Last week during a long-awaited trip to see my family in Canada, I was able to spend a day with my high school best friend. At the beginning of the pandemic, she was six months into a very big job overseeing the operations of a large, established Canadian brand company. A year later she took on an even bigger job with ten times the budget. Like so many other women, this was done from home, while overseeing the schooling of children.
When I saw her, she was gearing up for a return to the office. We were talking about clothes (no shocker there). And how our bodies had changed (Covid or perimenopause? is a question I’ve been compelled to ask about a variety of things the last fourteen months). She reflected on the fact that like so many, nothing was fitting quite right anymore, but more than that, nothing was fitting quite right anymore. As in the clothes didn’t just seem to belong to another life that was increasingly difficult to connect to, but to a person she no longer recognized.
Then she said something that I’ve been thinking about ever since: Who am I supposed to be now?
Part of this identity crisis is something we’ve all been talking about for a while now: for instance, how to wear heels after fourteen months of not doing so. We know why heels, and everything that comes with them, are often considered necessary in professional settings: women are held to different standards when it comes to office attire, and their competency can be judged on, among other things, the curl level of their hair. Flats, curls, and a nicely tailored suit will never gain you the respect, heels, skirts and a blowout will. For women, comfort seems to directly correlate with their perceived power. As in, the more uncomfortable you are physically, the more power you hold.
Meanwhile, men’s return to the office, clothing-wise, is a much shorter distance. Slightly different pants perhaps. A freshly ironed shirt, sans the necktie. But unlike women, men at even the highest levels of power, have always occupied a place of physical comfort and will continue to do so. We expect nothing more.
Added to this is the splintering social media has introduced to all our lives. There’s no blueprint anymore for how to live or how to dress, which is often wonderful but can also be exhausting for those who already have too much on their plate to spend any time to think further about what is acceptable, or at least feels appropriate. We no longer have an agreed upon narrative.
But there’s more to this identity crisis, I think. In the most extreme ways, women have been asked to lead dual lives since March 2020. Full-time parenting as well as full-time work. A nearly impossible feat, even for those fortunate enough to have a deep bench support system. We’ve seen just how impossible, in the numbers of women leaving the workforce. Who are women now on the other side of all this? How to be a person after fourteen months of being asked to be all the people, at once?
Something about this question resonated with me (a person whose long-established caftan habits are unlikely to change, largely because no one requires them to). Who are we all supposed to be now?
The narrative attached to our release back into the world this spring was one of decadence and fun. It was going to be a “hot vacc summer”; “vacc’d and waxed”; the new Roaring Twenties. And certainly, that has panned out to a degree. But underlying this relief and joy at being able to see and touch people again, is a strong undercurrent of dread and anxiety. The summer news cycle has been dominated by horrifying weather reports from around the world, and alarming realizations that the predictions scientists made about the onset of global warming are happening far faster than predicted. This coupled with the rise in the Delta variant, and the vaccine hesitancy that’s fueling it, has thrown into question whether a return to office and school this fall is possible. What will the world look like in three months let alone three years, feels like an unanswerable question. Who are we all supposed to be these days? How do we achieve a certainty of self, when the ground we are living on feels like quicksand?
I don’t know the answer, except that trying to fit ourselves back into old modes of living, whether that means heels and blowouts or the expectation that future summers will be a fun season instead of a state of emergency for much of the country, is untenable. The better question might be, who do we want to be, and how do we work to make that happen?