This is the first post in a Thursday series about how my mom encouraged her daughters to have healthy body image. Read the first post here.
Instead of wandering the aisles of department stores and fighting over appropriateness, my mom, sister and I wandered the aisles of Hancock Fabrics and spent many days at the Bernina sewing. When I look back, I realize those were among our first lessons in having a healthy body image (though my mom never intended them as such).
Our first big solo project (which meant that Mom actually left the room for short chunks of time) was a colorful v-neck night shirt/dress. Mine was an African-style print in turquoise and lime green, and I still have it in a box in my old closet. I remember posing for pictures with my sister in our kitchen after we finished sewing; we were so proud.
Apart from all the lessons about hard work and starting and finishing projects, we gained many lessons that would help us navigate a culture that is often focused on body image and clothing in a negative way.
1. Sewing from a pattern teaches that size doesn't matter. I hate the new campaign that 0 is not a size because sizing is not what causes eating disorders. Sizing is just a number. Sewing our own clothes meant that even as a wiry little pre-teen I was a size four. And even then I had to modify clothes to fit myself. This leads into the second point.
2. Clothes should fit your body rather than your body changing to fit clothes. I remember the frustration as we changed dimensions of patterns as we went (it seemed so hard!) or as we hemmed a dress that turned out too long for my short frame or took in the bust of a shirt. But we never saw clothes as something you change yourself to fit. We learned that you only make or buy something if it fits or you can alter it to fit. If not, it's not worth it.
3. Find what looks good on you even if it takes time and trial and error. Some types of clothing won't work for you. It's the same with haircuts, and it took me a while to accept this truth, but it is lifestyle-changing. I love big poofy dresses and flared skirts, but they generally swallow me up. My dream wedding dress would make me look like a tiny head topping a pile of tulle. My sister, on the other hand, looks so good in the skirts I long to wear and has the long legs for dresses I can only dream about. Our sewing failures and successes helped us learn what we really looked good in, and my mom allowed us to experiment freely with different styles.
4. Appreciate where your clothes come from. It's easy to forget that someone had to make the fabric and sew it (or run a machine to do so). Making your own clothes--paying for the fabric and thread, buttons and zippers, taking the time to learn to run the machine, and spending time sewing taught me that I don't want people being underpaid to make cheap clothes. All clothes--especially good ones--cost both time and money. And there's a fairness that needs to be figured into it.
5. Appreciate well-made clothes. I learned what can happen with an unfinished hem. I learned to appreciate a well-lined skirt or dress. I learned how to look for dresses with darts in just the right places and how to know if something would fall apart in the wash. These are not lessons to be taken lightly. Sewing taught me that it pays in the long-run to buy quality, well-fitting clothes.
6. Clothes can be fun. Through the sewing machine and her lessons, my mom let us be models and designers and seamstresses. I look back at so many of the things I made and laugh at myself, but I am still proud of almost all of the garments I made. We learned that fashion is a fluid concept and that it's okay to experiment and try new things. Life is not about clothes, but clothes are important and can be enjoyable.
Though I haven't made a garment for myself in years, I know I can and will in the future. I appreciate my understanding of what clothes really are and how many possibilities there are. I don't take clothes and those behind them for granted, but I also don't overvalue fashion.
If you want to teach a girl in your life healthy body image, consider starting with something as practical as making clothes. She'll learn patience and hard work, perseverance and the pride that comes at the end. And along the way, you both may come to look afresh at the way we dress our bodies.