Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Stranger in a Strange Land

It's almost expected as a female that once you begin to glide into your teenaged years, you pick up lifelong interests in certain subjects. In the fifties I'm sure it was child-rearing, cleaning, and simple culinary skills, but for the modern teenaged girl we're expected to be perky, a permanent optimist, with a fascination for fashion, makeup, and gossip of all kinds. Sure, most girls can get away with just wearing lip-gloss and only smiling politely when peers gossip about this and that, but fashion -- fashion is another animal altogether.

The teenaged girl is expected to be glamorous yet subtle, aesthetic yet simple, we are told to be carved out of marble and wood simultaneously by magazines and television and newspapers and parents.

When I was first strolling into my teenaged years, hands in my pockets, I found myself garbed in the stoic's uniform of jeans and a t-shirt. Fashion to me was splurging on a dress from Anthropologie or wearing flats instead of sneakers. I was a simple creature, and quite frankly my grandmother hated it.

"You're a young lady now," She would say, dragging me by the arm into our local mall. "You need some nicer clothes. Clothes that boys would like. You're almost thirteen, M. Don't you think about how boys see you?"

And sure, I did. I thought about how all the boys I knew were closer to me than their parents, friends, and even girlfriends. I thought about how I've had some of the best conversations I've ever had with those "cursed" with a Y-chromosome. About how those "cute little inferiors" that girls were always cooing about were much more than just empty-headed skaters and computer geeks. Boys, I knew, didn't need another pair of tits paraded in front of their face to really open up to a person. They just needed someone to relate to. Someone who would be happy slinging mud and watching gory movies. Granted, it was this kind of tomboyish relationship with guys that lost me the chance to actually date early on, much to my grandmother's disappointment, but I was happy. And I had a phonebook filled with some of the funniest people I've ever met. Life was good.

Yet by age thirteen, I was thrown into shopping malls and told to go wild. "Buy whatever you want!" My grandmother would say, sipping on a Diet Coke. "We're going school shopping and grandma loves you!" And I didn't doubt it, but she simply didn't understand. She, like many other mothers and mothers' mothers, thought of all teenaged girls as the same paper dolls. She thought we all reveled in magazine subscriptions and Shirley Temples.

We would stroll by Abercrombies and American Eagles, my grandmother pressing her face against the window and shouting back at me, "Don't you want to go in here? Everything looks really cute," but I was happy using my grandmothers generosity to buy video games and new jeans. Occasionally, just to make her feel a bit more accomplished, I'd buy a lacy tank top or a new pair of shoes, but generally speaking I almost always left with very few bags under my arms.

It visibly disappointed her, and I knew deep down she always wished for a chubby cheeked half-baby-half-adult to take shopping and share lipstick shades with. I was never that girl, and even now that I've semi-embraced clothing as something more than just fabric coverings, I still find kids with credit cards and cell-phones frightening creatures. (I didn't get my first cell phone until I was fourteen. Now, two year olds are chewing on Virgin Go phones.)

Granted, I'm not denouncing fashion as something completely bogus. Sure, I'll never understand why people actually buy clothing from runway collections and I firmly believe that a two hundred dollar price tag on a little black dress is only there to fluff the designers ego, but at the same time fashion holds something particularly sacred to teenaged girls. Clothes have the ability to make a girl feel welcome in her own body. No boy or car or golden brick could ever do that, but clothes, these simple pieces of sewn cloth, can. And I think that's why girls are stereotyped as mandatory fashionistas. Clothes have the ability to make girls feel comfortable, contented, as though catnip were weaved into every strand of thread. It's soothing to be able to wear something ridiculous and different and subsequently turn yourself into someone new. No, clothes don't define a person, but good clothes do. Certain clothes are meant for certain people, and when those particulars find that perfect dress or button-up shirt, they're turned into someone completely new. They could be drowning in debt and mourning a lost love, but with the right pair of shoes a girl can be at her happiest. That is the power that clothing holds.

And I think what most people fail to realize is that it's not the clothes that make them happy, it's all in themselves. The clothes really are just cloth and stitch, but put the right girl in the right dress and she'll see herself as a movie starlet. All girls are Grecian goddesses and Christian saints inside, all they need is the power to shed their skin and let her out. And for most girls that golden key is to see herself as beautiful.

So to every thirteen year old me out there, it's not all magazine covers and cosmetic ads in that great big fashion world. It's not about being a sample size or buying the It-brand of the day. It's about being beautiful. Having fun. It's about finding yourself and discovering that favorite dress that turns you into Mae West when worn. Fashion is about being able to change clothes and become someone else, a rock star or a millionaire or a fairy queen or a jetsetter. But more importantly, it's about being able to take off that extra personality by the end of the day and settle down in that one perfect outfit that turns you back into the most beautiful you can be: you.

Photo by Arai Gordai


jim said...

My heart has skipped a beat at the sight of many a woman in the stoic's uniform.

Jennifer Sulkin said...

kiddo, sell this one to a magazine, seriously, shop it. someone will buy it.

(although, being twice your age, i did have a raging case of the giggles at your somewhat self righteous "and i never had a cell phone till i was 14." tee hee.)