It was a bleak day at the Monmouth Mall in Eatontown, New Jersey. My unsuccessful shopping trip had culminated in a tearful meltdown in the Macy’s dressing room, as they often did in those days. I cried from the shame of being trapped in this too short, underdeveloped body, which featured lumps of baby fat that gave my physique a Hot Pockets shape, and not the lean kind. Alas, If I couldn’t find the perfect outfit, then at the very least I could drown my sorrows in Diet Coke and potato wedges at the mall’s finest chain restaurant. My mom and I were shown to a table at TGI Friday’s and I began to feel a little better until a helpful waiter presented me with a children’s menu and tied a red balloon to my chair. I was 16 years old. I cried for the second time that day.
I’ve always looked young for my age, which is sort of lovely now, except when people gasp and say “you look so good for your age!” in horror. I’m not that old. But when you’re a teenager looking young is the worst, especially when you feel ready to be the kind of a sophisticated lady who shops at Bebe, and you look like you’d still enjoy a trip to KB Toys. I’d been waiting for puberty to transform me like a dutiful Judy Blume heroine, so ready for my outside to catch up with my inside. If, in my head I was already a world-weary adult, I should at least have the wardrobe, and the boobs, to match.
I didn’t quite know who I wanted to be, but I wanted to have options — to be able to try on personas like they were Guess jeans and I was Claudia Schiffer. I wanted to go to fancy keg parties with future frat boys who shopped at Structure, or have tumultuous relationships with Hot Topic dudes who were still too broken up over Kurt Cobain’s death to bother to shower. And maybe I wanted to be bad, but I was too scrawny to be a delinquent. You can’t hang out by the Orange Julius with the kids who smoke and who can get into R-rated movies at the cineplex even without a parental escort if you have to get your mom to drive you to a whole other mall (Freehold Mall!) to buy your clothes from Limited Too. I knew my entire world would expand if I could just grow a few inches and graduate from the children’s department to the juniors section.
I remember the first outfit that fit me properly at Contempo Casuals, the store that had the edgiest, sluttiest clothes in the smallest sizes. It was a little black and white striped two-piece combo — a pair of hot pants and a matching stretchy shirt that tied in a knot at the belly button and gave me the illusion of having an almost womanly body. I felt powerful in that get-up, even though I constantly had to pick the wedgies those teeny shorts gave me — both back and front. Shortly thereafter I found a pair of red silky Victoria’s Secret pajamas that felt how I imagined sex might feel like, and I kept devising fantastical scenarios so that every boy in my grade might have an excuse to come by my house and see me in them. None of them ever did. I was still the same person I’d always been, bookish and TVish and risk averse, but my new clothes gave me a tiny burst of confidence that made my fantasy life feel almost within reach instead of far, far away.
Spoiler alert: the growth spurt never happened. And even as I matured I didn’t outgrow the frustration of trying on ill-fitting clothes in front of a harshly lit three-way mirror. I still cry in a dressing room occasionally. But I did manage to find a solution back in those days that I carry through to my adult life, the best advice for anyone with body image angst. When I needed a pick-me-up, I headed straight to B. Dalton or Sam Goody, losing myself in books and music for comfort and instant gratification. Clothing might not always flatter, but Ace of Base cassingles are timeless.