On Bullying And Being A Clothes Horse

I like clothing. I like it a bunch, and not just because it gives me the ability to not be naked. If avoiding nudity was my only concern, I probably wouldn’t have as many clothes as I do.

For those of you who don’t know me very well, let me be really super clear on something here: I own a lot of clothes. A lot.

I used to not care so much about what I wore; I mean, sure, I liked getting dressed up, but if someone gave me money, I spent it all on books (or sometimes books and candy). Gifts of clothing at Christmas or my birthday were considered boring, and beneath my interest; they were quickly set aside in favour of more interesting packages. When my mother gave me money to go back-to-school shopping, I would spend as little of it as I could on a few shirts and a pair of jeans at Walmart, then save the rest for the more interesting stores.

Then puberty hit, and people started making fun of the way I dressed. Why? Because teenagers, that’s why.

Not only was I lacking in fashion sense, but I was also widely considered to be quite ugly. A classmate of mine took a sort of informal poll on the relative attractiveness of the girls in our class, and I rated lowest. Out of 28 classmates, only one (a girl named Cindy who was well-known to be the nicest person ever) had said that I was “sort of pretty”; everyone else, even (especially?) the boys had marked down “ugly” next to my name.

I tried to laugh it off, but underneath I was heartbroken.

I went home, cried, sassed my parents, ate some ice cream, cuddled my cat, scrawled in my diary, etc.

Then I decided that this was, in part, a solvable problem.

I couldn’t change my facial features or the basic structure of my body, of course, but what I could do was learn how to apply makeup and wear the correct clothes. In order to do this, I would have to figure out what the right ways to do these things was, because I honestly had no idea. I began to observe my classmates as if I were a cultural anthropologist; I made notes on what they wore, how they did their hair, and what shade of lipstick they applied. I bought fashion magazines and pore over their pages, cutting out pictures of the outfits I liked. We didn’t have a lot of money, so I started spending time at Value Village, Goodwill and the Salvation Army, digging through the racks for things that might look good, or fit me well.

I began replacing my wardrobe of printed pastel sweatshirts, track pants, babyish puffed-sleeve dresses and unflattering stovepipe jeans with slightly more grown-up attire. Back then, I wasn’t necessarily trying to be fashionable, or even dress particularly well; I just wanted to fit in and be able to disappear into the crowd. I gravitated towards basics like plain t-shirts and tank tops paired with jeans, khakis or a simple skirt. All I wanted was to be normal, because I thought normal meant that I wouldn’t be bullied anymore. I wanted to use clothing as a sort of protective armour, one that would make me look like an average high school student instead of someone with a target on their back.

By the beginning of university, I’d begun to wear things like vintage slips and old, beat-up leather jackets. I tied my hair back with old kerchiefs I’d bought for cheap in Kensington Market. My grandmother gave me an old coat of hers from the 60s, and I wore the shit out of it. I was starting to look kind of good.

While in Halifax, I was lucky enough to have two roommates who a) were approximately the same size as me, and b) had awesome, badass fashion sense. We instituted an open-closet policy, and having access to a sort of communal wardrobe gave me the chance to experiment with different looks without having to commit to them. I stopped wanting to look normal, and started wanting to look interesting. I learned to accessorize. I started putting outfits together in unconventional ways, and discovered that I kind of liked doing that.

Now, weirdly, some people actually consider me to be fashionable. It’s still a label that feels strange to me (and I often think it means “you sure do own a lot of clothes!”), and I don’t really believe that I dress particularly well. I still sometimes feel like my clothing is a disguise rather than an a form of self-expression. In a lot of ways, I’m still that skinny, ugly teenager who has no idea what to wear; I still study the way people dress (more out of habit, now, than out of necessity), and although I don’t cut pictures out of magazines anymore, I do pin copious amounts of fashion on Pinterest. But now, instead of feeling like this is something that I have to do in order to fit in, I do it because I’m looking for ways to stand out from the crowd. I also do it because I enjoy it.

Having taken the time to look back and write all this down, I’ve realized something: I took an experience that was ultimately really sad and tough and demoralizing, and out of that I developed a passion for something that I didn’t really care about before. Being bullied led me to explore and learn to love something that I might not have thought much about otherwise, something that still brings me happiness as an adult. And really, isn’t that the best possible outcome of a situation like this?

Anyway, here are a few things that are inspiring me these days. Maybe they’ll inspire you, too!

Tweed Skirt from Steven Alan