consignment on Main Street in Manayunk, Philadelphia. The necklace is from a vintage-sustainable designer in San Francisco. Check out her beautiful Etsy shop filled with whimsical designs here.
Mother's Day seems like a good day to ask myself this question: what does it mean to be a good mother?
Actually, that's a question I've never worried about too much, because, having worked with a lot of children with truly terrible parents, parents who ran the gamut from drinking to verbal abuse to emotional absence, I happen to know I'm a good enough mother and that is worth its weight in gold. I am present, and I am loving, and, in my opinion, that's what it takes.
So, although the trailer to Bad Moms doesn't look like it's going to be earth-shattering or even that good, I maybe watched it ten thousand times already, and I cannot wait to giggle through that crap film. And I know it's going to be a Hollywood movie. It's going to be Vacation but with moms and no dads or a rom com minus the rom. That's just how it is these days, and that's no conspiracy theory as this Slate article lays out in fascinating terms. (Incidentally, that's also why my husband prefers television to movies, although I am trying to get him into independent films, but that's another story.)
Regardless, I'm still excited for this non-earth-shattering, same 15 key-story-beats story, because I have had it up the wazoo with mommy culture already, and it has only been three years and my daughter hasn't even started school yet, officially.
Only three years ago, I had no idea mommy culture was even a thing. In fact, I had this naive fantasy that now that I was so in love with this tiny creature still tucked into my tummy, I was going to have this magical bond with all the other parents who felt that same seismic shift in perspective. We were all going to be best friends and braid daisies in our hair and skip through Prospect Park, singing "Wheels on the Bus" and other embarrassing daydreams of utopia.
Then, my daughter was born, and she couldn't nurse. Her jaw receded, and she couldn't latch. I was devastated. I consulted lactation consultants, not consultant. I pumped. I cried. I tried so hard. For months. She just did not want to nurse, so I decided to stop stressing. I gave her formula, and she thrived, and I tried to heal and focus on other aspects of this new parenting experience. Then, I went to my first mommy support group in Brooklyn, and those bitches destroyed me. The group was so large, we were subdivided by birth month, and there were still more than a hundred of us in our group. I went in with an open heart, excited to meet other new moms with babies the same age as my daughter. An email went around arranging a meet-up in a cafe in Park Slope. It was easy to spot us; we didn't need rose buttonholes. These were my new peeps-- a coven of chubby women with newborn babies in slings, some of them pulling their boobs out directly over my latte to nurse and then forgetting and leaving their breast dripping milk into my coffee cup, and I am not making that up. There was something about this group that made me repress the smart-alecky joke that naturally came to my lips. Instead, I tried to make myself equally comfortable and pulled out a bottle to feed my baby, so I could hang out longer.
I might as well have taken a viper out and thrown it in the middle of the table and then asked who wanted to toss their infant into the makeshift, milky arena first.
"Um," one of the mothers piped up helpfully, "you know, studies show babies' brain development is affected by whether or not they get breast milk?"
Oh, really, uptalker? Thank you so much for that helpful tidbit. I have LITERALLY NEVER HEARD THAT BREAST IS BEST. Wait, stop the presses! What a helpful mnemonic! We should get the word out!
Which is what I did not say as the rest of them turned gimlet eyes of disapproval on me.
That was how my disenchantment with mommy culture began, but I don't quite know how I arrived already at the point of echoing Mila Kunis' tired, whispered battle cry in the trailer. Arrived I have, and some. "No," she says in response to participating in a bake sale that eschews wheat, salt, sugar, and every other known ingredient. "I'm so tired of trying to be this perfect mom."
I don't think I ever tried as hard as Mila Kunis, but I tried. One small concession that I made was dressing conservatively, and it made me miserable.
Moms are expected to wear conservative clothes: jeans and khakis and button-down shirts, high-collared dressed. Then there's me: I have always dressed like a rejected extra from the set of Girls. Wild thrift-store layers of mismatching gauzy materials laid one upon the other. Sometimes the effect is achieved-- Lower East Side bar rat melded with my vision of my Parisian older sister -- and sometimes (often) it is not.
I've worked in corporate offices in my life. I've worn suits and pantyhose, or, at less formal offices, long-sleeved henleys and wool-blend pants.
These are clothes that make me feel encased in a woolly tomb of conformity.
Equally constricting, as I learned from this previous blog experiment copying the more ladylike Rachel Parcell with her high status item style, I don't particularly feel comfortable in that other uniform on offer to the Good Mommy: mommy-jealousy clothes now on sale at Tory Burch and other outlets!
I don't want to dress like an office-worker, since I don't work in an office, and I don't want to make other mommies jealous, either. I just want to continue to be a little bit me, which is the really revolutionary act. That's really where the "no" Mila Kunis whispers comes from, and what I can already relate to: there's an expectation that when you become a mom, you no longer get to be you, too.
And, personally, I think that's crap. I think it makes for a bad mom, actually, a repressed, unhappy person at any rate, and that's kind of a waste of this brief, flickering existence.
I think I didn't truly understand this until this exchange at the book sale at my daughter's old daycare, which I've also written about here for Easy Street Mag. The owner of my daughter's daycare was ringing up my purchases, which included one grownup book among the touch-and-feel picture books I'd selected, "Not that you'll ever have a chance to read it," she said.
"Oh, I'll read it," I told her without meaning to say anything particularly loaded.
May I present viper #2, ladies and gentlemen.
I'm not sure where this idea came into being that to be a good mommy means to sacrifice every aspect of your own being, but I don't subscribe to that notion. Granted, I think if you go out partying every night, or even often, you're probably not a very good parent. If you smoke in the house or even hold your baby against the jacket you wore to smoke outside, you're probably not the best parent. (Smoking particles stick to your clothes!) If you hire a sitter, immediately leave for a week, and never phone your kids-- that happened on my first nanny job-- you probably suck big-time in the parenting department.
But if you hang out with your kids and your daughter sees you reading, and so she picks up books and reads to herself happily and quietly for hours at a time, then you're probably not Satan on Earth.
So, reading books and wearing my wild thrifted outfits is maybe not earth-shattering stuff on my part, either. But I've decided: being a mommy is not a corporate job. My boss is my kids, and my kids, if left to themselves, would dress exclusively in tutus and princess skirts over pajamas-- well, the three-year-old would. The baby is just happy not to be wearing something encased in poop and vomit. I'm not going to change the way I dress or how much I read, as if those obliterating acts would somehow make me a better parent or not.
In my experience, a good parent is simply one who is present and cares. That's all a kid needs to thrive. Love. I'm going to endure the sharp looks and the comments, because wacky costumes make me happy. As an ex-actor, they're a huge expression of myself, and it's not perfect, and I'm not perfect.
But perfect is a lie. There are no utopias. There's just right and wrong. I'm saying no to perfect, and yes to being happy.
My chapbook The Voices of Women about these issues, minor and major, is available on Amazon now! More and newer thoughts about sustainability, conformity, and books and other such matters will be up at Easy Street Mag soon. In the pics above, I'm wearing my first pair of specifically vegan shoes that I found as part of my education on sustainability-- my birthday/ Mother's Day present. I found them at Free People for less than a hundred dollars here.
These mommy style bloggers always look so cool and collected... To your left, dear reader, that's Rachel Parcell of the wildly successful mommy fashion blog Pink Peonies.
Then (swivel right), there's... me.
Have you seen Celeste Barber's hilarious recreation of famous Instagram photos? Well, this is kind of an unintentional version of that as I imitate four of Rachel Parcell's spring look ideas from my own (mostly thrifted) closet rather than purchasing them via her blog/ Saks.
So while my original intention was to convey the same collected air in a thrifted imitation of her expensive outfits, instead, I'm scrambling to find the baby's bottle and my daughter's apple juice. Wait, which bag is it in again? "I'm GETTING THE APPLE JUICE, PUMPKIN FACE. CALM DOWN. USE WORDS. USE WORDS. NO YELL. I mean, no yell!"
Next, that's me again trying and failing to coax my psychotic toddler into the shot while the baby naps way, way too late in the day. He's not going to sleep tonight, I'm not going to sleep tonight.
And that's only look #1, folks, out of Rachel Parcell's "Four New Looks for Spring". I'm already exhausted, starting to sweat.
(Thrifted Frame Jeans from Second Time Around in Philadelphia. Thrifted Twenty Tee from Buffalo Exchange in the East Village, Kohl's jacket, Rag and Bone hat, lace-up flats from Zappos-- a much cheaper, but still beautiful, alternative to Rachel's Aquazzura flats in her outfit, thrifted Kooba bag-- can't remember from where. Again, Buffalo Exchange in the East Village seems to have a lot of them, though= 60% thrifted/ secondhand.)
Chasing my daughter around the eco-friendly salt pool in my apartment complex. Back and forth and back and forth and... Again, how do they do it??
Nannies, Izzy. Just a guess.
(Thrifted Tocca dress, can't remember from where-- never wore it, because I thought it fit like a sack, but there's nothing like carrying an extra 15 lbs in baby weight to fill out a sack dress! I mean a "shift" dress similar to Rachel Parcell's Splendid version-- this is not really a style for anyone with breasts. #thestruggleisreal. Coach bag bought on consignment at Twice as Nice in Ridgefield, CT. Rebecca Minkoff gladiator sandals-- the same white ones as Rachel is wearing in black-- that have lasted three summers now= 75% thrifted)
Not sure where my daughter is in this picture... #parentingfail. But look how serene I look for a second! #socialmediaisnotreallife
(Only my Tory Burch clutch is bought on consignment in this shot. White lace dress turned into a blouse from Pink Yotto in Soho. For Love and Lemons dress transformed into a skirt-- although that was kind of a fun experiment. My new Chinese Laundry sandals, which I've already worn to pieces= 25% thrifted.)
Of course the baby finally wakes up as the sun's going down, and we're losing the light, trying to get this last shot imitating Rachel Parcell's Four Spring Looks for the essay (see below) that I'm writing about shopping in my own closet. (For a comparison, see her post here. )
I do not actually want him in this shot--I have plenty of pictures of him-- he will NOT be put down, though. He will not have it, even though he is wearing his lunch all over his blue t-shirt and his sister's too large rolled-up leggings... Not really aspirational mommying here.
Two seconds after we get the shot below he will barf sweet potato puree all over my skirt.
Glad that was one of the thrifted items in that particular look...
(Denim shirt... can't remember from where. Pour La Victoire sandals from Buffalo Exchange in Chelsea. White skirt from Cadillac's Castle--REALLY amazing consignment-- in the East Village. Rebecca Minkoff bag from Bloomingdales. Miu Miu sunglasses from the Brooklyn Flea= 60ish% thrifted.)
There she is!
Okay, I am literally drenched by this point, sweating down my back as the sun sets. Even better: that's some of my husband's co-workers in the background, eating their dinner by our apartment complex's pool, wondering what in earthly hell I am doing as I traipse around like a happy-go-lucky idiot, slipping in and out of outfits like some sort of latter-day Marie Antoinette. (She used to change six times a day. I've always been fascinated by that for some reason. That sounded exhausting even before I had kids.)
So,Why AM I doing this?...
I can't remember anymore what my daughter did to earn her pink butterfly Barbie, but I do remember how much she longed for it.
It was all she talked about for months and since all she does is talk and her vocabulary is pretty limited, that amounted to a LOT of Barbie talk.
"Pink butterfly Barbie?" She'd ask hopefully every morning, afternoon, and bedtimes, too, as if I could conjure one magically out of the air to lay it beside her in her crib.
"Pink butterfly Barbie beautiful," she'd explain to me at other times, as if I wasn't quite getting the concept.
Finally, the day came. She'd earned it. Pink butterfly Barbie was hers at last.
Did she relish her moment like Gollum once he had the one ring on his bony finger or like those sorority girls who finally manage to photograph their M.R.S.'s equivalent of a diploma for Instagram posterity?
"Pink butterfly Barbie," my daughter screamed joyfully, tearing the box open. But there wasn't only a pink butterfly Barbie in the box. The box also contained a poster with butterfly Barbies in ever shade of the rainbow. "Collect them all," the poster proclaimed in a flowy script across the top. My three-year-old couldn't read, but she inferred the essence of the message.
AT ONCE, she tossed her dearly wished for pink butterfly Barbie aside.
"Purple butterfly Barbie?" she said and again the next morning. And afternoon. And bedtimes in between.
"Purple butterfly Barbie best friends pink butterfly Barbie," she'd explain to me throughout the day.
And that's how it's done, I thought. That's how another little consumer is made.
Emil Zola wrote The Ladies' Paradise about the first department stores, which were built in the 1860s (although he set his story in the 1880s). That might seem like the distant past, but the book presents a chillingly familiar portrait of a modern consumer, albeit one in corsets, gloves, cunning, little hats, and long skirts. If you're into that sort of thing, reading about shopping that is, the book is an almost visual treat. A lot of people have said Zola would have been a film director had he lived in a later age, and that's how his books feel, like a camera zooming in to capture every essential detail, adjusting its focus to capture the evanescent changes of fin-de-siècle light. In fact, his notes about "the poetry of modern activity" are so meticulous that Le Bon Marché, the department store his fictitious one is based on, preserves them as the go-to historical record in their own archives.
However, take it from me, if you don't dig reading catalogues or the sidebars in fashion magazines, this particular novel will read about as flat as toothpaste on the page. If you love shopping, though, the book is a curious and terrifying spectacle of the original shopaholics coaxed into being, mostly bored middle-class housewives with disposable incomes, seduced into a state of mindless frenzy by the new, dazzling displays in large shop windows.
The first time I looked at a Bloomingdale's flyer advertising a sale-- no, make that a SALE!!!!!!!-- I cringed in recognition. My eyes were meant to glaze over, I knew, my thoughts to scatter to the four winds and transform from coagulated logic to the buzz of desire. Perturbed, I crumpled up the flyer. I've always found seduction a turn-off. I remember the first time a guy hit on me. It was after college== my college sweetheart doesn't count; that meet-cute was sweet and full of heart. The game guys were playing in bars was something else. Not cute. Not sweet.
Well, Rory Gilmore being my spirit animal and all, I immediately went out and got three books on the subject of seduction. (Actually, those books still didn't really help. It wasn't until my cousin Bonnie, a seducer/ player herself sat me down and explained things to me that I really began to understand what was going on. If you're curious how to deal/ avoid with those gamers yourself, I wrote up her advice here.) Even if I couldn't quite grasp what was happening, I could tell I was being manipulated. It made me angry not desirous. I tried to understand, because I sensed understanding could abrogate seduction's power, and return power to myself.
Zola's book accidentally did the same thing for me with my shopping habit, shed light on a situation that made me feel weak and needy. I'm beginning to see how my own shopaholic tendencies--my foolish, embarrassing, happy delight in pretty things-- is exacerbated and played upon by the world's most skilled seducers, and I do not like it. Kierkegaard in his Diary of a Seducer (which, incidentally is the least Kierkagaard-y book you can imagine if you're going based on his reputation for dense, difficult prose. It's entertaining, actually, not oblique. He openly and evilly discusses the desire he, or Johannes the Seducer as he calls himself (ha), feels to empty his victims' souls)... anyway that book by the human mind's expert philosopher has nothing as far as technique goes on the Mad Men.
Maybe those Mad Men were good, but I couldn't unread what Zola had shown me. My eyes were opened at last! I could overcome! I could change! I could...
I had stumbled on Rachel Parcell's Instagram and blog. She's a fair-skinned brunette (like me); she's a mother (also like me) but always looks polished and presentable and very up-to-date chic (not so much like me). But maybe... if I bought.. if I shopped...
I wanted to be Rachel Parcell.
Partially, I wanted to look that deliriously, mindlessly happy. (Which has more to do with the clusterfuck that is this election season than bad spending habits.) Oh, and thin. (The baby weight is coming off pretty slowly. When I showed my husband a picture of Rachel Parcell, he said that would be like me wanting him to look like this fella.) Well, I couldn't purchase her barbie bod but I could purchase.... and I began to look at the links her site so helpfully provides to the stores where she purchased each #ootd.
I got as far as the first link (the Rag and Bone hat) when I realized I already owned several of the things she was wearing.
My senses had been overcome again, as Zola put it. Who had overcome them? Whose voice was this in my head urging me to buy, buy, buy, shop, shop, shop, possess, possess, possess, budgets be damned!
Suddenly, I felt like Harry Potter when someone tries to put an Imperius Curse on him.
You don't need more shoes, my good angel tried to say. You literally already have those Rebecca Minkoff sandals she's wearing in her third look. And you own a red bag. And a white skirt... And two denim shirts.
But I don't have those fringe-y adorable heels, the Imperius voice whined. Those would make any outfit look so fleek.
That's $500 bucks for a couple flaps of leather, the little voice replied, unimpressed.
Well, yes, but...But. They're adorable flaps.
Okay, so they're adorable. Why must you put those adorable shoes on your feet when you already own other adorable shoes?
I... I... Actually, I don't know. You're right. I have enough shoes to put Imelda Marcos to shame. And the Imperius voice faltered and died away.
Mostly. It was kind of still there, urging me to rethink my decision. Just open a Saks card, the voice said (as I'm sure it was expressly meant to). Put it all on credit! That's crazy talk, I told myself. I felt like my daughter with her forgotten pink butterfly Barbie.
This is just a purple butterfly Barbie, I argued with the greed. (Collect 'em all, little girl!) Instead, I turned to my own closet to check if it was as bad as I suspected.
Yep. Indeed I owned pretty much every item Rachel Parcell was wearing, or as good as. I had a Rag and Bone hat. Lace-up flats, not Aquazurra but plenty cute nonetheless. The slightly distressed jeans were second-hand Frame ones from Second Time Around in Philadelphia, the Tory Burch clutch bought on consignment in Brooklyn. At least half the items I'm wearing in the above pictures were secondhand. Maybe the overall effect isn't as sharp, and the style isn't really my own. That was the funniest thing I discovered something in this exercise to combat my own seduction. I didn't particularly like dressing sophisticated and ladylike like Rach (who looks beautiful that way. I don't mean to attack her. It's just her post happened to spark this experiment). I'm a Lower East Side girl at heart. I grew up adoring my ultra-cool older Parisian sister, and no French girl has ever met a hairbrush she can be friends iwth. I like looking kind of dishevelled and funky in my thrifted scores.
I didn't want to be a purple butterfly Barbie. Or a pink one, either, for that matter.
I didn't want more stuff, either. To my increasing dismay, I realized I hadn't even worn 70% of the things I'm wearing in the pictures above... not ever. The thought of adding to the mess of my closet exhausted, not excited me. The greed melted away. At least for the moment.
I like fashion, because it expresses a part of me. It's an artistic project I can go out into the world wearing. Maybe department stores and Mad Men have tried to preempt that urge, but I think we can take our power back by reveling in what we already have and recognizing how much we like it. It might not be the newest, latest thing, but it's our thing. It means something to us, and that's when you can actually enjoy fashion instead of it enjoying you.
On the third anniversary (give or take a day... I shot these photos on April 24, the anniversary of the Rana Plaza tragedy but didn't have a chance to sit down and gather my thoughts until now), I was happy to discover that I can be at least a small part of the change I wish I could see in the world. There is a cure for the fast fashion madness that is helping to trash African economies, destroy the environment, and led to the worst ever garment-factory accident in history.
I don't mean to preach, though. What right do I have, after all? I have been a big part of the problem myself, what with working as a model for plenty of fast fashion companies, not to mention the shopping habit that I'm still fighting to overcome. So by all means, shop. Shopping has led to greater economic freedom for women in Bangladesh, who make up the bulk of the workforce there, but keep in mind as visions of Rachel Parcells and purple butterfly Barbies dance in your head: there is someone who makes every single thing you wear. There is a human being with dreams and desires and purple butterfly Barbie ambitions of their own, and they deserve safe working conditions.
It's time to ask department stores and fashion labels and everyone in between to care about the people who make their seductive displays possible. Slowing down our consumption will help the planet, its people, but it will help us, too.
Because, for once, wouldn't it be nice to actually be able to enjoy that pink butterfly Barbie we all so desperately think we need to have?
You can read more of my thoughts on the shopaholic syndrome and other maladies and joys in my chapbook published by Finishing Line Press, available now on Amazon here!
As I wrote recently in this piece for xo Jane, I was raised by a second-wave feminist mother. For those of you not current with the confusing surfing terms that make up feminism, what that essentially means is my mom was one of those 70s-era feminists who wanted to uproot the patriarchy by rejecting all their notions of how to define femininity and the feminine experience. As such, she didn't wear lipstick or blush or own cupboards full of beauty products.
Wait... I don't know why I'm writing in the past tense, except that I'm describing my experience growing up with her as my female role model. She's still that way: the only makeup she owns is a chewed-up nub that maybe once could have been described as a Maybelline eyeliner. Her idea of a "beauty product" is a crusty tub of Noxzema, and while she does always smell delicious-- her one 'luxury" as she calls it is a bottle of Oscar de la Renta's lotion, a smell I'll always associate with her-- that's the only concession she's ever made to being feminine. She doesn't speak softly or sweetly, (although some of that is because she's a native New Yorker). She never wears pink.
I am the opposite of her in every way, and I've always felt conflicted about that.
I adore pink. But then again I adore every color in the rainbow, and have my closet organized by shade to make finding my thrift-store finds easier. I'm simpatico to a fault, and I have to remind myself that it's okay to say 'no' to people sometimes. Whenever I get into a group, I try to turn the whole thing into a cocktail party and frequently end up exhausting myself, trying to make everyone else happy. (This has become particularly an issue since I've had kids and am essentially always in a group.) Most of all, I love pretty things: dresses, shoes, baubles, bottles and bottles of sweet-smelling unguents. I've always been this way, actually, pretty much since I could function both my arms. I'd choose my own outfits, and they'd always be so impractical my mother would have to fight me to add tights to my shorts in winter or beg me not to wear my new winter coat in the hot southern falls.
We fought a lot. I often felt my mother preferred my sister, a sustainability scientist (more or less) who also eschews makeup and frippery.
Despite our differences, my sister and I became best friends, and my mother and I managed to negotiate a truce,
But, even with reviling the patriarchy and all, too, I couldn't and can't help myself: I love lipstick and heels. I love them. So. Much.
Still, as I've gotten older, I haven't been able to ignore the other costs that come along with adoring beauty. I got so wrapped up with modeling in New York that I lost touch with myself entirely. I didn't like the person I became, but luckily, I became pregnant with my daughter and gained 70 lbs, so that handily solved that problem, and I was insta-cured of a loathsome, soul-crushing form of vanity. I also started thinking a lot about the hidden costs that came along with my interest in fashion. Specifically, who was making my clothes. The disaster in Dhaka just after my daughter was born was a watershed moment in my life.
I'd just purchased her first summer clothes, and they literally arrived the same day I learned Gap used that Dhaka factory to make its cheap, amazingly affordable, cute clothes. Inside her denim jacket, I read the words, "Made with love" embroidered into the collar. On the tag, there were other words.
Made in Bangladesh.
Maybe made in the Dhaka factory? Maybe made by someone who had died, because they were working in unsafe, inhumane working conditions just so women like me could afford to buy adorable, coordinated wardrobes for their infants?
Of course, I can't make myself responsible for all the world's ills, but it made me want to be more aware of where my clothes came from and who was making them. There's a fashion revolution going on-- a sustainable one not a style one despite what the magazines might claim-- and the former is the one I want to be a part of. It's slow-going-- I'm now on baby #2 and losing my marbles on a daily basis. (As my husband put it recently, "You know, it's okay to be barely hanging on.) But this blog is devoted to my education, slow-going though it might be, and I hope it inspires others, too, to look at making changes here and there. Eventually, those changes could really add up, and as my sister the scientist put it, "It's a wider systemic problem."
If we don't understand the system, though, how can we change it?
It's time to catch another wave... and anyway as the photoshoot above shows, it's the inner light and attitude, the delight in wearing something pretty that are really what make you feel (and look) chic.
Photography by Aaron Kinney. Hair and makeup by me. Dress from Housing Works in Soho. Check them out! They are a non-profit whose proceeds go to fighting the twin crises of AIDS and homelessness: http://www.housingworks.org/ Also in honor of National Poetry Month, I'll beg of you to please check out two of my poems recently published here and here.
A book from St. Marks Bookshop and a catalogue shoot from those same days for French Closet, makeup by Gil Aldrin, hair by Patrick at Zoog Salon, photograph by Cedric E.
In 2008, it was my ex-boyfriend's turn to find an apartment. I'd found the last two places we'd lived in together in Virginia and then Jersey City. It was his turn in Manhattan. Plus, I had to work late that day at a catalogue shoot in the grimy garment district. Before I could even see the place, he signed the lease for a tiny hole-in-the-wall on the top floor of one of those creaky tenements leftover from the 19th century immigrant boom that are still, albeit barely, standing in the East Village. When I tripped up five flights of broken stairs to see our new place for the first time, the door didn't meet flush with the floor. Once it was closed, more or less, I could have reached out and touched both walls without straining an inch. I guffawed in much the way everyone who walked in after that would. He was offended as I would grow to be.
"I guess he wants us to break up," I thought, looking at a sink so small it couldn't fit an entire plate. "This place would be perfect for one person."
Soon after, we did, and it was.
That tiny apartment, too small to fit even a couch-- we left our couch on the street in Jersey City, which is where I found it in the first place--would be the last place we'd live together, and my chance to witness firsthand the last paradisiacal days of the East Village. I am not making this up, but each day really closed with a saxophonist playing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" in Tompkins Square Park, and that's where I felt I'd landed: over the rainbow in my very own space, behind my very own (semi-closed) door, which was everything Virginia Woolf promised it would be. But it didn't last long. I couldn't really afford the rent on my own. So, soon after that, when I met my husband, I moved in with him a year later to a place in Soho, which I didn't like nearly as much. "It's five blocks away!" he'd protest, not getting it. Over the years, we've moved even farther away to Brooklyn and then Philly; I've tried to cajole him into moving back to the East Village, but, never having lived there, he has a more clear-eyed view of the neighborhood.
"It's all rich lawyers and bankers now. The East Village you're talking about doesn't exist anymore," he talks me down when I begin to float too high above reality into the world of dreams. That's where my East Village exists now, in the memories of those who were lucky enough to live there in its hey day.
My East Village is Edgar Oliver, handmade zines, and the Public Theater. It's Monk's Thrift Store and punk kids lining up to beg change off St. Marks Place. It's eating apple strudel at De Robertis and pretending you're an extra in Guys and Dolls. It's everyone in the neighborhood knowing who you are from the florist at the bodega to the counter guy always knowing my order at the world's sweatiest, tiniest Chinese restaurant on the corner of 9th and 1st.
All the punk places are closing on St. Marks. De Robertis is gone. I bet that Chinese restaurant, if it's still there, has changed ownership. But nothing symbolizes the end of an era so much to me as the closing of the St. Marks Bookshop, just down the block from my hobbit hole, or more like a hobbit nest, high up in those tall maples, overlooking 9th street. Every time I got off the subway at Astor Place, I'd pass the shop, located in a Cooper Union dorm on the corner of 3rd and 9th. Even if I only had a few dollars in my pocket, I'd head in to read weird fashion magazines in a corner by the poetry chapbooks or check out the sales table in the back of the store. That's where I picked up Carol.
I picked it up, because I liked Patricia Highsmith just fine. I enjoyed The Talented Mr. Ripley Trilogy, but this book seemed different. Not a thriller. Those were still the days when I needed books to tell me a conventionally thrilling story. I mean, I still love a good story, but I have more patience now. Still, I picked it up anyway, because that sales table wasn't like other sale tables. It felt curated, not simply filled with bargain books but very special bargain books: the selections were always excellent, more like a staff rec table from the world's savviest staff. The guy at the counter wanted me to go back and pick a copy that didn't have the sales price on it. But I was tired and cranky from the long walk in high heels, and I argued him into submission. I'm glad now I did. I didn't realize it would be a souvenir of a bygone era.
That tiny, affordable apartment I semi-starved in like a proper semi-starving artist is now, according to a friend who's become a real estate agent, astronomically priced. No longer starving and on my second kid, I never wear high heels and can't fit into most of the clothes from those days. The bookshop is gone, too. But I have that little tag to remind me where I bought one of the most incredible books I've ever read.
Last week, I tried to watch the movie based on the book. It was perfectly cast, but the story wasn't working its magic. I couldn't feel Terry's longing for Carol or how Carol made all the color come into the world for Terry, because a. I kept thinking, wow, I really like Rooney Mara's bangs! And, damn, Cate Blanchett looks great with her hair waved like that. And b. no matter how beautifully cast a film is, I don't think films can tell the inner story of a character's mind. I think we need novels for that. I'm sure there are some movies that have managed to do it, but the best movies, in my opinion, either tell a thrilling story or feature thrillingly good dialogue. Not a lot happens in Vivre Sa Vie, but it's one of my favorite movies mostly because of this conversation in a cafe between an old philosopher and a prostitute. Granted, The Talented Mr. Ripley with its more conventional plot isn't much better a movie than Carol either, but maybe that's Patricia Highsmith's fault. You can almost eat her words, her descriptions are as sumptuous as that vanished apple strudel from De Robertis's and the point of view of her characters so powerful and incisive that the camera acts as a scalpel, cutting away all the texture of her knotty, witchy language and leaving behind only an impression of smooth colors and excellent hairstyles.
Maybe we are going to lose all our bookstores. Maybe that's what's coming. But I don't think I could bear to live in the smooth, poreless world we'll all being living in without books.
Another story I wrote about the East Village was anthologized in the Best of Black Heart Magazine and is available for purchase at Amazon as an e-book. You can also read it here.
I was afraid to read Eating Animals. Very afraid. One of my husband's most macho, beef-eating, football-watching, no-feelings-having friends read it and didn't eat chicken for a year. After that, that book became my Pandora's box. Day after day, I saw it on the employees' picks table of my local bookstore, McNally Jackson Books, a bookstore in Soho, which, considering how tiny my studio above it was, became like my second living room. (Or only living room, really.)
*Spoiler alert*, as in I'm not going to spoil that book. I'm not going to be the one to share the horrors that make up the meat industry: the pollution, the waste, the cruelty to animals, the inhumanity to workers, the bad health effects of eating food raised in noxious conditions. I'm not going to do that for a couple reasons, chief among them the fact that I once lived next door to a militant vegetarian. She was a young mother, probably lonely and bored, and she used to spend hours calling companies to find out what was really in your favorite brand of licorice you happened to mention you liked eating.
Then she'd tell you.
It was never good.
All that's to say, Foer's book is nothing like that, because it wasn't just about disgust but about hope and humanity, too. It's filled with compassion for animal suffering and, yes, a decent dose of disgust at what the industry is doing to the planet as much as to the animals being butchered like they're simply cogs on an assembly line being rendered for parts, and, most of all, for the low-income earning people who have to do it.
After I moved away from Soho, I forgot about that book until I became more and more interested in sustainable fashion-- also because of living in Soho. The mobs of shoppers thronging those streets used to be in such a frenzy when I tried to walk my dog, they'd scream, "Better pick up that dog before it gets trampled to death."
It was not a relaxing place to come home to.
Shopping ceased symbolizing a harmless activity after that. There was something more sinister at work, if glazed-over, zombified humans were what the shopping experience could turn normal folks into. When I went to my local library, though, they didn't have anything on the subject. Instead, in the same section reserved for all things granola I suppose, they had Foer's book. I took it out, but I still didn't read it. It was when I was returning it unread, I finally screwed up enough courage to peek inside.
And then I kept reading.
And reading. Partially, because he's so readable, but also because I was horrified. That was also the day I became a vegetarian even though three weeks later I'd have to put that project on pause for ten months. However, what I'm not sharing here, I did share with my husband. I shared what I read, just the facts mind you, and he became a vegetarian, too. His stomach problems vanished by the way, and my skin has never looked nicer, if that's any inducement to anybody. We're also both losing the baby weight-- he got a sympathy tummy-- at a decent clip. Those are all good, superficial reasons for making the switch to a meat-free diet, but there are even better ones. Ones that will make you feel more human, or at least, more mindful for not eating animals-- especially factory-farm raised ones. It feels good to consciously choose not to participate in a cruel game whose fashion world equivalent are stampeding herds of humanity, too maddened with lust for the latest trend to avoid stomping a little dog to death. But, like I said, I think deciding to read up on such an upsetting topic is up to the individual. What I really want to share is that, for my part, and to my great surprise, becoming a vegetarian has made me feel 100% better inside and out.
And now a recipe.
I'm also lucky, as in my husband can cook, otherwise I'd be stuck eating a lot of pizza and pasta and bagels. One of my favorite recipes he's come up with is a variation of Food & Wine's Crispy Kale with Lemon-Yogurt Dip. You can try the original recipe here or Ryan's version below.
1 pound curly kale, stems and large inner ribs removed
3 tablespoons of truffle-infused olive oil (The original version uses plain olive oil, either works.)
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons grated parmesan
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup fat-free plain Greek yogurt
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest (I, personally, would find that part too complicated and would probably use lemon juice, but that is probably why I'm a terrible, lazy cook, who once infamously mixed a can of tuna fish with chili, "because it ends up in the same place anyway". Also, that way there's less dishes. This is why my husband doesn't let me cook.)
1 teaspoon berber spice (We also learned about this spice when we lived in Soho. Public, a really good restaurant in the neighborhood and recently featured in a Jessica Jones episode, taught us to put this on our eggs and then let our mouths orgasm, which is also what this recipe did to my surprise. I hate kale chips, but this is much better and tastier.)
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a bowl, toss the kale with the cheese, garlic, berber spice, and olive oil. Spread the kale on 2 baking sheets and roast in the upper nad lower thirds of the oven for about 15 minutes, until crisp; shift the pans from top to bottom halfway through. Season the kale with salt and pepper and transfer to a large platter.
2. In a small bowl, whisk the yogurt with the lemon zest and juice and teh remaining garlic and 1 tablespoon of oil. Season with salt and pepper. Serve with the roasted kale.
An old shoot for a lookbook. The other model informed me that "only one girl can win" when a shoot features two models. I just thought, "Oh boy, Gloria Steinem! We need you! Someone shine the bat light over Gotham!" The following story proves my point even more.
"Let them win."
That's what the librarian with Hermione Granger's curls and Harry Potter's glasses was hissing at me from the wings of Union Hall's basement's stage. Me? I was centerstage, under the spotlight, absolutely owning the two guys on either side of me in the "Guess the Pseudonym" category of the Librarian Olympics.
Wild times, I know. But hey, it was a Thursday night in Brooklyn, and I was pregnant.
The dramatic irony of the situation didn't escape me despite three factors: my stage fright, how much the MC's crazy suggestion enraged me, and, most of all, despite the fact I was so focused on ABSOLUTELY NOT letting the two men I was competing with win anyway. Because...
Well, just because. I've always been competitive. Even six-months pregnant on a Thursday night in Brooklyn.
The total craziness of what the Contender for the World's Worst Feminist was saying didn't fully sink in until later. My husband and I had combed the paper for events sponsored by the Brooklyn Book Festival. Although I'm not a librarian, and I wasn't sure we'd be welcome, we were. Still, it was mostly a librarian crew in attendance in that very cool space below Union Hall's bocce courts, recently profiled in the New York Times here.
And when I say cool, I mean it was an uber-Brooklyn event par excellence with judges like David Rees, author and proprietor of an artisanal pencil sharpening joint.
And I am not making that up. http://artisanalpencilsharpening.com/)
I enjoyed watching and not participating in events like "Name That Novel" based on covers of books with the titles removed, if memory serves. I do clearly remember there was one guy who knew absolutely everything, and everyone knew him. They were all cheering him on. All of 'em-- Miss "Let 'Em Win, too. And he didn't once pull back or let someone else win or "shrink himself and make himself smaller" to paraphrase Chimamanda Ngozi Adicihie's "We Should All Be Feminists". Luckily for me (or maybe luckily for him), that guy didn't volunteer for the "Guess the Pseudonym" category hosted by Carmela Ciuraru, author of Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms, but I did. Naturally, that's a category I know a little about, especially considering my personal experience with the phenomenon. (I first used a male-ish pseudonym when I was first writing.)
In some ways, I regret not sticking with that male-ish name: Izzy David. Especially when I read what I read today. After I couldn't remember Carmela Ciuraru's name, I Googled pseudonyms and authors. These are the depressing stories a Google search brought up:
"Want to Be a Successful Writer? Be a Man".
And "Why Women Writers Still Take Men's Names"
Actually, I'm not depressed. It's only 2016. We have a whole bright century ahead of us, ladies (and gentleman, too, because I doubt you want your daughters-- or granddaughters-to-be-- to let the men win, either.). And I'm glad I switched to my actual name. I'm proud of my work, and I'm proud to be part of a positive change in the world and its perception of women. I do believe it's coming yet! When man to woman the world o'er will brothers and sister be yet. (To paraphrase Robert Burns this time). There is a difference, slight as it feels sometimes. Charlotte Bronte HAD to write under a male pseudonym. Her publisher told her it wasn't proper to publish books written by women.
"Proper" being 19th century speak for "let the men win."
And maybe I owe that MC a favor, too. Maybe, what with my tongue-tied tendencies, I wouldn't have owned those two guys quite so easily, even though it was a subject dear to my heart, if that other librarian hadn't told me to let them win.
It isn't only men who like a challenge. Fueled by rage, my shyness evaporated.
Over my dead body was I going to lose.
I didn't. And, best of all, the two men, the audience, and Carmen were not only totally fine with it. I'd entertained everyone with how thoroughly I showed only a woman could win at what was, in effect, a woman's game.
So that's the moral of the story. Also, if you're a man reading this, please pick up a book by a woman. If you want grit, there's Katherine Boo's stellar reporting in Beyond the Beautiful Forevers. Try Nancy Mitford's biography of Frederick the Great if you're thirsting for military adventures or Connie Willis if you're thirsting for sci-fi. She's won eleven Hugo Awards and seven Nebula Awards, and I've never heard a fanboy (or girl for that matter) utter her name. For more on women's voices in fiction, theater, and the world, please check out my book of poems here, available soon from Finishing Line Press or Amazon:. Or this piece about juggling writing and mommying published in the perspectives section of Easy Street Mag here.
,1. Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead
I believe I first encountered the word "ballon" in an eerie Isak Dinesen story, "The Deluge at Norderney", from her Seven Gothic Tales, also available here.. From there, I fell in love with the concept of ballet as the perfect expression of lightness. And this book by Maggie Shipstead is the most perfect expression of that: a ripping good read and the best book about ballet I've ever read.
2. Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
I'm a little late to the Rainbow Rowell party, and it's a big one, so I'm surprised I missed it for so long. Not Harry Potter big but pretty darn sizable. I actually also read Eleanor and Park this year, and I think, also technically speaking, it's the better written book. Plus (my third technically) Fangirl came out in 2013, but I read it in 2015.... and hey! Whose blog is it anyway? I make up the rules around here. Besides, Carry On, which is sort of a sequel to Fangirl, did come out in 2015, and I also read that. As for Carry On, I liked it a lot (more in the idea of a YA Harry Potter satire than the execution), but not quite as much as Fangirl,. Fangirl is a love story about a reclusive writer, who searches for her voice and identity at a large university; there's plenty I can relate to right there, but even if you yourself are not a shy, fangirly type who favors extraverted men-- and I am possibly as introverted as a human can be and married to as extraverted an opposite as I could humanly find-- there's plenty other aspects of the story to enjoy like the aforementioned Harry Potterish fangirl stuff the MC writes. And everyone likes Harry Potter. So, anyway, all that's to say, if you enjoy YA, join our Rainbow Rowell party. She's my favorite--as in she's the most fun, most inventive, playful, witty, fearless-- writer writing in the genre at the moment.
3. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruis Zafon
Okay, and now this one came out in 2005, so I placed it farther down the list, but it is my number one book in 2015 that helped me the most. I found it right after my baby was born, and it actually helped me look forward to long, sleepless white nights when I could get a lot of reading done. There's two more books in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books Series as well and maybe there'll be more. He's an author that can tell a story, write beautifully, make you think, and create lovable characters-- very, very few can tick off each box for me, and this thriller/ mystery/ love story about a boy with a passion for books coming of age in Franco's Barcelona did all that for me and more.
4. The Ladies' Paradise by Émile Zola
And now this one's from another century! I really am cheating at this game. Equally shamefully, it's my first time reading that old master of naturalism. Up until now, I've avoided reading Zola for two reasons: I wanted to read him in French, but didn't have the vocab. I've finally acknowledged that I don't know if it will ever be quite as pleasurable for me to read 19th century writers in another language. I learned French as a child, so I'm fluent, but my vocabulary isn't anywhere near as expansive as it is in English. Also, most readers probably don't even realize it, but when we read older books, our eyes recognize and skim over odd words-- like the words for the parts of a carriage. Those words catch you up when you're reading in another language. I don't know if I really know what a "button head screw" is for example, but it wouldn't hitch me up too much if I read an odd descriptor of a screw. I'd see "screw" and think got it, screw it, carry on.
In French, I'd have to look that up, only to realize it didn't matter and probably wasn't a word I'd ever encounter again. That sort of thing ruins the flow of a story, especially repeated twice a page. Anyway, sad but appropriate in this case to say, I finally read the wonderful Zola, and this particular Zola, because the bright cover attracted my eye. It's appropriate, because The Ladies' Paradise is all about the birth of the modern shopaholic-- i.e. all about the seduction of the shopper and advertising and bingeing on fashion and spectacle. It's also one of Zola's more upbeat novels, the 11th from his Rougon-Macquart cycle of 20 and actually a good one to start with for that reason-- its upbeatedness.
Also, in English, it wasn't work at all to read it. The lush descriptions of clothes and home goods did sometimes become a little lengthy-- I wouldn't recommend this one to my husband, who has zero patience for description of any kind let alone gorgeous ones of outfits-- but I didn't mind. It was like reading the best-written catalogue ever, and I enjoyed the story, too. Plus, he's a very keen observer of humanity, something that's rare to come across in more modern writers. I feel like 19th century writers could find just the right words to describe the soul and heart in a way that I can't name anyone writing today accomplishing quite as handily. Anyway, I can't wait to dip into more of his books, although I will stick to English for anything written earlier than the 20th century.
5. Tied at 5-- Some Others I Enjoyed This Year But That Plenty of Others Have Written Plenty More (and Better) About
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
The man writes like a modern Tolkien/Gunther Grass on speed. He's funny, insanely passionate, and a good storyteller, and he does these really odd, wonderful things to English as a bilingual writer, things that I wish I could emulate with French-English, only, in my case, without sounding like a pretentious ass. Mais, hélas, c'est impossible. See? If you speak French in any English context (or arguably in any context), even if you are French, for some reason you immediately sound like a pretentious ass. But Diaz just sounds so cool interspersing his English with Dominican expressions.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
I found this book to be uneven but a mostly pleasurable read with many intensely beautiful passages. A must if you are like me and love to read books about characters in New York City. However, the vivid descriptions of child abuse and self-harm might be too much for some readers. *spoiler alert* I also found the MC's lifelong pity party a little much by the end of the book, not to mention the ridiculous levels of success that he and all his friends achieve. More and more, I wanted to bash them all over the head and steal their fancy lives... No, not really, then I'd have to give up my kids, but...sigh... you can really tell the author used to write luxury articles for the New York Times Magazine. My compassion for his suffering withered with each million dollar purchase the MC made. (Joking, not joking?) Still, it's refreshing to read a queer love story, especially if you're beyond tired of the old rom-com formula.
My Struggle (Vol. 2) by Karl Ove Knaussgard
I was as scared to read this as I was Zola, but it was even more accessible. Knausgaard can write about brushing his teeth and keep you on the edge of your seat. Plus, if you're a writer with kids, you'll find a lot you can relate with him about. More on this book and my first foray into the wonderful word of autofiction here.
6. Books by Friends in 2015: Letters to Zell by Camille Griep, All in Letters Bound in String by Samantha Memi, Proof of Forever by Lexa Hillyer
7. Books I wish I'd had the chance to read/ TBR 2016
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Life in Motion by Misty Copeland, The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood, Asking for It by Louise O'Neill, The Feasts of Lesser Men by Stephen Parrish,
And here's to the best books of 2016... when me and my friends Roz and Cynthia**'s first books are all coming out! AH!!!
**I couldn't find a cover of Blue Hallelujahs yet, but if you click on Cynthia's picture, it will take you to the publisher's page, which includes more information on the book and some excerpts of her poetry.
I'm a busy mommy of two and a writer who loves fashion. I also want to teach myself and my children to care for and love the environment! I don't have the energy or time to be as 100% perfect as I'd like to be about my carbon footprint, but I'm trying to do the best I can. For example, I switched to a vegetarian diet (with a little bit of fish thrown in for now-- ah I cannot live without fish tacos!--), walk when I don't have to drive, wear as many sustainably made or secondhand clothes as I can, and recycle in other ways, too. Follow me as I try (at least 50% of the time) to strike a balance between the two-- mothering and writing, shopping and sustainability. You can also follow me on Twitter or Instagram @IsabellaMDavid.