A few weeks ago, I paid a friend to take photos of me in my underwear. I’m 35, trying to get pregnant, and recently had some cancer gouged out of my face, leaving a ragged scar that still shocks me months later. My body is complex and stubborn and changing, and it seemed important to capture this moment. So I put on small, silky things, all lace and drape, and my friend lifted her camera and urged me to close my eyes, to breathe, to concentrate on how the air felt on my skin. I lay on the bed and ran my fingers across the place where the silk met my soft stomach; I slipped a strap off my shoulder and felt it ghost across my arm. When I looked at the photos later, I saw something I didn’t recognize: a body alive to pleasure.
We choose the clothes we do for a multitude of reasons: utility, trends, to attract or avoid attention. Our jobs require uniforms, or our lifestyles, comfort. I tend to dress to convey a level of disinterest that deflects judgment. Rarely, however, do I think about pleasure when I dress — the way my blood trills at the surface of my skin under silk, for example, or the rough, shivery cat-tongue of linen on my bare arms. The pillow of fine-woven cashmere at my collar, like sinking into a plush nap. The sensory experience of clothing and the physical indulgence that experience invites.
To dress for pleasure is to be reminded that the body is, above all else, a sensual object. The skin is our largest organ, and one square inch contains over 1,000 nerve endings. Touch is an oft-neglected sense, despite being the first to develop, and vital to our cognitive and emotional growth. And yet, while I’m persistently asking myself how I look in clothes, I’m almost never questioning how I feel: how my clothes drape and slide, the physical sensations they evoke as they move across my body.
I think about this when I watch my best friend dress. I watch her the way I imagine some young girls watched their mothers, if yours was a mother who lined up her lipsticks, her head cocked to one side as she fastened a jewel to her ear, studying the way her hair fell against the curve of her neck in the reflection of her vanity. (Whatever happened to vanities?) My mom did none of these things. She grew up in an era that hardly granted any woman the privilege of being taken seriously, let alone one who indulged in her own pleasure. Her primary beauty philosophy is still just don’t look in the mirror.
My best friend, on the other hand, observes herself attentively. She glides her palm across her collarbone, applies a drop of oil there. She chooses a silk camisole and studies the way it falls across her shoulders. It’s like watching an ocean nymph, a fluid cascade of light and water. She slips a wrap dress from her closet, ties the belt gently around her waist. I snort and yank my way into an old tent dress that could easily fit both of us inside.
What she thinks about when she dresses: How her clothes move against her body, allow her curves to be held comfortably, release her from worrying about a waistband chafing, or her skin itching under a constrictive shirt. What I think about when I dress: What will draw the least attention, what demands the least from me, what will cocoon me most comfortably in a shroud of near invisibility.
This has very little to do with sex appeal. She dresses the way she does because she wants to feel, in her own words, free to move her body without distraction. I’ve always gone for the soft mystery, encouraging my body to play hide-and-seek under linen overalls six sixes too big, to pocket some of the atmosphere of a place between my limbs and the world outside. You look like a plumber, my husband tells me; my husband, who wants nothing more than a wife who acknowledges she has a shape, any shape at all.
I go too far, I know: I shrug and burrow inside clothes, wanting to forget the persistent disappointments of my body. I envy my friend because she knows her shape intimately; she is familiar with her every curve and hollow. My clothes act like strict chaperones between myself and the world, and between myself and my own body. If I’m able to forget myself, then maybe everyone else will, too.
What I fear is the indulgence of it all: We’ve all been warned of Narcissus, so in love with his reflection he withered and died by the pool. But external beauty and its displays are for an audience. Dressing for pleasure — indulging in texture, weight, scent, drape — is a solitary experience, deeply personal and wholly yours. A rare thing, today.
So lately, when dressing, I’ve been taking the time to get back into my body. I’ve been feeling the richness of fabrics, watching myself in the mirror as I press a soft sweater against my cheek, observing the way my skin lifts towards certain fragrances. Undoing an extra button to notice the curve. Letting my fingers, not my eyes, guide me. It’s about sensuality absented from sexuality, about asking what thrills my body, not who my body can thrill. To dress the body as an object of pleasure, I’m learning, is to push back against a system that tells us a body is only of value if it looks a certain way. It is an act of kindness, and an act of power.
Photographed by Edith Young with the Hasselblad XID. Modeled by Kyle Kellogg and Canada Choate. Styled by Harling Ross. Market by Elizabeth Tamkin. Makeup by Ingeborg using Laura Mercier Cosmetics. Hair by Sergio Estrada. Chair via Coming Soon.