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Normcore, Highlighting the “Norm” of Idealized Bodies

Bland, easy dressing sometimes sounds like a relief — unless you aren’t “normal.”

Normcore, a trend of dressing in bland clothing, has been called a rejection of fashion, an opportunity for stylists, and a way to dissolve ego. Some talk about it as being a clear call back to the ’90s, to the childhood of our millennials and nostalgia of digital natives, an equalizer. It’s also something that presumes everyone has access to the imagery listed when they don’t fuss with fashion — something patently untrue.

Thin white person in a long sleeved turtleneck, pale jeans, and white socks stretches out.
Much bland! So simple! Such Normcore! (From Novembre magazine; Via NY Mag)

I’m fat and multiply disabled. I do love comfortable clothes — I spend most of my days working from bed in night gowns, after all — but I also know that leaving the house dressed comfortable while me would have negative consequences. As someone with a developmental disability and mental health disabilities, how you dress is often used to judge your functioning, the more polished, it is presumed, the more capable of caring for yourself you are. Showing up to the wrong appointment dressed comfortably brings up questions of if I need a referral to “more intensive services,” and questions if living in my own apartment is really “safe.”  Makeup, for some reason, is an especially sticky point in these systems. I’ve read some of the basic psych nurse guidelines, and one of the “signs” they have on the “are they depressed” list is if a woman is wearing appropriate makeup. This may seem like an exaggeration to people not in those systems, but those who are know that there’s a huge difference in how they treat you and your ability to make your own choices between coming in business casual to coming in in sweats, a worn t-shirt, and your hair in a messy bun.

And that’s just the DD and MH end of things. Cat Smith over at The Style Con has called Normcore “Bullshit” from a physical disability perspective. My physical health issues aren’t the same as hers, I only use a wheelchair at things like concerts where you are expected to stand most of the time, but I can say that leaving the house for anywhere but Physical Therapy or the gym in “comfy” clothes with my cane inevitably ends with people looking for excuses for “don’t give up!” talks ranging from “I’m sure they’ll find a cure” to “you have so much to live for.” While my MH stuff is certainly complicated by being in pain and having minor mobility issues — having days where it’s not exactly safe (thanks brainfog) or painless to leave the house alone on a whim does that, as does being in pain most of the time — somehow strangers assume that former is caused by the later. (Protip: for me? it’s not.) That’s not to mention the fact that they are often under-educated about chronic illness/disability and often get their pep talks wrong on a scale ranging from “you sweet simple dove” to “that was incredibly, mind blowingly offensive. Hulk Smash.”

And then we get into being a fat girl. Fashion on a fat girl can be the difference between being treated as human, or as desirable, and being treated like an over stuffed butterball turkey past sell-by date. I’m serious.

A heavy pale, redheaded girl in a fancy v-neck purple-ish satin dress
As proof, here’s me in a fancy dress I made for a fancy event.

In fact, I’ve been debating writing an article about why I probably won’t be cutting my hair any time soon precisely because of this issue. Sure, it’d be easier — I have frizz-prone hair that likes to look like a matted llama when I don’t brush it. And brushing it can be hard on days when my pain levels are high. But cutting my hair limits my ability to be seen as femme, and my gender presentation is very important to me. A thinner girl could pass as femme, albeit femme on a day off,  with the right makeup and hair even on sweats days. A fat girl must be dressed to the “T” to be seen as femme, even in a cute dress, or be mistaken for being “forced” into nice clothes for some special event. (And as a girl who likes playing dress up, trust me, I’d rather make my own fancy dress than show up to a special event in my day to day dresses.)

I’m sure you are all familiar with the cultural images (ones that are full of shit, of course) of fat ladies. We are lazy, slobs, out for food, sad, etc. And while I admit to enjoying both the refreshments and the bar at a fancy event, that has a lot more to do with being anxious around people than my size. But the fact remains that these images are pervasive, and fat ladies like myself run into people all the time who operate on them as though they were fact. There’s a huge difference in how polite people are when I go grocery store in “nice” clothes and makeup vs how they are when I go on a day when I wasn’t planning on leaving the house. Trust me, “a pound of pastrami” means something totally different at the deli counter when you are in “normcore” clothes as a fat person.

And none of this gets into the class issues — a middle class or upper middle class mom in sweats seems to signal “taking care of herself,” but the same (albeit less expensive) sweats on a working class mom means “she doesn’t care enough to dress appropriately.” I have a better understanding as an adult as to why my mother grabbed all those bright colored skirt-suits from the thrift stores for meetings ranging from IEP meetings to public speaking. Show up in “normal” clothes when you are a working mom, and they shuffle you out the door a hell of a lot quicker, while talking a lot slower.

I can’t really speak on the racial implications of style myself, but Eddie Ndopu wrote an article for The Feminist Wire about his relationship with fashion as a black, queer PwD, and I encourage people to talk about it (and any other intersections) in the comments.

In the end I suppose that Normcore does have some relationship to equality — if by relationship, we mean demonstrates how unequally our culture perceives deviation from the thin, monied, abled, white norm.

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Savannah Logsdon-Breakstone

Savannah Logsdon-Breakstone. Advocate, Writer, Geek. Multiply Disabled, Queer, and proudly Autistic. Primary Obsession: Institutions, History of Care of people with MH/DDs Also obsessed with: Social Justice, Cats, Victorian Romanticism, and Doctor Who. http://crackedmirrorinshalott.wordpress.com/

8 thoughts on “Normcore, Highlighting the “Norm” of Idealized Bodies”

  1. It’s little things, too. If I go to the grocery store in jeans and a t-shirt (clean, not too wrinkled), I look like a fat college student. If I go to a “help me financially” appointment in the same plus flannel, I’m in their “struggling but trying” category. I don’t leave my apartment in sweatpants, because I KNOW — I just KNOW — the implication is “lazy fatass who doesn’t care”. And, yeah, it carries over for medical/MH health care. I won’t even go to the ER in sweats unless it’s an absolute emergency, because I know the assumptions. Also, jeans have better pockets.

    1. Right???? It’s even got like, a little peek-a-boo thing going on and WANT. So pretty. Jealousy, thy name is people-who-can-sew-pretty-things-for-themselves-that-they-look-good-in. (Also, thanks for making me think, Savannah!)

  2. This was a great read and I’ve been thinking about it through the evening. I think clothing, and therefore, appearance is a really complex issue when it comes to disability and illness. There’s the legitimate “use” of appearance as an indicator of how a person is doing but then there’s the risk of it becoming a rigid guide. It’s something I’m also aware of from a caregiving perspective; that it’s important to always look “put together” even at a very basic level (ie clean, good condition, appropriate fit) because of how I may be perceived.

  3. I wasn’t familiar with the normcore trend, but this is a really helpful perspective. As someone on the smaller end of the spectrum who dresses often for comfort (in part because MH issues make “making an effort” more difficult), I don’t experience this kind of stigma very often. It’s good to be reminded that others do, and that I need to be careful about the kinds of stories I envision about others.

    1. I had actually never heard of normcore before seeing the headline for this article. I’m actually feeling kinda hipsterish about it because “normcore” is how I always dress.

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