I am certain that almost none of us would claim that we were fashion mavens way back in elementary school. I certainly wasn’t. I remember being rather fond of a pair of light green knit pants, so much so that when they got a hole in the knee, my mom darned them back together for me. And what 1990s child’s wardrobe was complete without a sparkly tiger sweatshirt? By the time I graduated, I had settled into a wardrobe of black stretch pants and oversized t-shirts. I just didn’t like jeans for some reason.
Things changed for me when my parents moved me from public school to private school. Middle school was a less than ideal time to make this transition, and only one of my close friends came with me. I was, to say the least, not thrilled to suddenly need a uniform: white button down shirt, gray pleated skirt (no more than two inches above the knee), a school sweater or sweatshirt when the weather called for it, and … you know, I don’t even remember what was the requirement for shoes. I don’t think we were allowed to wear sneakers. In my final year they introduced gray shorts for warm weather.
In short, it was terrible. The skirts were itchy, so most of us wore comfortable shorts underneath them; the boys would get a bit jealous at extra curricular activities when suddenly all the girls were in comfy shorts and t-shirts. Gym class required us to wear either navy blue or red sweats. Guess who discovered that no one apparently likes to wear red? Yeah. This girl.
I just hated the feeling of it. Uncomfortable. Formal. Part of the whole. The maroon cardigans were terrible. It was like wrapping yourself in sandpaper. I was relieved when I got a school sweatshirt to wear over my button down. It was soft, comfortable, warm, and too long for my petite arms. I liked to rest my face on it and just have a little relief from the stuffiness of the uniform.
If you think that school uniforms cut down on teasing and make everyone equal … allow me to inform you just how wrong you are! Yes, these things all came from a particular vendor. But there were still choices to be made. And those choices still allowed your classmates to judge you on your clothes. The biggest example of that for girls was skirt length. I usually wore mine to the knee, because I was lazy and didn’t want to shave above the knee. The cool girls pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable and wore them as short and tight as possible. They also paired them with fashionable shoes and knee highs. Only uncool kids would be caught dead in those dreaded maroon cardigans. Even the fit of the button down and how you tucked it in spoke volumes. All of the exact same status cues came across (same at the private high school I went to as well). As soon as you were fluent in the language of uniforms, you knew where everyone stood.
And as if that weren’t bad enough, think of the immense pressure that was placed on students on the days when we didn’t have to wear the uniform: Dress Down Days. These got slightly more comfortable in high school when I had a more secure group of friends and gave a couple fewer fucks. But in middle school? Oh boy. Everyone was zeroed in on what everyone else was wearing. I was ecstatic for the first Dress Down day. Finally, I would be free of the uniform. So, I put on my most comfortable black stretch pants and an oversized charcoal t-shirt. I was proud of it, too, because it was from our school production of A Christmas Carol — a cast shirt!
All students would gather in the cafeteria before first bell. And that was often the most challenging part of my day. (Not to mention the fact that the ungodly hour made it that much worse.) So, I walked in and sat with my friends. And I was ripped to shreds for what I was wearing. I don’t really remember what was said. What I do remember was crying when I got home and begging my mom to take me to the mall to get something else to wear. And she did, God bless her. I went into a trendy tween store called 5-7-9 and picked out things I had seen the other girls wearing: tight white shirts with scoop necks, and tiny denim shorts. I didn’t love the clothes, but I just didn’t want to be torn apart again. The cafeteria was wall to wall people; there was nowhere to hide, and we couldn’t leave. I was already picked on for so many things: facial hair (due to hormones), the fact that my hair turned a bit green from swimming all summer, singing in chorus, playing in band, liking musicals, having dorky friends, having a crush on two popular boys (I was not subtle). I didn’t want one more thing.
I’m not sure why we had a couple Dress Down days in a row. But I walked in that second day, dressed in exactly what I had seen the other girls wearing … and they shut up. For once, they shut up. One boy even made a comment about how my outfit was so similar to what another girl was wearing — in a good way, in an awed way.
And that’s when I gave up stretch pants and learned to like jeans.
It would still be a very, very long time before I gained any true sense of fashion. And as I scoured my wardrobe for suitable things to wear on this body that is so different now after having a child, I realized that I can fall back on what my elementary school self already knew: black stretch pants, or yoga pants as we now call them, fucking rock. And so do loose shirts.
So, fuck you, you middle school monsters.
And yet, they still haunt me. I so wanted to be accepted, but I wasn’t willing to pay the price of not being my authentic self. And that’s still true today. I’m a relatively low maintenance gal. Now I don’t even bother shaving my legs for my son’s swim class. Fuck it! The shaving industry has brainwashed us all. I do like makeup, but I rarely do anything to style my hair on a daily basis. And recently, with a new bunch of ladies I have been hanging out with, I went all out for an event. I dressed a little nicer, straightened my hair, did my makeup.
And they were shocked. Didn’t recognize me at first. Cooed over how nice I looked.
That’s right, pretty girls. You don’t notice me, don’t think I’m beautiful. But I am, and I learned to play your games long ago.