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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.


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A Fine Mess

By Cecelie Berry
Recently, I came to the aid of two mothers who dropped off their boys at my son's birthday party. They wanted to exchange cell phone numbers to negotiate the pickup and needed a pen. "I have one," I volunteered. Eager to be the hostess with the mostest, I dug into the torn right pocket of my beloved old snow jacket. "Here you go"—triumphantly, I pulled out a down-encrusted lollipop, minus its wrapper. "Oh, you don't want that, sorry." I laughed. Unfazed, I plunged my hand into my pocket and felt around madly. "Got it, got it!"—and out came a jagged-edged eyebrow pencil, completely hollow. The two women were eyeing each other now, wanting to ask someone else, hoping I'd surrender, but I definitely, definitely had a pen. I fished about in the other pocket: spare change, used hankies, a single glove, old movie tickets, and finally, a dime-store pen hemorrhaging ink. "It writes." I offered it. "Trust me." They stared at my blue-stained fingers, and I heard the echo of all the family members and teachers who used to ask me, "Girl, when are you going to get yourself to-geth-er?"

I always wanted to be one of those "together" people. I thought the day would come when what I thought of as the exotic style words—panache, soigné—could readily apply to me. Witty badinage would fall from my lips like pearls before swine. I would even be a neat eater. Achieving perfection would free me to be the confident woman I longed to be. Then I'd be able to handle everything; I'd be on top of things and ahead of the game.

As I neared 40, I'd imagine myself swinging down the street sporting a snappy trenchcoat, carrying in a manicured hand a featherweight briefcase containing the essential gadgets of life—completely mastered and readily available—and then I'd pause in my reverie, put on my eyeglasses, and examine the caption beneath the picture in my mind's eye. It read, "Never gonna happen."

Oh, I have days when I wear and say the right thing, but those moments of poise still go toe-to-stubbed-toe with my gaffes. Life for me is always going to be haphazard, and I figure I'll never outfox it, so I'd better brave it instead. Ironically, knowing that I will make mistakes, that I will forgive myself and keep on trying, has given me the confidence I craved. When I was young, I thought confidence could be earned with perfection. Now I know that you don't earn it; you claim it. And you do that by loving the wacky, endlessly optimistic, enthusiastically uninhibited free spirit that is the essence of style, the quintessence of heart, and uniquely you.


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Temper, Temper

By Katherine Russell Rich
There was an exact moment when I saw I had to find the courage to get angry, another when I understood I had to cool down. In between, for a time, I was a piece of work.

Before this, I probably wouldn't even have used the phrase "piece of work," much less qualified as one. But I was seven years into a dragging illness, during which I'd made the acquaintance of every kind of abrupt, disengaged medical personnel. With each one, I'd been mumbling and polite because I couldn't think how else to be. I was a piece of startled politeness. Till I ran into a social worker who was supposed to find me a home aide but who was about as enthusiastic in her job as an offtrack betting clerk at 4 o'clock. Nope, she couldn't think of anybody, she said in a bored tone. Why didn't I just ask people? she wondered. Like who? Well, she couldn't really think of anyone herself, she said, and also, she inquired, did I know I had a problem about being controlling? She was an abrupt, disengaged last straw, and I whomped her. Told her off, kicked her butt—it was great—and after that, I did it some more, all over town. I'd had it with being a smiley do-right girl, was sick of it—was sick of being sick in general. I'd already quit cigarettes, sloth, and drinking in the name of good health. Now I jettisoned meekness.

For one summer, I gave myself permission to say anything to anyone who was nasty or rude. A swaggering guy walked past me at the gym, reached out, and brushed my rear; I jumped down from the machine and shouted, "Hey, you grabbed my ass." I called a woman who was one a bitch. For a while, it was exhilarating, a much-needed corrective, but then it became habitual. There's an addictive quality to anger. It's slightly dangerous, seductive in the way it gives you a buzz, makes you feel superior for not holding back, tells you you have a right to be angry on the grounds you are. You're angry? You should be. My inner voice began to change. Instead of wondering where I'd put the keys, I'd think, Freaking A, this is ridiculous. Where are those damn keys? The sweet and gentle disappeared from my life. Muttery people found me. When you're pissed off, you attract others like you. Anger can be healthy, but it can also be a homing device that sounds loud and clear for the angry.

This went on till one day I had reason to know why mad people are called mad. I blew up at a couple on a plane. I cannot even remember now what they did or what I said, only the way they looked at me, fearfully and with disgust, then got very still and stared ahead. In a flash, in their faces, I saw how I looked, and right then gave the whole indulgence up. I'd been looking for power and I'd found it: the firestorm power of a bully.

Still, as far out as it spun, I'm grateful for that summer. Because as the molten river that ran through me cooled, I found it formed a strong core. I'd learned to speak up; now I learned to do it without white fury. Though sometimes I still go white.

Last January I returned from vacation to discover that the company I'd ordered my Christmas gifts from hadn't delivered half of them. "You didn't order them," the guy insisted when I phoned and, when I established I had, he retorted, "We're only human, okay?"

"That's what you tell a girlfriend," I said, ire rising but controlled. "That's not what you say in a business setting."

"So we made a mistake. What do you want?" he said, and that was it. I lost it, said I'd never order from them again, elaborated on their lousy job.

"I think you have bigger problems than the presents," he shot back; my fire had ignited his. But I'd learned by then that power can be cool. I dropped the levels down.

"Hey," I said, sounding hurt and therefore human, not an aggrieved disembodied voice. "First you didn't deliver the presents. Now you're saying I have mental problems. That's not nice. Let me speak to your supervisor," and I did. Very quietly.

When the guy got back on, he was, I swear, near tears. "I am so sorry," he kept saying. "I'm a computer geek here. I'm not usually on phones. I'm not a people person. I'm really so sorry." It was touching, remarkable, and it taught me several lessons, not the least of which was this: It's a hell of a lot more gratifying to hear a grown man cry than to hear him shout. The understanding arrived in messy stages. In testing my right to get angry, to defend myself, I gained the confidence that comes from speaking up. That confidence built till it propelled me beyond fury and into dignity. By keeping my head, I'd kept the power.


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By Patricia Volk
One summer day, I got a call at work from the deputy editor of The New York Times Magazine. He'd read some columns I'd freelanced and wanted to meet for lunch. The maître d' at La Goulue led me to a table. Two of the handsomest men I've ever seen rose and introduced themselves. The blond one looked like F. Scott Fitzgerald, only manlier. The dark one looked like the young Norman Mailer, only taller. I ordered salmon and we chatted, but for the life of me, I couldn't figure out why Ken and Bruce were taking me to lunch. As we left the restaurant, Ken turned to me and said, "How'd you like to write an On Language column? William Safire is going on vacation."

"Sure," I said, thinking, Isn't he nice? Who wouldn't want to write an On Language column?

Two weeks later, on a Friday afternoon, the phone rang. "How's the column coming?" Ken said. "It's due Tuesday."

I hadn't realized I'd been given the assignment. How on earth could I write an On Language column? I read and worshipped William Safire. William Safire was a genius. William Safire not only plugged into the Zeitgeist, he created the Zeitgeist. He had a weekly column at the magazine of record. I got a 53 on the geometry regents. I was no William Safire.

I hung up the phone and told myself, You gotta do this. It's Friday. Go to the library. Read everything you can on semantics. Read Noam Chomsky. Study linguistics and etymology. Read Roget's Thesaurus and The Elements of Style. You may never get a chance like this again. If you don't write a William Safire On Language, you'll regret it every waking day of your life. You have four days in which to become a genius.

I couldn't move.

I was paralyzed.

The kids wanted lunch. Mashing mayonnaise into tuna, it occurred to me: Wait a minute. They didn't ask you to do this because you write like William Safire. You don't write anything like William Safire, and they know that. They asked you to do this because they liked something you wrote. They met you. They talked to you. They've read your stuff. You don't have to be somebody else. You can be you.

I sat down and wrote the column. I wrote it in my own voice, which has pretty much nothing in common with William Safire's. That day, I understood that if somebody asks me to write something, it's because they like what they think I'll do, not because they want me to write like somebody else. I never felt that gut-rocking panic again.

Ken liked the column. I got more assignments. His estimate of my ability was more generous than mine. He saw something I was too close to me to see. We think we know what we can do. Happily, luckily, blessedly, the Kens in our lives know better.


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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.