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Individuality and Clothes

They called me tacky turtle.

I was a fourth grader, and they were fifth graders. It would happen in the lunch room, since our lunch tables were next to each other. Either my clothes didn't match or they were too loud or too patterned or too... I don't know... different, I guess.

When I read a recent post by Her Bad Mother, it all came back to me. Just like her daughter, I didn't care what was in style or what would be normal or what would be considered matching by typical standards. Instead, just like her daughter, I wore what I felt like wearing that day based on my own desires.

No, the clothes didn't always match. They were probably even tacky. It was the 80s, after all. I have this picture of me at that age wearing splatter-paint paints in primary colors, a jaguar sweatshirt, a florescent pink belt and a pastel pink satin jacket. It totally didn't match. But those were all of my favorite things at the time, and I wanted to wear them all at once.

So, they called me tacky turtle. It was a stupid name, but it hurt. In fact, it hurt for many years. It was only a year or two ago that I could say or write the name without wanting to cry. Tacky turtle. There, I can write it now. I can even say it outloud. Tacky Turtle. That's what they called me.

I don't know if it was considered bullying at the time, or if it would be considered that now. I've always just said that I was picked on about how I dressed, I was teased about what I wore. It hurt, and it affected me deeply. More deeply than I showed to them, I'm sure. I'm pretty sure I didn't cry, at least in front of them. I think I just tried not to react at all. Whatever I did, I think it worked because it didn't last long. The teasing, that is. The emotional affects lasted a very long time.

In the following two or three years, I started dressing in black more and more. I doubted myself and my fashion sense. My mom says that my sister started dressing in basic black at that time, and perhaps I was picking it up from her, though her style was always pretty preppy and mine was not. But I also remember thinking that everything goes with black, so I'd wear that. I couldn't mismatch or look tacky in black. So I wore more and more black, blending in with those around me during those difficult middle school years.

By the time I reached high school, we had moved and I was in a new school with all new people. I don't know what it was that motivated me specifically, but I decided I was not going to simply wear black and blend in anymore. I was going to figure out what was fashion and, more importantly, what was my style. I wanted to feel confident in what I wore, but not simply mimic what everyone else was wearing. I didn't want to dress preppy like my sister or in clothes my mom picked out for me. I wanted to wear things I thought were fun and cute and ME, but in a way that was fashionable and not "tacky."

I got a subscription to Vogue magazine and I started paying attention to high fashion. The clothes in Vogue and on the runway were not anything I could actually wear. That's not the point of high fashion. The point is set style trends that can be toned down in regular wear. It was the early 90s now, and the age of the supermodels was in full force. Fashion was diverse and interesting to me. And I decided to try it all.

In high school, I wore the grunge style, with ripped jeans and flannel shirts. I wore hippy clothes, with long flowy skirts and an anklet of bells. I wore preppy clothes, with white buttondown shirts and khaki pants. I wore the hip-hop style, with body suits and baggy jeans. I wore what I wanted to wear, with a confidence that gave me the ability to pull off just about anything and with complete disregard to what anyone else thought about my clothes. I went to college with the same diversity of style and the same confidence to pull it all off.

Instead of being a tacky turtle in high school and college, I was known for being stylish with cute and fun clothes. I was also known for not caring what others thought about what I wore. When my good friend in college joked to me about my baggy black and white stripped "prison" pants, I laughed and said that I loved them. When my roommate was surprised that I put fake dreadlocks I put in my hair, I made her take a picture of the temporary style so I would always remember it. When I would go to my sorority parties, I paired my chunky heels and a lime green cardigan with my little black dress. When I came back from studying abroad in Italy, I wowwed Londo in black leather pants with a fitted t-shirt the night I met him.

Over the many years since I was called tacky turtle, I've occasionally thought, "Why did my mom let me out of the house in those clothes?" Every time I've had that thought, I immediately dismissed it for two reasons:
1. Even at that age, I would very stubbornly insist on wearing what I wanted to wear.
2. She let me explore what I liked no matter what others might have thought, and it's because of that support that I was able to later develop my own style.

I must admit, I have mostly tamed down my natural inclinations ever since fourth grade. I realize that if left to my own devices, I would probably wear some really gaudy outfits. I LOVE animal print, bright colors, big patterns, fake fur, four-inch heels and anything sparkly. But I've learned how to match patterns and how to pair loud items with plainer items, like putting my animal print shoes with my brown suit or a bright blouse with a black blazer.

As a mother, I care a lot about how my kids look, including their clothes. I find myself explaining to my daughter what colors and styles match, and I do try to encourage her to pick clothes that generally go together. But I'm not going to get into a big fight over what she wears. As long as the clothes are age appropriate and weather appropriate, she can pick out what she wants. Most of the clothes in her closet are ones I picked out and bought for her, but I'm trying to encourage her to pick out her own clothes in the stores. I also try to buy fun clothes that I think she will like, especially items with monkeys on them, since she's my monkey girl.

Right now, the Pumpkin only vaguely cares about what she wears. I usually pick something out, and either she agrees to wear it or not. If she doesn't want to wear the first outfit, I tell her to pick out what she wants to wear, as long as it's appropriate and still fits. Just this morning, she refused the cute patterned shirt I picked, and instead picked out a bright blue shirt.

I want my kids to develop their own sense of style. I want them to have fun with clothes and shoes and accessories. Though I don't want them to go through the teasing and self-consciousness I went through, I also don't want to limit them or impose conformity on them. I especially don't want them to try to impose conformity on others. I want them to not only thrive in their own individuality, but to I want them to support and stick up for others who are eccentric or outside the norm.

What this world needs is less judgement and more individuality. From fifth graders to the parents who insist that their children and all children must wear clothing that blends in. The leaders in fashion have always pushed the boundries of what is normal and even okay to wear. And as I learned in high school, it's the high fashion that trickles down into everyday wear, turning what was once unacceptable into the style of the day.

Maybe my daughter or son will push the boundries. Maybe they won't care at all about fashion. Maybe they will be teased for how they dress. Maybe their style will be admired and copied. I just hope that they wear what they want and that they don't tease others for doing the same.


mom2boy said…
That makes me so sad for you as a little girl even though I know you've grown-up to be just fine.

I also read the HBM post and thought how wonderful it was that her daughter is comfortable dressing as "her own self".

I dress in dark neutrals most of the time and more often than not I look down and Tate and I have on a matching black/gray combination. I just want him to be okay being "his own self" no matter what other people say, myself included. (I will eat these words during his teenage years, I just know it. lol)
Jac said…
I have one or two moments from elementary school that still feel tender when a thought pokes them. It's amazing how long those things linger in your psyche.

I only let DS pick his clothes from options I choose. His entire wardrobe is basically mix and match. I don't mind if he wants to wear something crazy per se, but certain things just BUG me (like collared shirts with sweat pants). I guess I am mostly just trying to teach him some basic rules. I am looking forward to having a little girl t - little girl clothes are so cute and fun.

DH is very stylish and interested in clothes (much more than I am) but when he dressed DS the results are often really awful.
paola said…
Thank Christ for school uniforms!!
Oh and I hated casual days because I only had daggy stuff my Mum bought me at the market, and then I would have to show that I had boobs, which was even worse. The horrors of growing up.

If I let my kids choose every time, they would wear the same favourite clothes everyday. In fact that is why they don't really have that much stuff, just the basics otherwise I'd have to give unworn clothes to charity.

Yeah I try to let them have a say in what they want to wear, but if I see that Noah STILL wants to wear that t-shirt with the dalmatians in the gondola I just have to offer him two different t's and get him to choose.
Cloud said…
I feel so bad for elementary school you! We always shrug and say kids can be so mean, but why? I don't think it has to be that way.

I guess I was always on the edges in school- I was never noticed and teased by the cool girls, but I was never enough of a cool girl myself to tease anyone else, either. Looking back, I think I had some spectacularly bad fashion moments in elementary school. My Mom started work early, and my Dad got us off to school. Mom says that sometimes her heart would sink when she got home and saw what we wore, but I don't remember getting teased. I think my sister did some, but more for her physique (she matured early) than for her clothes. And I often wonder how that early teasing shaped her- she's a lot more shy than I am. What was cause, and what was effect? I don't know.

I loved the HBM post about Emilia wanting to dress as "her own self". I hope I can raise such confident daughters.

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