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A Case for Personal Style

The soul-searching method of thinking skin-deep.

Sometime during middle school, I came to a decision. The sparkly days of childhood dressing up were over. Fashion was a frivolous pursuit, and I would waste no more time on it.

For the next few years I put my money where my mouth was. I wore orange cargo pants with torn-up blue Crocs in the name of “comfort”. The hottest days of Shanghai’s summers were no match for my uniform of long slouchy jeans and collared shirts, accompanied of course by cool kid lanyard. The mere mention of “color coordination” or “makeup” was enough to make me grimace.

Even when I toned down the intentional clunkiness of my outfits for college, I stayed committed to my original cause. Caring about style seemed like a waste of time. Each morning I’d slap on whatever jeans/sweatpants + plain shirt combo was within my reach.

For all the unorthodox looks I saw at our small liberal arts college, mainstream fashion still reflected the kind of femininity I’d spent my whole life trying to escape. Heels, hair removal, apparently useless swathes of fabric: all these seemed like an uncomfortable contortion to look like someone else. I’d never be those glossy silhouettes I saw in mainstream media, so it made no sense for me to aspire to anything like them.

Jumping into the real world after college has made me restless. Trying to piece together what I’m supposed to do for the rest of my life has thrown everything I took for granted in the past into question. Even so, the last thing I expected to question was my relationship with style.

Despite being a cisgender woman, I’ve never been comfortable with femininity. I can still remember my intense desire to be a boy when I was a child, to claim a completely separate identity that might somehow help me feel more like myself.

I couldn’t articulate why I felt how I felt until years later. I didn’t hate being a woman. I hated what it meant to be a woman. Or at least, what being a woman seemed to mean in the world around me. Pretty, sexy, hot — I felt like none of those things. I was the weird, emotional, sometimes funny kid with sweaty palms and bony shoulders. Coming to terms with my existence as a woman somehow felt like erasing all of those things.

So I didn’t. For years I adapted the attitude of my male peers: caring about your appearance beyond how comfortable your clothes were was stupid and frivolous. I was so scared of letting the clothes I’d chosen wear me that I opted out of choosing altogether.

My intentionally bland style was supposed to show how little I cared. Instead it was a daily reminder of my own inadequacy. I was afraid of my body and how it made me feel. So much of my personality was couched in this fragile fleshy vehicle, and I didn’t want to give it the power to define me.

Saying these things aloud makes you realize how stupid they sound. There’s nothing frivolous about our bodies. Physical and mental health are interlinked. Your looks have the power to shape your personality.

When we step out in the morning, we’ve made a choice to present ourselves to the world in a certain way. Whether we’re choosing self-preservation, gender affirmation, comfort, expression, or the option not to choose at all, the clothes we put on our bodies are a statement.

For years, I tried to opt out of caring, but that wasn’t authentically me. I enjoy piecing together outfits, playing through different expressions of myself.

With this in mind, I’ve started dressing a lot more mindfully. Starting with the clothes I own and making a few purchases here or there, I’ve started to tailor the way I interact with my clothes: less critical, but more thoughtful.

Consciously confronting the way I inhabit my body day after day is difficult, but it’s also a sigh of relief. It means accepting and even enjoying how I look for what it is, and realizing that negotiating my physical identity doesn’t have to be a form of vanity.

I’ve also taken small steps toward trying things out. Thinking back, I’ve admired seeing other people rock bright colors, oversized silhouettes, androgynous styles, and so much more without even considering that I could wear those things too.

A month ago, I bought a kiwi print shirt in the men’s section at Kohl’s. I expected to feel fully ridiculous when I finally put it on. Walking down the street in that shirt, I felt my stomach squirm with excitement. It was every bit as odd and outlandish as I’d expected, and I loved it.

To finally admit and own my weirdest stylistic instincts felt good. In fact, it felt great.

Searching for my personal style has been a constant game in defining myself and then defying those definitions. Looking into the mirror, I see someone who values funky humor, creativity, comfort, and a somewhat noncommittal relationship with gender. Dressing for my personality means that my style becomes a natural extension of who I am, not a burden. My personal style is the best, most comfortable version of me, but also a version of me that’s bold enough to redefine what that means whenever I feel like it. What’s in fashion right now is still other people’s business. What I draw from that and adapt for myself is my own decision.

Style isn’t the miracle drug for unhealthy self-image, nor the be-all-end-all of self-care. For some, clothes can be more of a disease than an antidote, especially if you factor in fashion’s fraught relationship with consumerism and waste. (My thrift shop/bargain-hunting passion piece will have to wait another day.)

Delving into the world of personal style has taught me a profound respect for the people who live and die by fashion. To investigate the aesthetics of clothing is to dive into the complex history, power dynamics, and politics of the past, all while attempting to retain some semblance of self amidst the supposed trends and must-haves of the season.

In our age of social media overexposure I think it can be worth becoming more conscious of your relationship with style. Despite the diversity of self-presentation out there, it can be hard to unlearn the shame of not succeeding at someone else’s style.

There are plenty of voices telling you what you should be wearing, or what you could look like. If you’re anything like me, maybe all you really need is a light reminder that it’s okay to meet yourself where you are with compassion, joy, and a bright print to match.

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