What to Wear When You Don't Want People to Hate You

Friends, I love Lyz Lenz. I love Lyz in the way you love someone who suddenly bursts into your life with all of your same life-fucking, damaging, redemptive, person-forming experiences. Sometimes she’ll be tweeting and I’ll just be on the couch helpless with identification, fav’ing each one. We both don’t live in New York. We both speak Christian. (Lyz also keeps two humans alive, I Don’t Know How She Doesn’t It). We both attempt to suffer no fools, but wow is Lyz better than me at this particular endeavor, especially when it comes to Tucker Carlson. Lyz has a newsletter that essentially shames men by reprinting the way they yell to her, which is a very particular kink of mine. You can follow her on Twitter here and subscribe to her newsletter here (fight the patriarchy and go for the paid edition).

Earlier this week, the NYT published this article on moving back to your small ‘dying’ hometown — which, honestly, good for this lady that she’s found a place in a hometown that’s not actually her hometown (I could write another 3000 words on how different it would be to go back to your grandma’s hometown, as she does, where she still has the established name, but no one knows your personal baggage, as opposed to your actual hometown) — which prompted a long conversation about who has the ability (the privilege!) to actually make that sort of decision.

To the point: white straight cis-gendered people who can find jobs!

But just because fit into any or all of those sub-categories doesn’t mean that you can go into any rural space that you want — especially as a woman. Some man tried to tell Lyz how to report in a bar, which is not a thing a man should have try to give advise on. But it prompted discussion about the wardrobes women reporters cultivate to blend it, which then reminded me of a earlier tweet by my pal Molly Priddy, a reporter up in the Flathead Valley of Montana, about all the costumes she puts on to report in her particular (and much more complicated than people might assume) corner of Montana.

We decided to write about these costumes, like a good old fashioned blog round-table, only divided out over three newsletters. I’ll go later this week, and Molly after that. But first: Lyz.

In her book So Here’s the Thing Alyssa Mastromonaco talks about how hard it is to dress to avoid an international incident. Alyssa was the  White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations under the Obama administration and is now a senior advisor for NARAL and does a lot of amazing things. But for our purposes, it was in her job at the White House that she had to dance the line between clothes that fit her and clothes that would not piss off Prince Abdullah. She recalls a hilarious moment when she packed open toed shoes for a trip to Saudi Arabia and spent the whole time in a receiving line curling up her toes under her pants.

Men, often, do not have this problem. A suit. Some jeans and a nice shirt. You are good. No one is going to stare at your tits instead of answering your questions. Meanwhile, every time I do an interview, whether on the phone or in person, I am engaging in a constant negotiation over how pleasing and proper my body and voice are. Don’t want to sound too mean. But also, don’t want to sound like a pushover. I want to be pleasing enough that people want to see me, but not so pleasing that they think about fucking me. I want to fit into the spaces I go, while also balancing professionalism. If I wear ruffles, I worry people will think I’m not serious. But too serious and people will think I’m a cop. Oh, and I also don’t want to be miserable.

Women do this calculus everyday, whether you are a reporter or not: How do I dress so I can be comfortable but also taken seriously, but also I want people to want me in the room?

I recently tweeted a story I include in my book—the time I went into a small town bar near Sydney, Iowa, to see if I could do the male journalist trope of, “I went into a bar and spoke with a Trump supporter” while drinking Miller Light and LIKING IT. The incident did not go well. But when I wrote about it, a man decided to pipe in an let me know exactly HOW I was supposed to conduct myself in a rural bar. As if I am not a woman. As if my entire existence has not been a constant negotiation of my body and how it fits into spaces. As if I am not always assessing the levels of attention to my hair, make up, and t-shirts, and gauging people’s reactions to them. It’s not vanity. It’s my work. I also don’t want to get raped and murdered.

I’ve been in small town bars before. Usually without the purpose of interrogating strangers. Usually the purpose is to drink and sing very bad karaoke or listen to a friends cover band. You know, to be a normal person who lives in the Midwest. When I report, I really try not to interrogate strangers when I don’t have to. I had to knock on doors in Richard Spencer’s old apartment complex and that sucked. I understand it comes with the job, but I’d much rather just talk to people first as humans and maybe if they want, they can go on record. But, for one moment, I wanted to see if it was possible, for me to do that thing that has become cliche in modern journalism: male writer walks into a bar, has a heart-to-heart with someone different about a sensitive subject, and leaves.

At the time, I had hair with blue streaks in it. I was wearing jeans and a black t-shirt, which was my official reporting uniform for my book. Jeans and a t-shirt got me anywhere. I could add a jacket to be more professional, or a skirt to go to church (which I did a lot in the book). Boots were good for walking in fields and in churches. Also, flats were amazing. Sandals were stupid, especially if you had to wander through a copse of rotting car parts to find an abandoned church. That uniform let me talk to conservative pastors and disaffected former Catholic poets.

This is also the part where I mention, I got a Knixwear bra from the internet. (They do not sponsor me, so find the link yourselves!) I needed something that would render my body inoffensive (no pushups, no visible lines) and not have bra straps sliding down my shoulders.It was very comfortable and I did not hate myself while wearing it and I could wash it in the sink. I should actually order another one because the one I had is worn out. RIP to a good bra.

I had also come up with a drink ordering philosophy. Which was that my go-to for most situations was “Jim on ice”, I liked to say it that way because it sounds like I’m ordering a dead man from a morgue. I picked Jim because it’s usually found in most places and has fewer brand connotations than Jack Daniels. Anything fancier and it might not be in the bar and then you feel awkward, like some sort of rich person who is like, “Oh fine if you don’t have a Manhattan then I’ll take a gin rickey!” and that’s how you die. Also, I do not usually like beer. And Miller and Budweiser make me sick. Actually sick. I can maybe do High Life if it’s summer and I’ve been eating well and my body loves me. But I am usually eating like trash and ignoring my body’s pleas for help. “WATER, YOU DUMBASS” it cries. And I’m like, “Okay more coffee and shut the hell up.”

If I’m in a fancier place, I’ll do Bulleit bourbon. It’s classy without being high maintenance. And what do I order when it’s just me, being me and not being someone who has to eek her way around cultural norms for a story? Or around the expectations of the people around me? I don’t know. It’s hard to remember sometimes. But I think maybe I do just like a really good whiskey. Although, not much beats Rose and french fries with a side of ranch.

So, there I am, in a bar outside Sydney, Iowa, noon on a Friday, black jeans and a t-shirt, my wallet, nothing else. I walk in and order Jim on ice, and sit down. The bartender asks me what I’m doing and I tell her I’m a reporter and I’m on a trip and I’m just stopping for a bit. We make awkward small talk. There are four men in the bar and they pointedly ignore me. Eyes glued to baseball and Fox News. It’s an aggressive kind of invisible that they are making me. I wonder about how to penetrate that wall of silence--how do I make those eyes that won’t make contact make contact and see me as a person. How do I talk to them without it feeling like a come on? And just as I’m contemplating how to do it, the bartender leans in low. “Hun, you might want to make it out before the next crowd comes in.” She then winks a sad kind of a wink. More punctuation than play.

Her words were a kindness. A tip. From a woman to another woman. I’ve done this before to other women, women alone who are getting aggressively hit on. I’ll look them in the eye and say, “Need help?” And go from there. But this time, the tip was being handed to me. And you know what, I have two kids. I want to live. And if a woman gives me a tip, I take it. I finished my drink and left. There were other times I was able to talk to people in a bar, but rarely did this ever happen alone. And always it happened because someone vouched for me. My body, even carefully clad does not come with gravitas. That has to be conferred through the moral capital--the belonging of others.

I do not think we can talk about our stories until we grapple with the way our bodies change their outcome. In her profile of Dylan Roof, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah does this brilliantly, writing:

This black body of mine cannot be furtive. It prevents me from blending in. I cannot observe without being observed. At Dylann Roof's church, I was greeted warmly at the door by a young white woman and a middle-aged white man. But when I entered the chapel and was seated in a rear row, many eyes turned on me, making me feel like I was a shoplifter trying to steal from their God. Was it because I didn't know the hymns, because I didn't take Communion, or was it because I was black? I do not know.

I have a white body, that is normally a size 4/6 and this comes with problems and privilege. I am objectified more often than I am treated with disgust. Which great? Except, when someone pats you on the head (it’s happened!), or asks to text you later after the interview and this time the wink is grimy. I’m often underestimated, which can be great sometimes, but sucks when you want someone to answer your fucking questions. But in the end, every story, no matter how we tell it is the story of a body. Adrienne Rich wrote in Of a Mother Born that the patriarchy fails because it lacks wholeness of construct and being. And if we are to truly tell the complete stories around us we need to integrate our bodies, our voices, our smells, conscious and unconscious thought. We need to “connect prose and passion” and “annihilate dichotomies.” Missing that, refusing to put it on the page, means that, well, you are missing the point.

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