When I was seven, there was a tiny store in my neighbourhood that my friends and I loved to visit. It sold all kinds of novelty goods—cute Korean stationery sets too unbearably pretty to use, vintage toys wrapped in brittle yellowing plastic, jewelled stud stickers that you can buy in pairs you can stick on your earlobes for the day, packs of knock-off trading cards that all kids had a towering stack of to play a game called teks. But what I coveted the most from that shop was the book of Sailor Moon paper dolls they sold for P20.00 (the equivalent of four days’ allowance, and therefore expensive). It featured all the Sailor Scouts and included their uniform, their weapon, and two outfits, shoes and accessories. The cardboard and ink smell of it is so distinct that I’m sure a mere whiff would take me back to those afternoons when I’d pore over the details of their outfits—the folds and the flounces and the delicate expressiveness of their hands— for hours.
My love for paper dolls—mostly the clothes, really—go way back. My favourite volume of the children’s encyclopedia is the one that included a 50’s style paper doll they suggest I trace and cut out. But what I really loved were the drawings of well-coordinated dresses complete with matching hats and shoes, how they rendered pattern and plaid and the lines that indicated how it draped and cut. In Art class in second grade I was ecstatic when my teacher taught us how to make paper dolls out of file folders. I grew a mild obsession that lasted for the rest of the year, buying cheap folders and lamenting at how I’d ruin each one from frequent pencilling and erasing as I strived to make the dolls and clothes match the frustratingly clear image in my head that failed to match what I drew.
On Sundays after lunch at my grandma’s house I would go up the creaky stairs and often flipped through the dusty stacks of Betty and Veronica digests with the multi-page outfit spreads, 80s Vogue, Sears Catalogs and Simplicity patterns. At first I wasn’t really looking at the models, but seeing clothes on actual people, I then began to imagine myself and how I’d want to look like and what I wanted to wear, which, even back when I was young, was starting to become a source of frustration. By the time I was nine I’ve outgrown the teen’s section. But then again, in Manila, clothing is sized very small.
I had a lot of ideas for outfits. In the stories I tried to write in sixth grade, I often described the characters’ clothes down to the colour details of their skirt and the heights of their shoes and not advance the plot anywhere else. The story began and ended with the clothes. I loved indulging my interest in fashion more as a concept than in actual clothes, partly because imagining them feels more infinite than my reality—a reality where I was made to wear a really frumpy flower girl dress with ridiculously huge puffed sleeves and peach satin accents and an equally ridiculous matching hat with netted peach flowers and fake seed pearls that smelled like fresh paint and was too small for my head (ha, can you tell I resent this dress SO MUCH?!). Or a reality that had me red-faced and fighting tears in fitting rooms in frustration about the scant collection of plus size clothing available that I actually wanted to wear.
Fashion drawings were an escape, but it was not until the mid-2000s that I actually considered drawing fat folks in awesome clothes. Discovering zines, feminism, riot grrrl, fat acceptance and the body liberation movement propelled me to rethink my love of clothing concepts and designs in terms of my own body, of bodies similar to mine, and how clothing becomes even more of a statement when fat people wear it. Even more when fat people of colour wear it. In my images, I want to explore the breadth (pun intended) and depth of beauty possible that fashion/fatshion drawings and illustrations can express as my process expands to include research in rendering fabrics, weaving, stitching and clothing history. But perhaps more than that, in the true spirit of my art practice, it’s an ongoing conversation with my younger self, making up for lost time, transforming fashion drawing from an escape to a possibility. There is a huge power in creating representations for oneself. I think drawing fat people of colour in cool outfits made me look and see myself better—though my wardrobe is hardly close to the awesome pattern mixing explosion my illustrations are (it’s getting there!), I’m actually more comfortable with the way I dress.
Keet Geniza is an artist born and raised in Manila. Her art practice that centers the intertwined processes of making, shifting and loving as a queer, brown, pinay femme immigrant through representational art and illustrations, comics, writings and zines. Her practice facilitates her ongoing quest to untangle and reconcile the roots of past woundings, explore and transform her engagement with solitude and invisibility, and navigate the cusps between personal heritage and narrative reinvention. Her works and sketchblog can be found on makeshiftlove.com and her Instagram @makeshiftlove. She currently lives and works in Toronto.
I’m pregnant, which means that I’m fatter than I was before, and I’m insisting upon finding this a cause for delight. I’m doing this stubbornly and triumphantly, and I’m not demanding that anyone else do the same, because I know that finding oneself attractive is tied up in a whole complicated network of privileges. But this privilege is one everyone deserves and one I dare to hope that one day everyone will have, and I promise to work toward a world in which this is possible.
So I’m 16 weeks pregnant, and although it’s been weeks since my pants fit, for the first time someone came up to me and congratulated me – though she’d been unsure whether to do so, she said, because I’d been working on my comprehensive exams and she imagined that being holed up all early winter doing that work might make someone look pregnant when not. Luckily, though, I am—which is strange because never in my life did I imagine I would one day be. I grew up not wanting children because I then believed you had to make a choice between children and a rich intellectual life. Then I thought maybe I wanted to adopt. Then I thought I wasn’t sure. Then, last October, I told my partner that I wanted to have a child right now. He asked to think about it for a week and—because there was no way to determine if it was the right choice or not—decided we might as well abandon ourselves to yes. That month we tried, and that month it worked.
Which means that not only does this feel miraculously lucky but it also has the benefit of feeling uncharted. Though obviously others have been pregnant before, I never have been—and because it’s me, it feels to me deliciously oxymoronic—since I’ve never once seen a pregnant woman and thought: maybe one day I will be like that. I have always thought of a pregnant woman as other than me: “Oh, there’s that kind of person, a pregnant one.” Because I’m mixed-race and queer, white-passing and straight-passing, I thought I was familiar with the practice of appearing to myself as my other. But now it feels like that wasn’t, until now, true.
I’ve been wanting to contribute to The Curated Body for a while, but I had been too shy because I know little about fashion. I started talking about fashion with Addie because I wanted to think about finding ways of dressing that might signal to others that I’m queer. I’ve been identifying as femme, but I realize I’ve just done it by default: because I’ve been seen as femme by others, and because I found “femme” a good way to describe my straight-passing queerness. I wanted to learn from Addie about ways of dressing less femme and/but more fashionable, and so she began to give me fashion assignments, and I promised to write about them on here.
Now that queer-dressing assignment is temporarily on hold—or about to transform—because I have a new fashion assignment presented by my changing body, which no longer can really wear my clothes. The most interesting thing about this body is that it is (or soon will be) no longer thin.
Until now I’ve always been thin, by which I mean two things. First, that I have thin privilege: that my body’s always been a conventionally “desirable” size. Second—and this one is rarer and maybe more interesting—that I’ve almost always felt thin. Though there have been exceptions, especially during periods of depression, the fact is undeniable that compared to my friends, even to friends who are objectively thinner, I’ve struggled much less with feelings that my body was too large. When I’ve felt ugly, it’s been for other reasons: my hairy legs and eyebrows and chin, my abundant wrinkles that for some reason other people pretend not to see. The truth is, though, that after age eighteen or so I mostly haven’t felt ugly. When I was a kid I was unpopular, then in an abusive relationship: recipes for “ugly.” But then I went to college, and “unpopular” slid seamlessly into “artsy,” and when I was nineteen I took Intro to Queer Studies and found my people and discovered a magical thing called theory, which emphasized that almost everything about the body was a fiction, especially sexual attractiveness—which suggested to me that if I thought I was hot then I would be, even if I didn’t wear makeup (I was too unpopular ever to learn) or remove my profuse facial hair. And (because I was also young and cis and light-skinned and able-bodied, etc.) it turned out to be true.
And I want to believe that it’s really, really true: that people can be attractive just because they think they are. That—just as Butler argues that gender has no necessary relation to biological or material fact—attractiveness doesn’t either.
Since then it’s always been easy—if inconclusive—for me to assert this with regard to my own body. I’ve decided in the last few years that my sense of myself as attractive has very little to do with how I actually look and much more to do with the messages I got from my mother, a South Indian satellite engineer with a PhD from CalTech. Though she emphasized that it was very important to worry about my grades and about whether I was successful, that success and intellectual achievement were necessary prerequisites for happiness—she never once suggested that my appearance was relevant to anything. For my mother, who also doesn’t know how to wear makeup, appearance—at least this is what she communicated to me as a child—is irrelevant to a woman’s well-being. Looking back, I can’t imagine a more important gift for a mother to give her daughter: the belief that her mind is everything, that it will get her everywhere. Even, it turns out, to a belief in her own beauty.
Case in point—I meant to talk about my body in this post but I am talking about ideas. But now that I’ve written this, maybe in the coming months I’ll write more about style, about the exciting formal constraints of a larger belly, larger breasts, a lack of clothes that fit, a lack of money to buy many more. There’s a really cool used maternity clothes store, ReBlossom, in my town, and on a snow day last week I was bored and drove there, for the first time, over the icy roads, and I bought the clothes that inaugurate this new era: a maternity pencil skirt with a giraffe (I think) print, for example, and flared jeans that are too short, though I’m trying to pretend I want them that way.
I’ve always been sort of reckless and lazy with my style because I’ve been afraid that if I think too much about it I’ll lose my handle on the crucial fictional trick, described above, that allows me to be sexy. But the truth is that I love fashion and want to take part. As I grow more pregnant, and post-pregnant, and after that, as I age, I want to inhabit a fashion that does not disguise the unruly or excessive features of my body—graying hair, profuse hair, wrinkles, stretch marks—but does celebrate its own constructedness.
I’m excited by the prospect of getting larger and being maybe a little fat—because, though I understand that this is not the same situation as possessing a body that is already read as fat—and though I understand that it’s because I possess significant thin privilege that I am excited to become fat—my relationship to fatness has always been one of solidarity, a desire to act in alliance—and allies, we’ve learned, are not the same as comrades. If I can understand myself as beautiful while fat, I somehow think that it’ll be the beginning of more triumph for us all.
Though I’m an unabashedly confessional writer, this feels strangely like the most revealing, embarrassing thing I’ve ever written—maybe because writing about fashion is stigmatized as frivolous. Or maybe because I’m writing about being happy, and not manic, just happy. Or maybe because for a woman to call herself pretty—especially when she’s not a model or anything, just a regular-looking person with dramatic ideals—feels like breaking a rarely-spoken taboo. Regardless, it’s sort of nice to imagine that the ways of productively embarrassing oneself are abundant, maybe endless. Here’s to the conversations to come.
Shamala Gallagher is a poet and essayist. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in Poetry, Black Warrior Review, The Missouri Review, Verse Daily, Copper Nickel, West Branch, Eleven Eleven, VOLT, The Offing, and The Rumpus, among other journals, as well as in the anthology Completely Mixed Up: Mixed Heritage Asian North American Writing and Art (Rabbit Fool Press, 2015). Her chapbook I Learned the Language of Barbs and Sparks No One Spoke was published by dancing girl press in 2015. She holds a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas-Austin, and she has received fellowships from Kundiman, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Vermont Studio Center, and the New York State Summer Writers Institute.
Shamala grew up in an Indian/Irish American family in a predominantly Asian American community of San Jose, California. She has worked as a case manager for homeless families in San Francisco and for HIV+ individuals in Austin, TX. She has volunteered and worked in several domestic violence shelters, and she has taught writing workshops in public schools and community centers. She currently teaches creative and critical writing at the University of Georgia in Athens, where she’s pursuing a PhD in English.
My style metamorphosis began on a crisp and cloudy mid-January morning back in 2011. I had a date planned for later that evening with a man I’d been existing in a liminal space with for over ten years, as a friend-then-lover-then-friend; in that moment in our lives we were oscillating once more from the Friend space back to the Lover space. There were still many things about him that frustrated me, but it was his tendency toward last-minute cancelations of our plans that undid me the most. Even though he always had good reasons for doing so and eventually made each incident up to me, it wore my self-esteem down just that bit more each time it happened; it felt as though I could never be good enough for him to unambiguously choose me over all the other incidental things that seemed to keep coming up in his life, no matter how I tried to prove myself worthy of that commitment. As soon as we decided to tentatively try us out again that January, I found myself already dreading the inevitable moment when he would call me to explain the next thing that meant he couldn’t see me that night. I considered, several times over the course of the day, outright canceling the date.
In the end I decided to leave our dinner plans alone. But I also decided, in the moment of that choice, to give myself some of my power back in our dynamic, in a way that seemed trivial at the time: I decided, rather than only getting dressed up in the evening for our date, that I would dress up that morning, for myself, and feel pretty the whole day simply for pretty’s sake. That way, if he bailed on me again, I would still have had a fantastic time feeling like my best self, and wouldn’t have needed him in order to touch that. And if he didn’t back out of our plans, then I would have had the pleasure of feeling brilliant in my clothes twice in one day. So I put on a bright yellow strapless shirt printed with pink flowers and dark wash skinny jeans, and went about my day as usual. That particular happened to be a day I’d earmarked for housework, and so nobody except my sister and a visiting friend got to see me in the outfit that changed my life.
In that moment—looking beautiful while doing chores—the personal movement I now like to call Every Day’s A Cute Day was born. I joke with my friends and coworkers that I should really have that line trademarked, because it so defines how I go out in the world that it feels like a patentable modus operandi. That January day I felt so brilliant being pretty all day that I decided to do it again the next day, and then the day after that; before long it became something I lived, no longer something I was merely experimenting with. I began to play with different clothing styles and looks: shirt-dresses and leggings, shift dresses and Converses, baby doll dresses and Mary Janes. I began clipping flowers into my hair—fake ones, of course, but still—and buying bright, colorful pashminas to complement my dresses and shoes. I gradually traded in my jeans and T-shirts in for dresses and skirts, and expanded out of the five-color palate I adhered assiduously to back in my New York days—black, white, brown, blue, and green—to the wide spectrum of colors I now live inside of in my current life in Philadelphia.
The signature, almost uniform, daily style I currently inhabit is a dress, a scarf or pashmina, and a pair of Converses. I own ten pairs of Converses in a range of colors, some multi-colored—easier for matching with the rest of my look—and my scarves and pashminas live on about seven or eight hangers balanced on my closet door, five to six pashminas per hanger. I don’t wear pants outside of my apartment anymore. The dresses don’t always have to be particularly unique or loud—one of my favorite dresses right now is a basic black shift dress—but the pashminas and Converses always do, in order to either set off or mute the effects of the dress. For winter, I add tights in dark colors—I keep the dress as the main event—and a richly-colored winter jacket, crimson red, royal blue, ripe plum. Though I disliked them before, this year I have finally started to come around to maxi dresses, especially empire-waisted ones that fall loosely away from my tummy and settle comfortably onto my hips. And I no longer wear anything shorter than a third of the way up my thighs; let’s just call that grown ladies doing grown things.
I like dresses with unique front or side details—usually bows, but sometimes a large flower or a spray of buttons, maybe a sewn-on belt buckle. I adore pockets, and have more than once been happily surprised to discover pockets in a dress I didn’t at first know had them. I am partial toward floral patterns and large prints: shoes, bicycles, stars so bright they seem to explode out of the fabric. Rather than put them away in vacuum-sealed packets like many of my friends do, I unabashedly winterize my summer dresses: I have gradually accrued a collection of long-sleeved thermal shirts from Uniqlo in an assortment of colors that either match or fashionably mismatch most of my dresses, and so I can now wear these dresses comfortably whether it’s beach weather or blizzard conditions. I rarely buy striped dresses unless they are navy and white—whether white on navy or navy on white, my closet tells me that this doesn’t seem to matter—and I nearly never wear pencil dresses, as they do not flatter my body type, but if the fabric is firm and there is enough lining inside then a body-hugging dress has occasionally ended up a true and surprising knockout.
Where I bought it, when I bought it, why I bought it— every dress I own has a story. Macy’s, August, wedding; Banana Republic, October, work; Amazon, December, concert. While as a general rule I hate shopping with other people, I will break this rule on occasion for my sister, and for one of my close friends in particular, Lynn, with whom cute dress shopping is one of our favorite bonding activities. Some of my best Philadelphia memories over the years, since properly settling into my life here and ending my habit of commuting back to New York each weekend, are of dressing room conversations at the Macy’s in downtown Philadelphia with my sister and Lynn. Not as many of my scarves and Converses have stories, but when they do have them they are equal to my dresses’ stories in emotional weight. The blue and silver scarf I sheepishly bargained for at a marketplace in Egypt, while with friends from high school the day after one of our other friends got married. The shiny imitation-patent leather Converses I bought at 70 percent off at an outlet mall in California, the day after spending New Year’s weekend with friends from college. The purple and pink Converses my coworkers gave me as a gift at a surprise dinner for my 30th birthday, which was the first time I had ever owned multicolored Converses.
That initial moment, back in January 2011, of giving as much space to myself as I would another person, laid the groundwork for an existence where space for me in the world feels like my right, and not something I have to earn. Today, there is no way to be in the world except completely present, rather than the invisible I endeavored so hard to be for so long. And my world has, in turn, come not only to appreciate me, but to make space for me. A few weeks into my new job a couple of years ago, for example, I unexpectedly crossed paths with one of the department’s higher ups at the Keurig machine while I was still in my Converses; mortified at being caught looking so casual barely a few weeks in, I stammered out after our morning greetings that I had real shoes at my desk that I was about to put on. She replied, however, that the Converses were such a fabulous and obviously deliberate element of my style that she didn’t want for me to ever change into “real” shoes unless a formal event. So I now wear my Converses at work, one of the spaces most universally understood as a space one should never expect to be oneself; it perhaps says a lot about this particular office, that it is the kind of place that protects the self, and among all the things I will be grateful to them for in the grander sum of my life’s things this will be one of the highest.
Consistently knowing that I looked great—because I had put effort into it—meant I gradually began acting that great all the time in my interactions with others. Now, many years later, I am confident and unflinching from the world in all moments, even on the rare occasions on which I am out in the world in what I like to call my Sister Wife dress, which is a badly-fitted navy blue dress whose arms run past my wrists and hem strikes just above my ankles, and which never gets worn outside of the house anymore except for short jaunts to pick up my takeout order from the pizza place around the corner from me. I am now insistent that it is no virtue to ration out the days when one gets to feel amazing in the world; I used to do this, as though there were only so many ‘great’ days in a year and I had to be careful to assign them out across my life evenly. “Every day is a good day to be your best self,” is another line I often use to explain my insistent commitment to my style aesthetic. Every Day’s A Cute Day gave me an omnipresent confidence, but the most important knock-on effect of being my best self in my style aesthetic was to grow what I believe to be the most important thing to being a happy person in a complicated world: an honest, compassionate, and appreciative relationship with myself.
Michelle Chikaonda is a nonfiction writer from Blantyre, Malawi, currently living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She has won the Literary Award for Narrative Nonfiction of the Tucson Festival of Books, the Stephen J. Meringoff Award for Nonfiction of the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics and Writers, and the Archie D. and Bertha H. Walker Scholarship for writers of color from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. She is currently published on the Philadelphia-based website, Philly Love Notes, and in the Oracle Fine Arts Review of the University of South Alabama, an essay for which she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Michelle graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2006, with a major in International Relations and a minor in Creative Writing; you can learn more about her at her website, www.michellechikaonda.work.
Today is Christmas Eve. Last night I had a dream in which I was strolling through a luxury department store in a grand shopping mall, say, Nordstrom or Neiman’s. A sharp-dressed stylist suddenly appeared in front of me. He pointed at me and said, “You’re wearing Marchesa. You must be rich.” As I recount this dream, I’m struck by the fact that I dreamt of a designer who exists, but who I’ve not thought much about. The name Marchesa has never been a name I’ve uttered, and Marchesa’s designs are none that I’ve spent any amount of time thinking about. The sharp-dressed man ushered me away to a different designer’s displays and collections. He told me the name of the designer I was to dress myself in quickly, but it’s not a name that remained once I awoke. It’s occurred to me now that I’ve left out a detail. In the dream, I am not aware of what I’m wearing until he points his finger at me, in the way that people who perceive themselves as important and fancy, do. Suddenly, I look down at myself, and I see that I’m adorned in expensive clothes, clothes I’d never really desire to claim, or to wear. I’m also aware of the impracticality of the top that I’m wearing, with short straps that rest off the shoulder, and that the top drapes low across my chest. Periodically I have to hoist the top up so that it doesn’t expose my breasts, and each time I do, I wonder if I’ve embarrassed myself to such an extent that the sharp-dressed man won’t deign to dress me in his clothes anymore. There’s another thought that plagues me throughout the dream. That he only chooses me because I look like I am a person of money. What if he finds out that I’m not a person of money, what then? As I agonize over this possibility, I look down at the floor, and it is only then that I notice that I’m wearing bright orange sneakers, sneakers that I’m surprised haven’t given me away yet. I am in the middle of hair and makeup when I wake, and I have no real awareness of what the sharp-dressed man ends up choosing for me to wear. In the afternoon after the dream, I type Marchesa into the search box on Google, and see nothing that resembles what I remember in the dream. Marchesa website is filled to the brim with delicate dresses cluttered with rose petals. In the dream, I am most definitely wearing separates that are embroidered with silver sequins and sheer material. What sits with me the most about the dream, though, is the feeling of being found out, how extraordinary I feel to be chosen, how inevitable I feel to be discovered a fraud, and pushed to the side. It occurs to me, then, not only that this is the tension I always feels when I wear anything fancy—sparkly shoes, seersucker bow ties, exquisite gowns—but how similarly I feel when it comes to holiday and the concept of home. How hard it is to feel that I am one with home, and yet how hard it is to not try to claim it for myself, anyway.
I’ve been thinking about a conversation I had with a friend the other day, about the types we decide we are, and what we dress those types with. Based on what we believe ourselves to be, or what others convince us we are, or whatever outside comes closest to matching what’s inside us. I remember a dress I wore when I was young, that I adored because I could twirl in it again and again. I was devastated when I was told to change at the end of the day, but mostly because of the movement we—the body and the dress—could make together. But I was also mostly raised by a single father, and so I also longed for the day when I could adore myself with the menswear accessories. When I wear makeup, I think less of it as legitimizing myself as feminine as I do something I’d wear on stage, a costume, a playful experiment with colors and shine. Makeup is as much a suit of armor as a tailored jacket. Dandyism is also where it’s at. @narsissist @fluevog @fentybeauty @ciatelondon @beautiesltd @goorinbros #whendragisateachingmoment #forstudentandteacher