Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Getting Dressed

What with the U.S. House of Representatives dithering over the Violence Against Women Act, I thought it would be a good time to post the second of the two pieces of writing I got paid for. Speaker Boehner and the gang seem to be resigned to the fact that they will have to pass some sort of act to protect women, as much as it pains them to do so, but they are still hoping that they can find a few here and there to exclude. ETA: The House passed the Senate version of the VAWA today, February 28. My representative, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, voted against it.

Here, with a Trigger Warning for domestic violence, is the account whose publication in The Denver Post was one of the ways in which I was once the most dangerous person on earth. Maybe I can find a way to summon up those powers again and use them for good this time.

Getting Dressed*

It doesn’t help that my mornings are usually punctuated by the “What am I going to wear?” question anyway. What fits is in the wash or needs ironing or has a button missing.  As I stand in front of my closet, it occurs to me that it didn’t take me this much time to get dressed on my wedding day.  On the other hand, on my wedding day I didn’t stand in front of my closet thinking, “Now what am I going to wear?”

Now what am I going to . . .

Do?  Not think for a start, or at least not think about why getting dressed presents more than its usual puzzle .  What I want to wear is my teal skirt and its matching teal, purple, royal and gold striped T-shirt, a Mother’s Day present and the most expensive daytime outfit I have ever owned.  It’s attractive and comfortable, and the colors are perfect for me.

The sleeves, however, stop an inch or so short of covering the large purple bruises (finger marks, really, although that is not immediately apparent) on my left arm.

My pink cotton shirt covers the bruises, but I can’t wear it with my teal skirt.  There is a cream skirt that goes with it, but it won’t cover the bruises on both knees. I have a white cotton overshirt that goes with the teal skirt, but it needs a belt, which chafes my sore and, for all I know, broken, rib. 

I cannot cover my arms and my knees and wear clothes appropriate to the weather which on June 14, 1983 is hot. June 14 is one day past my 36th birthday. My coworkers will want to know what my husband gave me for my birthday.

Don’t laugh. My rib hurts when I laugh. Don’t cry for the same reason. In fact, I won’t cry for another 18 months, until my cat dies. Then for three days I won’t be able to stop.

I shouldn’t be going to work in my condition, but I can’t stay home either. I find myself pacing in tight, precise circles, while my thoughts follow tight, precise circles of their own.

Why am I covering up – for him? But why should I expose myself to questions, comments, possibly criticism? What the hell am I going wear?

The striped T-shirt, I decide grimly, matches the bruises on my arm.

For the next several weeks, while the bruises heal, I present a most ladylike appearance to the world, even while taking out the trash. For the next two years, I cope with the housekeeping of a marital breakup: seeing an attorney, finding an additional part-time job, putting up my house for sale, taking my son to a counselor.

And shopping. Suddenly I, who had worn the same out-of-style outfits until they fell apart, am interested in clothes.  I study fashion magazines, note hemlines and styles, make a new suit and two dresses, buy sweaters, a coat, hats, scarves. My friends tease me about dressing for my new single life style. Since my new single lifestyle resembles my old married lifestyle, except with half the income and twice the workload, I think they are missing the point, although I am not sure myself what the point is.

Then one night in front of a group of women like myself, I tell my story of standing in front of my closet wondering what to wear. Suddenly every woman in the room has a story of getting dressed: of sunglasses worn indoors, sweaters on hot days, hats, layers of makeup, bruises visible under long sheer sleeves.

When we finish, the group facilitator says softly, “And wasn’t it sad, after everything you had been through, that getting dressed had to be such a struggle, too?”

A few weeks later, preparing to go out to dinner with a (male, platonic) friend, I find that I enjoy getting dressed. I debate between two skirts, try on several blouses and sweaters, switch belts, only to settle on the original outfit. I even slip on pantyhose, which I normally do not wear.

At dinner, I describe the whole process to my friend, precipitating a silence so profound that I wonder if he thinks, and dreads, that all this primping is for him.  A month later, when I have not heard from him, I wonder if he has misunderstood. There can be other explanations for his silence. Perhaps he has out-of-town guests, or has been hit by a bus. If he has fled from my presumed ardor, it will just have to stay that way. How can I explain to him what getting dressed means to me?

He’s never had the experience of carrying around someone’s guilty secret on his skin and not knowing what to do about it. It’s not an experience one can imagine without having experienced it, and even then  . . .

I find that I cannot imagine, make an image of it. For when the  group facilitator asked, “And wasn’t it sad, after everything you had been through, that getting dressed had to be such a struggle, too?” the only answer I could think of was, “Yeah.  I guess so.”

*When this piece was published in the Denver Post, they gave it the title Abuse So Slow to Wear Off  instead of my title, Getting Dressed.  I was not happy about the title, but forgave them when I saw Cindy Enright’s perfect illustration. I can’t post that here, for copyright reasons, so I made my own illustration using Polyvore.


  1. I have been trying for a while to formulate a response to this. It boils down to thank you for writing this, and I am so sad and angry that this happened to you. Glad that you were able to leave, glad that you are in the place you are now, but still so angry that it happened at all.

    It also made me think about the ways in which people hide what is happening to them, and the ways in which socioeconomic status aids in that hiding.

    And again, I am glad you are where you are now.

    1. Trying again:
      Thanks, lsn. What makes me angry is that if I hadn't been born in my exact niche in time, I probably would have had a much harder time getting out of that situation. I am a member of the baby boom generation, so due to excellent public schools I was able to get scholarships and grants to attend college and graduate school and get a degree in a field in which I could support myself and a child. I was a second wave feminist and, at the time, had just finished a term as the state president of a feminist organization and missed election to the national board by a handful of votes*, so I had an excellent support system (which my ex resented). The state I live in allowed battered women to evict the batterer from the family home without a formal legal separation, which allowed me time to think about what I wanted to do. That legislation had been passed just the previous summer.

      Now college educations are more expensive and put people in more debt, making it harder for women to obtain financial power; complementarian churches, which are reluctant to endorse separation, let alone divorce, for abused spouses, have gained in size and power; and many women are reluctant to consider themselves feminists. Look at the struggle over getting the Violence Against Women Act reauthorized. I know there have been advances (there was no VAWA in my day, just having gotten a National Domestic Abuse Hotline was a big deal), but there have been setbacks, too.

      *Yeah, it really can happen to anyone.