When Health Dictates Fashion

Photo credit: Sarah Laval, CC BY 2.0.

I used to live in jeans. I had about five pairs, all a little different, that I could throw on with a top and dress up or dress down. It was easy, which is how I always preferred my fashion. That was before I started experiencing pelvic pain.

Last fall was the beginning of a months-long battle that started with a yeast infection and UTI. I was diagnosed with a hypertonic (tight) pelvic floor and was in pelvic floor physical therapy for twelve weeks.

As the weather in Chicago got colder and colder, I had fewer and fewer clothes to choose from. Usually I would wear thin leggings or tights underneath jeans to keep warm, but jeans put pressure on my bladder and layers made me sweat in uncomfortable places. My wardrobe whittled down to a few staples: two long dresses, one pair of wide leg pants, and two pairs of Cuddl Duds, plus tops and sweaters for layering. 

While at first it was fun to spend the winter in long dresses — the skirts cut the wind and the Cuddl Duds and Doc Martens kept me toasty — I simply got sick and tired of wearing the same couple of pieces of clothing over and over and over. At one point, I couldn’t even wear the one pair of pants because some of my pelvic pain was external and bending over or sitting in even loose-fitting pants pressed the seam into my crotch (I had clitoral and vulvar pain).

Once it started getting warmer out, I had to adjust my wardrobe once again. Now I could wear dresses without the extra layers, but I was sick of wearing the same few dresses over and over. That left me with a few pairs of leggings that didn’t put too much pressure on my abdomen. 

I tried to go shopping for more, but I’ve had my leggings for years and couldn’t find exactly what I wanted. I ended up taking to Google, literally searching “leggings for pelvic pain.” I found several posts and articles about clothing brands that work for people with pelvic pain, or chronic pain in general. I was surprised to find as much as I did, but it makes sense. When you have chronic pain, clothing can have a major impact on how you feel.

I recently saw a hashtag from @ThePrincessKali on Twitter: #HealthDictatesFashion. That struggle is real. One of the essays I came across while I was doing research was about the only pair of leggings the writer (who has endometriosis) could comfortably wear — they were from Lululemon and cost $98. My heart sank. My type of pain is different from endometriosis, but that price tag still scared me. I’ve splurged on shoes before, but I don’t think I ever spent that much on a pair of pants, let alone a pair of leggings. My wedding dress didn’t even cost that much.

Not only am I spending over $1,000 on pelvic floor physical therapy over the course of a few months, but I have to buy a whole new wardrobe potentially made up of $98 pants?

I made the trip to Lululemon, but I felt like I didn’t belong there. I took a lap around the store, populated by beautiful people buying clothes to sweat in (probably). I didn’t see any sale racks or a clearance section. I wasn’t going to spend $98 on a pair of leggings, so I didn’t even try anything on. I wanted out as quickly as possible, frustrated by the fact that I was in there because I had a medical condition and all I wanted was a pair of pants so I could be as pain-free as possible. I wasn’t in there voluntarily, because I couldn’t voluntarily spend $98 on one pair of pants. I walked out of Lululemon less than five minutes after I walked in. Then I went to a few other stores and tried on their exercise pants, which were all too tight around my stomach. Maybe the Lululemon pants wouldn’t have worked for me anyway, I told myself.

I went back to Google and checked out every brand of leggings that were mentioned in those “chronic pain clothing” pieces, comparing prices, material, style, etc. I found one website, Simple Addiction, that had a huge collection of leggings in lots of different colors and prints. Most of their leggings are under $10 and I got a couple pairs for as low as $5. I bought one pair to see if they fit and they did. The only downside: hand-wash only. But they feel super-soft on my legs, and the waistband can either be folded down yoga-pant style to sit lower on the hips or can be worn rolled up, putting very little pressure on my abdomen.

I ended up buying six more pairs of leggings from Simple Addiction and spent about $65 total. I also found a couple more pairs of leggings off the rack at a discount store. Over the last two months, I’ve bought nine new pairs of leggings — all for less than the cost of one pair of Lululemon pants. I have black leggings, purple leggings, leggings with flowery skulls, and stained glass window prints. I’ve dressed up leggings to wear to a conference, and I can even wear them to work.

I’ll probably be able to wear my beloved jeans again at some point. But for now, my health dictates my fashion — and that means I’ve got to adjust my style. At least I’ve got some funky leggings to get me through it.

Nicole Guappone lives in Chicago and has been previously published by Rolling Stone, Glamour, The Rumpus, The Establishment, and more. She is a contributor at Rebellious, a Chicago-based feminist magazine.

This story is part of The Billfold’s Clothing Series.

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