Ask Alle: What not to wear

It occurs to me that I really need to take some new pictures. This hair is so two years ago.

Alle Malice has a B.A. in Psychology, which is basically a degree in seeing through other people’s bullshit. She also has a B.A. in English, but that’s not really relevant. Though she does not pretend to have it all figured out, she does have enough figured out to be helpful.

My boyfriend and I have been together for two years, and it’s been great. We met in college, he’s sweet and loves me, he’s been there for me through everything, we have a great sex life, he’s the one I want to be with. There’s one thing though and I don’t know what to do about it: He’s started criticizing the way I dress. I don’t dress like a slut, but if I wear a dress that’s above my knee he’ll ask why I’m wearing something so slutty. Same thing with v-neck shirts, if I show any of my chest he asks why my tits are on display. Then he won’t stop talking about it and it makes me feel like I’ve done something wrong. I feel like the only thing I can wear is jeans and a turtleneck or he’ll make mean comments. I don’t want to lose him, but I like how I dress and I don’t want him to keep doing this. What can I do?

Dear lovely person,

Full disclosure: I had a really hard time with this question, because my initial reaction was “HE’S AN ASSHOLE! DUMP! DUMP! DUMP!” Which is what I would do, invested as I am in both my wardrobe and doing whatever the hell I want. But I strive to be even-handed in my advice, and you say that you don’t want to lose him, so okay.

First of all, I’m working off the assumption that what you’ve written is 100% true: That this guy really is great in all other respects EXCEPT that he belittles what you wear. AT BEST, this guy sounds really insecure. He doesn’t want you appearing the least bit sexy to the rest of the world, possibly because he doesn’t want other guys looking at you/talking to you/trying to steal you away. You can’t have a relationship without trust, and if he can’t trust you to wear a knee-length dress and not run off with another dude, something is super wrong. Insecurity always stems from fear, and in this case it sounds like he’s afraid of losing you. However, there are better ways to deal with that fear than by weaponising it and using it against the person you love.

That’s the best case scenario. AT WORST, this guy is a controlling asshole. The thing about controlling assholes is that they start off small–say by telling you that your dress is “slutty” so that you feel bad and won’t wear it–and build over time. Eventually you’re not wearing anything except what he approves of. This isn’t just shitty, it’s potentially dangerous. Controlling and manipulative (and yes, even abusive) behaviour is often easy to rationalise away because nobody wants to think something so awful about someone they love, but you can’t let love blind you.

Best case or worst case, one thing is for sure: THIS IS NOT YOUR PROBLEM. If you like the way you dress, if your job is okay with it and if you’re not showing up on People of Wal-Mart on your days off, then you’re fine. What you wear is not an excuse for anyone, even a boyfriend, to call you names or make you feel bad. Keep that in mind when you go into the conversation I’m about to tell you to have.

(Again: This is the advice I’m giving under the assumption that this guy is a prince except for this one recently developed fault, and the questioner wants to stop him doing something unkind. If this is not the case, or if this sounds too familiar and you need help, contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline or call 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE). If you’re not in the US, there’s an international directory of domestic violence agencies here. Abuse in any form is not okay, ever, and I want you to be safe & know there is help available.)

I feel like so much of my advice boils down to “Talk about it! Talk about it with words!” but seriously, you do need to talk about it. Open it up with something like “I notice that you’ve been really concerned with what I’m wearing lately. You’ve never commented on this before, so what’s going on?” Listen to what he has to say, but stick to your guns. Address his fears rationally but kindly, state what you’re going to do and then tell him what you need. Not want. NEED. For example “You’re worried about other guys finding me sexy. I love you and I’m in a relationship with you, so what other men think doesn’t matter to me. I like the way I dress, and I need you to stop making comments about my clothes.”

The thing about this conversation is that it should be an ‘only once’ kind of talk. It’s not the sort of discussion you want to have every time you leave the house. If he continues to be mean, I would respond to his disparagement with “I’ve asked you not to make comments like that. I like what I’m wearing,” and leave it at that. If he keeps trying to fight with you or persuade you that you’re wrong, walk away. Don’t get drawn into a fight about hemlines or v-necks.

And if, after all this, he doesn’t stop trying to control what you wear, dump him. It will suck, but the alternative–a life spent with someone who puts you down all the time unless you do what he wants–sucks more. It doesn’t matter that he’s been there for you through everything. There are other guys out there who will be there for you, have great sex with you and WON’T make you feel like shit because you don’t wear burlap sacks they’re insecure.

In closing, an anecdote from my own romantic life: I once dated a guy who was really troubled by the fact that I ONCE went to his apartment wearing non-matching socks, which he saw when I took off my wet boots. So disturbed was he that when I met his friends, they would say “Oh, the girl with the socks.” This should have been my first clue that we wouldn’t exactly be registering for china together, but he was hot and made me feel smart, so we kept dating. When we broke up, it wasn’t specifically because of my socks, but I could tell that it didn’t help. Thus endeth the first (and last) time that any dude has tried to change the way I dress. Now I’m strictly a “Love me, love my giant white fur vest” kind of girl.

Good luck.

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