One of my last therapy sessions before graduating dealt with the importance I put on clothes, which, I realize, sounds horridly vapid and first worldly, which it is, but in all seriousness made apparent another problem I was having that needed my attention.
It wasn’t until maybe two years ago that I enjoyed a sexual liberation of sorts; that I disassociated myself and my body from the constraints of my religious and conservative family-instilled mindset. It wasn’t until even more recently that I stopped holding myself responsible for other’s objectification and disrespect of me.
I am also an artist. I love colors, decorating, making new things from old. Since I had no time or space to engage in any artistic or expression based projects, thrifting and clothes became my paint, my closet became my palette and my body became my canvas.
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Clothes, all of the sudden, became a tool for expression, not just censor bars for “inappropriate” parts of my body. People would soon come to identify me by, aside from my hair, my ridiculous outfits.
This liberation was well timed with what I endured this fall, and suffering it, as suffering usually provokes in me, only made me more vocal.
But as my senior year was wrapping up however, I found myself at a standstill, not able to turn job applications in, to pack up my things, choose a country to go to, unable to see myself in the future. I felt stunted. So I went to my therapist.
When my therapist asked me what I couldn’t see myself doing, I told her that deciding what clothes to take with me and what to leave behind, terrified me. I couldn’t bring myself to even consider it.
Given that my therapist knew me and my style before and after my sexual and fashion liberation, she seemed to know exactly what was going on. “You’re afraid you are going to lose who you are,” she said.
My independent self was taken aback, and almost offended.
We talked about my change in fashion, my new “awareness’ of my body. How to complement it, how to shape it, like art, I had become my own project. And she asked what would happen if I ended up working on an organic farm in New Zealand in rubber boots up to my thighs and a shapeless jumpsuit. “People wouldn’t recognize me,” turned out to be my answer.
This led to a discussion about why I cared so much whether people could recognize me or not, whether I was my “true self” or not. This led to a bunch of existential questions that I struggled to answer without seeing the goal post not but a yard in front of me.
I am my true self. I accomplished this as soon as I separated myself from my family. But, I had been trained, by society, by my family, even my past friends to value certain aspects more than others, to be ashamed of some, and to take pride in others, not just physically, but intellectually, emotionally.
“Do you value emotional expression as much as you value your physical expression?” my therapist asked.
“No,” I felt obligated to reply. I do not feel it safe or appropriate to express emotions in person. I would rather write them, keep them private, because being emotional falls into a stereotype of an irrational woman, and I feel a need to separate from that, despite the obvious misogyny in that choice.
“Do you value certain parts of your body more than others?” She continued.
“Yes,” I replied. I do value parts more than others. Especially since I made a great effort to reclaim parts of my body that have been attacked since childhood. My butt, my gait, my hair, my weight, have all been critiqued to the point of self-consciousness. I value, for example, my butt, more than other parts of me because of how long it took for me to come to terms with it. Even the word “it”, makes apparent a separation of parts from the whole of the body, and the whole of the body from the rest of me.
So you get the idea.
We had discovered the problem: Not that I should by any means express myself less, or subdue my fashion in any way, but that I had made my external expression so important that it became a crutch.
So what did I do? I divided up my belongings and gave away about 70% of my wardrobe to friends and strangers. Then the rest was divided between a storage unit and my suitcase. Several days I sat watching friends and acquaintances go through my clothes, trying them on, making piles and rejecting some upon review, bagging them up and taking them.
I’m not going to lie, each night, it was like watching scattered shards of my smashed soul get swept into a bag and taken away.
And now I’m in France with a closet that would be lost in the avalanche of 80's and rainbow that was my old wardrobe… and I’m fine. I am still myself. I am still disrespected and objectified on the street, I am still writing and experiencing the world, nothing really has changed except maybe I have to do laundry more often (but I have lots of underwear, so maybe not).
The best part is, all the clothes that friends rejected, even old work shirts, were taken by a middle-aged Mexican couple who sent them to their relatives in Mexico to distribute to the poor. And the clothes that were taken by friends? I get to see little bits of myself with them in photos and see all the different outfits they create with them. My art, my paints, were recycled for other’s self-expression and that’s a beautiful thing to see.
It’s been a jarring change in my life, but re-calibrating my values to discover what is most important has been very rewarding in these and other ways. One of the great things about traveling is reducing what you have to what you need. And though it pains me to say it, I don’t need clothes. I need my body, and things to keep my body warm (which is new to me) and clean… Maybe some medium to write with. And maybe some people to share it all with, but that’s about it. And truly, what would I have done with all my great clothes if they were spat on and covered in paint by a three year old and his 13 month old brother, anyway?