By Elisabeth
Published in

By Elisabeth


I Wear Black Every Day Because My Mother is a Horrible Human Being

I wish she would have given me the confidence every little girl needs in a world that constantly tries to make her believe she’s never enough.

Photo: Trying on clothes while chatting with a friend online

If you’ve been following along, you’ve probably noticed an uptick in articles about my abusive mother and my relationship with her, or lack thereof. The reason for this is that at forty-two years old, I am making additional connections between my emotional and behavioral issues and my developmental trauma. I have been in therapy for nearly twenty years, and truly, the work is never done. Each week, as life unfolds, I uncover hidden traumas and their causes. There are triggers hidden in everyday occurrences, like Easter eggs or landmines.

One of those triggers for me is getting dressed to go out. It’s something most people took for granted before the pandemic, and some may be more keenly aware of it since the country started opening up again, post-vaccines. Getting dressed to leave the house and meet friends or colleagues has always made me extremely anxious. I never know what’s fashionable, what looks good on me, which tops go with which bottoms, and if these shoes go with anything. I would often accept an invitation to meet up with friends but then cancel after spending hours trying on clothes and crying in my closet. I never realized the origin of this leg of Generalized Anxiety Disorder until I told my therapist this story:

Photo: Alyce Designs Advertisement (circa 1980s)

When I was ten years old, my mother, two sisters, and I moved from the Virgin Islands to Florida. Naturally, I felt out of place and would have given anything to fit in with the kids at my new school. I made two friends that year, Michelle and Jennifer, who turned me on to Metallica and Skid Row, Sun-In, hairspray, and backcombing my bangs. The year was 1989, and my fashion idols were Madonna and Cyndi Lauper. So, when Michelle and Jennifer opened up an issue of Teen Magazine and showed me a picture of the type of dresses their mothers bought them for the fifth-grade banquet, I swooned. Their puffy sleeves, ruched bodices, and ruffled skirts made them the sort of dresses my idols would wear, and I wanted one.

So, I took the magazine home and showed my mother the dress. I told her my best friends were wearing the same style, and I wanted to wear it, too. Back in St. Thomas, we wore uniforms to school, and since moving to the United States, I always felt out of style. My mother bought our clothes at a place called The $7 Store, where everything was (you guessed it) seven dollars. The clothing there was cheaply made, out of style, and fell apart easily. I went to school every day looking like a golfer in pastel plaid shorts and cardigans or like a begrudging office worker in button-down shirts, slacks, and loafers. So, I wanted to show up at the fifth-grade banquet looking and feeling pretty for a change.

My mother looked at the photo and said, “I can make that.” This might have scared most pre-teens, but I wasn’t alarmed. My mother was an excellent seamstress, and dresses were her forte. “I’ll get a pattern from JoAnne this weekend and get started,” she declared.

I was over the moon.

For the next week, I anxiously waited for my mother to finish the dress. The days wound down, and as the banquet approached, I became increasingly anxious. She wouldn’t let me see the dress before she was finished it, didn’t measure me, or asked me to try it on the way she always did when making our clothes. But, she’d made dresses for me before, so I trusted her dressmaking skills and anxiously waited. Then, finally, the day before the banquet, my mother finished the dress. As I came through the door from school that day, my mother proudly announced, “I finished the dress. It’s hanging on the back of your bedroom door.”

Excited to finally see it, I dropped my backpack and raced to my room, where I found an ugly peach-colored satin dress waiting for me. It was the shape of a refrigerator and about as big. At the bottom, my mother added peach lace trim which served as the only detail on the limp, pale, boxy dress. On the floor, my mother placed the peach stockings and peach, pointed-toe, slingback flats she bought to go with the hideous dress.

I was mortified.

When I showed up to school the next day, it was all I could do to hold back the tears. Jennifer and Michelle looked so pretty in their dresses, as did all the other girls who wore fashionable styles. I was the only one wearing a pillowcase with sleeves and the only ten-year-old in pantyhose and pointy shoes. I felt embarrassed, sad, and jealous and couldn’t help but notice some of the other girls snickering and pointing at me and my stupid outfit. Although Jennifer and Michelle were nice to me, they didn’t hang out with me too much, and I didn’t really want to be around them either. I was too embarrassed. So, I sat by myself for most of the day until a boy named Jermaine came over to talk to me. Sensing my humiliation, he walked around the school with me that afternoon and, for a time, made me forget how awful I felt. I couldn’t wait to get home and take off the dress.

Photo: Even my hair, workout clothes, and undergarments are black.

While telling my therapist this story, I was awestruck by the willful spitefulness of my mother. She embarrassed me on purpose, which was why she wouldn’t let me see or try on the dress until the afternoon before the banquet when it was already finished. She would usually measure and fit us to make sure the garments were just right when making clothes for us. This time, she didn’t do that. She knew exactly what I wanted and didn’t even try to make it. She wanted me to feel the way I felt, ugly and out of place, and made the large, boxy, peach dress strictly for that purpose.

From fifth through tenth grade, I would be teased by kids at school daily because of my clothes. My mother would buy me only two pairs of jeans and five shirts, all the same, but in different colors, for the entire school year, while she and my sisters had closets filled with clothes either bought or homemade. Because of this particular trauma, I have never felt comfortable in my clothing, and getting dressed to go out has always caused me severe anxiety. As I’ve gotten older, that feeling has been exasperated by body changes and social expectations. It got so bad I would spiral into panic attacks and crying fits every time someone asked me to go somewhere.

So, two years ago, I sold and gave away everything in my closet that wasn’t black, except for a few white, gray, tan, and blue items. Then, I started buying up all the black, flattering clothes I could find. Wearing only this one color helps with my anxiety and makes getting dressed a brainless event. Since switching to a monochromatic wardrobe, if a friend asked me to meet them for drinks or lunch, I would be in and out of my closet in mere minutes, no matter how last-minute the invitation. Black, classic clothing is figure-flattering, doesn’t show dirt or stains, and looks rich in any setting. So, the ten-year-old inside of me no longer has to worry about how I look, if I fit in, or if people are making fun of the way I dress.

Sometimes, when I think about all the ways my mother has tainted my life, it makes me sad. I wish I had a loving, gentle, and kind mother who built me up instead of always tearing me down. I wish she would have given me the confidence every little girl needs in a world that constantly tries to make her believe she’s never enough. I wish I didn’t still have to unravel the binds on my brain and always be on the lookout for opportunities to heal from the shit she did or instilled in me. Sometimes, the work gets tiring, but I can’t stop. I am so highly motivated to be better than my mother has ever been that I can’t quit learning, growing, trying, and reaching for my ideal self. I think this makes me not only a person but a far better mother than she ever was, and for that, I am grateful.

Most of who we are is informed by what our parents and families taught us during our formative years, even how we get dressed and walk out into the world. Now that I’m preparing to reenter the atmosphere post-vaccination, I’m leaning heavily on my monochromatic wardrobe to help stave away the old anxiety that has always come with getting dressed, plus the new anxiety that comes with living through a devastating pandemic and being shut-in for over a year. It’s a simple thing, but for an anxious girl, it’s everything.



Random musings and wisdom from a New York Times bestselling author with more time on her hands than words.

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Elisabeth Ovesen

3x New York Times bestselling author | Chief Creative Officer at The Ovesen Company