Once a week, when we were small, Mom let us loose in the public library for a few hours. These were some of my favorite mornings in my memory of our elementary school years. She brought an enormous canvas tote (it could comfortably fit our three-year-old brother inside of it; the bag was a gift from our father, and he’d had her nickname—Mookie—embroidered on the side with navy blue thread). We were allowed to fill this bag to the brim with books, but we could not overflow the bag. We became strategic about how we packed our selections in the bag, ensuring that each of our carefully chosen titles would make the final cut.
We were set free inside the large, three-story library and told to meet back at a particular spot in a few hours. I went to my typical shelves (young adult fiction, baby name books, dog books, books about Japan); Grace gravitated toward the heavy art books that you couldn’t check out; and Kelsey and Sam were often found playing computer games upstairs. I have no idea what Mom did. (I hope she found a sofa somewhere and took a nap.)
I relished these hours alone, discovering books I had never heard of, pulling them off the shelves just for the joy of holding them in my small hands. The sense of independence—both physical and intellectual—from library mornings formed me deeply. I was simultaneously overwhelmed and motivated by all that I had not read. I felt (and still feel) this driving compulsion to read as much as possible before I die. When I think of this lifelong pursuit, I think of the shelves at the public library of my childhood, stretching before my mind endlessly, full of promise and provocation.
Although we were homeschooled in a strongly evangelical, conservative community, my mother was wisely relaxed about reading. In a time when her peers were throwing fits about Harry Potter or other “worldly,” dangerous books their children might encounter, she was calm about what we found to read. (She knew, as many of her fellow homeschooling moms seem to have forgotten, that censorship would only make the desire for the banned books burn even brighter.) Instead, she let us read whatever we found. She was careful about other things—like TV and movies—and we were not allowed to watch anything on a screen without parental permission (and the answer was usually “no”). But books were an open field.
I asked her once, years later, why she was so relaxed about books with me, in particular. “Are you kidding?” she said. “I didn’t have time to read everything you were reading. You read too much. I trusted that you’d figure out, in the end, what was good and true and what wasn’t.”
Buy nice hand soap. Make your home a warm and welcoming place for guests. Be a kickass business owner who isn’t afraid to negotiate, with everyone, for everything. Never settle for uncomfortable jeans, even if they’re on sale. Take care of your nails (stop painting them). Sit down and eat a good meal, mostly derived from the earth, and don’t worry so much about hard-core exercise. Tend a garden. Take walks.
Take care of your face. Invest in expensive face creams. Be proud of your family; tell them how proud of them you are whenever you see them. Create and cherish family traditions. Find your signature scent and do not deviate. Write and send cards to people on every conceivable occasion.* (*At Ma-Maw’s funeral, a woman came up to me and told me that Ma-Maw sent her dog a birthday card.)
Be direct with people about what you want; don’t hedge. Laugh a lot: loudly and daily. Tell stories and crack jokes in every social interaction. Making fun of people is a nice way to show that you care. Consider the needs of dogs, first and foremost. Take risks and do not give any weight to cultural opinions. Show off your legs.
My sister Kelsey
Be confident about yourself and your appearance. Marie Kondo your entire home; if you bring home one new thing, throw out one old thing. Reserve time for kissing and cuddling. Take care of everyone around you; be uncannily prescient about predicting others’ needs. Prioritize your own needs on a long road trip (e.g., chicken nuggets and a milkshake).
My sister Grace
See the whole damn world. Do what you want with your life and ignore conventions. Hoard creative material and ideas and make no apologies for the rats’ nest that is your childhood room/closet. Dress like you just went on a trip to Japan and found out that your life calling is to be a potter (who also owns a motorcycle and two pit bulls). You can never have too many notebooks.
My great aunt Lib
Read everything and write long letters full of great sentences. Tell stories in every conversation. Invent your own catchphrases and use them liberally. Preserve an irreverent sense of humor in all circumstances. Be a lady who gets things done and doesn’t let anyone stand in her way.
A good portion of my family came to see us on Easter weekend — to celebrate birthdays, to labor in our yard, and to provide general merriment. I can’t get over how much fun these people are sometimes. I felt like my Gran when they returned to their respective homes. She, normally of the stoic and sarcastic temperament, would always turn her face and cry a little when family left. This is what I did for a moment on Sunday afternoon, but I know we’ll see each other again soon. (And, ideally, in Europe.)
Spring is finally here, and I am grateful.
The big project: Adding pea gravel to our little fenced garden area. We will eventually add two more raised beds, but we wanted to go ahead and finish the gravel before we depart for the summer.
Didn’t the boys do a marvelous job? I’m so happy with how it turned out. To finish it up, I want to find some low-growing, flowering perennials to put around the edges.
The other day, I glimpsed the profile of a young man who was the spitting image of a freckled fundamentalist boy from my childhood. I blanched and suddenly felt a spasm of terror. It wasn’t this boy, grown up (ostensibly because this boy still lives in the basement of his parents’ house), but I was still shaken. On the whole, I had a very happy childhood, and my parents are these lovely, fun human beings, but I dislike being reminded of the community I was raised in: the fundamentalist homeschooling enclave.
Primarily, when I remember that time, I recall the crushing sensation of misogyny. Of existing in a network of people in which you have no agency on account of your gender.
To list all of the overt and subtle misogyny I faced as a homeschooled girl would be exhausting. The anecdotes and comments still rise to the surface, however, in my daily life, even though I now feel so personally and ideologically removed from that community. Being told, by an adult man, that I was projecting sexual promiscuity because I wore lipstick to church once. When a young man, just two years older than me, told me that I ought to take his plate after he finished eating, because that was my job, as a docile, submissive woman. Reading comments from two fathers of my friends, on my teenaged blog, that I was a handmaiden of the devil and an agent of whoredom for writing that my friend should not be imprisoned at home by her father for 40 days for hugging her boyfriend. Countless remarks about how I should dress, how I should act, how I should submit to and serve men and boys.
My parents, thankfully, did not force this attitude on us. I wore power suits and heels so that I could tower over the scrawny boys in debate league. My sister was a champion in hockey (arguably one of the least traditionally feminine sports). But there were still vestiges of this pressure at home, to be the good, quiet Christian woman — even though my mother modeled leadership and authority, divorced from male control, on a daily basis. My sisters and I all turned out to be independent, confident feminists, because that is what my mother is, even if she would never call herself that.
Gender discrimination is the only discrimination I’ve experienced, and so I cling to it, like a bitter badge of honor. I swap horror stories with other women. I delight in making eyes widen at parties with tales of indignities from my strongly patriarchal past.
I have become appallingly sensitive to misogynistic attitudes in other people, in art, in culture. Like my fearful German shepherd, my hackles go up at the first hint of danger and disapprobation.
If no one’s ever despised you for your sex, it is difficult to care about sexism because it is necessarily foreign to you.
Remembering this helps me have mercy on men who don’t think feminism is needed or that women have enough rights already. Most likely, these men have never had anyone oppress them because they were male; the very notion is unfathomable to them. No one has ever told them that, merely because they were born male, they are less intelligent, incapable of leadership, intended to be subservient, or a sex object open to public derision and comment. It is therefore difficult for many men to be empathetic with women on this front.
Lately, however, I have been wondering, what is the point? What is the spiritual fruit of this feeling of having escaped? What heart-based good can experiencing and enduring discrimination yield?
I think I am finally sensing the beginning of such fruit in my life. It is the first time I have been able to say the word mercy in conjunction with the men, both known and unknown, who have belittled me. I probably won’t ever forget the comments and attitudes espoused by the homeschool patriarchs in my past life, but with this added understanding, I can forgive. And that is surely a place to start.
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
Questions lifted from the very excellent book Women in Clothes, compiled by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton, which I bought for myself as a new year’s present and have been happily devouring ever since.
What do you admire about how other women present themselves?
I love seeing a woman who seems to really know her sense of style, and thus, herself. I love seeing a woman who is committed to a particular look, too, even if it’s not the style I’m personally aspiring to achieve. I like to see a woman walk down the street with her head held high.
When do you feel at your most attractive?
In a perfectly fitted dress, and in heels, although I hate to admit it. I only wear heels at dressy functions and for a very short amount of time, but I love feeling absurdly tall, taller than or as tall as most men in a room.
Are there any clothing (or related) items that you have in multiple?
I have five blazers and I still want more.
How long does it take you to get dressed?
About 30 seconds, because I lay out my clothes for the work day every evening. But it takes me about 45 minutes to get dressed, do my face, eat breakfast, read, and take care of the dogs on weekdays.
What are some dressing rules you wouldn’t necessarily recommend to others but you follow?
Cut out colors and most patterns from the wardrobe. I am following this rule with more dedication this year, but I would never call it a universal rule. Many (most?) women look great in a wide range of colors and prints, but I’ve decided to stick to neutrals. These days, a spectrum of blue is about as much as I want to venture into color.
What are some dressing or shopping rules you think every woman should follow?
Only buy what sparks joy. Only wear clothes that flatter your body (which is a rule I’d like to observe more devoutly). Reject all garments with glitter.
Do you consider yourself photogenic?
What is your favorite piece of clothing or jewelry you own?
Clothing: Gray silk blouse from Everlane. Jewelry: My wedding/engagement rings, which belonged to Guion’s grandmother.
What’s the first “investment” item you bought?
The Oxford shoes from Madewell, which were about $175. I know some people wouldn’t consider than an investment item, but it was to me.
Was there a point when your style changed dramatically?
I’d say now, actually. I’m becoming more thoughtful and intentional about the choices I make when it comes to what I wear. My style was unremarkable/nonexistent in college; I bought cheap things on a whim, usually just because they were on sale. My college roommates used to tease me that everything I owned was in a jewel tone. I had this hot pink cable-knit, crewneck sweater that I wore forever, despite the fact that it was hideous on me. I shudder to remember these things that I held onto for so long.
Do you care about lingerie?
Deeply. I am always ready and willing to shell out a big wad of cash for a great bra. Bras are so important! My mother has always told me this. You wear a bra every day (or, most of us do), so it ought to be an excellent garment. I have a handful of sturdy, utilitarian bras, but I have a particular weakness for lacy, unsupportive lingerie. I am just about small-chested enough to get away with wearing flimsy, lacy little things on a regular basis, and so I do. I’m very basic when it comes to grunders, however; I only wear black, gray, and neutral cotton bikinis. Thongs are abhorrent to me, and I also maintain that they are unnatural and unhealthy.
What are you trying to achieve when you dress for the world?
I hope to project a confident, competent woman. I want to be taken seriously as an adult human being, and I think my new wardrobe goals are striving to communicate this.
How has your background influenced the way you dress?
Growing up homeschooled meant that you grew up in a fashion vacuum. We had no idea, really, how modern kids were supposed to be dressing. Our peers wore a wide range of clothes; some looked like “normal” kids on the Disney Channel, as far as we could tell, since we weren’t allowed to watch it; others, especially girls, looked like they were straight out of Little House on the Prairie. My sisters and I were always instructed to dress “modestly,” but my parents were not big on rules, thankfully.
I vividly remember the one time I was told I couldn’t wear something. I was 13 or 14, and I’d purchased a gray mock-neck sweater dress to wear at Christmas. I wore it to my grandparents’ church, with black tights and new black shoes, and I felt pretty. But when we got home, my mother pulled me aside and said that she and Dad had agreed that I wasn’t allowed to wear that dress anymore. I was shocked. I couldn’t think of what could possibly be wrong with it; my arms were covered up, even most of my neck was shielded. I protested. “Well,” Mom said, “you have… um… a young woman’s body now, and your father and I feel that the dress isn’t appropriate and could cause young men to… stumble.” (“Stumble” was always the operative evangelical word for boys getting horny from looking at the female form.) I was mortified and totally grossed out. I never wore the dress again and felt sad and confused whenever I remembered it.
I tell the story to explain the context of “modesty” in dress that I hail from, but my parents were, in comparison to the vast majority of homeschooling parents in our community, quite generous in what they allowed us to wear. There was the sweater dress incident, and once, Mom and I had a fight over a tank top I’d bought with lace trim, but that was it. We didn’t fight about clothes; we were extremely obedient kids. My sisters and I didn’t give them any trouble when we were at home, regarding what we chose to wore. We didn’t watch TV and we didn’t have a ton of peers, so we had no desire to wear a corset and fishnet tights to church to be “cool.” “Cool” to us was having a big evidence binder on medical malpractice policy and a really rad journal to write your devotions in.
All of this is to say that I feel much more freedom about clothes now than I did growing up. I dress to please myself, as a free agent, and I no longer worry about the censure of my community.
Have you ever dressed a certain way to gain a sense of control?
Absolutely. One example comes to mind: I competed in team policy debate during high school, in which swarms of ultra-nerdy homeschoolers pretended to be little lawyers. Dress codes, for girls, were strict. Most girls wore floor-length or calf-length wool skirts, but I always wore a pant suit and heels. I had a short (male) debate partner, and I deliberately chose heels every time, to feel more powerful and to revel in the fact that I was so much taller than him. I towered over our opponents, too. And I daresay I got consistently great speaker points. I think it was mostly for the power suit and pumps.
What are some things you do to feel presentable?
A swipe of lipstick always makes me feel more presentable.
Is there a part of your body that feels most distinctly you?
My legs. I don’t have particularly pretty legs (they are extremely thin, mapped by a network of prominent blue veins, and I have a number of dings and scars), but they are very long. Since I acquired them as a teenager, I have always been proud of how disproportionately long my legs are.
With whom do you talk about clothes?
Grace and Jonathan. They are my style guides and muses.
Can you say a bit about how your mother’s body and style have been passed down to you, if at all?
My mother is a very beautiful and classy woman, and in her post-homeschooling days, she’s also become very stylish. When Grace was still at home, she did a serious closet overhaul with my mom and made her throw away all of her homeschool regalia (denim jumpers, baggy skirts, old sweaters) and start dressing in modern clothes. Ever since then, Mom has looked like a million bucks.
I am not as pretty as my mother, not by a long shot, but I did inherit her body, which I am grateful for (even with all its bizarre, specific quirks). I’ve found this to be helpful, because we know that what looks good on one of us will probably also flatter the other.
What is an archetypal outfit for you — something you would have been happy wearing at any point in your life?
Dark jeans and a white or blue button-down shirt. I don’t know why, but even as a young teen, I have loved a button-down shirt. That’s all I wanted to wear when I was 14, but I was often dissuaded by the price tags on the most beautiful shirts, so I defaulted to Target clothes for most of my young life. I like recalling this about myself, because this is the basic style I want to return to, and knowing that I have always loved it makes it feel particularly right.
What are you wearing on your body and face, and how is your hair done, right at this moment?
I’m wearing a chunky-knit, oversized cardigan from Zara; jeans from Gap; a dark gray v-neck sweater; and black equestrian-style boots. My face is bare, save for a swipe of blush, a touch of eyeliner, and Burt’s Bees lip color (shade: fig); errands day, so my face is more minimal than it is on a typical work day. And my hair, freshly washed, is at its most curly, so it’s pinned up at the sides.
While recently enjoying a lovely weekend with my parents and sisters, I was struck again by my exclusion from the family way of fitness. My mom and sisters look like Athleta models. They are tall, toned, strong, and have impeccable posture. I am also tall, but I am weak and stiff. When I have joined them in yoga classes, I am the inflexible duckling, and they are perfect yoga swans. (Grace is particularly intimidating, as she is a licensed yoga instructor, and just about everyone looks like a toad next to her.) On Saturday morning, the three of them went to an intensive yoga class and cajoled me to join them, but I went with Dad and Dublin, the neighbor’s dog, to drop off stuff at the dump instead (because I will always choose dogs and dumps over fitness).
But I started thinking about yoga again. And feeling like I should try it, even though I am so intimidated and so weak. (I can’t even touch my toes, something I have always blamed on my extra-long legs, but which I now accept as a cop-out.) I asked my friend James, a yoga instructor in town, for advice, and he wrote such a forthright and gracious response that it nearly brought tears to my eyes.
Yoga appeals to me because it isn’t supposed to be aggressive or competitive — qualities which have always made me despise the American mentality toward exercise, weight loss, and gym culture. I am not trying to “get jacked,” lose 30 pounds, or strain my body to meet a cultural objective. Rather, I’d like to get to know my body better. To be strong. To be confident.
I have shyly started practicing yoga at home, and thanks to James’s advice, I have scouted some studios I’d like to visit for classes and instruction. I fully recognize that I’m at least 20 years late to the yoga bandwagon, but I hope it’s not too late for me on the whole, to gradually become flexible and strong.
Never liked gyms. Never have, never will. I’ve also never enjoyed exercising and thus stand out starkly from the rest of my extremely athletic, active, crazy family.
I’ve been thinking about this lately, and thinking more seriously about how I’d rather exercise like a Japanese woman than an American woman. It appeals to the gym-phobe in me.
My love of Japan spurs a lot of my thinking, subtle or no, and I’d like to think that I could follow the Japanese woman’s pattern for healthy living. Japanese women are famous for being the population segment that has the longest lifespan in the world, and Japan boasts the lowest obesity rate in the developed world (3%, versus a whopping 32% for the United States). Japanese women, like French women, don’t get fat and don’t (really) go to gyms.
I went running a few times when I lived in Tokyo, and my host parents thought this was extremely strange. “Abby-san, why would you do that?” Keiko, my host mother, asked me, when I said I was going to go for a run. “To stay healthy,” I told her. She just furrowed her eyebrows in suspicion. Simply, people in Japan aren’t obsessed with exercising and going to gyms because they don’t have to be; rather, their overall lifestyles provide them with better health benefits than the purported health benefits of American exercise culture. Let’s consider the lifespans and overall obesity rates of Americans versus the Japanese. Clearly, we’re doing something wrong.
My perception is that many Americans get trapped in this vicious cycle: going to the gym, fueled by guilt, and then after a vigorous cardio session, they eat a ton because they feel like they “deserve it” — and thus effectively undoing all of the work they just did. And then the guilt/gym cycle starts all over again, progressing nowhere and leading to a very unhealthy mind/body relationship. At least, that’s how I, the anti-gym lady, perceive it.
On the emotional level, GUILT is the main thing that plagues me about gyms and the American fitness mindset. We children of Puritans like to nurture our guilt about everything, especially our bodies and the food we eat. I’m sick of hearing women (and it is mostly women) obsess about calories, about how they haven’t been to the gym enough, about how they don’t have time to talk or share a glass of wine because they have to go running or else. I want to avoid all of that.
I’m not a fan of vicious cycles, guilt, or neon sports bras. But I am a fan of the Japanese model of healthy living, which effectively bypasses all of this.
So this is what I’ve been thinking about lately, these general aspects of the active Japanese lifestyle that I’m trying to be mindful of:
*Caveat: None of this is NEWS to any of you. I know all of you know all of this already, but it’s more for my benefit, to hash out in words.
Walk everywhere. Or bike. This is obviously more difficult in the United States, particularly if you don’t live in a public transit–friendly metropolis, but it is often more possible than I think it is. We are lucky to live near downtown, both of our offices, AND have two psycho dogs who want walks all the time. When we bought our house, living in a walkable area was important for us, and I’m daily thankful we resisted the temptation of a bigger, cheaper house in the country for a smaller, more expensive one in the city.
Don’t sit down for too long. Thanks to my standing desk contraption, which still gets a lot of weird looks and comments at my office, I’m standing for 8 hours a day instead of sitting for 8 hours a day. Everyone has already read all of those terrifying articles about how sitting is killing us, etc., etc., I don’t have to rehash that here.
Eat a mostly vegetarian (or pescetarian) diet. There are a ton of reasons why we should all be eating far more plants and far fewer animals, be it your health (fascinated by this Atlantic article about vegetarians’ low blood pressure), the environment, or animal ethics. Guion and I have been trying to be vegetarian (or sparingly pescetarian) five or six days of the week; we leave the other days as “flex” days, in case we were invited to someone’s home for dinner or going out on a date. The Japanese eat meat in small portions, mainly because it is expensive there, and there is no natural land to farm it themselves, so the vast majority of meat has to be imported. So there’s a ton of fish, rice, and dark greens in the Japanese diet, with sparing amounts of animal flesh.
Small, appropriate portions. Dining in Japan really throws US portion sizes into terrifying relief. The most striking comparison I recall is the size of a meal at a Japanese McDonald’s versus a US McDonald’s. Upon receiving his Big Mac in Harajuku, one of my fellow American students exclaimed, “What is this, a kid’s meal?” because it was so small. Okinawans, who live longer than anyone else, also follow this rather mystical Confucian principle of hara hachi bu, which essentially means, “eat until you are 80% full.” How these sage Okinawans have such accurate internal hunger gauges, I don’t know, but the general principle is still present. Don’t stuff yourself. I also have a bad habit of putting more on my plate than I tend to eat; my eyes are always bigger than my stomach, and so I often end up wasting a lot of food.
Lay off the sugar. Sugar is extremely sparing in the Japanese diet, which is likely another reason why they aren’t fat and live a lot longer than us. One of the sweetest things I tasted in Japan was anko (red bean paste), which is used in traditional desserts. The sweetness is so subtle that most Americans would not even classify it as sweet. But it’s the perfect amount of sweetness — just a pleasant hint. I’ll always remember eating brownies with Mayumi, one of the Japanese teachers who lived with us when we were growing up. We were all cutting off palm-sized bricks of brownies to chow down on after dinner. Mayumi ate a brownie that was about the size of a large postage stamp and immediately exclaimed, “Oh, my! Too sweet! Too sweet!” And that was all the brownie she could take.
But indulge, on occasion, without feeling guilt. I’ve never believed that healthy living means you have to forgo all of the good stuff. And neither do the Japanese. As you can see from my university friends in Tokyo, lapping up frappuccinos at a Starbucks knockoff:
Along with my lifelong exposure to Japanese culture, my mother has always reinforced these principles. Make good choices, she always told us. You don’t ever have to diet. You don’t have to go to the gym every day. Just make good choices.