I’m 23 and 1/2 , or at least I will be in two days, and I’m learning how to dress myself.
Okay, let’s rewind. To be clear, my mother has not picked out my outfits in many years and while I have solicited feedback from friends and family on important outfits (we’re all doing jeans and nice top, right girls?) I have mostly dressed myself for a long time.
But lately I’ve been trying to change my approach to shopping and picking out outfits. At some point this year, I realized that despite my lifelong love of fashion and clothing – my first dream job was a fashion designer and model – it’s been a long time since I truly dressed for myself.
Why? Because I haven’t liked my body. Because I wanted to be perceived as “attractive and desirable.” Because I was worried what people would think.
Despite the style fails of my early youth (bangs, Ray-Bans, skinny scarves, fedoras, etc), I’ve always been relatively put together. But the emotion that stands out the most when I think about how getting dressed made me feel in my middle school/early teen years is shame.
In high school I attended a Catholic youth conference one summer. In case you’ve never been a Steubenville conference it’s basically like Comic Con for people who love Jesus. Literally thousands of teenagers converge onto a college campus for a weekend of prayer, reflection and listening to, tbh, a VERY good Christian rock band. One year I purchased a shirt from the conference vendors – aka very milquetoast looking Midwestern Catholic moms – with some Cool Church Kid slogan on it. It was a standard blue v-neck. Nothing jazzy or super revealing. But one of the chaperones with us told me to go back to my room and change because “boys could look down my shirt.” So I did as I was told – telling my friends I spilled something on myself and had to change. At the time, I was really embarrassed. Embarrassed that I had worn something that could be construed as sinful at an event that was supposed to be about not sinning. I felt deeply ashamed of my body.
Looking back, THIS IS INSANE. I was a teenage girl wearing a v-neck that a Christian vendor had deemed was appropriate. And even if they hadn’t given it their stamp of approval, the wandering eyes of teenage boys were not my responsibility.
This was not the only time I felt that way, but definitely the most memorable. And so for the rest of high school and for most of college, I shied away from wearing anything even remotely revealing. Not because I didn’t like the way it looked, but because I was worried about what people would think and because quite frankly, I didn’t really like my body.
Beyond covering up, my other goal when getting dressed was to look as slim as possible. I didn’t wear bright colors because I was afraid they would draw attention to my size, or make me look bigger than I really was. Busy patterns? You could forget about it.
I dressed to make myself as small and unremarkable as possible. Oh but also hot, because the only thing that could make me feel good about my ungainly meat suit was of course, male validation. Looking skinny factored into things but I grieve for all of the fun, quirky outfits I’ve passed up over the years because I was worried about them being unattractive or unflattering. What an absolute prison the male gaze is.
But in the Year of Our Lord 2019, I finally stopped dressing for other people. And I started dressing for myself.
And what a freaking joy it is.
This has obviously been a work in progress: a lot of following women with bodies like mine or larger on Instagram, Sonya Renee Taylor’s “The Body is Not an Apology”, some very hard work regarding self image, and of course an increasing realization that the only opinion on my appearance that matters is my own!
The only downside of this is that I feel like I’m suddenly almost at square one with my personal style and have made some really weird purchases like white leather boots and sequin dresses. I’m learning that I actually *don’t* really like to wear super understated things, at least all the time. Someone recently shared their top tip for going shopping with me and I’ve been trying to put it into practice. To develop a personal style and stick with it, you have to first envision a style persona. Maybe it’s a gay space cowboy who thinks hot pink is a neutral or an outdoorsy ceramicist who loves a good drapey dress. Personally, I’ve settled on Parisian art gallery curator meets Mindy Kaling. Punchier colors and patterns in more streamlined, classic silhouettes with some fun statement pieces. But still French, d’accord?
Maybe a lot of you are already ahead of the game, or maybe you’re just a boring person who doesn’t care about what they wear, but I encourage you to think about why you pick out the clothes you do and who you’re trying to impress. After all, as Oscar Wilde, my ultimate life and style icon said, “Looking good and dressing well is a necessity. Having a purpose in life is not.”