I’m sitting at the doorstep of tweendom with the first of three, stair-step daughters (6,8,10). The threat of not fitting in scratches at our door, louder each day. I find myself cringing, not wanting to superimpose the distinct hurts I had growing up on my girls, who are no doubt destined to have all new crap scar them.
Still, I wonder if there aren’t a few pearls from my own childhood that might help equip us all for the potentially bumpy road ahead. One memory in particular springs to mind.
When I was a kid, things were tight. We weren’t the poorest of the poor, but we weren’t on the other end either. It meant that in school I kind of floated in the middle, not getting the worst of the misfit ostracism, but also not fitting in with the rich kids. I was lucky because my parents didn’t put a huge value on status symbols. They were fairly laid back, fun-loving hippies. I wasn’t really aware of our financial situation until that blasted upside down triangle symbol came on the scene.
It was the early 80’s and all of my classmates were wearing peg-legged Guess jeans with the little zippers on the ankles, Izod shirts and Members Only jackets (all things considered, nothing I should have wanted to be a part of). They were tucking their shirts in so that you could see that red-stitched brand on the back right pocket and the question mark on the button in front. I was happy enough in my bell-bottom jeans, or so I thought.
I remember being on a rare shopping excursion with my mom. I was playing in the circular racks when I saw the triangle. It was on a pair of size 27 denim jeans. I pulled them from the rack and held them up to myself. They were a little long, but looked workable. They were marked down from $75 to $38. I felt my heart race.
I waited for my mom to come out of the dressing room.
”Mom, mom look what I found.”
She looked and said, ”Jeans?”
I nodded. ”Mom, they are Guess jeans. Can I please get them? I won’t ask for anything else; I just, I just really want them. This is the kind that every girl at school is wearing.” Even as I said it, I knew that I sounded like an after-school special about trying to fit in.
She looked at me tenderly. When she walked toward me it was tentatively. She looked strange with the tags of the new clothes poking from her sleeve and waist. I was shaking, ashamed of my uncontrollable and intense longing for the jeans. As she looked at the price, I looked away. She tapped the hanger twice and said, “Let me think about it.”
I nodded. Saying she’d think about it was more than I had thought I’d get. A few minutes later, she came back out and walked straight to the sales counter. I felt dejected as I walked to hang the jeans back up on the rack. I hung them in the wrong size, just in case, and then walked away after giving them one final touch.
I stood quietly beside my mom. We were always a little uncomfortable at the cashier. She touched my hand, “Go get them.”
I shook, Huh? She looked at me, “If you really want them, I’ll buy them for you.” I flew to the rack and grabbed them, all the hope in the world filling me as I bounded back to the register.
The cashier smiled at me, Guess jeans, nice. As I watched the transaction, I imagined all of my not fitting in being erased as I came to school wearing Guess.
The pants hung in my room until the next day of school. The pant legs, as it turned out, did not have a zipper. They were straight legs, so I tried pegging them as I rolled them up. They stayed close to my ankle, but were a little bulky. Tucking my shirt in felt weird, so I bunched it on the side.
I was just outside of school when I heard some girls behind me:
“Snort, looks like she has inner tubes around her ankles.”
”Are those boy pants?”
“Are those jeans? That blue is just so, you know, weird.”
“I didn’t know Guess had an ugly style, I do now.”
I spun around; surely they weren’t talking about me. Oh, but they were. You know how those awful Disney sitcoms with the terrible acting always show the mean girls looking at the dork until they make eye contact and then slowly doing a shoulder and hair flip? It actually happens in real life, only everything seems to shift to slow motion.
The girls walked away and all I could see was my mom’s face at the cash register at the mall. She thought she’d been buying me inclusion too. After that, I still wore the jeans and I still got teased. I let my shirts hang over the triangle and I didn’t try to peg the legs. The jeans were my jeans, nothing more. I don’t think I ever told my mom how badly I was teased for them.
It did teach me something, though its taken nearly 30 years to sink in: No piece of clothing or status symbol is going to make me fit in. Sure, I’ve lusted after the idea of a pair of Louboutins* or Gucci handbag, but at the end of the day, I’m neither a stiletto nor a fancy purse kind of girl. Designer jeans? Sure! But are they going to be the de riguer cut? Highly unlikely as I have calves the size of most womens thighs, so skinnys never fit. And the fancy shoes? I make it into a 10 by the skin of my teeth, 11’s are too big and 10.5’s are like unicorns. If I see anything that looks remotely up my alley in a 10, I will elbow anyone out of my way.
Looking at my three girls, I hope that I can help them have the freedom to love what they love, whether it’s a type of clothing or a genre of music. If Finley never wants to pierce her ears, Briar never embraces the concept of jeans, and Avery always wants to wear hoodies, then so be it. We are all worth the full price of our preference. Relegating ourselves to a clearance rack that lets us try to eke into someone else’s world through a back door will never work and it will never lead to true happiness.
Oh, and for the record, I love being rickrolled. #notsorry
*I had to look up how to spell Louboutins.