Thursday, 9 January 2014

On vanity

If they could choose, babies would probably be happiest dressed in sleepsuits (aka babygros) all day. Stretchy, snuggly, with integral socks and easy opening, they don't impose uncomfortable waistbands or restricted movement on the little wrigglers. Yet for some reason, you will rarely see babies older than three months wearing these in the day time. Instead, you will mostly see babies dressed as miniature grown ups - jeans and woolly jumpers for the boys, dresses and tights for the girls.
Of course this reflects current tastes and it wasn't ever thus - family photo albums tell me that boys were often dressed in billowing romper suits in my dad's youth, and urban legend tells me boys wore dresses in ye olden days to confuse evil spirits. But these days, a glance round asda living will quickly tell you that when today's parents shop for their 0-12 month year olds, the first item on their list of criteria does not appear to be comfort.

Now, as anyone who knows me will tell you, I'm not exactly famed for my glamour. One best friend's favourite story about me is the time that she complimented me on having managed to get my clothes to match each other, to which I innocently replied that I'd simply put all the clothes I was wearing in the wash together. My policy on clothes is that you need something to cover up your top half, and something to cover up your bottom half. And this is only because despite recent progress in this direction, onesies don't yet seem to be acceptable day wear for adults unless its December 25th.

And yet, despite all this, today I found myself not only wriggling Orson into jeans, but also removing a perfectly clean vest from him because of an unsightly stain on the shoulder. Which you'll know, if you have a baby, is quite a big deal, because babies don't like things going over their heads, so putting a vest on only to then take it off and put a different one on....well orson had to have a story after that. Why, then, did I put both of us through this unnecessary ordeal? Because I was going out to meet up with other mothers.

Oh the vanity.  On days when we stay in or make only brief forays in the direction of wilkos, Orson wears sleepsuits with tracksuits over the top (no need for socks, see), tights with hoodies (ditto) and all manner of mismatched, clashing but easy opening apparel. But on days when we see other mothers out come the little trousers, the socks, even little shirts sometimes.

And today I was having a serious conversation with myself about all this. Is it terrible? Is it a stupid expression of personal vanity at Orson's cost? I'm not certain, because its partly about a conscious decision I made that I oughtn't let Orson suffer as a consequence of my own impatient and shambolic approach to clothes - that he must never be made to feel ashamed because his mother doesn't love him enough to dress him nicely. Of course, its all about what other people think, but what they think about him, not about me. I tell myself that I mostly don't give two hoots if people make judgements about me on the basis of my clothes, but I mustn't assume that Orson will be similarly thick skinned. Or, more simply, I have higher standards for him and can't bear the thought of anyone dismissing him or judging him as anything less than perfect.

So I am making him less comfortable than he might be in his own interests.  After all, we all know what an incredibly superficial, judgmental world it is out there (not you other mothers - you are supportive and heroic and I love you!) Every parent wants their child to feel like they fit in. But then, there all all sorts of ridiculous and toxic things that society expects, that help a child to fit in. I wouldn't advocate suppressing a child's homosexuality to help them fit in, or plastic surgery to help teenagers be more beautiful, even though these are qualities that generally help a child to get on in life by fitting them more to the mould of other people's tastes. Of course, its essential that I make sure Orson is clean and warm enough, but why on earth choose his clothes in order to meet other people's ideas of what he looks good in, rather than just choosing comfort comfort comfort?

I have had an up and down relationship with clothes and appearances myself in my life. I went through a phases in which I went so far in my rebellion against the superficial that I actually smelt, because I convinced myself that to spend effort modifying my exterior was to reduce myself, to whore myself out to other people's whims. I eventually grew up and decided that some small measure of vanity can actually offer a positive affirmation of one's sense of self worth. So its jeans and sweaters five days a week, but I occasionally put on ear rings.

So where does this leave Orson? Should I encourage him to take care in his appearance because its connected to feeling good about himself? Or shall I teach him that dressing is about sending other people a message? The trouble with fashion is I suspect its strongly connected to an in-group out-group thing. We wear clothes to signal acceptance, membership of the in-group. The wrong clothes, or clothes put together in the wrong way, trigger disgust. They make us feel that the wearer is embarrassing, dirty, disgusting.

I certainly die at the thought of anyone ever feeling that way about Orso. But I also recoil somewhat at the thought of him having to live in a world that is like that.

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