Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Making my clothes fit my body, not my body fit my clothes


GENDERING ONLINE SEWING, PART 1 -- This post is the first of a series featuring snippets of my Gender-Studies M.A. thesis on the online sewing community.


The online sewing community has enriched my life in many ways. Most of all, however, it has improved my sense of embodiment (i.e., how I feel in my body).

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Like many women in our image-focused culture, I have struggled with body image and weight. This is probably because I learned through magazines, television, and the Internet that a girl’s looks are of paramount importance, and that mine were somehow inadequate.
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The complex system of media and corporations that produce these damaging messages is what feminist-theorist Sandra Lee Bartky calls the “fashion-beauty complex” (a reference to the “military-industrial complex”).

Learning to sew my own clothes and adjust them to my own unique body has enabled me to distance myself from this system by giving me the power to “Make my clothes fit my body, and not my body fit my clothes.” (This is actually the title of a paper I presented at the 8th European Feminist Conference in Budapest in May.) The “problem” is not my body: the problem is the clothes.
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After interviewing members of the online sewing community, I realized that I was not alone in experiencing this change in the way I related to my body. As one blogger said: “Self-acceptance is possibly the most powerful part of the sewing and knitting blogging community. [It’s about] understanding that your hips or your belly probably aren’t going anywhere – that you’re with them for life. You can either fight it, or work with it. The better answer is to work with it.”

What about you? Have you found that dressmaking – and blogging about it – has improved your overall embodiment and body image?

Further Reading

-       BARTKY, S.L., 1997, 1988. "Foucault, Femininity and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power". In: K. CONBOY, N. MEDINA and  S. STANBURY, eds, Writing on the body: female embodiment and feminist theory. New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 129-154.

You will find in this source the concept of the “fashion-beauty complex,” among other useful theoretical tools derived from her feminist appropriation of Michel Foucault’s framework.

17 comments:

  1. Sewing has definitely given me the power to create clothing that suits my body and all it's quirks and this in turn has given me a better sense of body image and body confidence. I can now sew clothing items I would never have bothered to try on in the shops, but now I can because I can make them fit and flatter. I think once you learn the best alterations for your body and how to execute them for different patterns you learn to love yourself more and just let go, it's amazing really.

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    1. I agree! It easier to 'let go,' as you say, if you look around in the online sewing community and realise that nearly everyone has something they must adjust. Very few people can use a pattern straight out of the envelope. Seeing the adjustments of others makes you feel "normal in your abnormality".

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  2. In some ways, yes I'm more accepting of my body, but in other ways it makes me more frustrated. It is definitely empowering to know you can adjust your wardrobe to flatter your best features, and being able to control my hem depth has made me a lot more confident wearing dresses and skirts in general -- since RTW clothes for young women are often so short and sheer. That being said, having a blog and modeling my handmade clothes means having to sift through all those photos of myself, making me aware of "flaws" I didn't notice or care about before. Curating my photos is one of the most difficult parts, and I often end up upset with how my body looks in photos vs the mirror. I still have much to learn and accept!

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    1. Very good comment: I also noted in my interviews a tension between, on the one hand, the positive experience derived from making your body fit your clothes, and on the other hand, this new anxiety stemming from now having to pose and essentially become a model for your own "magazine" which is your blog. I wonder if, with time, though we "get used to" how we look, and ultimately end up accepting ourselves? Another element that came out was that with time people become more comfortable with curating their photos and some even reporting enjoying it now.

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  3. Seventeen mag isn't using photoshopped bodies anymore. This teenage chic started a Facebook campaign to overturn their over-shopped images philosophy and won. XD
    BTW wrt the 'learn to live with it' philosophy, there is a specific context within which I beg to differ: if you are obese/ anorexic and your 'body type' (for lack of a better term) is getting in the way of your leading a healthy, productive and fulfilling life, then I totally disagree with 'live with it'. My response, in that case, would be fix it by doing something positive about it. However, for aliments like sway back, scoliosis, asymmetrical structure etc, I agree with the 'learn to live with it' philosophy.
    Also, I don't have a TV, nor do I read fashion magazines but as a Biologist I can tell you that all living things (not just humans) with visual feedback capability respond differently to different stimuli. For better or worse, physical beauty (?) is one of these stimuli. If you look unhealthy, people will respond to you in a different way than they would towards a healthy person. Whether this altered response is positive/ negative may have a lot to do with the self image presented by the media but it also has a lot to do with evolution and sexual selection and the effect of the latter is too significant to be ignored.

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    1. My roommate was just mentioning this about Seventeen. Definitely a step in the right direction, but it doesn't rid the magazine of everything that was wrong with it in the first place. (I don't think a 14-year-old should be worrying about how to achieve "flat abs and a great butt" for example.) Also, I wonder if they really follow on their word re: Photoshop. But at the very least it forces them to make it less obvious.

      Good point. But the majority of people fall in the "I'm healthy but my body is far from the ideal." category. And this is what I'm referring to here. Another thing to keep in mind, is that fat is usually not as bad as it's made out to believe, as the fat-acceptance movement have shown.

      I'm open to considering this perspective. However, I'm not sure that we can evolutionarily justify the disproportionally larger emphasis on women's looks, in comparison to men's. (I.e., men's magazine feature female bodies; women's magazines also feature female bodies). I think this is best understood within a feminist framework, where a woman's value lies in her appearance, while a man's value lies in how he acts upon the world. This is because what matters overall, in the wider power structure, is (heterosexual white) men's desire and his way of seeing the world.

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  4. Nice observation Adrienne. I used to have body issues. I still do actually, and it has taken coming to the UK, and my blog to make me accept the fact that I will never EVER be an hour glass figure, and that it is normal to NOT be an hourglass figure, and that there are many ways to make myself look aesthetically pleasing to myself and consequently to others. Feeling beautiful within gives me self confidence, which in turn is picked up by those around me. theperfectnose makes a valid point about evolution and sexual selection. I believe positive self-confidence makes you very attractive to people.

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    1. It's interesting that you say coming back to the UK has helped you with body acceptance! Many people find the body pressure in London very intense. I would be really curious to hear more about your experience in different cultural contexts, and how blogging has helped you.

      It's true that feeling beautiful, confident and happy about ourselves in general radiates something much more than the objective 'way we look' or even the clothes we wear. But maybe this is the real power of making your own clothes -- it's the way we are able to feel in the clothes we make more than how the actual clothes themselves look.

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  5. Sewing for myself has definitely made me more aware of my body and how I'd like to change it. But I can also sew clothes to highlight my best features, and that's very empowering. Oftentimes people don't see that. I am often asked, "How does a person who earns a degree in gender studies end up sewing?" Drives me nutty! Why can't a feminist enjoy homemaking crafts? My crafting and baking are done mostly for myself and sometimes for others. They are not expected of me, that's why they bring me joy.

    I'm not always happy with how I am built but I find joy in the challenge of making myself look great in clothes.

    Can't wait to see the rest in this series!

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    1. I really like how you say "They are not expected of me, that's why they bring me joy." It's true that the conditions in which our foremothers were performing those activities were very different.

      Sewing can be seen as a feminist act because, as a traditionally female activity, we are keeping alive a part of women's history and feminine culture. Wouldn't it be sad if all that knowledge was lost? The same goes for baking and the recipes of our grandmothers. :-)

      Thanks for commenting! :-)

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  6. Great post! I've found some peace with my body-type through sewing: When I like my clothes, and I'm proud of them, then I'm less worried about being "stylish". Before sewing, I'd want to buy new clothes before big events etc to make myself more... confident? acceptable? I'm not even sure. Now I look in my closet and I'm excited to pull on a me-made outfit. The size of my body doesn't even come into it.

    As a blogger though, the biggest change to my self-confidence and self-image has been the process of taking LOTS of pictures of myself. I've never liked myself in photos, but I'm learning to like what I see. In particular, taking daily photos for Me-Made May really helped normalise the process of taking and editing pictures of myself. (On the other hand, I'm still not comfortable with candid shots of myself - I guess the next step is becoming comfortable with what other people really see of me, not the "packaged" look I present for blogging!)

    A couple other quick thoughts - I'm rambling now, I know! ;)
    - I really appreciate that the sewing blogosphere includes women of all ages and shapes
    - That said, the grey zone between fashion blogging and sewing blogging sometimes throws me for a loop. Bloggers with adorable shoes, cute hair, and perfect make-up standing in front of amazing photo locations can produce the same sort of shame/envy that glossy magazines do. That's more about style and lifestyle than body image though! :)

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    1. Great comments! :-)

      Your point about the intersection of style blogs and sewing blogs is especially true. Style blogs are basically a new form of magazines.

      Yes, many women have commented on the positive impact of the Me-Made challenges. I've not participated in one yet, but it's only a matter of time! As soon as I move back to Canada and recover my self-stitched wardrobe... :-)

      Also, your point about age is really relevant and I've actually been thinking that I need to think further about this dimension for my dissertation.

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  7. Lately I've been thinking about home-sewing pattern adjustment terminology (Full Bust, Sway Back, Narrow Shoulders, etc etc) and thinking it is possibly another experience when women are comparing their body to a norm. For instance instead of saying "I've got a sway back", wouldn't it be nice to say "The pattern requires too much fabric in the lower back". So as to affirm that it's the pattern that doesn't work for me, not vice versa ie: my body doesn't match measurement standards.

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    1. This is such a wonderful observation! I had never thought of this before, but you're absolutely right. :-)

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  8. I think its really wonderful that you have sparked this discussion! Just a thought - it would be really interesting to talk to perhaps some older sewers (who perhaps don't necessarily frequent sewing blogs) about their thoughts on dressmaking and body image - the reason I say that is that I wonder to what degree women who have recently taken up sewing, have done so, as part of a kind of new-wave of feminism, which means perhaps they were already dissatisfied with some of the social expectations/pressures around female bodily appearance (in contrast to a generation where most women sewed as a matter of fact). I also agree with Gillian on the "packaged" look of some blogs, as well as the presentation of an idyllic domesticity (beautiful sewing room, home baking, beautiful children wearing perfectly crafted clothing....) to me it actually seems really retrogressive in many ways, especially given the economic recession we are currently in, and the reality that many many women do not live such a (seemingly) comfortable middle class lifestyle.

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  9. This has been wonderful to read, as well as the very thoughtful comments! I love sewing for many reasons, but I still do struggle with the photographic part of the blogging experience. I'm not the most comfortable person in front of a camera! But the rewards of sewing for oneself (better fit, fabrics to get in a flutter over, and getting the design elements right to suit your personality and lifestyle) make up for this a million times to one. And I just adore seeing everyone else's creations so much that I figure people are generally paying more attention to the creation rather than what I perceive as a less-than-ideal physique.
    I really like Gillian's comments on the grey zone and overlap between sewing and 'fashion' blogs. I came across this blog a while back that took part in the 'Things I'm afraid to tell you' meme (google those words and you'll get heaps of links) that aimed to break down the space between real life and the stylised images that fashion, lifestyle and even sewing blogs promote - you know, everything looks amazing and life is always perfect, when in reality things couldn't be further from this. It was a really lovely thing to read about!

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  10. I find feminism in the European sense of the word to be extremely hypocritical. All of this talk about what the media has done to your self-image when Black people have to live with what White media has done to their own self-image every second, minute, hour, day of their lives. And it begins for Black people at birth. They learn that the same group who wants their lips, booty, brown skin, without all of the racist baggage that comes with it simultaneously props themselves up as the symbol of all that is right in the world. That by virtue of their very paleness, they are moral (perhaps we've forgotten slavery), righteous - pious - trustworthy - civilized (again, perhaps we've forgotten that pesky African holocaust or Jim Crow or Apartheid, but I digress), beautiful (especially when they attempt to embody the very beauty traits Black people naturally possess by employing lip injections, butt transplants and millions of squats and spray painting their bodies with brown liquid tint).

    Yet when a white woman feels inadequate about her own self-image, an image imposed on her by that very same white media machine, the world is supposed to see it as some great transgression or burden on her part.

    I find this to be extremely hypocritical. Do those same white women care about that same media machine that they themselves help to reinforce when it adversely affects tiny Black children? No, they do not.

    Feminism is such BS and I reject it. Luckily for me, in my culture, we're naturally pro-woman and as such, the idea of eurocentric "feminism" is pretty much useless to us.

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Thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts! Comments are moderated on posts older than 20 days, so they won't appear immediately. :-)

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