the empress’s new clothes

A red tank top emblazoned with the word DANCE in rainbow glitter. Baby-blue track pants from the Limited Too that snap up the side. Pastel yellow sneakers for skateboarders, doodled all over with ballpoint-pen stars and hearts and Avril Lavigne lyrics.

Beige corduroy bellbottoms. A tiered skirt that falls to mid-calf and soars when you spin. Birkenstocks. A camisole, worn under a long-sleeved henley, that rides up my belly until there’s a roll sitting just below my bra line that I can’t adjust without reaching up under my shirt in the middle of trigonometry in front of everyone. Low-rise jeans.

Jazz pants. Yoga pants. Leggings. Sweatpants rolled up to reveal the tights underneath so you know I’m a dancer. Last year’s dance company T-shirt with the neckline cut away like Flashdance. A hoodie under a puffy coat under a scarf under earmuffs. The Forever 21 version of a Herve Leger bandage dress… with flats. Under a puffy coat.

Fashion bewilders me. It always has. Why didn’t the Abercrombie jeans I begged my mom to buy when I was thirteen make me look as effortlessly perfect as the popular girls at Becker Middle School? Why did I think that beige corduroy bellbottoms were a reasonable alternative? Was I born without the color-matching chromosome? Why did I buy shoes for skateboarders? (Etnies. They were called Etnies, and in my defense, I was only copying everyone else, and they weren’t skateboarders either.)

These are the questions that haunt me.

“Haunt” is a strong word, really. I cared about fashion intermittently, when I’d notice that the girls two lunch tables over looked like Teen Vogue and I looked like Mallory from The Babysitters’ Club (you know, the tragic one. Who got sent to boarding school in the later books. Not that I read those, since they were released sometime after I graduated from high school, and obviously I was busy reading things like Proust and Infinite Jest).

I pick up on trends selectively and without context. Everyone was wearing tiered skirts that soared when we spun, but I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to wear with my tiered skirt, which was where the Birkenstocks came in. (I was deeply in touch with my inner artist at this point in my life. Me and my Birkenstocks were like Patti Smith and her Capezios.) I begged my mom for the pants from the Limited Too, but by the time I got the matching T-shirt, everyone else had started shopping at Abercrombie.

Or I dressed like the flat-assed girls with their boyish figures, oblivious to how poorly suited my hourglass figure was to, say, anything manufactured by Hollister. There was a point when the girls were wearing belts that they slung sort of uselessly around their hips without threading them through the loops of their skinny jeans. On my hourglass figure, the belt I slung around my hips made its way to my waist and hovered sort of awkwardly on top of my ass. I’d have been better off with a fanny pack or a tool belt.

I was never quite so unfashionable that I could wear it like a badge of pride: I’m too smart, too talented, too busy for something this frivolous. No, instead I packed my closet with an impressively incoherent wardrobe: ill-fitting steals from the sale rack, bright colors that matched nothing found in nature or Nordstrom, flimsy Forever 21 dresses that fell apart after one night in the college dance club. Sometimes I looked childish, sometimes I looked trashy; more often than not I just looked average.

I was okay with average. I knew it wasn’t my thing: there were girls at Vassar who were regular fashion plates, not just the rich girls in actual designer clothes but the thrift-shop hipsters who must have had closets bursting at the seams with patterned skirts and slouchy socks and grandpa sweaters and Coke-bottle glasses without lenses. Most of them, I noticed too, were thin; like the girls whose belts lay flat across their hips while mine rode up stubbornly to my waist, they were gifted in a way that I wasn’t.

Fashion is for skinny girls and runway models. The rest of us just need to keep our nipples covered up and our underwear clean and hope for the best. I just couldn’t be fashionable, I decided, so I gave up, stopped letting it bother me, bought clothes I liked in the fitting room and shrugged when they didn’t match anything else I owned. I focused on things I could control, like taking showers regularly and abiding by social norms. I drew my confidence from other sources: my wit, my intellect, my reliably good hair.

Then I got sick.

Anorexia isn’t fun, but—problematically—being skinny was a blast. I rented a Badgley Mischka dress for my company holiday party and I felt like a movie star or a fashion model or one of those flat-chested girls who could sling a belt around their hips without it getting stuck underneath their boobs.

It was the first time I’ve ever felt glamorous. It was also the first time that I’ve ever been unable to sit down and read a novel because I was starving my brain of the ability to focus, and the first time that I understood what cardiac arrest might feel like, and yada yada yada and so on until it occurred to me that I was engaging in something of a Faustian bargain that probably wasn’t worth it.

So I gave up. I put my sweatpants back on.

As I began to regain the weight, one block of cheese at a time, I grew desperate for a way to feel beautiful. My hair was growing back—and so were my boobs!—but I longed still for a new source of satisfaction. Even cheese was an insufficient drug to get me as high as being skinny did. What could I possibly do to get myself to tolerate, maybe even enjoy, looking in the mirror? How could I find happiness again?

Spoiler alert: I bought it.

My new wardrobe grew organically at first. I couldn’t stand the sight of my body, so I bought swoopy, drapey shirts in neutral colors and paired them with leggings and eventually, when I could stand the buttons jamming into my belly, jeans. I quit buying colors or patterns, anything that would garner too much attention. Everything was black, gray, brown, white, fade-into-the-scenery colors so unlike what I used to buy to beg the world to pay attention to me.

It turns out that limiting myself to four colors and a single aesthetic gave me what I’d been looking for all along: a foolproof wardrobe. Everything I own matches everything else. It’s all boring enough that I could wear the same thing two days in a row and nobody would look twice. I could be pregnant with twins or smuggling arms under my blouses and you’d never know, which wasn’t really a fashion goal but has proven quite useful when I’m feeling particularly self-conscious about the size of my stomach after I do something sinful like eat a burrito.

I feel mysterious in my new wardrobe. I feel grown up beyond belief. I am an adult woman with a closetful of clothes that all match! I look so much like a New Yorker that tourists are constantly stopping to ask me for directions! I feel—dare I say it, I who felt this only when I was starving myself into a state of near-oblivion—fashionable.

I’ve always loved to dress in costume. I grew up in dance and theatre in tutus and Cleopatra wigs and once, memorably, a “napkin” costume with a can-can skirt. I put up with the indignity of tie-dye velour unitards and long underwear meant to convey, abstractly, the notion of a “red-tailed hawk.” I own a suit jacket that I’ve worn twice in my life: once to a high school debate forum and once in a college production of Rent.

Being a recovering anorexic with a credit card is like being an actor let loose in the costume shop. I bought myself a new costume: goodbye movie star, hello… elementary school art teacher, or wallflower New Yorker, or whatever it is I am today, draped in layers of blouse and sweater and wrapped in leggings, whatever I can find that doesn’t remind me constantly that I gave up my chance to be a movie star or a girl who sits two lunch tables over.

I never quite believed that I was an Egyptian princess or a piece of tableware. I don’t quite believe who I am today, either; it still doesn’t come easily to me, and I can still only buy clothing in four colors. (And God help me when tunics go out of fashion.) I get a thrill every morning out of playing dress-up, though, a thrill I never quite knew before I got sick and a thrill that’s only grown sweeter since I’ve gotten better.

I wonder if this is what it’s like for Jennifer Lawrence or Tilda Swinton or the girls at the popular lunch table, if they wake up every morning and climb into a disguise to trick themselves into believing they’re something they aren’t quite yet. I expect it’s not, that like everything else in my life I’m faking it until it becomes habit, like writing technology proposals or being a good girlfriend or cleaning my toilet.

Hey, listen—I’ll fake it indefinitely if it means I never accidentally buy another Forever 21 dress that makes me look like a sparkly potato.

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6 thoughts on “the empress’s new clothes”

  1. I’m glad you got better. :) This is how I feel about fashion too – I’m curvy and that definitely doesn’t mesh with the “Forever 21” style. Another girl at the gym this morning forgot to bring a bra and went without, no problem. I could never do that with my figure!! But I’ve learned to love that, even if it means finding a style that works for me… which is a constant work in progress. This was an interesting read on relating to fashion and how is defines and shapes our lives and choices!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi. I have no formal qualifications that suggest you should take any note of my advice. Just, I found your opening, bewildering. I nearly stopped reading thinking I was reading something of complete impenetrability. Then I saw the sentence

    ‘Fashion bewilders me’ If I was your editor, I would suggest you put that sentence at top of essay.

    Liked by 1 person

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