A few days ago, I went shopping for the just-right dress for an upcoming important occasion — our first-born’s college graduation. I quickly found the just-right dress, nice but not too dressy for a crowded, sweaty sports arena on a late-spring afternoon.
Then I spotted another dress.
It was pale blue. Fitted bodice. Peplum waist. A-line skirt. Not the usual, loose-fitting style I go for, but so, so pretty.
It wasn’t quite right for wearing to graduation. I didn’t need a second dress.
On the other hand… both dresses were on sale. I even had a 50 percent off coupon. More importantly, I felt a sudden longing to try on something a little different, in both hue and style, from what I usually wear.
So I tried it on. The blue brought out the sparkle in my blue-green eyes. And it fit like a dream. I even thought, I look HOT in this dress. And I never think that about myself.
But then, as I stared in the mirror, a horrid feeling came over me. Not about budgets or the foolishness of buying a dress for an as-yet-to-be-determined event. But about the fact that the dress was also… sleeveless.
I have decent enough arms. I mean, they’re attached, and they function, and my skin is smooth, but I’ll admit it, I’m a bit chubby. Which means my arms are a bit chubby. Not particularly muscular.
I started to hang the dress back on the rack with its mates, but it was so pretty, that I just… couldn’t. I toted it with me to the register. Maybe, I thought, if the coupon covers both dresses…
It did, but I was still wavering. “Sorry,” I said to the check-out clerk — a slender, beautiful 60-something woman with a terrific smile. “I’m still trying to decide. I don’t really have an occasion in mind for this dress.”
“I do,” she blurted. “I’ve been staring at this dress for days. It’s so pretty! And I have a wedding to attend in a few weeks.”
Now, most women hate the idea of showing up at an event only to discover another woman is there in the exact same dress. (Well, not the exactly exact same. That could be awkward. And crowded. But you know what I mean.)
I didn’t know the clerk. There are no wedding invites on my social calendar. So the likelihood of us showing up at the same event at all, what’s more wearing matching blue dresses, is pretty slim. Nevertheless, I was about to put the dress back after all — and trying to think of a non-awkward explanation — when she leaned forward and blurted again, “But I can’t wear it. Because of my arms.”
She looked so sad, so shamed. So I did some blurting of my own. “What’s wrong with your arms?”
Her eyes widened. “They’re… they’re flabby. They look… old.”
Now, there was something about the notion of this beautiful woman, who’d lived long enough to no doubt experience and survive and grow from life, feeling so ashamed about her body — just as I had moments before with my worries about chubby arms — that incensed me. I wasn’t angry at her. I was angry for her. I was angry at the cultural voices that whisper in the backs of the minds of middle-aged and older and chubby and not quite perfect women that only young and beautiful counts. Only the young and beautiful and — oh, God, please, the smooth and firm and slender, too! — need feel comfortable (so whisper those voices in slithery, demeaning tones) in lovely arm-baring dresses, no matter that women of all shapes and sizes and ages might be and even feel beautiful in such clothing, if only we could ignore those silly voices.
Well, I thought, screw that.
So I said, “My arms are chubby.” I pushed the dress toward her, determined to buy it. “But I’m wearing it. Proudly. And you should too. Shouldn’t we get to wear what we want sometimes, without worrying about what other people think, without hiding ourselves because, hey, we’ve lived awhile, and maybe it shows here and there? You’ve probably survived a thing or two, just like I have. That merits an occasional reward, right?”
Her eyes softened she stared at the dress. She said, “I’ve survived cancer. Almost a year now.”
I couldn’t respond right away. Finally, though, I said quietly, “Congratulations. You will look beautiful in the dress. Your arms will look just fine. I hope you get the dress.”
She nodded, smiled, and said, “I think I will.”
I don’t know if she did or not. But I hope so. What’s more, I hope that I’ll wear mine to some future occasion, and this woman will be there, too, in her copy of the blue dress. I hope we recognize one another, and that we laugh, two women happy to see each other wearing matching sleeveless dresses. And I hope we hug one another with our bare, beautiful, powerful arms.
— Sharon Short
Sharon Short writes the weekly “Literary Life” column in the Dayton Daily News. She is the director of the Antioch Writers’ Workshop and an accomplished writer. She has published two mystery series, a book of columns and the recent novel, My One Square Inch of Alaska. In 2014, she served as a finalist judge for the Erma Bombeck Writing Competition. Share your own “power of bare arms” stories and photos on this special Facebook page. Share on Twitter at #powerofbarearms.