Last month I bought a bikini and lost a battle.
If your social media habits cover similar territory to mine, you may well have seen increasing discussion and debate surrounding body positivity in recent times. In my case, the inestimable @playfulday has done much to raise my awareness and provoke thought in me about the issues I have about body image. I would recommend you seek out her writing and podcasts to get a much wider, in depth view, but today I wanted to write a little about my own story. And yes, this will eventually get around to knitting- I hope you will stick with it.
In actual fact, I’ve realised that issues surrounding ‘body’ and ‘image’ are both separate and linked for me. I’ve thought a lot about my problems with the ‘image’ part- I’ve had to really, as practical and financial considerations mean that I model my own knitting pattern designs, which has necessitated finding a way to get over my camera phobia. I’ve realised that a lot of it comes down to issues of self-esteem, an unwillingness to take up space, a fear of being seen as ‘full of myself’. Maybe this is something I will write about another time.
As to the ‘body’ part, well, as a child I was blissfully free of any hang-ups with my body, apart from my hair (which didn’t curl, to my chagrin) and my eyes ( I have been short sighted since the age of 8 and hated wearing glasses). I hated having my photo taken mainly because of the shyness/embarrassment/self-esteem thing, not because of how I might look. Then in my teens I really wanted boobs, but was skinny and flat-chested until just before Kate Moss became the role model du jour, at which point I developed the curves I craved, just in time for retro, skinny-fit t-shirts and androgynous cool to become a thing…
So, pre-babies I wouldn’t have thought I had any major problems with my body. I didn’t particularly hate or feel ashamed of any part of it and I was fortunate enough to fit squarely into the (mythical, ridiculous) ‘average/medium’ category in dress size terms. However- and I find it hard to explain this- looking back I don’t think I ever really fully inhabited that young adult body of mine. I fiddled and faffed with different possibilities of style: tie-dye and hippy beads with Doc Martins; flared cords and the afore-mentioned retro, skinny-fit t-shirts; floral tea-dresses and cardigans- but somehow it was all a bit…unconvincing. It wasn’t that I wore awful clothes- I just never seemed to fully commit. The feeling of ‘this is me’ never quite reached to the tips of my fingers, the ends of my toes, the top of my head- again, like I was apologising for taking up space, so that I hunched over, curled my legs up under me, crossed my arms, trying to minimise my perimeter. Perhaps that ever-present pressure to look ‘right’ got to me in a more insidious way, so that I never felt I had to right to shout ‘Here I am! This is me!’ with the body I had.
Then…babies. Lots has been written, and could still be written, about the way that having babies changes bodies. I actually think that becoming a parent can enact both physical and mental changes on anybody, regardless of whether you are the one with the womb where the child grew- but again, that is for another time perhaps. To keep it brief, for a good number of years, probably starting from when I first became pregnant and experienced a missed miscarriage, and through the years of birthing and breastfeeding two babies, it felt as if my body was kind of on a sabbatical from myself as a person. It did all sorts of wonderful things while it was away, but communication between us was a bit sporadic during that time and by the time we were back together (and I was so happy and relieved when we were), we’d both changed quite a bit.
In a lot of ways, my relationship with my body these days is a lot better. I (more often than not) inhabit it and celebrate it to the tips of my toes and the ends of my fingers. I try to pull my shoulders back and lift my head high. I respect it and look after it a lot more. I appreciate its strength and beauty (both now and in those photos from my past). I have come to recognise how important it is to have this love and respect. In addition, having a young son and daughter I feel it imperative that I demonstrate, every day, that bodies are amazing, beautiful, diverse, to be respected and to be inhabited. And I thought- hoped- that having reached the grand age of 42 I was wise enough and battle-scarred enough to have stopped giving so much of a fuck about what people (these mythical ‘people’ whose gaze we worry so much about) thought. Even in this age of social media, where the drip-drip of images of perfection is like a steady rain throughout each and every day.
If you’ve got this far- well done and thank you for sticking with me. I will now actually talk about knitting!
I am always trying to learn and evolve as a designer and in recent years I have been designing more garments, where before I’d say accessories- in particular hats- were my main game. Designers have to negotiate a tricky path, taking into account their own, unique, style aesthetic; trends and fashions (no-one wants to be a bandwagon-jumper or commercial sell-out, but we do want to actually sell patterns, after all!) and the needs and wants of their potential audience. When I started to design garments, rather than hats or mittens, it felt like, along with the many more measurement points on my spreadsheet, the complications of those audience-consideration elements mushroomed in a similar way. How many sizes should I be writing for (I usually do seven, but always have a slight guilt that it should be a couple more)? If I design a garment with these elements, that people with a certain set of proportions might be more comfortable wearing than others, am I excluding that latter set of people? But what if I am assuming that someone with particular proportions won’t like to wear a particular design, when I might be totally wrong? What I do know is: if I try and design to suit ‘everyone’, I will probably ignore my aesthetic values altogether and please no-one.
With this in mind: if you are an avid knitter of indie patterns you will no doubt have noticed the move in the last few years from sweaters and cardigans with waist shaping and often little or no ease, to no shaping, lots of ease. As a wearer of hand knits, I struggled with this at first. My chest is fairly large compared to my rib-cage/waist and I always felt that I needed something that fitted closely across my chest and under my bust to gain what I thought was a flattering look. Nevertheless, I kept seeing these straight up and down, easy fit sweaters that really tempted me. My breakthrough was probably knitting a very early, prototype version of what would become ‘Marmalade’. I knitted it with a ton of ease and the restrictions of the stash yarn I used meant that it also came out waist length, if even a little cropped. That would have been a huge no-no with me before, but I have worn the heck out of that sweater. I have also gone on to adopt a hefty, straight up and down and loads of ease aran sweater that I knitted my husband years ago (he never wears it, so I’ve claimed it). I love the cool, 60s beatnik style I think it has with cropped black trousers (not to mention that it’s super-warm) and I somehow don’t have any of the worries of looking ‘like a shapeless blob’ that I would once have expected.
I don’t know. Maybe the wheel of fashion has just turned and I am seeing things differently because of its influence. Maybe the way I look at myself has changed. Maybe I was just plain wrong about how boxy and cropped style sweaters would look on me! I know I’m not alone though, as in the midst of Carbeth fever, I read many accounts of people feeling uncomfortable about the idea of wearing this simple, stylish chunky sweater exactly as Kate Davies’ originally showed it- wide and cropped. Lots of people adapted the size they chose so that it fitted more closely or had more length. And after all, this is the joy of making your own clothes- being able to create a garment just as you would like it.
When it came to writing the pattern for my own sweater pattern, ‘Marmalade’, I stuck to my seven size range and I also stuck to the ‘lots of ease and hitting just at the waist’ proportions of my original prototype. I ummed and ahhed over how to write the sizing advice and, in the end, I more or less said “it’s up to you”. This isn’t me copping out, I promise. What I do is explain how to choose a size that will give you a similar fit to the one that I model, but also point out that if you that doesn’t look like the way that you would wear a sweater, it’s more than possible to adapt. For example, the shape of Marmalade if the size chosen gave neutral ease would be pretty similar to Barnoon (although the yarn, and resulting fabric of Marmalade is thicker, so the look wouldn’t be exactly the same). It would also be really easy to add or take away length from the body if that was wanted. And I may have modelled the original, but there is nothing to say that this is a design that can only be worn by women.
And now to return to the bikini:
We were about to go on our first ever ‘hotel by the beach’ holiday as a family this year, and I thought it was about time I bought some proper holiday clothes, rather than cobbling together what shorts and vest tops I could find, along with my functional, sensible, one piece swimsuit. As was my habit, I scrolled through internet pages of tankinis- the ‘holiday, but safe’ option in my mind. Then I was suddenly seized by the idea that I should buy a bikini. Now, I rarely, if ever, wore a bikini back when I arguably had what would be (repugnantly) termed ‘a bikini body’. But this, I felt, was more reason why I should wear one now. “I should show my children, and the world, all that stuff I said above about bodies being beautiful and worthy of respect” I thought.
I chose one with retro-style big pants and underwiring in the top. I tried it on at home and stood in front of the mirror channelling curvy, 1950s filmstar vibes. I reprimanded myself for focussing on the dough-like quality of my midriff, the navel like a drawstring bag when I engage my stomach muscles. I packed it in my suitcase with a tankini I already owned and the functional, sensible one piece. I scrolled through images on Instagram of accounts championing positive body image and read articles along similar lines.
On holiday, I wore the bikini once. I wore the tankini for lying by the pool knitting and the functional, sensible one piece for swimming in the sea with my little guys. I didn’t comment on it the one time I did wear it, nor did I mention anything to anyone about why I didn’t put it on again. However, as we packed at the end of the week, I picked it up and said, neutrally, “I only wore this once” My daughter, with the clear sight of a seven year old, replied, “Yes, but you didn’t really like having your tummy out, so you didn’t want to wear it anymore”. I definitely lost that battle. I think maybe this time I bit off more than I could chew, but I’m not giving up on the war.
When it comes to choosing (and making) clothes that “suit” us (and with those inverted commas I invite you to ponder on what and who chooses what that means) I would hazard a guess that I am not alone in having battles to fight still. But when you get it right, when you find the garment or outfit that makes you feel amazing, that helps you to inhabit and celebrate every spectacular inch of every marvellous finger and toe, it’s about far more than image or body image or a shallow, self-regarding sense of ‘fashion’ or ‘style’. In that spirit I urge you to go and seek, make and wear the clothes you love- it’s worth it because you are worth it.