Clothes and Poetry – Self Confidence As A Performing Poet

Black and white stock image of a narrow street in Shrewsbury, Shropshire

The Shrewsbury Poetry night will always be one of my favourite poetry events. It’s where I first got on stage to do an open mic slot, and it runs every month. After moving to Cheshire, I couldn’t attend as often as I liked, and sporadic attendance turned into complete absence. The lockdown helped here as it was one of the events that moved online. What had previously involved an hour and a half drive either way, suddenly dropped to the time it took to open my laptop and click on a zoom link. I got to see old friends, and read in a familiar setting, even if we weren’t technically in the same room. I was able to wear anything I wanted to, including pyjamas and a blanket. You can wear pretty much whatever you want to a poetry event. The limitations come less from a dress code and more from the venue. Cafes and pubs don’t pose much of an issue no matter the season, while events in community halls can be a little chilly if the heating isn’t on and it’s the middle of winter. If you find yourself in an old church, or a market hall, the heating might not cut it even if it’s switched on.

Since restrictions were lifted, Shrewsbury Poetry has gone hybrid. One month in person, one month online, alternating as the months go. This February was the second in-person event since Covid struck the UK, and I was finally home. Back in a room watching poets with the people who had given me the courage to pursue poetry beyond scribbling in journals, and posting a few bits online. I was thrilled.

I was also freezing.

2022 saw me get the running shoes out, and lose the last of the lockdown/pregnancy weight that I had put on. Convinced that having a child would permanently change my body shape (which it has done to some degree), a lot of my pre-pregnancy clothing went to recycling. My reasons were not entirely to do with my change in size. I’ve kept a lot of clothes from my teenage years, and with thirty around the corner, my style has changed and a lot of those outfits have seen better days. A lot of the clothes I’ve bought during my twenties have been worn to death, and the ones that have some life in them aren’t always the sort of ‘going out’ clothes you want. Most of the ‘going out’ clothes I do have were bought during the summer months. When it was still warm. Are you starting to see where the problem lies for a February open mic in a rural market town?

Me dressed for a poetry event in a blue and white corseted crop top, black leather effect trousers with silver buttons, a pair of black heels, and a blue three-quarter length military style coat with my hair loose, and black feather earrings. I'm stood in front of my bookcases at home.

I don’t have a photo from Shrewsbury, but I have recreated the look for you. It was a fantastic outfit, the top is from Cider, the trousers were from LustyChic on Amazon, the coat is Grace Karren (a gift my from sister) and I paired it with some Butterme earrings, an amethyst pendant (gift from my sister-in-law) and another pair of necklaces I combined (from a different sister-in-law) that are a ‘C’ on a small silver circle, and a clear, square crystal. A pair of black-heeled Mary-Jane shoes finished the look off, and I left the house with a bit of a strut in my step.

Then I got out of the car, and into the venue. I was so, so cold.

The event itself was brilliant. Three poets performed: Emma Purshouse, Gareth Culshaw, and Mary Cunningham, followed by open mic slots. I read my poem ‘Newborn’ from ‘It’s All In The Blood’, and sold three copies of my book during the break. (I think it was my best night of sales since the actual book launch.) The only downside was no one saw my outfit beyond the coat because I couldn’t bare to take it off and brave the chill.

I’ve written a few poems about clothes. My poem ‘Legs Eleven’ deals with the fallout of a workplace reprimand for ‘unprofessional dress’, and I’ve carried a level of anxiety regarding how I’m seen on stage since then. Having a baby impacted my view of my body significantly. The flat stomach I had at sixteen will never return, and the stretch marks from pregnancy are a lifetime reminder of the changes my body went through. I have extra skin and new curves. My boobs got huge, mismatched, and then shrank back down into shapes I don’t recognise. After breastfeeding for six months, this was to be expected. I didn’t imagine that I would have the same boob that I did in my early twenties, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t looked at myself in the mirror and worried that I’m less attractive because of those changes. I’ve found myself scanning photos from events to see how many imperfections show.
Do I look bloated? Are my legs positioned awkwardly? Have I been caught mid-sentence so my throat looks like a bullfrog’s mid-bellow? There are events where I don’t share any of the photos because I cannot stand how I look, or how my clothing is sitting. My wardrobe is full of things that do not fit me because I went from a UK size 8 to a 14, and down to a 10 again. There is no such thing as a ‘bad’ size, but clothing that doesn’t fit rarely lends itself to making you feel great.

Extract from the poem 'Legs Eleven' from the book 'It's All In The Blood' by Carol J Forrester

In ‘Legs Eleven’ I say how the wardrobe offers me reprimand instead of comfort because everything is “too tight, too short, too sheer” or “doesn’t sit as it should though I’m sure it did yesterday”. Part of growing up has been discovering that my body isn’t static. Outside of the obvious drastic changes are the daily fluctuations. What you weigh in the morning, rarely matches what you weigh in the evening. For any menstruating person, it is normal to gain 3-5 pounds (1.3-2.2 kg) during your period which seems like a small number on the page, but can impact how your clothing fits hugely. Clothes sizing can also be a devious fucker in itself.

What one shop calls size 8, is something entirely elsewhere. My one sister-in-law bought a pair of size sixteen jeans and couldn’t get them on. When I tried them on as a size 12 they pretty much fit. In a society that puts so much stock into what size you are, this can easily harm someone’s self-worth, even if they realise that the sizing is out of whack.

I mentioned earlier that I started running again, and that has helped build strength, and that strength has been key in returning my confidence. Shrewsbury was a night where I felt confident in my body, and my outfit, but I wasn’t willing to lose a nipple to show either off. I enjoy clothes. They provide a level of expression that I can’t be bothered with when it comes to makeup or other cosmetics. I might put on some lipstick, but beyond that, I tend to go without. (I hate the effort of taking it off more than anything.) The problem is that sometimes I will sacrifice comfort and practicality, for the confidence an outfit might give me.

I bought three cider tops at the end of summer and I wore one to Poems & Pints in Macclesfield (November 22), and the other to Shrewsbury Poetry (February 23). In November I worried about what bra I should put on and if it would give enough support, or show under the top. In February, I didn’t both with a bra or boob tape, and I was more comfortable. I have started to love my figure again, and a little bit of sag isn’t going to spoil that for me as it once might. (I still should have taken a jumper, I really could have done with the warmth.)

This doesn’t mean I’m cured of my self-confidence issues, or that I will wear whatever comes out of the wardrobe first when I’m reading at events, but I’m going to try and focus less on looking perfect. I have a normal body, and it doesn’t always look the same in photos but hiding away the ones where I don’t match how I want to look isn’t helpful. I’m still me. It’s still my body. It’s still beautiful. The point of a poetry event is the poetry. I’m writing poems about women valuing themselves beyond appearance, and I can’t expect people to listen to that message if I don’t try and live it.

You can find links to my poetry book on my About page or look below for the five part series I did on Learning How To Be A Poet. Blog posts will be every other week and next time I’ll be talking about performing poetry as a new mum, sometimes with a baby tow.

Part One – Submitting & Publishing Poetry
Part Two – Editing & Redrafting Poetry
Part Three – Performing Poems For An Audience
Part Four – Does Poetry Need To Rhyme
Part Five – Writing About Real Life

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