I did a weird thing this winter.
Like many people, I’ve noticed time passing differently in the last 13 months. Slower, perhaps. But more than the speed, time has slipped by without the usual markers. No graduations last spring, few weddings in the summer, no back-to-school in the fall and strange holidays to close the year. I marked the year in the little jungle of our yard, watching plants flourish and dry, leaves grow and fall and return, rain turn the ground to mud and sun turn it back into ground. Time still passed.
But to mark it, this time, I turned to self-imposed challenges. One little video of my girls and me outside each day in 2020. One poem written (and posted on Instagram) each day this April. And then there was this dress.
For one hundred days, from January 8 to April 17, I wore one dress.
There were parameters, of course. I washed the dress every so often (though, since it is merino wool, less often than you’d think), and I wore other things with it. Leggings. Scarves. A pair of rain boots and a heavy wool sweater. Earrings, most days. But every day, this dress.
In general, I think of myself as pretty impervious to advertising. I’ve been laughing at commercials and billboards since I was a kid, rolling my eyes at magazine spreads and feeling clever at spotting native advertising. But social media is different; they’re onto me. They know how to get me to buy a weighted sleepsack for my baby at 3:00 AM, and just what kind of wooden toys and fair isle sweaters I find delightful. And they knew, somehow, that in my vulnerable, time-unstable 2021 state, the concept of a 100-day dress challenge, adorned in the language of minimalism and sustainability, would be my absolute favorite thing. So I bought a dress.
The thing was, lots of people were doing this last January, so there weren’t any “normal” colors left. No black, grey or navy for me, shades that I would have been wearing anyway. Instead, I bought a brown dress. Well, sort of brown. Also sort of maroon, sort of terracotta, even sort of purple sometimes. It’s an indescribably brown, long-sleeved, swing dress with no waist to speak of. Basically a wool cone to hang from my shoulders. I bought some belts at an online thrift store and got to work wearing my dress, documenting each day with a photo.
Though the website for these wool dresses was filled with testimonials of transformation, I don’t know that I expected, actually, to be transformed. I have seldom felt strongly about clothes, so I didn’t imagine that I’d miss the challenge of deciding what to wear, and I already have what amounts to a capsule wardrobe, so the minimalism side of things wasn’t too much of a stretch.
I would have felt self-conscious about wearing the same thing nonstop for so long if I had been in a position where I actually saw more than three people each day, but that, of course, is not the case. If anything, I thought that doing a dress challenge in the middle of a pandemic that forced us all to stay mostly home was a little too easy.
I was surprised, at first, by the challenge of looking at all those pictures of myself. The daily videos of us outside last year, they were beautiful. And I was in almost none of them, always behind the camera. This time, I was the subject, along with my brown dress. For a few weeks, I scrutinized these pictures, noticing an awkward posture or a forced smile, and every day wrinkles I’d never seen before.
I’m nothing if not a metaphor junkie, so honestly the dress, by the end, was beside the point, just a control variable in a greater experiment. I only got to wear this one dress for one hundred days, and that got a little bland, once in a while. The great epiphany, ultimately, was that I only get this one body, just one me, for my whole life. Shocking, I know.
One of the first dress-challenge undertakers wrote that she’d learned to care for her clothes through this experience. With just one dress to wear, she reflected, you’d need to treat a spot immediately, or mend a hole right away. To help this item of clothing weather constant wear for a hundred days, I became a little more careful, more invested in learning how to make it last.
If I could learn to be gentle and careful with a dress, patient with its limitations and creative with its assets, shouldn’t I do the same with myself? Now that I’m no longer in the habit of creating and sustaining children, how should I be caring for this body, soul and spirit to keep them in working condition for the long haul?
When I finished the dress challenge, a few days ago, a verse that kept coming to mind from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount:
For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is life not more than food, and the body more than clothing?Matthew 6:25
As I grow older, I’m learning more and more that God cares about our physical bodies—not just the souls and spirits that get all the attention in churchgoing circles—far more than I ever imagined as a child. It was always easy for me to accept that I was “fearfully and wonderfully made” at the outset, but then left to grow old however I pleased. Even better, I heard, if I “used up” this resource of my body in service to some holy cause, spending it like currency and hoping it wouldn’t run out before my mission was complete.
But as I wore the dress and dutifully took pictures, I found that each day, no longer distracted by choosing an outfit, I grew a little less critical of myself, a little more appreciative of this physical person I’ve been given. Like the dress, whose shape and color I didn’t design and can’t alter much, this body has limitations. I’ll never be any taller, for example, and I’m probably not made to be both healthy and as thin as our culture expects women to be. Also, I don’t look like I did when I was twenty, or even thirty. But I am strong and healthy—no small gifts—and I have hair that doesn’t ever, ever need straightening. And those wrinkles around my eyes? I suppose they come from smiling so much, an absolutely worthwhile price to pay for the joy they’ve come from.
In the end, as with every single good thing I’ve been given, I get to choose to be grateful, then decide what I’ll do with this body. I choose to marvel at its design, protect it from wear, use it fully, and clean and mend it when necessary. In short, I’ve decided to treat myself like a wool dress that I get to wear forever.