When my first child was a toddler, she liked to accessorize. She wore goggles as if they were headbands. She layered strings of Mardi Gras beads around her neck and wore old sweat bands around her wrists. As she got a little older, she liked to wear tutus over tights, scarves as capes, and bandanas around her head as if she were a pirate.
Then she fell in love with leopard, tiger, and cheetah prints and often mixed them. She was like a safari mullet: cheetah up top, tiger on the bottom. With her bandana she looked like Axl Rose. She’d drag around bags of her special items, patting them occasionally, as if waiting to be called upon to produce a plastic tea cup or half deck of playing cards.
People grinned at her independent style and the confidence she carried. I did too. I hoped she would always stay true to herself and wear whatever made her feel good, even if a bit quirky at times. She’s less quirky these days, but my kid still doesn’t give a fuck about her fashion or overall looks and I’m thrilled.
My baby is now a 5th grader, is taller than some of her friends’ parents, and has stumbled through puberty’s doors with a surprising amount of nonchalance. Her body and moods are in constant fluctuation, yet at her core my kid is still that two-year-old who wore riding boots with pajama bottoms and butterfly wings. She wears what she likes and doesn’t care what anyone thinks. Her fashion choices are for her alone.
My ex and I have never done back-to-school shopping with the kids. We verify that they have sneakers that fit and a backpack with a functioning zipper but that’s the extent of our purchases right before school starts. When my kids outgrow clothing, we replace it. When they need new gear, we buy it. A lot of their clothing is secondhand and I’m proud of their excitement over yard sale and thrift store finds. We have never purchased first day of school or picture day outfits. We simply ask that they wear something clean.
But this year, as my oldest approaches middle school and I’m watching her friends put more thought into their outfits and hairstyles, I wondered if she would spend any time deciding on an outfit the night before heading back to school. The stained t-shirt with our local dentist practice’s name and logo and almost-too-small shorts with a small hole that were on her body confirmed that she wasted zero time thinking about her outfit or what others may be wearing in comparison. She looked ready to mow the lawn or clean the garage; I’ve seen her wear snazzier outfits to soccer practice.
“Is that the outfit you’re wearing to school?” I asked her.
She looked down. “Yes. I just put it on.”
“Is that the shirt you want to wear? And I think those shorts can be retired.”
“Why? I like this shirt. My shorts are fine.”
I caught myself. She was right. Her outfit was fine.
I realized I was placing expectations on her for fear of what others may think, because I was once a very self-conscious kid and teenager who cared a lot about what others thought. I was embarrassed by my off-brand clothing and lack of variety I could afford. When I was younger, I would have been embarrassed to wear a stained shirt or something with a hole because that would have given kids more reasons to call me dirty; I wasn’t going to give anyone proof of the poor home I got dressed in every day.
I was suddenly overwhelmed with the fact that I had raised a kid who didn’t think like this. My daughter has more privilege than I had as a kid, but she is not pretentious. She doesn’t place any judgment on her clothes, fashion, body or anyone around her. She’s aware of other people’s styles and fashion but she simply sees them as expressions of people’s personalities and not their worth. I had to get out of my own way to not get in hers. My kid isn’t judgmental or seemingly at risk of being bothered by someone else’s standards. This is I what I want for her.
“You’re right,” I told her. “You know there is a small stain on your shirt though, right? Is that okay with you?” I was still trying to avoid a potential situation where someone could say something to rude to her, but I knew this was my own past haunting me.
“Meh. I don’t care.”
“Cool. Just brush your hair.”
She was very annoyed with me at this point, “I did!”
I looked again. I determined it looked a little less ratty than when she had gotten out of bed. I smiled at my big kid who looks so much older than her age, especially when I go in to check on her before I head to bed each night. Even though she still clutches her blankie at night, she seems to get longer and take up more space when she sleeps. She seemed so much wiser in that moment. She has learned what has taken me nearly a lifetime to learn. My big kid who still covets small knickknacks and carries an I-can-do-it-myself attitude also stands by her this-works-for-me motto. She had zero reason to feel insecure or hyper-aware of her appearance and she knew it. I need to embrace and celebrate this more often. This is a gift for both of us.
“What are you smiling about?” she asked.
“You,” I told her. “You look great and ready to take on 5th grade. I’m proud of you.”
My kid is comfortable in her skin and practical in her clothing. She doesn’t want to keep up with the latest fashion trend or whatever her friends are doing; she continues to listen to her internal and confident guide. I need to quiet my own internal fears and cheer her on the way I did when she wore mismatched animal prints because her fashion sometimes consists of mismatched tropical prints or two different versions of camouflage. She’ll tell you they look good together because they are the “same theme.”
Keep doing you, kid. Your outfits look good because they make you feel good.