Discuss: Interior vs. Exterior

Jun 7, 2019

Last week, Grace Atwood from The Stripe was getting dressed for a big event.  She put on everything she brought on her trip and none of it worked.  Predictably, this left her feeling a tangle of emotions.  Emotions that I have felt many times.

Tonight, I’m joining Grace for an event in D.C..  Choosing a dress for this event turned a simple task into a spiral of negative feelings.  I put on every dress in my closet.  Most did not fit.  One fit so poorly, I had to have Kyle tear me out of it (and not in a fun, sexy way).  The entire experience nearly had me puddled on the floor.

There’s so much pressure on women to look just right.  There’s even more pressure on women who make their money talking to other women about clothes.  You can’t just look good, you have to look your best.  You have to look like your readers expect you to look.  Even when you eschew the entire “influencer” ethos as hard as I do, the insecurities still find you.


Two years ago, I brought Kyle to D.C. for an event that we were looking forward to attending.  A tornado of factors was making this night feel more important than it was.  I was back in D.C. for the first time in months.  Kyle was well-dressed as usual.  And we were going to two events where there would be people snapping photos, before meeting with friends for a night out.

I’d gone for a blowout, and my hair looked like I stuck my finger in a socket.  The dress I brought had a stain from a luggage spill.  And the backup was a Reformation wrap dress that was barely staying closed.

I was wandering around our AirBnB screaming curse words, loudly and at no one in particular.  I looked like a crazy person.  Kyle, having never seen this kind of meltdown, was basically hiding in the living room hoping the storm would pass by him.

Finally, after re-doing my hair, safety pinning my dress together, and finishing the look as best I could, I stood in front of the full length mirror and felt empty.  I didn’t know what I was hoping to look like, but this wasn’t it.  My only thought was, “I used to be pretty.”

The darkness had crept in.

Putting his hands on my shoulders, Kyle looked me right in the eye, and told me I looked beautiful.  I knew he meant it, but I didn’t feel beautiful.  I felt gutted.  Somehow in all the planning for this event, I’d let my self-worth get caught up in how I looked.

We exited the car at the Belgian Ambassador’s Residence for what should have been a fun night.  Kyle squeezed my hand, and I summoned whatever positive mojo I could find hoping to salvage the evening.  But walking through the foyer, another blogger helicopter-whispered to the PR-person coordinating the event, “Geez, Belle got fat.”

When I turned to look her way, she just sort of shrugged at me.  As if I couldn’t be mad at her for speaking the truth.

It still stings every time I think about it.  I don’t know how I resisted the temptation to throw a Stella Artois chalice at her head.


Insecurities are real, and they live in all of us.  The fear of not being enough can be crushing.  But you just have to remember that sometimes the way you see yourself is more funhouse mirror than reality.  You see the flaws, but other people often don’t.  Partially because they may only exist in your head and your heart.  Partially because no one is harder on a woman than herself.

It seems silly to be 37 and still worried that you won’t look just right for a party, but it’s difficult to undo decades of conditioning.  (Don’t even get me started about trying on wedding gowns.)

I just have to keep working on trying to remember that I am enough.  Even if my hair is poofy.  Or worse, flat.  Even if the other bloggers’ outfits are better.  Even if the zit on my cheek feels like it has its own zip code, and the roll of fat on my abdomen is pinched by my waistband.

The girl under all of that is still enough.  That’s just exterior.  The more I work on strengthening the interior, the less I will care about the exterior.

Who am I kidding?  I will always care if my hair goes flat, but I can leave the rest behind.

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  1. J says:

    This is hard, but important, work. Proud of your honesty and commitment to your inner self.

  2. J says:

    I want to digest your great post a little more before providing my thoughts, but I can’t help do this hot take: I wish we knew each other in real life. I can be your bad cop and put that blogger in her place. Who does that? It’s not women who do that because that’s insulting to all the women who are kind. Keep working on the interior. If you need support to ward off the negativity from those who prize the exterior, let me know, and I’ll do it.

  3. nancy says:

    thank you for sharing this very personal story. i needed to read that today.

  4. MB says:

    I’ll be there tonight, actually – seven months pregnant, feeling like a giant frumpy barn with swollen feet, and probably struggling to stay awake. So glad to hear you will be there too. Stay strong my friend, the good things outweigh the bad even on days like today.

  5. Jessica says:

    “I used to be pretty” – I am not a blogger nor does anyone expect I look great (really ever) but I just have to tell you we’re having very similar 37 year old feelings. I’m going to guess that the vast majority of women reading this blog have some interest in work fashion but it’s really just that we like your interior. That sounds creepy. You know what I mean.

    • Belle says:

      Thank you. It’s true, some of this is the inevitable age rage, but there are still days I think, “I can be pretty again if I just…” The biggest challenge of aging gracefully is remembering that nothing can reverse time. You have to take care of you.

      • angie says:

        Hopefully we all find the confidence as we age to know that beauty doesn’t come in just one package. Find more mature beauty goals. I look at women older than me and reach for their standards – confidence, style, individuality, peace, achievement. Beauty should be complex, not just smooth skin or a certain body type. That’s just dumb society nonsense. I’d rather be what the 50 year olds are giving us today than to be what the 20-somethings are putting pressure on themselves to be.

  6. Angie says:

    Next time tell her fat is temporary, ugly is forever.


    Seriously, while in a place we don’t want to be, remember the wins we have – love, family, supportive community. Every moment is temporary. Enjoy what you have while you have it and make moves to change the things you aren’t happy about. Anyone reading your blog can tell you are a beautiful person inside and out, so don’t let anyone get you down with their rude nonsense.

  7. Laura Ridge says:

    I know you’re not fishing for compliments, but I have met you and I must say: you are pretty. More than that, you are lovely. At the event where I heard you and Hitha speak you were poised, stylish, and insightful. You spoke eloquently and honestly about your life and it’s challenges post law school. I have read CHS for years and never admired you more than when I saw you in person.

    That other blogger was unforgivably rude. There are no words, besides a well-deserved f*ck off.

  8. Carrie says:

    You are hardly alone in these feelings. I don’t think there is a woman out there who hasn’t experienced that “emptiness” when they look in a mirror. It’s not really based in any real self value or reality, but these skewed glasses we sometimes view ourselves through.

    For me, I can look in the mirror and feel like I’m killing it on a Tuesday, but then on Wednesday feel like an old hag who looks terrible in whatever she puts on. I try to remind myself on those bad days that it’s highly unlikely that I gained a ton of weight and aged a hundred years over night…it’s my emotions and self perception that’s changed, not anything tangible. It helps me show myself a little grace and allows me to be a little kinder to myself.

  9. Rachael says:

    Thank you so much for always sharing yourself so openly with your readers. Hearing about other’s struggles helps combat the feelings of isolation we all deal with when we get caught up in our own internal dialogue. We all have those days when nothing fits, our hair won’t “do”, and our face just doesn’t match the image we’ve built in our head, and it feels like the world is falling apart because of it. Being reminded that we all go through these struggles from time to time helps give the perspective needed to correct that internal dialogue and refocus on the things that do matter and move forward with positivity.

  10. CS says:

    I had those feelings this week when trying to find an outfit for an event this weekend. Nothing in my closet fit properly, so I went shopping. I felt like nothing in the store looked good either. Cue calling my husband from a dressing room in tears.
    His response was that he loves me and thinks I’m beautiful (smart man).
    But it’s harder for me to see myself as beautiful than it is for him to find me beautiful, and even harder to accept that how I look isn’t the most important thing (logically, I know it isn’t, but it still seems pretty d@mn important most of the time!).
    I like that you’re real about how you feel about your body. I can’t take another size 0 “naturally skinny” blogger talking about how she camouflages her “problem areas.”
    I also want to say that the other side to “I used to be pretty” is the feeling “I’ve never been pretty.” I’m younger than you, at an age that many people talk about wistfully as when they were skinny, pretty, and carefree. I can’t help thinking, if I’m not pretty now, and it’s all downhill from here, does that mean I’ll never be pretty? Obviously, this is a ridiculous spiral, but it’s real. Just remember that even when we were at what we would consider to be our “prettiest,” we still had plenty of insecurities and negative comparisons to other people.
    I’m working on de-emphasizing pretty in my life (with varying degrees of success), and I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one.

  11. AmandaG says:

    “But you just have to remind myself that sometimes the way you see yourself is more funhouse mirror than reality. You see the flaws, but other people often don’t.”
    Hello! This part. I think about this all the time. I zero in on all the things that are “wrong” or look different than they’ve looked in the past. Sigh. I really relate to this post. Including the 37 year old part ( me too!) When I have to go to an event where I will be with other people I know, I tell myself I need to at least pretend to be confident. I think it makes a difference. I tell myself that no one is looking at ____ or whatever. It’s just me.

    I have been married for a long time now and I know we’re supposed to not find our value in how other’s see us but having the person I love find me attractive, does help me with what I think about myself a little. If he likes what he sees (and he has through thick and thin–literally), it doesn’t matter what others think (this is what I tell myself anyway). The exception to this is me, of course. Which brings us it back to the beginning. I would imagine it is much more difficult as an influencer/blogger that writes on fashion but let me say that I appreciate your perspective. I relate to it so much more than many others that don’t have a similar struggle. Thanks for writing about this subject.

  12. Wow, thank you SO, SO much for this. I appreciate your vulnerability in this post. It resonated with me in a big way. And was a great reminder for me to continue working on my interior so that I won’t feel like my worth is determined by my exterior. Thanks again for this post.

  13. Ellen says:

    If you have not watched Elder Millennial on Netflix, she has a whole bit in there about wedding dress shopping (it is toward the end, but the whole thing is worth it) It made my laugh when all i wanted to do was cry about the experience.

    I didn’t love how I look in my wedding photos because I thought I looked heavy (white is really, really not forgiving). This was a good post to read as I look through the photos and try to focus on how I felt that day.

    Thank you for being honest with your struggles. I came for the fashion years ago, but I keep reading for the honesty, openness, and the lack of fit-tea related content.

  14. SheLikesToTravel says:

    I don’t know that I have ever commented on your blog before, but I read your blog regularly. Thank you for sharing this very personal story. I know that you know mean comments come from them and their luggage and really has nothing to do with you. And we could take that whole, “your opinion of me is none of my business,” attitude. But still those comments sting. I know they do.

  15. Denise says:

    At 42 I have struggled with this for years now. The wrinkles are undeniable. They gray gets harder to cover. Various things are … well, less perky…and there is a lot more in places than there used to be.

    Its not easy to manage your own expectations.

    Sometimes I think about it though and ask myself, would I want to rewind the clock? Go back to 25? At 42 I have a house, a 401K, a paid off student loan. I have amazing friendships that have lasted for nearly 2 decades. I have two beautiful sons. I am more empathetic. I make better decisions (for the most part). I’m more introspective and can see how my actions affect others, and v/v. I’m more generous, more patient. and for all of that, all I’ve ‘given up’ is 10 lbs on the scale and a wrinkle free exterior.

    …meh…it was an OK trade 😉

  16. Jennifer says:

    How awful it must be to constantly feel this pressure. Isn’t it mind boggling the things we impose on ourselves? I’ve recently started to konmari my things and was saddened to come across my size 00 Theory dress that I wore on my first date with my now fiancee years ago…it’s unlikely I will ever fit into it again. I remembered being so empowered whenever I wore that dress and realized I missed that feeling. I’ve since made a goal to always try to recreate that feeling, whether it’s through shoes, make up, accessories, etc because the trick is to find the right exterior decor. 😉 As for the dress, I hope to pass it on to someone who will feel the same sense of empowerment.

  17. AT says:

    Abra, thank you for honest posts like this. This is why I still read your blog 10+ years later.

    The part about how harshly we judge ourselves vs others really resonates with me! Just this past week, I was organizing old photo albums and found some pictures from when I was in high school. (I’m in my early 30s now.) I was not a super confident, popular teenager, and often felt awkward and not well put-together compared to many of my female peers – not the right clothes, right hair, etc. I remember some similar puddle-like meltdowns of not having the right dress to wear.

    I was struck looking at these pictures with the perspective of time. I was objectively adorable. In some of the photos, I was right next to the girls I thought were so cool and beautiful at the time, and I looked just as cute as them. My self-gaze at the time was just so much harsher on myself than on others.

    I’m going to try and incorporate that realization into my day to day life more. What if we were as gentle to ourselves as we are to our friends?

  18. Lynn says:

    I know this post is about your feelings about yourself, but I’m having trouble moving past that blogger’s comment. I’m taking out my earrings and reaching in my purse for bear spray.

    I hope she wakes up at three o’clock every morning, thinking about that moment she hurt someone, and wishing she was the kind of person who didn’t do that bs. I hope she feels like hell. I hope she becomes the kind of person who says, “Great shoes!” to women in the elevator, no matter what size they are, because yeah, their shoes really are great. And I hope one day she’s happy with herself, because the only people who go out of their way to hurt others are pretty sad themselves.

    But I’m just petty enough that I hope before that happens, she falls in a pile of cow dung.

  19. aar1 says:

    so thankful that you shared. I don’t know if it was exactly her intention, but Amy Schumer’s comedy special included a refrain of “it’s hard to stay confident as a woman,” and I honestly think about that at least once a week. it’s so true and it’s such a shame. as i get smarter and wiser with age and work experience, i just get less confident. and as my significant other still thinks i’m the most beautiful, i just pine for the bouncier skin that i had five or six years ago. i think it’s universal and i hope more vulnerability like yours can help us all maintain the confidence we once had/once should have had.

  20. Monica T says:

    Negative self-talk is a killer, and if there is any proof needed that our words matter, it’s the fact that we learned it somewhere. I try to make sure my daughter never hears me talk badly about my appearance, or anyone else for that matter.

    Seconding everyone who mentioned that our physical form is transitory, it is here and then gone in the blink of an eye, and in the interim it changes constantly. However, the bright shining light of our souls is forever. I find that I appreciate the people who look a little closer to see it more than anyone else.

  21. Maria says:

    I’m not as thin or as pretty as I used to be at 22, but I’m a hell of a lot more interesting (and confident, successful, etc). I try to remind myself of that in the dark moments.

  22. Pam says:

    Love this post!!

    It could make a great book, the best book.

    I recently had a small skin cancer result in masssive surgeries on my face – forehead flap.

    I realized how incredibly shallow and vain I am and how despite my accomplishments I still care a lot about how I look. Beauty industry taking advantage of us all every day.

    Oh well, back to my skin, hair and makeup routine.

  23. Babette says:

    Last week, I turned 53. I don’t really remember 37 that much (haha), but I feel qualified, by virtue of my age to share this with you: it’s perfectly ok to feel the way you do and we all go through this. Aging for women is sometimes a dreadful process, and sometimes it makes me angry that it’s so much harder for us than it is for men. Why can they get old, fat, and grey and still have that confidence that they have? Why is it so easy for them to dress (a well fitted good quality suit makes them all look great), and nobody expects them to keep on looking 23 years old? In fact, most men seem to look better as they get older. I have noticed that this obsession with youth does not seem to happen in most European countries. I have travelled a lot and I find that women in France, Italy and Spain are somehow “permitted” to age and still seen as very beautiful into their seventies. They dress elegantly, wear minimal makeup and do not undergo plastic surgery, as a rule. They exude confidence and style, and seem to look “put together” when wearing simple and well tailored clothes. So I try to use them as my role model. And now I try to focus on all the blessings I have: a good marriage, two kids in university, and a good legal career which, despite lots of stress and ups and downs, has given me confidence in myself, which I lacked in my younger years (I was NOT confident in my thirties). You are an intelligent, kind, much-loved person, and you have and will continue to have a wonderful life. Yes, there will be crappy days where you will hate all your clothes and feel like nothing is working, but I am sure that as the years pass you will push through those bad times and remember to think of all the “good stuff.” Your blog is terrific, and I wish you well in your career and your marriage. And now….I have to go and try on a party dress myself, which I have not worn in over a year, and which is likely not going to fit me!!!! Wish me luck…..

  24. Susan says:

    So many comments but I won’t repeat what others have said. A couple of key takeaways for you:

    1. Youth is wasted on the young. We all know it. Spend a little time w your 22 year old counterparts and you’ll be grateful you’re past that stage in life. We only remember the good (aka how we looked) and not the bad (our mental state at that age!) we also didn’t think we were hot at that age, we thought we were damaged goods.
    2. Wedding dresses NOTORIOUSLY run 2-3 sizes smaller than your street wear counterparts. No joke. It’s an industry wide “secret” that BLOWS.

  25. Rachel says:

    I am here with you. I am thankful for your words. I truly appreciate you being honest about real things.

  26. Holly says:

    Wow, this hit home and thank you for sharing. I looked in the mirror in the last week and had that same thought. It was like a little sneak attack and then nagged at me for days. It’s so refreshing for someone to talk about the bad moments honestly and not in a I’m an influencer pretending to relate way.

  27. Julianne says:

    This definitely hits home for me too. I don’t know which is worse, the bottomless pit of disappointment when when I don’t look good in my clothes or the fact that some part of me still believes that my life could be perfect if only i was at my target weight with perfect outfits.

    Speaking of wedding dresses and weight gain, I just got married a few months ago without hitting my target weight. Here is what I did to minimize my negative thoughts and focus on enjoying the day.

    1) If losing weight is hard (it definitely is for me) buy your dress at whatever size you are now, not the size you hope to be. My engagement was 1.5 years and I wanted to lose 20 lbs. I cut out alcohol, sugary foods, ate more lean protein and veggies, I exercised more, counted calories, and prioritized a full night sleep. I only lost 6 lbs. Obviously i haven’t solved my weight dilemma, but at least I didn’t introduce a new problem by having a dress that didn’t fit.

    2) pick your dress by how good you feel when you’re currently wearing it. If you can find a dress that you can’t stop smiling when you try it on, that’s a winner! Even tho i wasn’t the weight I wanted to be, I at least felt like a star on my wedding day because i loved my dress so much (and the makeup and hair was fun), and I’m so glad i have that memory. While I still wish i looked thinner in my photos, the happiness and joy on my face came through in those pictures, and it helps remind me of what was really important.

    3) invite the right people who really support you. For us, that meant a small group of friends and family who were there because they love us for all the silly things we do and we could truly be ourselves around them. These are the people who will be too busy celebrating with you to notice the lack of definition in your arms.

    Good luck, and as always thanks for keeping it real.

  28. Jenny says:

    I read this with so much sadness. I can’t imagine how messed up that blogger’s life and priorities are that she could call another woman fat within earshot. Just…absolutely crazy behavior.

    Also regardless of weight, there is nothing worse than wearing something you’re not comfortable in to an event that matters to you—either because it doesn’t fit, the style is wrong, too revealing, underdressed, etc. We have all been there. But I don’t think most of us have experienced such breathtaking cruelty and rudeness because of it. I’m sorry you went through this.

  29. Very timely article. I spent yesterday morning trying on everything in my closet for an event at work. I’ve sized out of many things that I’m holding on to. Trying them on just makes me feel worse. I also find myself feeling like I used to be pretty. Now I’m fatter, in desperate need of dental work, starting to get wrinkles, my hair seems thinner, and I’ve got cellulite on the back of my legs. Perhaps our late thirties are another ugly duckling stage like middle school. We will come out swans in our fourties.

  30. Orla says:

    The other night, I hosted a girl’s night to watch Wine Country on Netflix. It was so much fun- we all howled through the movie. There was a cameo in the movie by Brene Brown, who I had never heard of. Out of curiosity, I watched her Netflix special. She has spent her whole career researching shame and vulnerability. The biggest vulnerability for men is weakness and for women it is body image. Your post reminded me of this. We are all vulnerable in this way. And didn’t a Canadian band write a song about you and call you “smokin”? Maybe because you are?

    I recently ordered some of the Book Club reading glasses you recommended and I love them! They make me feel like a sexy librarian. You make lots of women feel sexier and more attractive through your blog posts every day. Keep up the good work! Thank you for not being the blogger who makes every woman feel inadequate and needful of improvement.

    I wish I could have gone to the live show because I love Grace and Becca! I can’t wait to listen to this one.

  31. Lily says:

    Thank you for sharing this. A nice reminder that just about every woman feels this way at least once in awhile.

    Something that has helped me is remembering that the most *attractive* people I know — the ones everyone wants to sit next to at parties, the ones who always get approached by strangers at bars, the ones you find yourself absolutely charmed by without realizing it — are not the best-looking or best-dressed. Your overall presence, your personality and your character are what people are drawn to, not a thigh gap or perfect hair.

  32. Colleen says:

    Those thoughts are ridiculously insidious. It’s a horrific mindtrip. I wish I had the magic words to make it so no one ever had to feel like that again.

    And shame on that woman for saying that. What a small life she must lead if she believes it’s right to say something like that.

    I’m about to turn 37 and feel like this more often than I’d really like to admit. Last summer I was my sister-in-law’s +1 for her friend’s wedding. Leaving the house, I felt FIERCE. My dress was my favorite color and cut, my hair and makeup looked awesome (especially for it being 90 and humid that day) and I felt on top of the world. Then, someone snapped a picture of a group of us. All I could see in the photo was how fat my upper arms looked. I immediately felt my spirit deflate, and became so insecure that I pretty much retreated into myself for the rest of the night. The thought was “Who do you think you are to think you look good? You’re a fat, frumpy mom who looks like a try-hard.” It shocked me how quickly the night turned.

    The kicker? About a week later someone posted a different picture from that night and I looked gorgeous.

    All that to say, it’s a beast. Thank you for keeping it real and know that you’re not alone in this.

  33. katel says:

    I will take the interior you give us here and at events any day. You’re smart, thoughtful with a side of great snark. I echo that aging gracefully and still loving the exterior you have in the here and now is a struggle. At 40+ on a good day I can remember that I can literally run a marathon and a bad day I hate that I have runner quads. Appreciate the honest conversations you bring to the blog.

  34. Meghan says:

    My mouth literally dropped when I read what you overheard the blogger say at the party. That is, plain and simply, awful. I’m so sorry it happened and I’m so sorry it still sticks in your mind years later. It is SO hard to let go of the internalized perspective that thin is better, even when you know conceptually it does not matter. I think you’re very brave for posting the story and being this vulnerable in public. You’re doing the hard work. Good on you.

  35. Nora says:

    Ugh, I’m so sorry.

    I love that you are blogging and would be very sorry if you stopped, but being part of the blogging world must make it that much easier to get sucked into superficial self-judgements and shame spirals over not looking perfect all the time.

    The only thing that saves me (in a non-blogging life that nevertheless includes a lot of much younger, gorgeous and more accomplished colleagues) is a group of real friends that finds me delightful for reasons having nothing to do with my looks or grooming or shit educational credentials.

    I kind of wish you would name the blogger. (I know you won’t. But I wish. That’s someone I’d never grace with a click again.)

  36. Anne says:

    Well said. I’ve had that exact same meltdown, and still felt empty when my husband said I looked great.

    I wore an outfit a few weeks ago, which I thought I looked darling in. I was able to wear a dress I hadn’t fit into in months. Then the checkout lady when I was getting my lunch asked when I was due. I.was.crushed. Same with your experience, it still stings.

    Later that day, though, a 20-something Anthro employee I didn’t know stopped me in the shop and said she loved my outfit. That experience still shines.

  37. Julia says:

    That other blogger (at the party, whispering to the PR person) deserves a Nancy Pelosi-style clap back.

  38. This spoke to me so much today. Last weekend I struggled to pick out an outfit for a friend’s going away bash. My boyfriend was sweet but struggled to undestand why I was getting upset after everything I tried on. After trying outfit after outfit, I felt…fat? unfashionable? dumb for not understanding the dress code? I was also struggling to understand my tears. But reading your post gave me some insight into what was happening. Your words helped me understand I’m not alone in this and that we must try to be kinder to ourselves and sever the strong connection between self-worth and beauty. Thank you.

  39. MJ says:

    “It seems silly to be 37 and still worried that you won’t look just right for a party, but it’s difficult to undo decades of conditioning” 37 in two months and I still feel this way before a party or important meeting or work event.

    I also have 6 or 7 dresses in the closet that no longer fit. Either I lose 15 or buy a new wardrobe that doesn’t make me want to cry.

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