I used to be the girl who dressed in jeans and ratty t-shirts two sizes two big. I wore sneakers and hiking boots exclusively. I went to the hairdresser only twice a year, if that, and never knew what cut to ask for except "shorter." When I met my husband he saw potential nonetheless, and also saw me in a couple of flowing skirts that flattered my hips and evidently caught his eye. But, as a whole, he was mildly shocked at my so un-French lack of fashion sense or effort.
By the time we got to know each other well enough for him to comment on this -- which was early in the relationship because, well, he's French and not afraid to voice an opinion on such things -- I knew him almost well enough not to take offense.
"Why are you wearing that?" he asked earnestly and with mild distaste one morning as I got ready to go to work in an old, gray t-shirt that hung down past my hips. I wondered the same thing as I then looked in the mirror as if for the first time.
I soon learned that I couldn't defend my wardrobe to him and didn't want to anyway. The old computer geek t-shirts got reconverted as running clothes or tucked, for nostalgia's sake, into the back of the closet. I started to take my husband shopping because unlike every American guy I'd ever dated, he told me exactly what he thought of the clothes I picked up off the rack, and helped me find things that I felt beautiful in.
All this was new for me.
You see, I grew up in Seattle and went to high school in the 90s, and Kurt Cobain and his peers were sort of our anti-fashion icons. I wore flannel shirts that I "borrowed" for my dad or from my boyfriend, and slumped around in hiking boots and parkas. The best compliment I ever received was when I showed up at school wearing my dad's vintage tan suede jacket with an unbuttoned red plaid shirt underneath. "That is totally something Eddie Vedder would wear!" exclaimed my girlfriend, and was I proud.
I can't say I looked feminine back then but it felt better than the years of girlhood and preadolescence that I'd spent trying and failing to be "one of the girls," wearing the wrong kind of jeans, or my hair too short, or skirts when everyone else was wearing pants. In sixth grade, I and all the other girls bought green plastic Maybelline powder compacts at the drug store and spend the breaks between classes giggling in front of the mirror in the bathroom and patting makeup on as thick as we could. I felt like I could never put enough makeup on to hide the ungainly me that was trying to stick out.
Every once in a while I'd find something -- a flouncy shirt, a pale yellow sweater -- that made me feel good. Myself. And beautiful. But mostly shopping was painful self-doubt, where I'd stare at myself in the mirror in outfits that didn't fit my soul or my body and wonder just what was wrong with me.
It's the stereotype, yes, but I can't help but believe still that parisiennes just don't have this problem. This city is filled with put-together women who are stylish from head to perfectly polished toe. Since I grew up already feeling intimidated by all things clothes and accessories, I'm not worse off than I was before. Strangely, even, I'm gaining confidence now. Which runs me straight into an interesting paradox.
I get the feeling -- and please correct me if I'm wrong -- that when you become a mom in the US, you're supposed to stop worrying so much about your looks, already. You should be organizing play dates, not shopping for shoes. Forgetting the hairdresser appointment, and wearing a pony tail to the after-school soccer match. Things like pedicures are almost decadently Desperate Housewives, so don't even go there: what about the kids?
In France, on the other hand, or at least in Paris, the pressure is the opposite. After you give birth, you should get back to your pre-baby body, wardrobe, and mindset as quickly as possible. No one should be able to guess from looking at you that you're a mother. That means no giant mom-purses, no low-maintenance hair, and heaven forbid, no sneakers. And that may be fine for other Parisian moms, but it feels to me like it would be denying how much I've changed. I'm more stylish now than I was before le Petit was born, but I'm also more likely to be carrying baby wipes and band-aids.
Is it as extreme as all that? Maybe not. My particular experience certainly warps my perceptions. I'd be interested, however, to hear how other moms live these contradictions here, in the US, and everywhere else. (So feel free, if you wish, to tell me I'm completely nuts.)
Anyway, all this introspective introduction is to tell you that today I had the most remarkable fashion experience. I walked into a loft in Paris with my mother-in-law and Mademoiselle in tow. We were welcomed warmly, all three of us; there were moms and babies just like us everywhere, sitting on couches, playing on the floor. Toddlers toddled around. Infant slept in baby carriers. There was also a rack of brightly-colored dresses and tops in one corner of the room, and a couple makeshift dressing rooms. A photographer's backdrop was set up in the middle of a bright atrium. And in front of three tables set against the wall, professional makeup artists were ready to make us feel just a little more glamorous, and perhaps a little less tired, one mom at a time.
Mamanana, a web site I've blogged about before, was holding their first atelier d'essayage, and they'd invited moms of all shapes and sizes and with babies of all ages to try out their nursing wear. We would pick out outfits from their samples and later pictures would be posted on their web site to help other moms (who, you know, just might not have the same measurements as a typical fashion model) figure out what might look good on them, too.
Well, it sounds kind of cheesy, but I assure you this made me feel beautiful indeed. I found two dresses and two tops that I fell in love with. I'd brought along shoes from my closet for the pictures -- love-match shoes, the ones you never wear for anything real because you either can't or don't dare walk anywhere in them -- and they were perfect. For once, I felt like I might just compete with the parisiennes. I also felt completely comfortable stopping to nurse Mademoiselle, because everyone else was nursing, too.
Maybe that's half of beautiful is, anyway: feeling natural about it. That's pretty much what my mom's being trying to tell me all these years, anyway... and that's probably what I'll tell Mademoiselle some day, too.
[Since this reads like one big advertisement for Mamanana, I just wanted to clarify that 1) they didn't ask me to blog about it 2) that wouldn't be much of an investment if they had, since not many people actually read my blog and fewer still live in France or are currently breastfeeding, but 3) for participating in the atelier I did get a small gift and a gift certificate, which 4) I've already spent (and more) as a Mother's Day present to myself. Because, you know, I deserve it and all that.]