Until I left home at 16, my mother controlled my wardrobe. I got around it by learning to hand-sew in my teens, and at some point I discovered thrift shops. But until then, I was stuck in her skin.
Some of it was practical. The new pair of saddle shoes I got once a year – a torture born of married student life. Frivolous clothes were a luxury, and saddle shoes were cheap and sturdy.
Some of it, on the other hand, was pure control — like her insistence, once I hit my teens, that I iron my overalls before wearing them.
My one reprieve was the summer I was 14, when my mother was away studying, and a friend of my dad’s took me shopping. She was a gorgeous, round, voluptuous woman, and she knew how to put outfits together – and match them with accessories. She showed me how I could choose clothing that matched, buying several different blouses to go with a skirt – to change the look by changing one part of it – and for a few months, I had the sense I knew how to dress myself. Though when I look back at pictures of me in these clothes, I look stiff and posturing.
It took years to find clothes I love wearing. It still takes years to find clothes that feel like me. And there are very few that do. I’m happy wearing the same ones every day. But there was a time when I wanted to look like someone else – something else.
When I started playing the harp in my early 20’s, I longed to wear the long black dresses and to look like a real musician. My proudest moment was walking to an orchestra rehearsal, dressed in black, high heels clicking, and carrying a tuner – a box with a handle, something that looked like it might be an instrument case. For a moment I felt like a real musician.
It’s funny how we clamor to be in the box.
Lately I’ve been discussing with my agent a project we’re putting together for someone else — someone who has strong ideas about the repertoire I should play, none of which I’ve ever played or listened to – but according to her, it’s “popular” and will therefore get the audience to identify with me. I started wondering who they’d actually be identifying with.
I honestly thought I’d gotten beyond this, but it keeps coming back.
It reminds me of one month in Junior High when I went steady with a football player. See, how I don’t even call him by his name? He was a guy I didn’t even really know. I wasn’t attracted to him. I didn’t like being near him. I especially didn’t want him to touch me. But I was not a popular girl, and he asked me to go steady. A FOOTBALL player asked ME!
I cringe remembering just how graceless and objectifying I was. All I could see was that I was desirable to someone who lived in a place I don’t belong. What an amazing opportunity!! So I said yes.
That’s an obvious example of the wrong fit, but when something comes along that’s out of your comfort-level, how can you know if it’s an amazing opportunity to expand who you are and what you’re comfortable with — or an amazing opportunity to succeed at being what you’re not?
What feels like “me” — is that a truth, or just an inhibition?
It’s not always easy to tell. The difference between trying new clothes to find a new part of me — and trying to stuff myself into clothes that don’t fit — that’s a huge difference – but they’re both uncomfortable. And sometimes it’s really hard to know which kind of discomfort it is.
So, at the moment, this is my wish: if I fall on my face, please, let it be as myself, and not dressed up to be something I don’t even want to be.
Now, where are my cowboy boots?