Stripped Down and Redressed
By Randon Billings Noble
Let me start with a confession: I’m no fashionista. In fact, my look is pretty beat – Beat Generation, that is. I’m most comfortable in a t-shirt, jeans and boots. Basic, but not sloppy. Fitted, but not fancy. I’ll wear a scarf or a watch — a stainless steel Swiss Army or a chunky plum Zodiac — but rarely jewelry. I like to look at fashion magazines — but I almost never follow the trends.
Before I got pregnant I was tall and thin. Pretty much any pair of jeans and any t-shirt looked good – or good enough – on me. I didn’t have to worry about rises and cuts and necklines. Low, boot, crew – it all worked for me.
Then I got pregnant. With twins. People started asking me when I was due when I was only four months along. I didn’t know during my first trimester that my waist was destined to double in size. I didn’t know that during my last trimester I’d be pretty much housebound, stripped down to a maternity tank top and two receiving blankets pinned together to make a loincloth because nothing else fit and I was too hot (in February) to wear much else.
I had mixed feelings about this pregnancy. It was planned – but the twin part wasn’t. We had no history of twins in our family and no help conceiving them – no fertility treatments, no medical intervention. It took almost the whole nine months for me to reconcile myself to the idea, and it was sometimes difficult to participate in all the happy baby conversations and preparations going on around me. The only part of pregnancy that I truly enjoyed (other than eating lots of cheeseburgers with milkshakes) was shopping for maternity clothes. Shopping for maternity clothes was all about me – not the imminent twins, who, I feared, were destined to take over (and thus destroy) my independent life.
Usually shopping – clothes shopping – is about trying on selves or lives as much as an outfit. Who will you become while wearing this dress? Where will you go? Who will you meet? What new life will unfurl before you? Perhaps you will wear this red sheath to a museum opening. Perhaps you will throw on this gauzy shift to prevent a sunburn at a European beach. Perhaps this is the little black dress you’ll be wearing at the New Year’s Eve party where you meet your future spouse … But pregnancy is a finite state, and shopping for maternity clothes doesn’t lead to these exploratory avenues. In the first trimester it might be about showcasing your new bump. By the last I was just trying to cover it.
I decided to hit the Gap – a place where I had shopped for non-maternity clothes, a place that wasn’t Mimi Maternity or A Pea in the Pod, a place where I could still sort of pretend I wasn’t entirely pregnant after all, where I could keep a bit of psychic distance between me and the twins I was carrying.
I tried on “sexy” boot cut jeans and long cowl-neck tunics. I tried on full-panel leggings and empire-waist dresses. I chose odd colors I didn’t usually wear – plum pants, a fuchsia-print dress – because I thought, what the hell? I’m only going to be wearing this for six months at best. My belly was high and round and hard, my arms and legs still slender and muscled. I looked great. I bought it all.
For months – less than six, alas – I loved my wardrobe. But I kept growing. I grew the twins and all their accoutrements – placentas, umbilical cords, amniotic fluids. I made more of my own body too: more blood to pump through more vessels, more skin to cover more abdomen, more miscellaneous swellings in my ankles and under my jaw. All too soon I grew out of my maternity clothes and into the tank top and loincloth.
As my body grew I felt my self diminishing. I no longer did the things that made me me. I didn’t make a pot of tea to drink slowly throughout the morning; I didn’t go to Aikido classes in the afternoon. I didn’t make French toast breakfasts or take evening walks around the neighborhood. I didn’t do crossword puzzles, read Russian novels, teach writing classes, write essays.
Instead I spent a lot of time sitting in my living room in an Ikea Poang chair. I read all the Sookie Stackhouse novels I could get on my Kindle until reading felt too difficult. Then I watched whole seasons of shows on streaming video – science fiction like Firefly, addictions like The Wire. I had read that women’s brains can shrink up to 8% during a pregnancy. I became convinced that, with twins, my brain had shrunk 16%. I tried not to think too much about the future, about my brain regaining its capacities, about my body subsiding into something more recognizable. I carried the twins but I let nearly everything else go. And still my body grew.
When the twins were born they weighed nearly eight pounds each. I had carried over 15 pounds of baby all the way to term. That evening I looked at them in their little hospital bassinets and thought, They’re people – two little people, and this felt like an epiphany. Having finally met them, they were no longer the squatters who had hijacked my body and colonized my existence. They would change my life – more than I could possibly imagine that long first night – but somehow I was certain that they wouldn’t destroy it. And I was right.
When my belly finally started to shrink from its Henry VIII proportions, I had to go shopping again. I had hoped that my first trimester clothes would fit my “fourth” trimester body, but instead of a high, firm baby bump I had a low slung cross between a brain coral and a yeast dough. My early maternity clothes looked terrible, and my pre-pregnancy clothes were too small. I was back at wardrobe square one.
Once again, I hit the Gap, first online because I wasn’t getting out much, and then to a store with a grimly lit three-way mirror. Things didn’t look so good anymore.
I put on a pair of low rise jeans, and looked not like a muffin but an exploding popover. I tried a plain white tank top and felt like a Hooter’s waitress on an off day. I wriggled into a floral dress that was meant to invoke a breezy summer afternoon but conjured Eleanor Roosevelt instead. I felt like an idiot. Had I really imagined that my body would return to its former shape after all it had been through? In as much as I thought of it at all, yes, I had.
Welcome to being an American woman in the 21st century, I thought. An American woman who’s given birth. I felt like this for a while.
And then I started to feel differently about my new body. It started to become normal, to become mine. Not destroyed, but changed. I stopped cringing over my stomach and wincing away from mirrors. I focused more on the twin bodies I was caring for and on my own mind, thinking about things I might read or write, ways of living and plans for the future.
I also started to think about shopping differently. It has become a less casual action, one I take more care with. Now before I try on a pair of pants, I check the waistline. Now I have to work harder to accentuate and camouflage, to find things my body feels easy in, not confined or strained or ashamed: a v-neck instead of a crew, skinny jeans instead of boot-cut, a long linen tunic, a drop-shouldered swing t, an empire-waist dress made of voile instead of jersey.
I am already a new person as I try on that dress – I am a mother now. I am also still me, the me that reads and writes and walks and people-watches, the me I feared lost but was only waiting for the weight of pregnancy and all its foreboding to lift.
But I find that I am still shopping for answers: Where will I go in these new trappings? Who will I meet? What new life is about to unfurl before me? Who will I become from here?
Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming in the Modern Love column of The New York Times; Brain, Child; The Massachusetts Review; The Georgia Review; Shenandoah; Brevity and elsewhere. She is a nonfiction reader for r.kv.r.y quarterly and Reviews Editor at PANK. You can read more of her work at www.randonbillingsnoble.com. This essay is an excerpt from the recently published anthology Spent: Exposing Our Complicated Relationship with Shopping edited by Kerry Cohen.