The spiritual discipline of Project Runway.

The spiritual discipline of Project Runway.

It started when my friend came over for coffee. While we chatted in the kitchen, and Sarah kept bringing in fashion sketches to show me. She’s obsessed with design: she’s filled all the pages of her fashion sketchpad, she’s practicing the concepts in her fashion design workshop, she’s refashioning my cast-offs into original outfits. This is nothing new.

But her fascination kicked into high gear when she read The Mother Daughter Book Club series this winter. One of the girls, Megan Wong, is an aspiring fashion designer. In Much Ado About Anne, 7th grade Megan stages her own runway show. In Pies and Prejudice, Megan starts a fashion blog. In Wish You Were Eyre, Megan goes to Fashion Week in Paris.

The series has captured Sarah’s imagination. After she brought us her third detailed dress design in an hour, my friend waited until she left the room and said, Tell me you’re watching Project Runway.

I’d never seen it, not even a clip.

She described it as American Idol for fashion. Every season a fresh group of designers compete; every episode brings an unusual challenge (like make a dress out of a parachute). The designers sketch their pieces, sew them up, dress their models, and send them down the runway.

dress form in the making

 making a dress form out of pink duct tape. nevermind the dirty mirror and the clothes on the bed

My kids are pretty sheltered. The older two only learned the bad f-word recently. At church. I wasn’t sure Project Runway was a good idea.

Despite my reservations, Sarah and I started watching season twelve together last week. Pretty soon all the kids were watching.

Sarah loves the fashion. Jack (age 12) is fascinated by the show’s social dynamics. Silas and Lucy just want to join in the fun.

There are drawbacks to watching a reality show with your kids: the harsh critique, the language, the drama. My kids have so many questions. 

There are surface-y ones: Why does she have so many tattoos? Why didn’t they bleep out that word? Am I allowed to say that word? Or that one? Or that one? (Some people do. They don’t have to but I wish they did. No. Nope. Yes, but not in front of Grandma.)

And deeper ones: Why is she mean? Why is he mad? Why is she acting like that?

That’s the big one: Why is she acting like that? This is the reason I’m still watching Project Runway with my kids, despite its drawbacks. Every episode we have rich discussions about why she’s acting like that.   

The first time my child asked why a contestant was freaking out—and I mean epically freaking out—I paused the show. We talked about mean people, and kind people, and people who are just plain crazy.

We talked about what it feels like when you don’t sleep well, when your brother messes with you, when you can’t make the long division work. That’s what Project Runway feels like to these designers, I explained, with their tough challenges, tight deadlines, and clashing personalities. They have a lot on the line, and it’s all on display on national tv.

We talked about how people act when they’re stressed out, and how it takes a lot of practice and self-discipline to remain levelheaded, kind, and gracious under that kind of stress.

I have a kid who tends to be anxious, who gets cranky when he’s nervous about stuff. He nodded and let out a big sigh. I get it, he said. Then: I’m never going on Project Runway.

I’d go, Sarah said. My designs would get to be so good. And besides, isn’t it like what we talked about at church last Sunday?

It took me a few minutes to figure out she was talking about the spiritual disciplines. Lent—the traditional season of self-examination and self-denial—is almost here. During the Lenten season, many Christians undertake specific actions and activities for the purpose of cultivating spiritual development. The usual suspects here are prayer, meditation, solitude, fasting, and the like. (I’d add to my list: long walks, sleep deprivation, parenting toddlers.)

Sarah’s argument boiled down to this: an experience like Project Runway shapes your inner being. Not because of the design. Because of the discipline it requires.

On childhood obsessions and reality tv and unlikely spiritual disciplines.

I don’t know about her theology, but she’s right about one thing: stress changes the way people act. Watching the show with my kids—and watching one or other of the designers lose their cool every week—has launched a hundred discussions.

And so when they ask their many, many questions, I resist the impulse to get all preachy, strong as it is. They want answers, but they shut down fast when I get didactic on them.

Sometimes I find myself explaining phrases, or social dynamics. But more often, I let them see my genuine emotions as we watch—the delight and the dismay–and I answer their questions with my own.

• Do YOU think that was a good apology? Why not? What would you have said?
• What do you think he should have said? What do you think she should have done?
• Why do you think she yelled at him? Do you ever feel like that? Did she feel better afterwards? What do you think she wished she’d done instead?

(When we need a mood-lightener, there’s always one handy: Which is your favorite dress? Do you agree with the judges? Who do you think should have won?)

Thanks to Project Runway, we’ve had surprisingly good discussions about emotional intelligence and self-control. We talk about “soft skills” and deliberate practice. We talk about—and practice—the difference between helpful criticism and just being a jerk.

We see our fair share of drama and meltdowns (the real-life kind) around here, and the designers have given us a language to talk about anxiety and anger in a non-loaded way. It’s much easier for a kid to discuss the mean girl on tv than the one in her neighborhood, the designer’s epic meltdown instead of his own.

We’re only halfway through the season; maybe I’ll change my tune as we get further in. But at this moment, I’m happy to be watching reality tv with my kids.

I never thought I’d say that.

photo source

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61 comments

  1. Bekki says:

    Project Runway is a little too raw for me, but I adore The Great British Sewing Bee. I’ll have to try using that as an opening to discuss emotions and stress…great idea!

  2. Cindy says:

    Great post, Anne! And a great advice for parents on how to watch tv with your children, how to teach them as you go, in the midst of life – and especially how to deal with stress and difficult people, as there will never be a shortage of negative role models, and hopefully positive ones also!

  3. Really an amazing dress which is made from pink duct tape. We can make so many beautiful and useful things from raw material. Its really an amazing craft. God bless you and keep it up.

    ~Dr. Diana

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