The cover story in Allure magazine's February issue focuses on country music star Carrie Underwood, 29. Page after page of glorious photographs feature her modeling a variety of eye-catching outfits, including a low-cut shoulder-strap dress that shows off a whole lot of chest and leg.
The mainstream press, however, latched on to one particular quote about what the singer wears under her revealing clothes: “Underneath every skirt, every dress, I’m wearing shorts,” Underwood explains. "So that everyone in the world knows, if I ever fell down, nobody would get a peek at anything.”
Her intriguing approach to fashion expresses an age-old female conundrum — to reveal or not to reveal, and in what measure? But Underwood’s solution is particularly unusual.
Public focus on what she wears continued last Sunday when Underwood won a Grammy for Best Country Solo Performance for “Blown Away” and sang while standing still, clad in a gown that faithfully adhered to relatively modest Grammy dress guidelines — unlike her fellow gal celebs whose red carpet garb flaunted a blatant disregard for the new rules. Hardly sideshows to the main event, these peek-a-boob gowns all but upstaged the ceremony and probably made for some pretty uncomfortable moments for CBS executives.
Underwood, on the other hand, used her dress as a blank canvas for a visually captivating LED display that took place on the gown itself. As the light show played out across the fabric, I couldn’t help but think about the contrast between her take-cover strategy and the bare-almost-all approach of her musical peers.
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To Reveal or to Hide?
The stars’ contradictory stances regarding revelation and cloaking got me thinking about the degree to which women still feel the need to present themselves as sex objects. Even when talent and character alone should be show-stoppers, many resort to tempting and titillating.
Though women in the Western world are still sifting through conflicting views of their bodies and sexuality as they continue to evolve their larger sense of themselves and their place in the world, most have struck a fashion balance that makes them comfortable by the time they reach midlife.
But then everything changes again.
Women and Masking at Midlife
The clarity about and confidence in that balance shifts as we age. And the motivations for hiding also change. It turns out that growing up during a time when we were free to determine the height of hemlines and amount of skin we covered could not shield us from negative views of an aging body. We’re perhaps a little less proud than we used to be because, although our culture allows us the freedom to unveil, it also tells us that vitality and desirability depend on a firm, svelte frame.
And so, most 50+ women don’t sport clothes that are likely to lead to unwanted glimpses of what lies beneath — which means we also have no need to wear shorts under our dresses. Instead, we routinely engage in an altogether different kind of masking, the sort geared to hiding or reshaping body parts that no longer look the way they once did because we eat more than we burn, bear the marks of childbirth and are losing skin elasticity.
We become experts in camouflage — wrapping scarves around wrinkled necks and wearing long tunics, jackets and dresses fit for cloaking thick thighs, sagging underarms and bulbous butts and bellies. And underneath, believing we must still sacrifice comfort to cut a finer figure, we stuff ourselves into choking shapers and hose. We may have come a long way since the days of corsets and girdles, but perhaps not as far as we think.
What Lies Below the Surface
I’m not immune to this means of claiming a version of my former body and hooking external validation — on occasion I wear Spanx, tummy-tucking hose and Spandex too. But all this hiding and holding-in is not the way I want to continue. Women didn’t earn the right to be as demure or as immodest as we like, only to cover up again. No, I’d like to put a stop to that and steer my life back toward more revelation.
That means having fewer reasons to hide in the ways that boomer women do. The most authentic way to reshape our form and ensure vitality is to exercise and eat a healthier diet. These approaches refine those parts of the body that clothes wrap, reducing the incentive to tuck and hide.
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But there are three other things underneath my clothes that I not only aim to hone, but also to reveal, more and more:
1. A thick skin I intend to keep calibrating my own internal compass — the one that provides direction and keeps me on a meaningful course, no matter what comes along to take me off it. With this kind of sureness can come the capacity to ignore criticism that flies in the face of personal wisdom and the persistence to tackle challenges that expand a sense of meaning.
2. Heart The Golden Rule — “treat others as you would like to be treated” — has always made a great deal of sense to me. It’s not only appealing because of my inherent moral makeup, it also has always seemed the most practical way of avoiding conflict and upping the odds of being on the receiving end of respect, fairness and kindness. With maturity, the truth of this has come into sharper focus. I regard the practice of the "rule" as a recipe for peace of mind, fewer regrets, deeper friendship and more love all around. Recognizing, acknowledging and warmly embracing the specialness of others is an extraordinary gateway to a fuller life.
3. Skin in the game When Warren Buffet used this phrase, he was referring to leaders using their own money to buy stock in the company they’re running as a sign of good faith or a show of confidence. I use it to mean investing wholeheartedly in what you believe in, with whatever you’ve got to give. I’ve always been the type to commit deeply to anything I take on, but I intend to extend my focus now to new targets. I know that to make a difference — whether to a cause or a person — one has to give freely of time, energy or money.
So, while I may not be revealing more of my body come spring, I won’t be hiding it either. I also won’t be staging any light shows on my dresses — but I do hope to let more of the light inside me shine.