I have always loved fashion. There’s something about an outfit’s ability to tell a story that has always resonated with me. It’s why my Barbies had so many clothes. It’s what I found so romantic about the classic films I watched with my Mom. And it’s why I can distinctly remember what outfit I was wearing on memorable occasions in my life.
I remember poring over the pages of Teen, Seventeen, and Sassy magazine in junior high, carefully clipping the pictures of the outfits I liked best to save in a folder. My family didn’t have a lot of money, but I tried to replicate what I could on a budget at K-Mart, Deb, and Sears. Plus, my mom is handy enough with a sewing machine that she could make me a few of the items I wanted in whatever fabric I chose!
Growing up in rural Ohio, I didn’t exactly live in the fashion trend capital of the world. My classmates continually made it clear to me that it was best to stay in my lane and dress like everyone else. Jeans, name brand tee shirts, and Nikes were the uniform of choice. Don’t try to stand out too much. Don’t be different. That was kind of difficult for me for a lot of reasons.
Like I said, our family was stretched really thin, budget wise. Plus, I didn’t really FIT in the clothes I was “supposed” to wear either. I was taller and curvier than all my friends. (I mean, I wore size 10 shoes and Missy size clothing by 5th grade.) And in my heart, I wanted to be expressive, but always needed to know that people LIKED me.
Every time I dipped my toe in the waters of who I wanted to be, I was quickly shut down. I remember when I was in 6th grade picking out a really rad black fabric, covered in colorful butterflies that I had my mom make into a babydoll dress. We used the same Simplicity pattern and a floral fabric to make a romper. I was in love with both of them and couldn’t wait to wear them to school. But the first time I did, there was a group of girls who started a rumor that I was pregnant because of the way they fit on my curvy body. I went home, cried, and shoved them in the back of the closet, never to be seen again.
The same thing happened with a leopard printed dress I bought in 7th grade. I fell in love with the dress at a store in the mall called the $9.99 Stockroom. It fit like a glove and made me feel spicy. I wore it with a pair of red flats and proudly strutted off the school bus. I thought I was rocking my bad self until changing back into the dress after gym class. There was a group of girls giggling. I overheard the leader of the pack telling everyone how I was obviously a hooker. I was so embarrassed that I never wore it again.
Time and time again, I tried and failed at expressing myself. I didn’t want to be laughed at. It was just easier to fit in than to stand out. So… I just gave up. To the closest equivalent of what everyone else was doing I went, not really feeling comfortable enough to be myself every day until I was well into my 30’s.
Something this week at school reminded me of those days in middle school, wanting to be a fashionista, but being scared to try. I have a student in my 8th grade class, we’ll call her Eleanor, who reminds me of myself at that age. She’s not at all on the popularity list, but still has a group of trusted friends. She is silly, artsy, a little quirky, respectful to teachers, and has a passion for singing.
On Thursday, Eleanor walked into my room, catching my attention. As all the other girls shuffled past in a sea of hoodies and leggings, Eleanor bounced in from a different universe. She was wearing a denim skirt over carefully destructed black tights, a black tee, and a cropped moto jacket, with her hair pulled back in tiny sparkle clips. She was radiant! When it would have been easier to just fit in, she stood out like a punk rock princess. Her sense of self and style seemed confident and effortless.
As class was ending, I pulled her aside and told her that her outfit was amazing and asked her if she had purchased her tights or made them herself. She completely lit up from inside, saying, “Thanks I did them myself! My mom said I looked weird today.” Then she just shrugged. I wanted to hug her and shake her and tell her YOU ARE AWESOME! I hope that I can find a way to keep encouraging the free spirit in her.
May Eleanor always be willing to wear what makes her happy. May she always dance to her own music. May she continue to be fearless in pursuit of self expression. I sure wish I would have done that a long time ago.