Clothing & confidence: does wearing polka dots make you happy?

Modelling red coat
Modelling my new red coat at Dunnet Head, the most northerly point on the UK mainland

During my time away from my blog, I spent a great deal of time wrestling with the relationship between clothing and confidence.  What we wear has so much potential to bring us joy but too often feels like a source of stress.  One day we can select an outfit that makes us feel ten feet high; another we can lie prostrate in front of the same rail of clothes despairing that we can nothing to wear – or at least nothing that feels good.

As I worked to get my mental health back on track after a dramatic downturn, I became acutely aware of the toll that my medication induced weight gain has taken on my wellbeing.  Five extra stone on a five-feet-****-all frame sure has an impact!  Suffice to say, nothing fitted and in my newly raw state I was sensitised to just how distressing the experience of getting dressed every day was.  Reduced to wearing an old pair of leggings and my boyfriend’s tops, I literally felt like I had lost myself.  Who was this person in a band t-shirt staring back at me in the mirror?  I didn’t recognise her.

Where had Rae with the cotton shirts and silk scarves gone?

Eventually I got myself together enough to go shopping for new stuff.  The relief was instant, the ease spectacular, the sense of identity restored.  With my new white shirt buttoned to the neck, I could work, I could go out, I could act in the world.  With my new red coat, I was able to go out when it was raining!

I was myself again. 

I am far from alone in recognising the transformative and restorative power of the right clothes.  The latest #StyleHasNoRules campaign from Long Tall Sally, a retailer who caters for women over five feet eight tall, focuses on helping women to reclaim their fashion confidence while having fun doing so.

A study of 1,000 UK adult women found that 76 percent did not feel confident when it came to choosing outfits even though 78 percent of them had when they were children.

96 percent said they had worn what made them happy until they were ten years old. 

Long Tall Sally responded by recruiting girls still in that age group (six to eight) to act as ‘Little Stylists’, selecting and styling outfits for six of their customers who felt in a fashion rut.  The resulting video on the company’s Facebook page has already had over 45,000 hits and generated emotional responses from both the models and the viewers.

The element of playfulness in this process was particularly emphasised by one of the Little Stylists who selected a polka dot dress for her model because ‘dots make me happy, and I want my lady to be happy’.  What we wear may have an important influence on our self-confidence but we can have fun with it too.

My fashion philosophy is that we should take it both more seriously and also less seriously.

The role of clothing in confidence is also recognised by the Smart Works.  Alongside interview training, this charity provides personal styling session for women who are job hunting, providing them with high quality clothing to wear to interviews and keep afterwards.  As they explain,

The clothes we choose to wear have a huge impact on how we are perceived by others, particularly when meeting people for the first time. Selecting what to wear for a job interview is a critical element of our non-verbal communication, and can be a huge influence on the interviewer when they are making a decision on whom to employ.

Furthermore, they claim that ‘over 95% of our clients reported that a visit to Smart Works significantly increased their confidence in succeeding at their job interview’.

It’s possible to support Smart Works in their mission and boost your own confidence through clothes at their forthcoming designer sale.  On Saturday 20th and Sunday 21st May they will be selling some of their high quality stock at the Tabernacle in Notting Hill, with proceeds going to support the charity.  You can buy tickets here.

Tell me about your experiences of clothing and confidence.  Does wearing polka dots make you happy?  Do you think an outfit helped you to secure a job?  Or do you feel a lack of clothing confidence has held you back in some way?  And if you enjoyed reading this post, please do tell others about it on social media – it really helps!  Sharing button are below.

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Loving Lululemon: exercise gear when you’re overweight

Loving Lululemon: exercise gear when you're overweight

With thanks to all the Lululemon Regent Street staff who gave me their time and attention. 

‘Don’t laugh at the fat person in the gym’ memes do the rounds on social media every so often.  Trouble is, if you are overweight then getting kitted out to go to the gym can be problematic – harrowing even.  Changing rooms can be an unpleasant experience at the best of times but they’re even worse when you’re trying to hoist various bits of yourself into a highly elasticated piece of Lycra.

Furthermore many of us hold firm to the belief, realistic or not, being fat is a temporary state.  Regardless of how long we’ve been overweight up to now, this isn’t going to continue for much longer.  This makes us question the wisdom of investing any expensive clothing, let alone pricey sportswear – especially if we don’t usually go for the athleisure look.  I gave my one and only hoodie away to my then boyfriend in July 2004.  He looked better in it than I did.

Did you guess that there was a big but coming?

Loving Lululemon: exercise gear when you're overweight

My experience in the UK’s flagship Lululemon store on Regent Street challenged all my doubts, prejudices and resistance.  This Canadian yoga brand not only kitted me out in gorgeous practical clothes that I wanted to wear, they gave me Tuesday lunchtime morale boost.

If the prospect of going into a Sports Direct store causes you to sweat more than a 5k park run, be assured that a visit to Lululemon is totally different.

For a start, it’s a fun place to be!  The flagship shop encourages play, with a photo booth where you can be snapped stating your dream and join their wall of positive intention.  And if you’re looking to begin or extend your yoga practice, the shop also houses a studio.  Offering free classes is at the heart of the firm’s ethos.

They also have a café stocked with food that tastes goods and looks virtuous.  I had a salad and one of those intense juice shots that makes you feel a bit smug even if it has no effect whatsoever!  It’s a great place to stop for a quick lunch alone or a quiet haven to meet with a friend in the heart of the city’s hustle and bustle.

The highlight, however, has to be the company’s clothes.  I had a personal session with one of the staff, another feature that is freely available – and there was no high pressure sales pitch either.  I answered a few questions about my preferences in advance, and a selection of garments greeted me, along with a welcoming sign.

Loving Lululemon: exercise gear when you're overweight

Trousers, vests, t-shirts, outer layers: everything that I tried on was beautiful, comfortable and felt supportive enough to exercise in with confidence.  The service was friendly and discreet, and staff explained the technology and concept behind each of the items.

Clearly a lot of thought and design has gone into every garment.  The Swiftly Tech Racerback vest, for example, was seamlessly constructed to reduce chafage and had strategically placed mesh vents in high sweat areas to help with airflow.

Loving Lululemon: exercise gear when you're overweight

Such attention to detail and design comes at a price.  That particular Racerback vests cost £45, while the trousers cost £98 and the outerwear came in £100+.  The grey marl Run It Out Tee I’m wearing comes in at £62.

These price points obviously rule out many consumers.  That said, some cheaper high street sports stores exclude customers by only catering to a narrow range of body sizes.  I currently wear a UK 16/18 and my body, all of it, was accommodated by the Lululemon garments that I tried.  Easily accommodated.  My experience doesn’t encompass the full range of women’s sizes in Britain today but it’s a marked improvement on existing provision.

Everything chosen fitted.

No too tight seams or skimping with fabric around the chest.  No squishing of my excess required.  No tears of frustration shed.

I didn’t feel like a freak.

More than that, I felt like I had a right to be there.

You’d think that anywhere willing to take your money would give that impression but it’s not the case.  Fat shaming, overt or covert, is widespread.  Yet despite all the assumptions about yoga culture losing its spiritual dimension in favour of pursuing the body beautiful (here’s looking at you, Instagram), I felt valued.

Thanks to a combination of the store’s vibe, the staff’s attitude and the clothing’s fit, I felt I deserved to feel good wearing Lululemon, whether for yoga, other exercise or something else altogether.

Plus I’d be the best dressed fat person in the gym. 

Whatever your size, how have you found the experience of buying sportswear?  Do you think that wearing an outfit that you like and feel good in would make exercising easier or do you think it’s more often a case of ‘all the gear, no idea’ (one of my brother’s philosophical gems)?

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The 12 Great Shoulds: Escaping the Curse of Crap New Year Resolutions

The 12 Great Shoulds- Escaping the Curse of Crap New Year Resolutions

When this post is published, I shall be holed up with my partner is a cottage on the beach on the south coast.

Back in August, we decided to have a getaway from Christmas Day until New Year’s Eve.  We found the right accommodation on the same day and booked up immediately.

It’s only as Christmas has drawn closer that I’ve begun to question our decision.  I’ve never regretted our choice – on the contrary, I think it’s a brilliant idea, all the fun of the festive build up but none of the hassle and anti-climax – but it has raised big questions about my sense of obligation.

Should a good daughter not see her parents on at least one of these days?

Should a good auntie miss Christmas with the fast growing children?

Should a good daughter-in-law whisk her partner away from his family at this time of year?

Should I be allowed to do what I want rather than what others expect of me?

The cunning among you may have spotted that all these questions are united by that most dreaded of compulsions, ‘should’.

As any pop-psychology book will tell you, use of the word should (and its close cousin, ought) is a sure sign that you don’t actually want to do something but feel somehow compelled to by pressure, be it societal, familial or even internal.

Christmas is a classic time when should based decisions come to the fore.  

You may want to stop at home with your young children but feel obliged to drag them round all the grandparents instead.

You may want to cut down on your spending but feel it would cause uproar if you stopped buying gifts for all the extended family.

You may want to opt out of Secret Santa at work but fear you’ll look like killjoy if you do.

I could list fifty more examples off the top of my head.

Alas the Christmas shoulds are compounded by the New Year ones.  

It is a rare person who hasn’t at some point in their lives made a resolution at the end of December based on something they feel they should do.

The perennial favourite is weight; many of us know that feeling that we should lose a stone – or three.  

My personal bete noir has been growing my nails.  I’ve felt obliged to quit picking my nails since at least age six.  Every year I’d vow that was it with my disgusting habit.  For the start of 1999, I even vowed that I would ‘Grow my nails like Jenni’s’, Jenni being a friend at college whose hands I greatly admired.

It took me sixteen years, yes sixteen years, to fully acknowledge how ridiculous that particular variant of the resolution was.  My own sheer willpower is not enough to overcome genetics.

My own vision of ‘how things should be’ will not override the reality of how my nails look.

I finally realised this and accepted the truth of my hands when using the bathroom on a research trip to UC Davis in July 2015.

It was a very precise moment, like a thunderbolt.  This is how my hands are, I thought, and how much more mental energy do I want to expend fighting that?  Not a lot, it turns out, and I’ve had a more harmonious relationship with the bits on the ends of my arms since.

If only it were so easy with every other ‘should’ that crosses my mind!

That said, there is one useful lesson I have learnt from overcoming my belief that I should grow my nails like Jenni’s:

Naming the sense of obligation can help to dispel it.  

Externalising it, rather than keeping it in our heads and our hearts like a dirty secret that we are betraying, can seriously undermine its power.

I don’t just believe that this applies to me; I feel that anyone could benefit from talking about their most controlling sense of should with another person or even journalling about it.

Therefore ahead of this New Year’s Eve, I encourage you to make a list of the 12 Great Shoulds in your life – one for each month of the year.

What dozen shoulds or oughts make you feel obliged and trapped?  

As my example of ‘growing my nails like Jenni’s’ suggests, the more ludicrous the better!

Here are the 12 Great Shoulds that continue to taunt me:

  1. I should be 7.5 stone because that’s the weight I was at some point in 1997 (aged 15)
  2. I should always have a tidy basket of spare towels, perfectly folded and stacked
  3. My car footwells should always look like they’ve just been vacuumed
  4. I should never ever miss the birthday of a friend or family member because this makes me an evil and uncaring person (this has been an especially tough one in 2016 as my mental health struggles have made remembering birthdays and getting to send cards difficult)
  5. I should maintain every aspect of my house to an exacting standard of cleanliness and taste.  Every. Single. Thing.
  6. I should be better at yoga than I am.  In fact, I should be considering yogi training.
  7. I should always have a completely full tank of petrol.  Even when I’ve just returned from a long journey, I ought to have filled to the very top again en route.
  8. I should never ever need to use an ATM but ought to have a reasonable quantity of cash upon my at all times.
  9. I should always have six months of savings put to one side
  10. I should not display any pictures of myself or of me and my partner together anywhere in our home
  11. I should pack away all the garden furniture and plant tubs at the onset of autumn and not leave them out over winter (can you tell that’s a current nagging guilt?)
  12. I should not experience or display any sign of human nature but rather maintain an aura of complete perfection at all times and on every occasion.  To reveal even the slightest weakness or flaw amounts to total failure.

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I zigga zumba: ethical dilemmas about going to the gym

I zigga zumba: ethical dilemmas about going to the gym || raeritchie.com

The title of this post is the name of some kind of old rugby song that my dad used to sing.  Whenever I mention that I’ve been/am going to zumba, he always retorts ‘I zigga zumba’ – so much so that whenever I think of zumba, I too mentally say ‘I zigga zumba’ to myself.

My attendance at zumba (one class when down in Surrey and/or one class at home) has been pretty consistent and regular since my post-break-up decision to get fit.  I’ve been really enjoying it.  I’ve also been enjoying badminton when I’m able to make that.

However, I feel I’m missing exercise options at weekends: classes are less frequent and the recent weather has hardly been conducive to getting outside in the fresh air.

So I’ve decided to go along to my local gym as I’ve no excuses for not going there at the weekend.

This feels like a big decision in lots of ways, not least because I feel like gyms are an overblown consumer capitalist response to a basic human need to be active. 

They’re not good for the environment either; all that equipment, all that electricity, all that air conditioning.  I’m telling myself that it’s okay as this is a municipal facility and I can kid myself that my pay-as-you-go sessions are subsidising children’s swimming lessons, although am not convinced by this self-deception.

It is just so difficult when one’s principals (gyms are bad) clash with other imperatives (the need to be healthy and fit, and trying to juggle that with working in two different locations). 

To ease the pain of my first trip tomorrow, have arranged to meet some friends there and we are going for a curry afterwards.  I feel like a wimp but am hoping that this diversionary tactic will ease my conscience.

Why are even seemingly simple life choices so complex?

Where do we draw the line in efforts to live sustainable lives?

Does my obligation to live sustainably by being healthy (stewardship of one’s body, as recently called for in an article that appeared in the Friend) outweigh the environmental impact of my going to the gym? 

Does the fact that the gym will be open & polluting the atmosphere whether I go or not absolve me from my concern?  Or is that just a cop-out?

Is this really a big issue or am I beating myself up too much about it?     

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