The Awful Lie of Fitting In

As a teen, I felt the agony of not fitting in. Advice from my peers didn’t help.  “Dress how you want! But not in that!”

I wrote many angsty teen poems about the tyrannical conformity of teal and pink penguins.

I couldn’t escape ridicule for my clothes. I didn’t have control over what clothing I owned. It was mostly a hodgepodge of donations and hand-me-downs.  I read books on fashion and color theory and tried mixing and matching what fate had bequeathed me but I was always obvious as the poor kid, badly dressed.  One year I was particularly proud to come back from the thrift store with four matching blouses and skirts. Soft brown faux suede and tan striped with peter pan collar.  Pleated green skirt with an ivory double-breasted blouse.

They would have been quite fashionable in 1978, but it was 1986.  I wrote them twice, once to model for dad in the living room, and once to school, and never, ever again.

It wasn’t until adulthood I realized that “In Fashion” is just another way of saying “wealthy enough to buy new clothes.”  It’s all about classes and keeping them separate. The most well-matched thrift store shirt and skirt are never going to be the off-the-rack twinset from J.C. Penny.  Even without conscious thought, people recognize and react to class in dress.

I have a reputation for “brave” fashion choices now, so it will surprise you that to this day, I catch myself worrying if I will fit in.  That my bravery isn’t brave – it’s me honestly not understanding how fashion works for normal people. I’d spent too long trying to create haute couture at Goodwill. It’s left me with a certain myopia.  I am drawn to the most unusual dresses in the store, any store.

When I was shopping for a dress to wear to the opera.  The dress I wanted was something like this:

BUT, my husband googled pictures of people going to the opera and found that THIS would be more appropriate:


This made me so sad. “NO! I want to be a princess in a fluffy dress and I can’t! It’s not fair!”

Then it occurred to me: who wants to ‘fit in’ with these people?  Back around 1999 or so, I wore a cranberry ball gown and a brass tiara to Playhouse Square to see a musical. I don’t remember which musical it was, but I remember the fat man in a tan suit who, as I was walking back to the lobby for intermission, called out in snarling disdain, “What’s with the CROWN?”  Well, really, what was with the tan suit and brown plaid tie??  What was with man-spreading all over row Z?

I’ve had many random people ask me why I was so dressed up at the theatre, or restaurants. Or… football team orientation.

Just yesterday at work, someone asked, “Going to a special occasion tonight?” Didn’t have the heart to tell them my only evening plans were dinner at Wendy’s.

One time, I wore a black velvet gown and a tiara to the orchestra.  My friend Mary heard some people whispering about me as I went into the bathroom, so she said, “But that’s the Countess Marie d’Vibert! Don’t you recognize her?” And the mutterers went from shamming to trying to sneak a selfie.

It was all in their perception of me.  Their instinctual reading of my class.  Once something modified their understanding of that reading, their attitude changed.  You can dress however you want in the box seats.  So… what is the advantage, really, of fitting in?

Fitting in is being invisible.  When I was a kid, I would have done anything to be invisible, to not be the target of bullying. But my friends who were invisible in high school? They hated it. They wanted to be seen. So you might as well be seen in pink chiffon.

All those people crowding that theatre?  I do not recall them in the slightest. They may as well have not been there.  Sure, there’s comfort in invisibility, but I’ve never had that option.  First because of being a twin, then poverty, then my long-ass hair and my broken sense of style.  Anyway, any significant amount of time passes, and being ‘in’ just equates to being dated.

Most people in a theatre audience will never see each other again.  I’ve never seen Tan Suit Man again. Wouldn’t notice him if I tripped on him. Ironically, being in a crowd is almost being alone.

I went with the fluffy princess dress for the opera and had a wonderful time.

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