When I was in 6th grade, a girl in class that I didn’t know very well passed me a note. I opened it up, and it said: “Learn the way to dress!” At the time, I was a little too confused about why she was giving me a note to really be hurt about it; but, I do remember it being the moment in my life when I became aware of my clothes. I wasn’t a fashion-oriented little girl. My mom bought my clothes because all I wanted to shop for were dolls and Lisa Frank art sets. But then, at 11, it occurred to me that what I wore was suddenly going to matter. I had to start caring about my clothes for the sake of my middle school social survival, and I had no idea where to start.
And here’s the other thing: I had boobs. And not 6th grade girl almost-there boobs. I had full-on, overdeveloped, disproportionately huge boobs on my 6th grade body. So, my wardrobe consisted of oversized T-shirts and sports bras. I wasn’t about to try a “real” bra. I wanted to conceal them, press them down to nothing. But not even that worked.
One day, a boy who sat behind me in another class touched the back of my shirt and whispered, “Ashley, I can totally tell you’re wearing a bra!” And then he laughed, like he knew some big secret.
But I told him, “No, it’s my swimsuit. I’m going swimming at the Y after school.” He believed me, and I was off the hook. But it wouldn’t last long. (Side note: that boy harassing me about my bra was totally not okay, and I should have told on him.)
After experiences like that, I became obsessed with what I wore because I wanted to hide my chest and bra straps. This meant baggy tops with jackets, even when it was hot.
The situation didn’t get any better in high school when I gained a lot of weight. I continued to try and cover myself with clothes, obsessing over them because I hated them. Girls my age loved shopping for clothes. I just wanted to own several items that draped over me, were comfortable, and didn’t call too much attention to me. Neutral colors, jackets, big hoodies, baggy shirts. My wardrobe could probably pass for a teenage boy’s with all the plain jeans and T-shirts.
In college, I lost a tremendous amount of weight, and for the first time ever, clothes fit me and flattered me like they never had before. Having boobs suddenly worked to my advantage (most of the time). So my obsession for clothes remained — only now I was experimenting with styles, worrying if I had made the right choice, and wondering if I was pairing the right types of clothes. I’d never analyzed my fashion before except to figure out if something fit.
I could go on forever about the psychological aspects of losing so much weight, but one thing that I noticed was that I had a hard time remembering that I wasn’t big anymore, and I’d still buy clothes that were way too large for me. The desire to cover myself didn’t go away after I got smaller. That behavior was ingrained into me, so much so that upon walking into a store, my first instinct was to head straight to the plus-size section or look for the XXL tags.
Over time, I adapted to my body and started buying smaller clothes. But my obsession remained; in my excitement that so many cute things fit me, I wanted it ALL. I spent way too much time and money buying clothes. I was on Pinterest past midnight, dreaming up outfits. I was researching fashion online and polling girls in my dorm about what I should wear. Though part of me felt very confident after my weight loss, I was still very much insecure, very afraid of making a colossal wardrobe mistake and looking tacky. I worried that even though I wouldn’t be judged for being overweight, I’d be made fun of for dressing like I didn’t have a clue.
One day in college, all of these anxieties came to a kind of collision.
I had spent the morning fretting over what to wear, as usual. I finally decided on a blue sundress and some white tennis shoes. Cute and summery. I headed to my first class, and after it was over, the beautiful Southern California sunshine had turned into a misty, rainy, gray, foggy day. Everyone else seemed to have remembered to check the forecast because I looked so out of place walking with the rest of the students in their scarves and peacoats. I tried to get to my next class as quickly as possible, hugging my arms to my chest and walking fast. But behind me, I heard a couple of girls talking. They weren’t very good at whispering because I could hear it all. One of them said, in what I considered a rude tone, “Why would she wear that? It’s freezing.”
I glanced back at the girl who said it. I didn’t know her, and she was overweight.
At that moment, all of the embarrassment, body issues, and frustration overcame me. I did something I’d never done before. I stopped and faced her, and said, “Just because you could never fit into something like this, doesn’t mean you have to ridicule people who do look good in it.”
I turned and walked away before I could see her react, but I already knew what the look on her face must have been. I had done to her what had been done to me so many times when I was overweight. I had let my obsession with how I looked dictate how I treated someone.
And I felt terrible.
I wish I could say that I found that girl later and apologized, but I never did. We passed each other on campus every so often, and she averted her eyes from me. I had become the very bully that I had feared most of my life — and all because of my own insecurities about my clothes.
It’s been a few years since I’ve been out of college, and I have had to do a lot of self-evaluation to reach where I am now. I am still learning to love myself and others. I am still learning to love clothes without letting them take over my humanity. Like money or fame, clothes can turn us into terrible people if we obsess over them. I’ll never forget how mean I was to that girl that day, and I’ll never be able to take back what I said.
Since then, I have tried to be hyper-aware of how I treat others.
I’ve also tried to be more lax about what I wear. I shop at reasonably priced stores, and I don’t constantly try to match or compete with models on Pinterest or in magazines. I use my clothes to express my personality. I dress for comfort and confidence because I can’t have one without the other.
At the end of the day, I’d rather be a kind person who looks a little bit tacky and clueless. Even my best outfits will rip or get destroyed in the wash or get sent to Goodwill. But I’m stuck with my heart forever. I’d do well to clothe it with love and respect.