Self-Esteem

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Fear and Clothing

By Amy Hertz
My husband, Steve, and I had been in Venice for a week, and the money we'd brought for shopping was burning a hole in our pockets. Thanks to my machinations, we had yet to enter a clothing store. I did not want to taint my vacation with the usual dressing room yoga torture—like short-skirt asana: pulling the inner thighs back until there's a straight line between knee and groin, so that my legs look like they might actually be acceptable in a peach leather skirt. Or low-rider asana: lifting the chest, plastering the gut against the spine, and squishing the hip flesh until nothing hangs over the top of the jeans. Too much stress.

"But we're here," Steve said for the fifth day in a row. "Italian clothes are so beautiful." He wanted to buy some for himself, and being a well-built guy with broad shoulders, off of which a Versace leather jacket hangs perfectly, he knew he'd look good in them. I, on the other hand—convinced of having round, fat shoulders, breasts too large for a small back, and hips and belly that I wished I could take a hacksaw to—was sure I was headed for disaster.

We walked into a women's clothing store and I pointed to a summer suit. A roll of the eyes from Steve—Oh please, don't hide behind another suit—led to my quick retreat. After this scene was repeated at several stores, he pulled me into one called La Coupole, even as I insisted we go back to the hotel for a Bellini. I was hoping that a little Champagne would help me screw up some courage.

I looked around La Coupole and saw nothing but clingy sequined dresses, sheer silk fabrics, and skintight, low-cut stretch pants. Nothing I could wear. But somehow the owner, Tommy, saw a challenge and wouldn't let me leave. A glorious assortment of silk pants, leather pants, whisper-thin wraps, and formfitting suits that won even Steve's approval began appearing from back rooms. Tommy started me off slowly— not too low-waisted, not too tight. I sent a few things back—"Tommy, I can't go to work with a bare midriff"—but for the first time in my life, everything I tried on fit.

Then he pushed me a little too far. Out came a sheer silk Dolce & Gabbana flower-print dress. The top attached to the straps of a flowered bra and draped off the shoulders; the body swooped in shards to just below the calf. Shiny purple leggings acted as a slip, showing the torso through the dress. It would have been stunning—on Calista Flockhart. I panicked at Tommy's insistence that I try it on, and despite reassurances and bribery—"We'll get a Bellini after this, I promise," Steve said— I refused to change my clothes. I would do anything to keep from seeing my flab and rolls pushing through that dress.

As my husband and I began to descend into a fight ("Oh, come on, just try it." "No. Please stop pushing me." "Let's just see what it looks like." "I won't do it, so get off my back!"), I looked for a way to escape. Steve and Tommy blocked my path to the door, and they weren't budging. The only way out was through that dress.

For years my husband had been urging me out of droopy sweaters and loose pants. I'd made the leap of faith a few times and bought what he suggested, and though the clothes brought more compliments than anything I'd ever worn, I still saw everything—hips, arms, thighs, breasts—as too lumpy. The moment I slipped into the wispy chiffon, my perception changed. When I looked in the mirror, I cried. I'm not kidding. I didn't know I could look like that. What I thought were bulges became curves, and what I was convinced was fat became pleasingly soft and round. There was someone beautiful looking back from the mirror, and after nearly 40 years of life I could see her. Steve had always told me that I didn't look the way I thought I did, and I finally saw myself through his eyes.

In the months after that trip, getting dressed—for work, for parties, for a walk in the park—became almost fun. I stopped facing my wardrobe and the mirror ready for battle, and when I veered toward self-criticism I remembered the image of that dress and the look in Steve's eyes. People began to notice my clothes, and asked where I was getting them. I told them I had a new personal shopper, but I wasn't giving out his number. He was married to his only—and his most loyal—client.

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