Thursday, January 29, 2015

In Defense of the Fashion Industry

I'm going to go forth with this blog post assuming you've all seen The Devil Wears Prada, otherwise known as one of the best films of the last century. On the extremely off chance you haven't seen it, (which you should as soon as you finish reading this post) I'll give a brief summary: young female journalist becomes assistant to the editor-in-chief of the largest fashion magazine in the nation, who is characterized as a heartless bitch. (The fictional editor-in-chief and fictional magazine are said to be heavily inspired by Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue). At the beginning of the film, the girl (Anne Hathaway) is unfashionable and passes judgment on the entire industry, but over the course of 90 minutes--which is one calendar year in movie time--begins to appreciate clothing and beauty as she adorns herself with designer brands. This is a very minimal subplot of the film, but I think it's an important narrative: I think fashion should be more highly regarded. Fashion is complex, fashion is empowering, fashion is important.

To prepare the palette for the point I'm trying to make, watch this (low quality, blame YouTube) scene from The Devil Wears Prada, which pretty much sums up how I feel about the fashion industry and why we shouldn't write it off as "vapid" or "stupid."

Okay, so with all that in mind, let's talk fashion: fashion isn't considered important because it both attracts and caters toward women. And as we know, anything that is targeted toward women is considered lesser. It starts early on: little boys play with trucks, little girls play with dollies and toy kitchens. Little boys pretend to be firefighters and policemen, little girls pretend to be teachers and mommies. Boys wear no-fuss outfits that allow them to play in the dirt, little girls wear bows and frills. It's no shock then that we grow up with premature ideas concerning our careers and passions. There is some grey area where both genders can easily settle into a niche, but many professional realms are subconsciously gendered. Whether we want to admit it or not, there are jobs that are more catered toward men (law enforcement, military, and engineering, for example) versus women (nursing, teaching, and homemaking). While of course men can be nurses and women can be cops, there's this strange underlying assumption that we as a society have mutually agreed upon. And why? What makes teaching so feminine? What makes firefighting so manly? Nothing, other than our preconceived notions. And what's even more frustrating is the subordinate nature of traditionally feminine jobs. A woman is a stay-at-home mom and suddenly her work is deemed less important. A woman is a teacher and suddenly she's settling. A woman is interested in fashion and she's shallow and stupid. Or, on the flipside, a man finds a career in fashion and all sorts of assumptions are made. Assumptions about his sexuality, his skills, his qualifications. Maybe he just gravitates toward tulle and color theory?

So there's that: fashion is generally thought of as "by women, for women," making it less important. Then there's the idea that the clothes we wear are meaningless. That's completely untrue. Clothing is a form of art and a way to inform and mediate culture. Wearing a certain color or a certain silhouette is a statement, whether or not you choose to comply. Fashion is like a painting you can wear, which is powerful. And even more powerful is the cyclical relationship between fashion and culture. Fashion takes cues from culture and in turn makes subtle changes to that culture. Repeat that process until the end of time. If you look at history, fashion has been instrumental in the development of so many new ideas and customs. Pants designed for women helped to push forward the Feminist Movement. Clothing dyed royal purple denoted social class. The globalization of products such as indigo and cotton connected nations in commerce. In modern times, the mixing and matching of clothing pieces to communicate one's gender expression. All of these things find their roots in fashion. And yet here we are thinking the clothing we wear doesn't mean a thing.

And finally: fashion is important due to its ability to empower individuals. There's little else that can compare to the feeling of wearing an outfit you love or finding a dress off the rack that fits perfectly. You simply can't make the claim that the right clothes don't give us confidence. There's something to be said for that. Confidence makes individuals--especially women--more inclined to be forward and ambitious. There's a reason they say, "dress for the job you want, not the job you have" and "dress the part." Our clothes are a key element in the way we tackle the world before it tackles us. The late (and great) Oscar de la Renta once said, "Today, women have the power to make their own decisions. She doesn’t really care so much about whose dress she will wear; she cares about how she identifies with that dress, how that dress represents [how] she feels on a particular day." Though we live in an advanced society where women are powerful, subtle misogyny still exists; anything that gives women a boost should be highly regarded. It is the chief priority of the fashion industry to give women that boost. And now I know, the fashion industry also exists to dress men and give them the confidence they need. That's important too. If a man feels more in-control in his tailored suit, that's wonderful and something to be said for. But leave it to me to take a feminist approach to things. Sorry not sorry.

So all in all, you're right: fashion isn't saving lives. Gucci and Chanel won't cure cancer. Skirts won't put out fires. High heels won't fix our justice system. But fashion isn't vapid. Clothes aren't worthless. They might not be of the utmost importance, but there's something to be said for fashion.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Ryan: I'm Sorry

Often it's counterproductive to say sorry for the things we did as fifteen year olds. Our outfits too contrived and our eyeliner too smudged, the list of missteps could fill a five subject notebook. Besides, a lot of those things we did as freshmen in high school aren't generally that damaging. Embarrassing, yes, and sometimes even reprehensible...but never that dire. I don't feel the need to apologize for how I clipped up the face-framing hair in a Snooki-esque poof or the winky faces sent to boys late at night via text. I do, however, have something from my adolescence weighing on my conscience, and I think the only way to begin to shake that feeling is to figuratively throw my hands up in apology. Specifically, this is for a boy named Ryan, with whom I am no longer in touch. This isn't for any reason other than the effects of space and time, though. I imagine Ryan is just as vibrant, talented, and pensive as he was when I met him nearly five summers ago. This apology will probably never be seen by him, and while part of me wishes that weren't the case, at the very least I hope this will educate someone else and cosmically send positive energy his way.

So, to provide some backstory, I met Ryan when I was nearly fifteen at the University of Virginia's Young Writers Workshop. It was--and remains to this day--an intensive two week program devoted to developing creative writing skills in various fields. Ryan was in the songwriting concentration, while I was in the creative nonfiction program. We knew each other, however, because we lived in the same dorm for the time we were there. Ryan, myself, and ten girls our age all shared a hallway and common living space. We all grew incredibly close, sharing secrets and singing along to songs we all knew by heart. You may be wondering why Ryan was placed in a dorm with eleven girls; that's because at the time Ryan had not come out as a transgender male. Ryan was assigned female at birth, and though he presumably always identified as male (I say "presumably" only because it's not my place to speak on his behalf, as I haven't experienced life from his perspective), he was named "Kayla" and grew up under the false pretense of girlhood.

And now here's the part I'm anxious to write, for fear of accidentally offending anyone out there. I'm trying to straddle the line between telling the story in a coherent way and not using incorrect terms. In the past year, I've committed myself to learning as much as I can about issues of gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, but forgive me if I make any missteps here. I'm still learning and I welcome the opportunity to learn more. If anything I say from here on out comes across as incorrect or ignorant, let me know.

So anyway, I knew Ryan when he expressed himself to the world as Kayla, a girl who made me laugh and played the guitar with finesse. At the time, Kayla identified as a lesbian. I wasn't at all uncomfortable with this, because why would I be? Kayla didn't judge me for anything I said or did, so why wouldn't that be reciprocal? I remember some girls on our hall having adverse feelings toward Kayla's sexuality, though. There were one or two girls who didn't want to change clothes or walk to and from the showers when Kayla was around. I can only hope and pray that in the four years since then, these individuals have learned better.

Now fast-forward to later on that same year, a few months since I'd said goodbye to my Young Writer friends. I distinctly remember being in a hotel room with my mom, for a reason I now can't remember, when I received a notification from Facebook. It was a message from (then) Kayla. It was not only addressed to me, but to many of the girls I had grown close to at the workshop. Though we had all promised to keep in touch, that wasn't really the case. Needless to say, receiving the message was peculiar in and of itself.

The message was very straightforward. Ryan wrote us letting us know that he was transgender, and because we were important to him at the time he wanted to tell us separately. He asked us to please call him by his new name and referred to him with masculine pronouns. He planned to post a Facebook status for the general public to see later on that day, but he thought we were more special and should be told privately.

I won't lie to you guys: I had no idea what that meant. I had no clue what being "transgender" was, and instead of using the power of the internet to learn for myself, I instead sat on my thumb as responses from my friends poured in. I supported Ryan in all his endeavors and was touched by his confiding in me, but I didn't know what to say. In retrospect "I support you in all your endeavors and I'm touched by your confiding in me" would've been perfect, but that's not what I said. I read my friends' responses, saying they loved him and that nothing could change that. They were all sweet and well-intentioned. I then felt confident enough to type my response. I don't remember what I said verbatim, but it was something to the effect of:

You are so brave for coming out and such a wonderful person. I love you and I miss you!
x, Lauren

And that was wrong. It might not seem like much, and some of you may even be confused. That message doesn't seem offensive or rude, but it is. Ryan confided in me and trusted me to know important information about himself before he announced it to the rest of the world. He trusted me to respect him and his wishes, and I didn't do that. Though he blatantly asked to be referred to by his new name, I called him "Kayla" anyway. And sure, what I said was seemingly nice, and if I had known any better I wouldn't have called him by the wrong name, but that's also a problem. I had the ability to educate myself and gain knowledge through non-invasive, respectful questioning. I didn't do that. I didn't take even a few minutes to learn more. I didn't care enough to make my friend comfortable. And that's awful. "Not knowing" isn't an excuse; being well-intentioned isn't enough to permit ignorance. My motives were right, my words were wrong.

And so, here's the apology: Ryan, I'm sorry. I can only imagine how poorly my response was received, as it was ignorant and dismissive of your wishes. By coming out to me, you showed an extraordinary act of love toward me, and I wish I had met you halfway. I'm sorry for misgendering you and that it's taken me almost five years to say sorry in the first place. I hope you're doing amazing things with your life. I hope you still play the guitar and I hope you're still writing songs. I hope you're making yourself and those fortunate enough to know you very happy. I hope you think of the summer of 2009 on occasion, and maybe even think of me. I hope the people you've touched through your presence have learned to be more loving, tolerant, and educated. Inadvertently you've taught me so much and made me grow exponentially.

So for those reading this, if you only remember one thing from this blog post, let it be this: words have the power to build someone up or break someone down. Speak kindly, ask questions, and make a conscious impact on those you care about. Remember that you can have your heart in the right place, but you can still put your foot in your mouth. When you do, apologies are much more meaningful than excuses.

Stay excellent.


Friday, January 2, 2015

2015 Resolutions!

(I wrote this on a plane yesterday in a Word document, and I'm only just posting it. So if the timing seems off by a day, that's only because it is)

Hello and Happy New Year, everybody! I hope you’re all optimistic and ready to tackle 2015 head-on, although I really do think 2014 went by entirely too quick. It was a great year, though: I finished my freshman year of college on the Dean’s List, I worked as a camp counselor, I became an RA, I declared my major, and I stayed single the entire time. One of those accomplishments is less exciting than the rest…

Anyway, I’ve missed you guys! Since Blogmas ended, I’d love to say I’ve been doing a lot of really exciting stuff, but to be totally honest, it was just a lot of binge-watching The Office and eating chocolate. I wish I had more things of note to tell you, but as I’m racking my brain, I can’t remember what I’ve been up to. My grandparents visited for a few days and I went to the gynecologist, but that’s hardly exciting. Also those two events are unrelated. It’s times like these when I wonder why any of you stick around; I’m not exactly a riveting person to follow.

But anyway, with a new year brings a new set of resolutions. And as is now tradition, I’m publishing my resolutions for you all to read. I heard once that telling others about your resolutions is actually counterproductive in actually accomplishing said resolutions, but I play by my own rules. Dammit, I want to tell you about my hopes and dreams! Unlike last year though, I won’t be dividing my resolutions up into categories, simply because I’m too lazy. Also because by doing that, I bite off more than I can chew in favor of rounding out every category. So without further adieu:

1) Write something noteworthy every day. Even if it’s jotting down a good metaphor or a funny quote, I’m much more inclined to tap into my store of creative energy when I put pen to paper. Sometimes an entire ten-page story is born from a sentence fragment. And as much as I love my laptop, nothing beats scrawling words in a notebook with a ballpoint pen.

2) Read at least two books every month. Every year I make a reading resolution, and every year I fail on account of being too optimistic with myself. 30 books! 50 books! 100 books! While it’s certainly doable for a true bookworm, every December 31st I end up disappointed with myself and the measly amount of books I actually consumed in months prior. So this year I’m setting the bar lower. 2 books every month is nowhere near challenging. Hopefully I can read more than that in 2015, but we’ll see.

3) Finally see One Direction in concert. That’s such a stupid resolution, but it’s something I’ve been meaning to do for the past two summers. I feel like I can’t even really call myself a 1D fan having not seen them live.

4) Continue exercising at least four days a week.

5) Eat a fruit and a vegetable every day. Drink those 64 ounces of water. No exceptions.

Well guys, I feel like five resolutions are more than enough to last me all year. We’ll see how this goes. In the comments below, let me know if you make any resolutions, and if so what those are. I think one of your resolutions for 2015 should be to leave more comments on these posts. I’m only half kidding.