A Swelling of Confidence
By Elaina Richardson
One of my favorite pictures of my mother was snapped by a street photographer in 1956 when she was in her early 20s. It's in black-and-white, but I know from listening to her that the slender coat she's wearing, with its little velvet collar and matching hat, is dark green and that she loved it immeasurably because it made her look elegant and sophisticated, which is exactly how this beautiful, high-cheekboned woman with lovely legs and a slightly hesitant expression wanted the world to see her. She didn't want her poverty-ridden, education-interrupted origins to show through. That cost her, and the reason I know it did also has to do with the green coat. An oft-repeated story of hers was about the day she was wearing the coat and caught the eye of a young doctor. They dated some, until the night in his car when he felt obliged to lecture her on her sexual shyness, on how she was too uptight, too much of a lady to become a satisfying partner. Many years and two children later, she still seemed to worry about it. In my mind, this supposed lack of sexual confidence and the aspirations behind her expensive coat are stitched firmly together.
My style has always leaned more toward the understated, dressing down seeming chicer and stronger to me, especially in my teen years, when, as a competitive athlete, I'd show up at dinners with wet hair and limited makeup. Making too much of an effort, trying too hard, screamed insecurity, I thought. Not that I haven't been known to cut a swath through my wardrobe before a night out, pulling on and off outfits in a frantic attempt to look exactly right, fiddling around with how much I'm comfortable revealing. It's hardly a news flash, but it's certainly true for me that the more discomfort I feel on the inside, the more I'm likely to fret about the outside. And, like almost every woman on the planet, I've always believed (no matter what the scale says) that I could stand to drop a pound or two.
I had never particularly focused on what this appearance anxiety was really all about (my mom had a version of it, so did my sister—wasn't it simply the raw stuff of being female?) until it disappeared. It's a moment I can pinpoint: December of 1990, me aged 29, extremely pregnant with my daughter. I had popped, in the lingo of expectancy, going from hardly showing mom-to-be in slinky velvet to the realization that my entire body had lost what I'd once valued: Lean athleticism had melted into soft flesh, restraint had given way to voluptuousness. I couldn't possibly appear in the sort of light I'd always stage-managed for myself, so I put on a swingy black tunic thing (this was pre the likes of Liz Lange, when pregnancy clothes still equaled polyester) and a pair of patterned leggings, went to a party filled with high-powered types, and had a blast. Somehow I had gained a miraculous trust in my ability to be interesting whether or not I looked overtly sexy and appealing. This is pathetic to confess, but it was honestly the first time in my adult life that I'd felt a right to attention and appreciation regardless of how I looked. (Admittedly, some of this newfound confidence had to do with a sense that my appearance—i.e., somewhat swollen, with hair roots showing because dye was forbidden—was no longer under my control. I couldn't not be who I was; enormous forces, like hormones and genes and evolution, were now in charge.)
Most of the magic had to do with the fact that I had finally articulated, physically and plainly for all the world to see, what I wanted and, in particular, what I wanted to do with my body. I wanted to be pregnant; I wanted desperately to have a child even though, up until that moment, I had hated any suggestion that I had even the slightest tinge of the earth mother about me, that my beauty or sexual appeal was bound up with fertility. Once, when I was about 15, my gym teacher had provoked a horrible crisis of self-image when she remarked, "Your whole body changed this summer—look at you, you have childbearing hips!" I was appalled and hurt beyond any sane sense of what she had said. Now here it was, finally, self-acceptance: freckles, fluffy hair, roundness, a slight flush to the cheeks. All good, and all me.