If you’re anything like me, having to chose what you’re wearing to a show is way more stressful and scary than actually preparing the songs or stepping on stage to sing. I used to agonize over questions like: do I want to dress up or be casual? Do I want to be natural or straighten my hair? Do I want to wear jeans or a dress?
These questions used to literally keep me up or wake me up at night for weeks before a show. I’d become paralyzed, obsessively thinking about it but unable to just decide what to wear. I’d wander in and out of stores and spend too much time online but never rarely found anything I really liked.
The joy of singing and sharing my songs and being on stage would all but disappear during these bouts of obsession. The endless array of options and choices consumed and overwhelmed me and drained my energy and my enthusiasm for the show. The anxiety about my clothes was robbing me of the excitement and the pleasure that was the whole purpose.
Below is an example of how my pre-show experience looked like about a decade and a half ago:
Gig is downtown at 7pm. I live way uptown (in ‘upstate’ Manhattan) so I have an hour travel time minimum including the walking. I need to leave no later than 5:45pm. It is now5:45pm. I haven’t left. My hair still wet from the shower and now frizzy despite products because I had put on and taken off so many shirts (curly hair gals know this issue) trying to make a decision. It’s 5:59pm and I STILL can’t decide. I’m unhappy with every potential decision. I’m sweaty from running around in a manic panic, my bag is stuffed and overflowing with various accessories (because I’m still thinking I’ll change my clothes when I get there), my make up is undone or hastily done in bad light. At 6:07pm I’m finally out of the house running on ice and snow with my huge bag and a heavy guitar on my back terrified I’m going to slip and break my arm. I’m cursing my head off because I get stuck going through the turnstile with all my stuff (I’ve also somehow dug through to the bottom of my bag, pocket, coat pocket, etc looking for my metro card only to discover that I need to turn around and buy a new one) and miss my train.
I’m nearly hyperventilating and having a minor heart attack as I hover like a crazy girl on the stairs of the subway station debating if I should run back outside and try to find a taxi (for $50 or more) or keep waiting helplessly for the train. My stress level is off the charts. I’m starting to construct elaborate lies/excuses in my head about why I’m late, or why I just don’t make it to the gig at all (f***it, should I just bail?). I’m angry at myself for being so last minute, for possibly being really late to my own show and for being so disorganized. I’m angry at the struggle I feel. My body is filled with tension. I’m resentful and filled with self-doubt and questioning why on earth I booked this gig when I could be home, cozy in my pajamas, pressure-free, watching Gilmore Girls or my Little House on the Prairie DVD’s drinking tea and eating cookies, totally relaxed. I WANTED to be doing that. Finally the train would arrive or I’d get a taxi and miraculously make it with just a few moments to spare, stressed. beyond. belief.
Being a pro, I’d always have a fabulous show and a great time and no one would have any idea what I had just put myself through. But I knew. And it felt disempowering, unnecessary and shameful. The same cycle repeated itself before every show. As much as I wanted to, I just didn’t know how to change it.
And let me tell you, I would’ve have been mortified if anyone actually saw my bedroom when I got home from the gig- how clothes were everywhere and my whole house looked like a tornado hit it. I think had my audience seen me insanely running to my own show they would’ve felt so sad for me. They would’ve said, “But Ruth, you don’t have to worry about that stuff, we don’t care, you’re fine no matter what you wear, we’re here for your music and for who you are, not which shirt you’re wearing. Be nice to yourself.’
They surely would’ve wanted to give me a big hug. When I look back at myself then, that’s what I want to do too.
Today I’m filled with compassion for this young singer/songwriter in NYC who just didn’t know any better. I grew up in an environment where there was chaos behind closed doors but a shiny exterior. That mode of being was familiar. It was all I knew. I also grew up very confused about my identity and the clothing thing was always hard for me because I saw it as somehow representing me, but I didn’t know who ‘me’ was. I was always trying to be something or someone other than who I was, and therefore always trying to dress like someone else too-someone I thought was much cooler and better than me.
I had done the hard work of finding my identity and my own voice musically, artistically, which was a huge triumph (and no picnic either) but I was still stuck in high school around getting dressed. Do i want to be a hippy or hip? All black clothes? Feminine and sexy? Casual jeans and tank top? Quirky? Funky? Exotic? Who was I? Having to be in the spotlight exacerbated all the issues that were already there every day.
Over time and with much patience and outside guidance, I learned some lessons. I learned dhow to soothe my fears and approach making the decision about what to wear to my show with more ease and grace. I still struggle sometimes, but I’m WAY better. Here are some of my tips for all you lady artists out there who like me, know that once you’re on stage you’ll be just fine, but want to put yourself through a little less torture (hell!) beforehand. I’d love to hear your feedback!
1. Acknowledge that choosing what to wear is hard for you. Accept it as a reality. Respect it. Don’t pretend it’s not a big deal. Take a deep breath and say to yourself, ‘I know this is an issue for me so I’m going to be gentle.’
2. Make a firm decision to treat yourself with kindness through the process of choosing your outfit. Make rules. There will be no name calling or meanness allowed, no ‘I look stupid, fat, ridiculous, ugly…’. Stick to this rule.
3. A few weeks before the show (or as soon as the first anxiety hits) choose your outfit by trying it on, top to bottom plus accessories. That’s right, just choose it and say to yourself,‘This is what I’m wearing. End of story.‘ Mean it. This should not take more than 45 minutes.
4. When your mind goes to how the outfit you chose is not good enough, ask yourself honestly, is it the outfit or are old fears of being seen and judged resurfacing? If it’s the outfit, reach out to someone you like and tell them what you plan to be wearing. If they are shocked at your terrible decision, reassess. But of course, chances are they will say, ‘that sounds great’. If so, that has to be the end of it. You already made your decision, and it’s a good one. Remind yourself, ‘I know how to make the right decision for me.’
5. Choose to focus on the wise YOU, the talented, soulful one who will be sharing her voice and her songs and her light from her heart. Do not choose to focus on the ‘scared to be not perfect’ you who only wants to keep churning away at all your perceived flaws and offering up harsh critique.
6. Lower the pressure. You can make a new choice another time. There will be more gigs in the future. This isn’t the be all and end all. It’s not a wedding where there is only (hopefully) one shot at pictures or video to last a lifetime for generations so don’t treat it like that. It’s just a gig. Just decide and let go.
7. Wear the clothes that make you feel how you want to feel, not the ones you think you should wear because they are in style. If you’re not sure how you want to feel, ask yourself, ‘Self, which clothes make me feel confident, joyful and proud to be me?’
8. When looking at yourself in the mirror at home or in the store, don’t forget to S.T.A.B as my fashion designer friend Helen says, “Smile To Add Beauty”.
9. Organize and plan how you’re getting out of the house on the day of the show.Lay out every piece of your gig outfit the night before, and pack your gig bag with everything you might need. If you’re a list maker, make a list and check off everything as you put it in. Plan by what time you need to be done with shower, hair, makeup, dress, final warm-ups or meditation before you travel. Give yourself double the time you think you need for travel. Trust me on this one. It’s better to be early and calm than late and out of breath and sweaty.
10. Whatever outfit you’ve chosen, decide to love it and to love yourself. Shift your focus to your performance and your message and trust that no matter what you have on, it’s just your outside. Your inside will shine through when you sing and that’s what will touch your audience. So go out there feeling confident and happy, you’ve got this!