I’d like to say that I’m the kind of woman who’s never given much thought to clothing and what I wear. I’d like to say that I’ve always just sort of thrown something on, and effortlessly, look pulled together all the time, or don’t, but either way, no matter. I’d like to remember my child-self as one who didn’t think tights were scratchy, who didn’t notice if her undershirt was tucked in, who didn’t have an obsessive penchant for the colors purple and orange, who didn’t mind wearing headbands, two-piece bathing suits, or ankle socks.
I’d like to say that I was and still am highly unselfconscious.
Except I am totally self-conscious, and have always been a bit of a nut when it comes to clothes. I’m not talking in a clotheshorse kind of way, where I’m off spending money on labels and status pieces. No, I’m talking about the much more existential and far less useful ways in which I obsess about how I look. I’ve never worn a bikini, I don’t really enjoy being photographed, and often notice myself fidgeting–with my clothing, my hair, whatever. While my neuroses are (mostly) in check, a healthy dose of anxiety runs through my bloodstream at all times, just to keep me on my toes. And often, this delightful kind of crazy rears its ugly head as I try and dress myself on any given day.
Being a little nuts was all well and good (and sometimes, dare I say, charming) until two years and nine months ago, when I gave birth to not one, but two baby girls. Wait, let me rephrase that. Two years and nine months ago I gave birth to not one, but two teeny tiny little mirrors, who reflect back to me, moment to moment, the most bare and unedited version of myself. Which means that the way I put on a pair of pants, take them off, mutter to myself, put on another pair, scowl, take them off, throw my hair in a bun, pull it out, sigh, put it back up, scrunch my face in the mirror, pat my belly and frown, adjust the foot seam of my tights just so–it’s all being observed. All of it. Every last plucked gray hair. And so it follows that how I dress myself, and how I judge myself, sends a message to those tiny little girls about how I feel about myself, and how they should feel about themselves, too.
No pressure, right?
In this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, Aaron and his sons are pretty consumed with what they’re wearing. Designated as high priests, what follows in this portion are instructions for their priestly garb: purple, turquoise and scarlet robes and sashes, gold breastplates, engraved stones, and fine linens. And the purpose of all the finery? The sons of Aaron were meant to feel “dignity and beauty,” kavod u-tiferet, when wearing the turbans and the tunics. When serving God, their luxurious clothing would separate them from the rest of the people of Israel, would sanctify them, and make them holy.
Most mornings, as I get dressed for work in my own priestly garb, I feel anything but dignified and beautiful. I’ll enter the kitchen and find my girls each with a well-developed yogurt mustache. Within seconds, the narrating/questioning has begun. “Mommy you’re wearing earrings?” “Mommy you took a shower?” “Your hair is wet?” “Mommy your socks have a hole! Wear your tights, Mommy, I LIKE YOUR TIGHTS!” “Mommy you like dresses? “Mommy I love your sweater Mommy I do not like your sweater. Mommy you changed your sweater?” “Mommy where’s your ponytail?” “Mommy you had a ponytail but you took it out?” “Mommy, put your ponytail back in!” “Mommy, you sad or happy?”
That last one delivers a swift punch to the gut. I know they’re just trying to figure it all out, my choice of outfit, my cryptic facial expressions, all of it. They see that my sweater pills under the arms, that the fine lines on my face aren’t so fine anymore, that those tights are torn, that I am tired.
Most mornings, I leave those tiny girls and I head to work. Once there, I log onto my computer, and with a swift tap at the keyboard I am propelled deep into self-examination mode once again. Facebook tallies those who like me and those who don’t. Emails misinterpret my words. Photos posted on the web either flatter or don’t flatter. I encounter endless opportunities again and again to ask myself, who am I? What do I want this blog post/status update/tweet/random Internet missive to reflect? Do people like me? Think I’m smart? Admire my cardigan/blouse ensemble, think I’m older/younger/smarter/dumber than I really am?
I pad down the hall to the restroom and stare into the mirror. “Huh. So that’s me,” I think. “That’s what I look like today.” Sometimes it’s not bad and sometimes it’s very bad and sometimes I just wash my hands and don’t bother looking up into the mirror at all.
The day ends and I commute home again. I clamber up the steps to my bedroom and desperately peel off the scratchy tights with the misaligned foot seam and the dangly earrings that irritated me all day. I throw on jeans and sneakers and a hooded sweatshirt (who am I kidding? This is the real me) and I grab the car keys.
Fifteen minutes later I’m ambling down the dirt road to the little country school where my tiny little girls have spent their day. I swipe my key card, open the door, and follow the yelps and trail of crushed cheerios to the padded gym where they flail about. I peer inside and one or both of my girls see me. They squeal “MOMMY!” and drop whatever they’re doing. They run to me, grab fistfuls of my hair, breathe into my ear, pat my back, chant mommy mommy mommy. Sometimes, apropos of nothing, one will utter, “Mommy you’re so beautiful!” In this moment they do not realize that I’m not wearing my beautiful outfit anymore, that I’m wearing sweat socks, not tights, that my hair is pulled back, that the freshness of my morning self has wilted as the day progressed. They see none of that. They’re hopping on one foot, then the other, grabbing my hand, pulling me out the door, back toward the car and toward our warm house.
At home, in our comfy clothes, all self-consciousnesses are gone. This doesn’t mean the questions are quieted, this doesn’t mean that any problem has been solved. I’m still unsure who you see me as, what you think of me. When I put them to bed tonight, I will log back on and into your worlds, and I will once again wonder whether that photo does me justice, whether that witty barb was well-received, whether you liked my outfit, my essay, me. But when I’m with my girls, I know where I stand. They think I’m beautiful, they think I’m dignified, and it’s a crazy, amazing, epic miracle.
To read the previous posts in our Torah MOMentary series, click here.