Many of us have used retail therapy to help us overcome a rubbish day. Shopping bags full of shiny new things give us a warm glow that makes us forget our troubles, if only for a little while.
The clothes themselves have been giving me a warm glow during the past few months, while I am dealing with my grief. Brightly-coloured dresses have helped add a bit of joy to my life, as well as help me rediscover the Leigh beyond the bereaved mummy.
I’ve had a challenging relationship with my body image for many years. My early teenage years were blighted by someone close to me regularly telling me I was fat and stupid. They linked the silly disputes teenage girls routinely have with my size.
That left me with a sense that my worth was linked with how I looked – or at least, how I felt I looked.
Inevitably, such comments left my self-confidence at a low ebb. I hated being noticed. I loved clothes and shopping for them, but I was constantly self-conscious of my naturally curvy shape.
My outfits during my teens and most of my twenties consisted of plain, unadventurous clothes. My generous bosom brought me unwelcome attention, so I wore minimiser bras.
I yearned to be bolder with my style choices – I admired those who had an individual sense of style, and who looked radiant in brightly-coloured dresses. There was no way, I thought, I would ever be able to carry off similar outfits – unless I was slimmer.
By my thirties, I had gained more self-confidence and felt more able to experiment with clothes that were a bit more daring in colour, cut and shape. Receiving compliments boosted my confidence still further. Over time, my choices evolved into a natural style I felt good in, and represented my personality. These choices mainly consisted of – yes! – brightly coloured dresses, with some skirts thrown in.
The most significant factor in this evolution was accepting – or at least, achieving a sense of peace with – my body shape. By my thirties, I finally had to accept I was never going to be tall, that my boobs would always be big, and my hips wide. Discovering that dresses best suit my shape was conducive to feeling more confident. As time progressed, I didn’t mind being noticed – in fact, I began to quite enjoy it, and being known for my brightly-coloured outfits.
The irony was that I had gained weight. The moral of the story is that self-confidence is not necessarily linked to your dress size.
When I was admitted to hospital with preeclampsia and HELLP syndrome earlier this year I had to take off every item of my own clothing. For the first week of my fortnight stay, I wore the very attractive, backside-revealing NHS-issue gown. Progressing to my own pyjamas was very exciting. Of course, clothes and my appearance were not my priority during this time.
During the five weeks Hugo was in the neonatal unit, I mostly wore my maternity clothes. Their comfort was perfect as my tummy was still healing from the C-section; being designed for overheating pregnant women they were cool in the heat of the ward; and my ‘transitionary’ dresses, designed to make breastfeeding easier, made expressing simpler too. (Side note: I found the concept of ‘transitionary’ maternity wear heartening, as it implies you’re not expected to regain your pre-pregnancy shape mere days or weeks after the birth.)
Unsurprisingly, my appearance in the weeks immediately after Hugo’s death was also not a priority. My clothes were just garments to cover my nakedness.
I had so many emotions revolving around my head. These included a strong sense of guilt and failure. The latter emotion harked back to my earlier years: I started to think that what happened was because I was no good.
Once the reality of how ill I had been began to sink in, fear was another emotion to emerge.
As the weeks progressed, I started to take more of an interest in my appearance again. With that came an urge to shop – and that urge represented a need to feel good about myself again.
I indulged in a spendathon, buying brightly-coloured dresses, skirts and tops, many with bold patterns. My wardrobe had a clear out, with anything I felt iffy about being donated to the charity shop. The aim was that whatever outfit I would put on in the morning, it would make me feel good.
For the first time in years I got myself properly measured for a bra. Like many women, I discovered the size I had been wearing was completely wrong (I went from a 38DD to a 34 F. F !) New bras helped make me feel a lot perkier and proud of my cleavage – a complete change to the minimiser bras of my youth.
To misquote Shakira’s song Whenever, Wherever my breasts are neither small nor humble, and they can be confused with the mountains.
This indulgence is a way of celebrating who I am. The bright colours are a way of celebrating the beauty of life. It is also acknowledging that life is too short to not take advantage of the small pleasures wherever you can. As I described in this post, taking selfies of my daily outfits helped me remind myself who I am, outside of the grief. When the world has been taken out from under your feet, these reminders are crucial.
Pretty dresses do not diminish my grief, of course. They will never give me my son back, or the future I had hoped for.
What pretty dresses do give me is one less thing to worry about every day. Pretty dresses give me a sense of control over the insecurities I have over my physical appearance.
The impact that colour can have on our mood has long been promoted, whether the colour is used in room decoration or on our clothes. Bright colours can improve our mood. Taking a extra moment to take care over our appearance can help lift our mood a little, too.
Shopaholics take note: clothes really can act as therapy – and there is even science to back it up!
Seriously – while it may be argued that material possessions are not necessary for happiness, one thing I have learned this year that you never know what will happen tomorrow. Don’t save things for best. Be who you want to be, do what you want to do.
Pretty dresses make me happy. I wear them even when I have nowhere to go. The grief will take time to recover from, and wearing pretty dresses is something I can do to help brighten the dark days.