Last year I used my consumerist impulses to motivate myself to get out for runs—I’d buy running gear, and then feel like I had to go for runs to justify the purchase. 🏃🏻‍♂️ This year I’m running anyway. But that doesn’t mean I can’t buy new running gear. This handsome top is perfect for runs when it’s just about freezing.

Selfie in my new running top

Jackie and I went out for a walk this morning, as we do. The double-digit negative windchill seemed to offer a bit in the way of bragging rights, even if it wasn’t nearly as cold as a year ago.

Me and Jackie one year ago, when the temperatures were -16℉

I’ve got a bit more in the way of clothing choices this year, having bought a bunch of cold weather gear for winter running, but I didn’t use much of the new stuff.

I wore my Alaska pipeline coat, of course. Under that I wore my Dale of Norway sweater that Barbara bought on her last trip to Antarctica. Under that I wore a silk mock-T base layer. For my lower body I wore my flannel-lined jeans, which were just the right weight by themselves. (I’ve got a pair of fleece-lined khakis a size larger, big enough to wear tights or something under, for when it’s really, really cold, but I didn’t need them today.) I wore silk sock liners under my usual wool/silk-blend socks, under my new waterproof Lems boulder boots. (I’m very pleased with these boots so far. All the minimal/barefoot features I want, waterproof, and warm enough for the bitter cold.)

The one imperfect thing about the Alaska pipeline coat is that the hood is hugely oversized (I assume so that it can go over a hardhat) and tends to slump down over my face, obstructing my vision. So to keep my head warm I wore the Khyber pass hat that Jackie made me. (If you remember the war in Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance forces wore the same sort of hat. Very versatile—roll it up and it covers the top of your head to keep the sun off. Roll it down and you’ve got a thick wool hat you can pull down over your ears.)

All of that, except the bolder boots, was pretty much what I was wearing a year ago in the picture above, but this year I had one novel item: I wore a buff over my neck and the lower half of my face. It’s just a thin layer of microfiber, but over my beard it was dramatically warmer than just the uncovered beard. I’ve had buffs for years, but I mostly wear them in hot weather (to keep the sun off my neck), so I think of them as cooling rather than warming. It was amazing to find how much of a difference it made just to put a layer over my beard.

I had not previously been aware of the site Forecast Advisor, which tracks weather forecasting apps and compares their forecasts to the actual weather in whatever specific place you care about.

Of course, accuracy is not a perfect metric for usefulness—a weather app that’s close enough that I’m wearing the right clothes for the day is more useful than one that’s usually one degree closer, but misses major turns in the weather.

One of the great luxuries of losing weight is that you can buy clothes that fit.

If you’re fat, you don’t get to buy clothes that fit. All you can do is buy “the right size,” defined as “the smallest size that goes all the way around you.” This will not (except by pure happenstance) be a size that fits correctly. The same size XXL t-shirt will be considered “the right size” for the bodybuilder, the basketball player, the linebacker, and the powerlifter, as well as the fat guy. At most it will fit one of those people well. Very likely, it will fit none of them well.

Still, things are better than they were.

Back in the early 1980s there were companies that simply didn’t make pants in waist sizes above 34, because they thought the sight of fat men wearing their clothes would taint their brand. Even brands that didn’t refuse to sell clothes in ordinary large sizes had very little for people fatter than that. I remember a comedy routine from about the same time with a fat comedian complaining that they quit making normal pants a couple of inches before they got to his size. Gesturing toward the plaid pants he was wearing, he said, “It’s not bad enough that I’m fat? I also have to dress like a clown?”

Twenty years ago, waist sizes in men’s pants went up in one-inch increments until you hit 34, then they went to two-inch increments. So, if the right size for you was 35, you either wore a 36 and cinched your belt to keep them up, or else you wore a 34 and got it to go around you by wearing it under your waist and letting your belly sag over the front of your pants. About fifteen years ago companies started selling pants with a 35-inch waist. Not long after they started selling pants with a 37-inch waist. The companies figured out there was a big market for big people.

During the five years or so that I’ve been losing weight, I’ve been making the smallest possible investments in my wardrobe, figuring that I’d wait until I was at a stable weight before buying more new clothes than the minimum needed to keep myself dressed until laundry day. I bought about two new t-shirts when I hit size L, and then three more when size M started fitting.

Finally, just in the last few weeks, I’ve started buying a significant amount of new clothes that actually fit.

Which brings me back to my starting point: The luxury of being able to buy clothes that fit.

Last week I went to the nearby Goodwill store and spent half an hour going through the men’s shirts. Short-sleeve men’s shirts in size M pretty routinely just fit. (The exception was a very nice Brooks Brothers shirt that was way too big. It was so nice I was sorely tempted to go through the size S men’s shirts to see if I could find something from Brooks Brothers.) Long sleeve shirts are trickier because I have short arms, but even so I found two shirts that fit—one in the exact right size, another in a size that should have had sleeves a little too long, but that must have been altered by the previous owner.

Here’s my Goodwill haul:

Five shirts from Goodwill at half the cost of one dress shirt from Lands End.
Five shirts from Goodwill at half the cost of one dress shirt from Lands End. The blue short sleeve shirt on top is mostly linen. The green one behind it is 100% silk. The two long-sleeve shirts and the black t-shirt are all 100% cotton.

It would not have been so easy if I still wore XL or XXL. Except by pure luck (like the white shirt whose sleeves had been shortened to my size), nothing would have fit well. The neck would be too tight, unless the shoulders were way too big, and the sleeves would all be too long.

Clothes that fit: One more convenience for thin people.

I was interested to read John Scalzi’s thoughts about his wardrobe in Why I Wear What I Do, because his thinking (although not his sartorial choice) mirrors my own. Like him, I’m very aware that any disadvantage that accrues to me from my choosing to dress down is going to be minor and temporary. Like him, I’m aware that this is a privilege that doesn’t apply to everybody.

Sometimes I get hit in the face with a reminder that this issue is real, even if it mostly doesn’t apply to me. A couple instances come to mind. One was being taken for a possible bicycle thief.

Bicycle thief

A couple of summers back, my brother was visiting, and he and I were out walking in the neighborhood of my apartment complex. Our route took us past a Wienerschnitzel fast-food restaurant. Outside the entrance, a bicycle had been left, unlocked, lying on the pavement.

The bicycle caught my eye because of the owner’s alternative to locking it up: He had removed the left pedal and taken it with him. I paused for a moment to think about that. It wouldn’t, I remember thinking, be effective against someone who showed up with a truck to haul off stolen bicycles, but it probably would be effective against the casual thief who simply wanted to ride a few blocks instead of walking. It’d not only be hard to ride, it would be hard even to mount—most people stand on the left pedal as they swing their right leg over the seat. It was a clever minimalist solution, that I wanted to stash in my brain for possible future use, if I needed to leave my bike unattended briefly and was unable to use my lock for some reason.

I’d only had a moment to think about it, when the owner came out of the restaurant, saw me looking at his bike, and began cursing me as a someone who was contemplating theft.

I saw no point in engaging with the guy, so I just walked on, expressing my amusement to my brother, who pointed out that my appearance might well have made me look like a possible thief. I was dressed down—I don’t remember what I was wearing, but it was almost certainly shorts and a t-shirt, possibly ragged. More to the point, I was on foot. (Anyone who isn’t in a car probably has something wrong with them—if they’re not alcoholics who have lost their driver’s license, they’re either poor or they’re some kind of weirdo. And I had to give him that one. I am some kind of weirdo, although not the bike-stealing kind.)

The other instance springs from my habit of letting my beard grow in the winter, which I do because it keeps my face warm.

Taken for a homeless guy

Maybe three years ago, on the coldest evening of a cold winter, I was on my way home from my Esperanto group. Having gotten to the bus stop just after my usual bus home had departed, I decided to take the next bus to the station, so I could wait indoors for the next bus home.

While I was waiting for my bus, a group of volunteers from local non-profit service organizations came in offering hats, gloves, other winter gear, referrals to homeless shelters, and hot beverages. One of them, clearly taking me to be a homeless person, focused on me.

For some reason, I was unable to come up with a response. I mean, I clearly should have just told her that my cold weather ensemble was entirely up to the task, and that in any case I was wasn’t homeless and would be heading home on the next bus. But I couldn’t quite get it out. First, it took me several seconds to realize that she was talking to me in particular, and then several more seconds to understand that she really thought I was an obvious example of her target audience.

Only then did it occur to me what I looked like. It was a really cold day, so I was wearing my warmest coat:

pb-parka

More to the point, it was winter and I’d grown out my beard. The picture above shows me with my neatly trimmed spring beard. At the time of the incident I had grown my beard out to its full winter length, so it probably looked more like this:

pb-full-beard

So, you know, I can accept being mistaken for a homeless person.

Issue of privilege

In my case, neither of the incidents did me any harm, but either one could have. In the bicycle incident, if circumstances had been only a bit different, the police might have gotten involved. Probably not a problem for me—even dressed down, I’m a middle-aged white guy with an education and some capital—but any interaction with the police has the potential to go badly wrong.

The other incident could have been even more problematic. What if I’d missed the last bus, and decided that rather than call for help or take a taxi, I’d just walk home? That’s something I really might do, even at night, even in the cold. But a scruffy-looking guy out on foot in the bitter cold might well draw more insistent offers of help than those that had rendered me speechless. Maybe a ride to a homeless shelter. Or a psych ward.

By the way, another bit of the internal conflict that kept me from articulately assuring the social worker that I was fine and that she should go look for people who actually needed help was that I was wearing what is probably the warmest coat in the world. My heavy winter parka was designed for workers on the Alaska Pipeline. Purchased cheap when work on the pipeline wound down, it has lasted more than 30 years already, and I expect it will last the rest of my life. I was trying to come up with a polite way to say that what they had in the way of cold weather gear couldn’t possibly measure up to what I already had.

Scaliz’s post was a response to The Logic of Stupid Poor People, an excellent essay on just how subtle the trade-offs are for a poor person deciding what it’s worth spending money on. Having a keen eye for when the right status symbol will open a door that would otherwise be shut (or ensure that an interaction with the police is courteous rather than confrontational) is a third option that I failed to consider when I wrote Not Stupid—Hopeless.

By the way, I used to wear polo shirts a lot, for just the reasons that Scalzi mentions: The collar makes the shirt just dressy enough to raise you above the t-shirt wearing classes, without making it look like you’re trying too hard. At some point, I found that middle-ground was no longer working for me. If circumstances call for something nicer than a t-shirt, I’m more comfortable in a shirt that buttons all the way down the front. My 30-something self would have found that weird. Why, the past few years, I’ve even been known to wear a tie voluntarily! (For a lot of reasons, some very much related to these issues—to manipulate what people think of me when they see how I’m dressed, and to mock the fact that people think that way.)