>Wounded Hearts and the Language of Clothes


Today (April 1) is the Feast Day of Saint Mary of Egypt, my patron saint. She is also commemorated on the 5th Sunday of Great Lent every year, in the Orthodox Church. The story of her life is read during one of the evening services the week after her Sunday. You can read it here .
The Orthodox Church holds her up as a model of repentance. She repented of a life of prostitution and spent the rest of her life in the desert, away from the city where she was so easily enslaved to her passions.

Nothing is written about her life before she became a prostitute. But the fact that she craved sex, and being the center of attention, and didn’t just sell herself out of desperation, is an indication that she might have suffered abuse as a child. And while her extreme example of repentance is inspirational, most of us don’t have the opportunity to flee to the dessert. But there is help for healing, not only through the Church, but through counseling.

Dr. Dan Allender, in The Wounded Heart, says that abused men or women often try to numb their pain…

with addictive activities, such as alcoholism, substance abuse, workaholism, sexaholism, eating disorders, perfectionism, or religious fanaticism. The common element of each is the bondage that is exercised over the individual by the object of obsession and the deleterious influence it has on his or her ability to love others.

Allender doesn’t give victims of sexual abuse an excuse to stay in these addictive behaviors, but says that “all addictions are illegitimate worship of an object and gain, for a time, a false sense of control to eradicate the ambivalence and numb the wound.”

So, I tend to believe that St. Mary of Egypt was wounded in some way, and that wound led her to prostitution. Her story mentions her craving for food, drink, and music, but it doesn’t talk about an obsession with clothes. Maybe that wasn’t such a common substitute in the fourth century. Or maybe she escaped that bondage by fleeing to the desert where clothes weren’t an issue.

In doing some research for the memoir I’m working on, which uses clothing as a narrative frame, I just found two books which shed light on the significance of clothing over the past century, especially.

First, in The Language of Clothes Alison Lurie (Random House, NY 1981) begins with the concept that fashion is “a language of signs, a nonverbal system of communication.” People often check each other out, visually, before ever having a conversation, and that visual perusal starts with their exterior…. their clothes.

Having just finished teaching an iconography workshop–and explaining to the students that painting icons is called “writing” because we are telling the “story” of the person whose image we paint, but we’re telling it with color, with paint, rather than with words–I found it interesting to read today that the French structuralist Roland Barthes describes theatrical dress as a kind of writing, of which the basic element is the sign.”

Lurie takes off from this premise to describe the “language of clothing” or the “vocabulary of fashion” throughout the twentieth century, primarily. Most of the book was just a fun walk down fashion’s memory lane, much like my recent Google search for Easter fashions of the 50s, and my search through old family photo albums for pictures of my own journey in style. But near the end of Lurie’s book, she addresses more of the psychological issues involved in clothing. I was especially interested in what she had to say about how we dress our “outer and inner selves”:

The information or misinformation we want our clothes to convey about status, age, occupation, opinions, mood and sexual tastes may make it hard for us to decide what to wear. What often happens in such cases is that the outer layer represents the external or public person and the inner one his or her private self….

I’m thinking of some of my favorite combinations that to some might seem contradictory: leather and lace…. denim and pearls… and Victoria’s Secret beneath the sloppiest of exercise clothes….. But I’m also thinking about the years I wore a head-covering to church. Even though I reined in my fashion sense a great deal during my “nun phase,” close friends made gentle fun of the fact that my head-covering (scarves) always matched whatever I was wearing. I just couldn’t completely shut down the “artist within” that was struggling for legitimate expression!

Michelle Lee, in Fashion Victim: Our Love-Hate Relationship with Dressing, Shopping and the Cost of Style (Broadway Books, NY, 2003) takes us on a similar fashion journey, but with more stops along the way to discuss body image, eating disorders, marketing strategies, and “fair trade” issues. Her obsession with underarm flab was set off by an encounter with an ultra-thin supermodel (Lee works for Conde Nast) in New York, but her description of fashion’s “thin spin” was right on target. She quotes a Harvard Medical School Psychiatrist as saying, “Of course, the fashion industry isn’t responsible for having created our culture—but this doesn’t mean that they don’t have a responsibility for what they do.”

Fashion magazines have great power, I think, over the psyches of women, and especially teenage girls. I got my first bra and cut my last molars while ingesting every word and picture in Seventeen Magazine in the 60s.

While Lee’s book doesn’t deal with the affect of childhood abuse on a young woman’s obsession with her body and clothes (and other addictive issues which I will address in my book) she paints a vivid picture of the culture in which the wounded woman-child will have even greater struggles. It was a bit comforting, in a dark sort of way (misery loves company?) for me to read these words in her epilogue:

I still occasionally look at Karolina Kurkova’s thighs in a magazine, then switch to mine, then to hers, then to mine, and wonder why hers don’t touch at the top the way mine do…. And I still suffer from innumerable Bad Clothes Days, unable to shake the frustration that I don’t have—and never will have—enough to wear. Just the other day, before meeting friends for dinner, I tried on ten outfits before settling on one. And even now, I see trends in W, Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and feel compelled to buy into them in some adolescent hope that people who see me will think I’m cool. Most likely, I’ll struggle with these issues for the rest of my life.

And she’s a size 4.


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