In sixth grade, I went through a phase where I wore solid-color sweat suits to school every day. Crew-neck cotton sweatshirt, cotton sweatpants with elastic waistband and ankle. No logos, no slogans, no airbrushed illustrations of Sylvester and Tweety in streetwear and backward hats. Just solid colors: green, red, white, purple, blue. I avoided the classic heather gray, because I thought that looked too much like gym clothes.
I must have dressed like this because I was overweight and wanted to wear clothes that were as generous as possible on my gross pubescent body. I also liked the minimalism of wearing one solid color. And my family was poor — unbranded cotton sweat suits are an economical choice for a growing boy.
The sweat suits made me feel safe, even as they made a little slice of my humanity vulnerable to the world around me.
Mrs. Bell, my homeroom teacher that year, made our class a compliment jar. It was designed to help bolster the self-esteem of us struggling tweens. She took an empty tennis ball container — three-ball capacity — cut a slit in the cap, then construction-papered the whole thing so you couldn’t see inside. Once a week, a student in the class would be assigned the compliment jar; everyone else in the class had to write one nice thing about that person on a little slip of paper and stuff it inside. You had to write just one thing per slip, but if you had more than one nice thing to say, you could submit multiple slips.
When my day with the compliment jar came, I was deep in my sweat suit phase. I was wearing an all-white sweat suit that day, actually. Lookin’ fresh.
Throughout the day, I watched my classmates deposit compliments in my jar. A few of them even went more than once. One kid — let’s call him Gavin here — deposited so many compliments that by the end of the day, when it was time for me to open up the jar and read all the nice things people had to say about me, the jar was stuffed to the brim.
I’m sure there were some genuine compliments in there, but I do not remember any of them. All I remember is that on every single slip of paper Gavin submitted, he wrote “Nice sweats.” Just those two words, nothing else: sincere as the apology of a philandering congressman; uplifting as the comments on a feminist YouTube video.
He put probably twenty or thirty of these in the jar. Nice sweats. Nice sweats. Nice sweats.
I remember waking up the next morning and looking at my dresser full of sweat suits and, ears burning red, picking out jeans and a t-shirt instead. Something to disappear me a little.
It didn’t help. Gavin immediately moved on to other methods of psychological abuse — his next targets were my chins.
In the past two weeks, I’ve been thinking about love and authenticity as a kind of resistance. I’ve been thinking about the times I have been brave, or not very brave. I’ve been thinking about how I’ve been hurt, and how I’ve hurt others. I’ve been thinking about what I need, and what everyone around me needs. I’ve been thinking about what I can do to subvert the power we arbitrarily assign to bullies — our local everyday Gavins, as well as those at the state and national levels — and I’ve been thinking about ways to embolden myself to do the work that subversion requires. Ways to love myself a little more, so I have the emotional wherewithal help heal the world in my own small way.
A year ago, I found a sweatshirt on a clearance rack at Century 21: a white cotton crew-neck sweatshirt with a large, faded-looking print of hunting dogs and trees. I thought it was the wildest, most fun sweatshirt I had ever seen. I laughed out loud at it—or actually, I laughed out loud with it. It delighted me.
My impulse was to buy it immediately. I did buy it, but not quite immediately—I hesitated first and asked a friend if she thought I should do it. Because I couldn’t stop thinking: Nice sweats.
This morning, a year after I bought it, I hemmed and hawed and finally put my dog sweatshirt on to wear in public. I love this sweatshirt. Why shouldn’t I be able to wear it? Shouldn’t I be able to exist in my own clothes, whatever they are? Who’s gonna try and stop me — Gavin from sixth grade? Who gives a fuck about Gavin from sixth grade anymore? I’ve got bigger Gavins to deal with now.
On the subway, I’d look down at myself and my heart would beat in my ears. Were people looking at me? If they were, was it good looking or bad looking? Or were they not looking at me, and was that worse? If they were looking at me, were they looking at my me me, or at my dog sweatshirt me? Or was that worry—that people were looking or not looking at me, the person, and/or me the sweatshirt-wearing entity—the worst thing of all? Was me wearing my dog sweatshirt really about the love I have for the sweatshirt, or was it about the performance of wearing the sweatshirt in public?
I could not answer these questions before I got off the subway. Maybe I never will.
But the longer I wear my dog sweatshirt today, the less I ask myself these questions and the more I remember why I put it on this morning: because it is weird and because its weirdness makes it wonderful and because its wonderfulness delights me. I think I will keep wearing this dog sweatshirt, especially when I worry that I shouldn’t. I love my dog sweatshirt, and that love is an act of resistance.
I am now twenty years older than that poor pimpled sixth-grader. I have a masters degree and I speak two languages and I’m engaged and I have friends all around the world. I still have two chins, but who’s counting anymore?
I am an adult, and I own my identity. I am an adult, and Gavin can suck on my butt. I am an adult, and I am going to wear my nice sweats.