I Give Up
I’ve been thinking a lot about Eileen Fisher lately. Not the woman, but her clothes. The ads are so seductive: Lovely women, not grotesquely young, dressed in steel-grey linen sheaths and mushroom-hued merino cowlnecks, striking relaxed poses against a serenely blank backdrop. The clothes aren’t exactly timeless, but they’re not overtly trendy either. Eileen Fisher ads present a world in which it is possible to be comfortably elegant and unobtrusively fashionable, a world in which body-image issues might be resolved with high-quality fabric and artful draping.
This world is, of course, a fantasy world. While it’s true that Eileen Fisher’s models look more “natural” than most, they don’t look like any of the women I’ve ever seen actually wearing Eileen Fisher. A friend of mine characterizes the Eileen Fisher look, as worn by real women, as “potato sack.” Another friend suggests that Eileen Fisher is “for when you’ve given up.”
And that leads us to the question that I find myself asking, ultimately, as if I gaze long enough at an Eileen Fisher ad: Am I ready to give up? And, if I am, what exactly would I be giving up?
I’m about to turn 40. I am occasionally startled by crows’ feet, and I just discovered that my chin—never strong—is getting a bit wobbly and indistinct. I lost a lot of weight when I breastfed my daughter, thereby ushering in a sort of mid-life hotness heyday, but I have, all of the sudden, recovered all those lost pounds and then some, and they seem to be relocating primarily around my middle. None of my clothes fit right. I am not feeling terribly attractive these days.
One course of action would, of course, be a rigorous fitness and diet regimen. My other choice, as I see it, is tunics and sweatercoats—which is to say, Eileen Fisher.
The latter option has a lot of appeal—and not just because I’m lazy and enjoy refined carbohydrates, although both those things are true. I look at those simple, flowing, body-obscuring clothes and I think, Yes, I am ready to give up.
This does not mean that I am ready to let myself go. What it means, instead, is that I am ready to deal with the body that I have, rather than hate my body because it’s not the one I want.
I know, I know. This is Female Empowerment 101, right? I’m a graduate of a women’s college. I’ve read The Beauty Myth. I’ve seen Killing Us Softly. I’m a not just a feminist, but also a feminist critic—which is to say that I get occasionally paid to write about how our culture makes women crazy. I say all the things I’m supposed to say to my daughter to help her grow up strong and confident and at home in her body. But, still, in my head—and, really, somewhere much deeper and harder to get at—I harbor this idea of myself—my true self—as thin and gorgeous. And tall! That’s how absurd this vision is. Every spring, I believe that this goddess is going to materialize in time for swimsuit season. The fall fashions worn by the ideal me change over time, but there is one constant: The ideal me can wear knits fearlessly, with never a care about bulges.
But here’s the thing: I have never been thin. Not ever. I was a chunky baby and a chubby toddler. I had, in childhood, period bursts of lankiness, when my legs outpaced the rest of me, but I never stretched out to thin. Since junior high, I have vacillated between curvy and Rubenesque. So, what I imagine to be my true self has never been. That’s awful, by which I do not mean that it’s sad that I’ve never achieved the awesome goal that is being a size 0, but, rather, that I have rejected my actual body in favor of an impossible one.
It occurs to me, as I write this, how spiritually impoverished I must be if I equate thinness and a flawless face with my best possible self. There are other fancies that I entertain, unrealities that get in the way of forward momentum and emotional growth, but the idea that I will never achieve my full potential—never be happy, never be satisfied, never be authentically myself—until I am someone I have never been and will never be is the killer.
I may start working out. I may amend my diet. I may or may not start wearing tunics. But, as I approach 40—a dubious milestone, and one that’s not altogether easy to embrace—I find that I am most definitely ready to give up. Ready to give up a bullshit version of myself and be who I am.