What We Wear When No One’s Looking

Since the pandemic hit, I’ve been taking inventory of what style means to me, and who I dress for.

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Let’s face it: 2020 has been rough. That’s why we’re looking to find moments of joy and pleasure this summer with our new series, Summer’s Not Cancelled.
It may be vain to say, but I think I look my best in the summer. My hair flourishes, achieving the perfect volume (bigger is better) and texture (soft cotton candy) as the heat rolls through. My skin goes deep bronze, with my face begging for pops of colour on my eyes, lips, and cheeks. I stand six feet tall and I’m not one to shy away from a good heel, so summer is the time for my legs to shine. Whether I’m out for work or play, summertime affords me the liberties to really dig into my aesthetic.
But like it has so much else in the world, the pandemic has brought my usual style and beauty practices to a grinding halt. Now, even with Canadian cities slowly opening up, there are few safe opportunities to leave the house to see and be seen before summer has come and gone again. When you’re accustomed to crafting the perfect look to suit your mood or to fit a setting, what’s a girl to do? These days, my mood is generally one of seeking comfort, and my setting is within the walls of my own home. And so, I’ve been taking inventory of what fashion and beauty really mean to me, and who I dress for.
I know a lot of women going through the same kind of self-discovery. I recently wrote a piece featuring women who have chosen to eschew various fashion and beauty practices. From not wearing makeup to embracing a punk aesthetic to rocking body hair to not dyeing their greys, the common thread through each interview was the question almost each woman asked herself: “Why?” — as in, “Why am I doing this thing? Am I doing this because it makes me feel good, or because it’s expected of me so that I can move about the world in an acceptable way?”

While other women I know have found joy in setting the uncomfortable shoes aside and letting their skin breathe sans makeup, I miss the joy of putting myself together to face the world. 

Though these women made their personal choices prior to COVID-19, their voices rang out in my mind as I asked myself “Why?” during quarantine. When layered over themes of race, class, and gender expression, femininity becomes a complicated thing. Asking ourselves why we express ourselves physically the way we do, and questioning whether that expression aims to please us or others, are ways to help uncomplicate what it means to us.
Joy is an important word, and it’s part of my why. While other women I know have found joy in setting the uncomfortable shoes aside and letting their skin breathe sans makeup, I miss the joy of putting myself together to face the world. I miss the joy in choosing who my style inspiration will be each day. I miss the creative inspiration I got from having a wider set of options to be social. The absence of things to get dressed for makes me feel like part of me is missing. (I guess this is a microcosm of the grief many of us have felt with the pandemic shifting our lives so drastically over the past few months.)
I miss the joy in the quiet moments, when no one is allowed in the bathroom except for me and I can get as creative with my reflection as I’d like. I may choose to rock a smoky eye or wear nothing but mascara and a red lip. I may twist waist-length braids into a massive bun or take them out and let my kinks and curls do their own thing. I can do a lot with a midi-length bodycon dress and a pair of gold hoop earrings so big you can fit your fist through them. The joy is in the variety of telling different stories with my hair, makeup, and outfit choices. Though opportunities are few, I try to access that variety during grocery store runs or BBQs with my chosen bubble.
Quarantine life has also confirmed what I already knew to be true — I dress and present myself for myself, first and foremost. The way that my apartment hallway has become my personal runway, where no one can see my cute outfit or hairstyle except for my kids and my plants, makes it clear. I’d be lying if I said that the dopamine boost from attention from others didn’t matter, though. Aside from raising two girls and being aware that I am their first model for what womanhood can look like, the next most impactful external validation for me is the one I get from other Black women when we’re out and about. There’s nothing like the way Black women gas each other up in public. When will I hear my next “Ok, dress!” or “Yes, hair!” with a light hand touch as we pass each other in the street? I’m not sure, but I’ll relish it when it happens again. 
For now, I’ll keep wearing my big earrings and brightly coloured face masks for grocery-store runs, and I’m sure I’ll continue to entertain my neighbours with the looks I serve on my balcony. When my daughters want to play dress-up I’ll keep joining them, digging in my closet for the perfect outfit to match their style. Whether I choose to play in makeup or embrace my barefaced days, I’ll keep looking for the good light for a selfie or two. Summer is here and while it may not look the way I wanted it to, I plan to look the way I want to.

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