The Frump Factor

I can't explain it, but there it is. Call it the force of anti-glamor. Do you remember the Peanuts character Pig-pen? Every so often, this unrecognizable boy would show up, his hair combed, his clothes pressed and clean, and the other kids would wonder, "Who is he?" Within seconds (that is, one or two panels), however, all would be revealed. His hair would suddenly stick straight up, his clothes would come untucked and a cloud of dust would rise up around him. "You know what I am?," he once asked Charlie Brown. "I'm a dust magnet."

That's me, minus the dust. A few weeks ago, I went to Macy's (a.k.a the old Marshall Field's) and bought a number of stylish, fashionable blouses. At least, they're in style now, unlike the majority of the clothes that I wear, some of which I have had since graduate school (mainly sweaters), and they are moderately fashionable, lots of paisley and bright colors. Definitely a big change from the single-color t-shirts I had been wearing all winter, almost daring--or so I thought at the time as I modeled them for myself in the mirror in the changing room. I even went back after the first week of wearing my exciting new things to get some more (50% off--so, okay, I'm not actually on the shoppers' cutting edge), I was so excited at the thought of looking, well, something other than my usual frumpy self.

It didn't last. I'm sitting here now in one of the blouses, a frothy confection of (let me check the tag) nylon and elasticized stitching (lots of gathers and ruffles) in a striking black-green-and-yellow paisley design. To be sure, it's better (well, at least more visually interesting) than the grey t-shirt I might have put on, but looking in the mirror, I no longer see the daring younger woman of a few weeks ago when the blouse was new, just a middle-aged me in a baggy shirt. Just call me Magrat, plus a decade or so. You know, the junior witch (a.k.a. The Maiden) from Lancre.

No matter what Magrat does with her hair, it always ends up in a tangle, "like a garden hosepipe left in a shed." And clothes that look "exciting and attractive" on the shop dummies, on Magrat look like furled umbrellas (Lords and Ladies, p. 25). Worse, even magic cannot seem to do anything about her essential Magratness. No matter how strong a spell she puts on her hair, by mid-day it has regained its natural shape, "a dandelion clock at about 2 pm" (Wyrd Sisters, p. 130). Within the logic of the Discworld, this makes perfect sense. Bodies and minds have a proper shape to which they tend, a "morphological resonance" stronger than even the strongest magic. Particularly in the case of witches. Which, translated into our world-terms, means...what?

I am sure that my sister could put on these same clothes--well, if she would ever wear something as frumpy as my black-green-and-yellow paisley blouse--and look fabulous. I know, because on the few occasions I've been able to wear her clothes, the same thing happens in reverse. Something that looks like it belongs on a fashion-show runway model on her, on me looks instantly years out of date. Is it the way we hold ourselves, the tilt of the head, the straightness of the back, the rounding (or not) of the shoulders? Or is it something in our eyes that says, "Pay attention to me" as opposed to, in my case, "Nothing to see here"? Beauty, as they say, is skin-deep, but how much of being beautiful is actually an effect of what we think? If the latter, why, Magrat-like, is it so difficult for some of us to sustain it?

I love when I see women whom one might otherwise dismiss as ordinary or unattractive carry themselves with confidence and aplomb, particularly the ones who are (by current standards) slightly overweight. They so clearly enjoy being in their bodies and enjoy being themselves, they are infinitely more beautiful than the stick-figure mannequins whose photographs fill the fashion magazines. Even standing next to slimmer, canonically more good-looking women, they radiate life and joy. Maybe I'm just catching them in a good mood, but I don't think so. There is something essential, not-Magrat about them that has nothing to do with the way they look. It's about the way that they move, the sway of the hips, the lift of the chin, maybe something in their voice. I'm thinking of one of them now whom I saw in the grocery store the other day. She was definitely heavy--I would never wear a sleeveless dress with her arms--but walking behind her all I could think was how elegant and energized she looked, like a ballerina without a ballerina's physique.

Perhaps occasionally I look like that, when I am in an exceptionally good mood, but it's curiously difficult for me to sustain. I want, like Magrat, to transform myself with mystic jewelry and bewitching clothing, but somehow even the most edgy things (e.g. getting yet another piercing just this past month) cannot resist being subsumed into my essential Rachelness. What for a day or week feels really out-there and daring (interesting that I keep using that word) soon becomes simply a part of who I am, which is likely why eventually I start hankering after yet another change. My sister (who called while I was in the midst of writing this post) recommends wearing wigs, but I can just see it. For the first few days, my friends would be doing double-takes and I'd be enjoying the feeling of being a mystery woman, wild, unpredictable, don't-think-you-know-me-'cause-you-don't, but pretty soon, I'd just be me-in-a-wig, my clothes rumpling about me (I've never really learned to use an iron because what would be the point?) and the dust rising around my feet.

Rebecca (that's my sister) and I agreed that there's something important going on here, as evidenced by the way in which we go about making decisions, e.g. to get our hair cut or colored, and how those decisions reflect something that has already changed inside ourselves. Nor is it strictly accurate to say that such changes do not have a more permanent effect. Frumpy as I feel at the moment in this summer's new clothes, it is nothing on the degree of frumpiness that I felt trying on the old clothes from my closet in this week's great clean-out. I even remember enjoying wearing some of those clothes, say, 10 or even 20 years ago, but put them on now, and I cringe! Ha! That's ironic. The clothes from my 20s and 30s (okay, yes, I'm a bit of a packrat) make me feel older (and fatter) than the clothes I am wearing now. Maybe I've actually been moving the frumpiness edge ever so gradually all of these years. Certainly the metallic silver sandals that I'm saving for my trip to Summer Nationals don't look a bit frumpy...yet.

On the other hand, maybe what's happening is that I am still in the process of discovering my essential self and the sensation of frumpiness is simply a warning not to let myself get too complacent, lest I stop seeking out that edge. It's certainly a more comforting thought than the one I began with. But if this is the case, I wonder what I'll be wearing in my 50s?!

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