I have always been uncertain of where I fit. When my ears were smaller, they would prick up around common words others would use to define me:
I hated being called all of these words. They seemed to simplify my form into a flat piece of paper, a shape I only felt forced to bear under pressuring gazes. I hid myself behind neutral faces and silent lips out of uncertainty of where I fit amongst strange crowds. To step out of my shell was to risk the chance that my many dimensional forms would come out to be the wrong answer to a simple math problem.
Despite the worn and crinkly paper bag over my head, I yearned for the fresh air on my face. I suppose there is an innate human need for expression, for the lines of one’s face to flow more like an eroded river than a man-made feature. In rooms filled with familiar faces, ones that had been watching me for so long, ones that had seen the disguises falter too many times, I could not help but smile at the thought that they figured me out and still wanted to share a seat with me on my couch. People are like balls of concentrated energy that can only be contained in an unnatural shape for so long. In those rooms I crumpled up the paper bag and let the curtains drop. I only wish I was always in that room. Outside that door is a scary place.
A significant portion of myself has been, and currently is, made up of the electric curiosity and wonder of a young child. Her deafening laughter can reverberate down crowded city streets. Her wicked smile weaves together lighthearted jests no one else will find as silly as she does. Her neck is constantly craned back, her eyes in awe of the infinite sky above. She is so many things and yet it is so hard for her to be free.
That part of myself is so… much.
It feels like I can’t possibly fit into this puzzle. Where everyone else’s pieces make sense and for some reason mine don’t. The beautiful city landscape on the box, distinct in shape and structure, is a picture I fit into only in my dreams. My efforts to change into the correct shape only results in a badly fitting costume on Halloween. No one can really tell what you’re supposed to be. And neither can you. Maybe I don’t have to dress up this year.
And so I am resigned to an internal conflict between desiring to dance like I am in my room with no one watching and hiding amongst the line dancing crowd with sweat leaking down my face as I try to remember all the moves.
Since I walked through the front doors of my middle school and felt the waves of inner turmoil begin to circle in my brain, I have been trying to reconcile who I want to be with regard to everything else. Trying to learn how to live boldly in my body in the face of the external.
There are more ways than could possibly be counted that I express myself, more veining paths through which all of what is inside me comes outside. But, to me, the fabric I put on my skin embodies all the inner whispers I share between the world and me. The colors and textures that I coat myself with represent the projectile vomit from my heart. Slowly dripping.
Drip. Drip. Drip. Down down to my bare feet.
Covering myself with external pieces is more than words like
“vanity,” “style,” “fashion,” “perception”
can embody. Waking up each day and choosing to put on a costume for my own character rather than someone else’s is a type of freedom only the wind knows. When we wear clothes we can choose to put on armor, or we can choose to put on garnish. Peering back at my tracks in the snow at the same time as staring at the sun standing up is like building a hypotenuse connecting between my opposite poles.
Between my shadow and my reflection.
Between the little girl and the growing woman.
Between the world and me.
The story of my relationship with clothes is one that can tell the story of me in relation to everything else.
Think back to when you were so small that the grass made more sense to you than the countertops. It was at this time that you started to weave together the fantasies playing hopscotch in your brain with the
When you started to pretend to be somebody. My mom’s vigorous yet gentle help in pulling the cheap itchy fabric of a Costco Disney princess dress over my shoulders was like magic fairy dust. When the dust in my lungs finally settled and I stopped coughing, I saw myself as my princess, but I also saw myself as their princess.
Putting things on is like pulling an endless muti-colored handkerchief out of a depthless top hat. Your left hand grips one end tightly. On the other end, grip just as strong, is everything else. Who will win this tug of war? Will you fall into the hat? Or will the hat fall into you? Or maybe somehow you can just shake hands and walk away. Dressing up is a cheeky game I don’t think I ever stopped playing.
My relationship to clothes might be particularly poignant in my mind because of my personal history. For five of my elementary school years my mom was the owner of a small children’s consignment shop up the block and around the corner from my house. It was called “Milk Money.” I still don’t think I get the title.
When I close my eyes, I can still see yellow walls. Red trim wandering trim. Dusty toys scattered around as decoration. The smell of mothballs. The air was a mosaic of household scents, lingering amidst the heaps of collected clothes. Circular racks groaned under the vibrant array of garments, while the worn wooden floorboards creaked underfoot, echoing my steps from the t-shirt rack to the wall lined with wooden shelves brimming with denim. Some people might find the piles of clothes everywhere overwhelming, but to me they were my sanctuary.
Even though I was barely four feet tall, these walls belonged to me. It was anything I wanted it to be. When my mom was out I would sit behind the front counter, etching numbers and item descriptions into small cells on gridded paper. Local moms would come and chat with me, handing crumpled bills in exchange for thick sweaters that their kid probably wouldn’t even wear. Sometimes they brought their kids, and let them wander through the racks as I did. Maybe their moms would let them take home what they found, but most of the time they didn’t.
My mom won’t let me forget the time I wore around the shop a full-set black suit with matching pants, a stiff white collared shirt, and a black tie, complemented by silver strappy heels encrusted with gemstones and thick dark black sunglasses making me look like a character from Men in Black. Or the time I wore the long, pale blue overcoat adorned with intricate, sparkly designs of pale blue flowers that shimmered against an aquamarine ballerina dress, complete with wiring structuring the chest ruffles.
Growing up, my mom gave me the greatest gift I think anyone can give someone else. She gave me soft smiles, encouraging laughter, and silly encounters. She gave me freedom to be me. And I think I gave her the freedom to be her.
If you glanced at the two of us walking down the street, you might think that I was adopted. When I was growing up kids used to ask me that because I am Black and she’s Blond. But if you looked at our faces side by side, you would see that our eyes shared the same shimmer, and our faces echoed the same curves. When I was little I used to pick up the phone with my tiny hands, and people would begin talking to me as if I was her, not realizing the difference.
She’s more than the woman who birthed me, she’s the woman who helped me birth me. She built rooms for me where I didn’t have to worry about if I was good enough. I was also good enough just trying to be myself. And maybe she built me those rooms because she didn’t have walls like that growing up. Her mother left her without enough time to be nurtured the way she deserved. But I will always cherish the memories of us playing make-believe with my toys in the bathroom, creating worlds just for the two of us. Memories of us jumping into icy cold ocean water together while my dad was off on the shore keeping warm. Memories of her showing me how to talk to animals as if we were speaking the same language.
But, time passes and you enter middle school. And the middle school you move to is all the way across the country in a town where everyone is white and you are not. Roaming the racks of my mom’s shop was very different from navigating between the towering labyrinth of aisles at the mall or a department store come seventh grade. Manufactured scents pumped out into the store, nauseating me as I examined the rows of clothes that seemed not to be for me. When I wandered the aisles, all of the sudden everyone was looking at me. Every step I took I could feel the eyes of the whole world around me, watching me. Judging me. Like other people could tell that I didn’t fit in. That I did not belong there. I could hear their thoughts whispering to me,
“You’re too young to shop here,”
“You’re too ugly to shop here,”
“You’re too Black to shop here.”
My body became a source of embarrassment, a battleground of fashion misfits. Every outfit felt wrong: too big, too tight, too revealing, too long, too short, simply too much. This persistent discomfort seeped into my daily interactions with clothing. I strived to remain unnoticed, opting for whatever seemed most “normal” or inconspicuous. Yet, even determining what “normal” meant often sent me spiraling into a new cycle of confusion. The time of being protected from the harshness of everything else was over. I needed to find out how to be me in dangerous ponds. How to come to terms with the cold air of reality.
I found that common ground in a place similar to where it had all started–the neighborhood thrift store. It’s something about going through the things that people threw away where you find who you are. In the back of my mom’s store, I would often make my way to the back parking lot shared with other storefronts, and go through the dumpster to see if any hidden treasures had been overlooked. In the throwaways of others lies the misfits, the unconventional. In these different looking dumpsters I find myself.
In the thrift store walls, I perused the aisles packed full with old scents, I saw potential in each piece, but amongst the sea of garments I would occasionally find something that seemed to resonate with my frequency in perfect harmony. A flowing cropped blouse with white and sky blue pinstripes intermingled with decals of cranes flying in and out of the lines. A short gray skirt made with soft cotton fabric that flared out at the bottom like they did in the 90s. In these moments, amidst the eclectic ensemble of forgotten fashions, I began to rediscover my voice, slowly weaving the threads of my identity back into the colorful second-hand material.
Though I amassed a collection of clothing that I adored, I seldom mustered the courage to wear these cherished pieces out in the public eye. Yet I found an unexpected ally in earrings. Stated pieces that might catch the eye but don’t fully expose my foot all the way through the open door’s threshold. I recall a moment when a particular pair of earrings caught my eye, a stunning set crafted from wooden pegs. These earrings were a stark contrast to the small, delicate studs commonly worn by the other girls in my White world. They carried a more ethnic, bold aesthetic that waved in the wind the same way I did.
On the days when I felt like my back was a bit straighter, I would hook the wooden adornments into my ears, the metal piercing the shadows of whispers between my lobes. When the dry wood brushed against my cheek or shoulder, I could feel the little girl giggling shrieks of excitement. I began wearing them daily, pairing them with my otherwise plain disguises.
After I left the white walls of my middle-school and high-school years behind I took a deep breath. Stepping foot onto my college campus, I entered a new world where I could peel back the layers of wax that had built up from covering myself in prosthetic skins. No one could pretend to know who I was, not even myself, and I couldn’t pretend to know who anyone else was. Pulling on my pink pants one leg at a time felt less like I was about to step on stage and more like I was merely walking a mile in my own shoes.
As the sun bleeds through my curtains on Tuesday morning, I awake with the hairs on my legs standing up straight and my eyes catching a glimpse of the rainbow suncatchers I hang from my window. My room, by Penn student standards, is generously proportioned, boasting lofty ceilings and an expansive green rug sprawling across the worn wooden floor like bare grass. To the uninitiated eye, my room might appear a tad overwhelming, for its walls are a chaotic canvas adorned with a kaleidoscope of paintings, drawings, magazines, and other assorted mementos I’ve amassed over the years. It resembles a continuous collage encircling the entire space. My shelves, laden with an eclectic array of knickknacks, tell stories of their own, while my desktop displays of scattered pens, papers, and the remnants of fabric paint from the previous night’s creative pursuit.
Today, my agenda is relatively light but significant: a doctor’s appointment and a three-hour senior thesis lecture. With this in mind, I venture into the depths of my closet, searching for something that matches my colors today. As I sift through the messily folded garments in my drawer, my fingers brush against various textures before they land on the delicate lace of a tank top I bought a long time ago. I pull it out, the fabric unfolding like a forgotten treasure emerging into the light. It is a cream-colored lace tank top with slightly cropped length, delicate lace straps, and a pale pink bow adorning the center of the neckline. It has been one of those hopeful buys, acquired with the intention of wearing it ‘someday,’ yet that day has never come. In my mind, it always seems too showy, too daring for my usual style. But as I hold it in my hands today, something feels different. It seems like ‘someday’ has finally decided to be ‘today.’
As of recently, I have been wanting to wear more skirts. But it is always the skirts that I grapple with the most. The skirts always seem the most dazzling and yet the most terrifying, embodying a blend of allure and intimidation in their swaying fabrics. I think I am so scared of skirts because they seem so deeply tied with sex. The concept of sex comes into play regarding my outfits quite often.
“Am I a slut?”
“Will other people think I’m a slut if I wear this?”
“You look like you want people to look at you.”
“They’re gonna think you’re self-obsessed.”
These questions and glaring statements haunt my mind. Despite this, I push these thoughts aside, focusing on my goal to dress in a way that brings me joy. Still, whispers of doubt nag at the back of my neck.
I comb through my skirt drawer which is messy. I often go through the process of trying something on, deciding I don’t like it, and haphazardly tossing it back, but nowI know exactly what I want. It’s a black skirt. The top half has sectioned layers of ruffles and the bottom half has a flowing, slightly pleated fabric with two layers. When it comes to my approach to styling clothes, it’s not so much about establishing cohesion, but rather, about following my instincts and what feels right to me. There is a certain magic in pairing two items together, and so when I take the black skirt and the lacey top, even when I can’t quite put my finger on why they work so well. It is a form of self-expression that goes beyond words; it is an intuitive knowing.
I slip into the top and skirt, then position myself in front of my full-length mirror, the trim of which I have previously painted bright pink. As I pull the skirt up over my hips, I meet my reflection’s gaze. The sight is undeniably cute, and I can’t help but feel cute too. I reach for a pair of white beaded earrings and secure a line of hair clips along my hairline to keep my low braid in place.
I look back in the mirror and suddenly I see somebody else. I look like a slut. The ensemble takes on unintended connotations in my mind—it is too short (though it really isn’t that short), and my lace top is too revealing (though it truly isn’t). I can’t help but feel like I am incredibly exposed, and that exposure seems to be an invitation for external judgment. The foreboding feeling of my future thoughts weighs on my heart. It is all so exhausting. The constant feeling of being watched, and caring about that. It would be so much easier to just give up and wear something inconspicuous. Something no one would look twice at.
I oscillate between the
“Fuck it! I look cute! I like this outfit! I am going to wear this,”
“Nope. I will feel so perceived. Let’s just lie down under the covers over here…”
I busy myself with a flurry of activities, as if they can somehow divert my attention from the true cause of my extended reluctance to step outside. Checking my email, changing my socks, making the trek upstairs and back to get water, and aimlessly scrolling through my phone. Then, in a sudden surge of determination, the “Fuck it!” mentality takes over. It is as if a rebellious spirit wrestles control away from my doubts and hesitations. With newfound resolve, I finally leave the comfort of my home and set out for my doctor’s appointment.
I walk outside my house, putting my amalgamation of a keychain into the green purse I ordered on Depop a few months ago. I start to head across the street to the trolley stop, set to take me to my doctor’s appointment. As I wait for the light to shift from red to green I am haunted by memories of me standing on the side of the street like this many times before, cars zooming past, and in these many past shadows I am wearing an outfit maybe similar to this one, or maybe not, but the times I recall the most were when I had a lot of skin showing. It always happens the same way, as if it’s planned intentionally to catch me off guard.
It’s the sensation that a deer must feel when it sees the headlights too late and goes through the process of whipping their head around to see the car blaring towards them, unsure what exactly it should do to save itself. The honking is always followed by my eyes being drawn to the driver’s window, and I undoubtedly see a man glaring down at me. Many times this man revs the engine of his car as he drives away. Sometimes he slows down. Sometimes it’s just a passing interaction. But whatever occurs, I feel that unwanted perception. Knowing that eyes are in my direction. Hearing older men roll down their windows, meet my gaze, and shout the simple phrase,
“Hey, baby. How are you doing?”
makes me want to hide under the cement blocks of the sidewalk.
I hate that feeling. And it isn’t even happening in these few seconds as I wait for the light to change. It is just a memory. Just a repeat shadow, and yet I am feeling it scratch painfully against the back of my mind.
The light turns green and I walk across the street, subtly pulling down my skirt with every step and gust of wind. I cross the 40th street trolley stop yard and sit down under the gazebo where the Eastbound trolley stops. In that fleeting moment, I find myself captivated by the soothing embrace of the nature around me. Right across from the trolley stop is an expansive cemetery with lush green leaves that seem to wave to me in the trickling breeze. Scattered throughout the trolley yard are patches of thick luscious flower gardens, some containing long-stemmed yellow ones with dark brown eyes in the center, some with scroungy-looking little white flowers with lots of bushy greenery.
Whenever anxiety threatens to overwhelm me, I have a habit of reaching for a nearby leaf that catches my eye and closely examining it. I don’t really recall when I started doing this, but now it is instinct. So, now, I lean to my left to pick up a lost leaf, roughly the size of my phone, that looks to have blown over here from across the yard. I feel its leathery texture underneath the soft spines that brush gently against my fingers. Looking at the dark dead patch that starts to invade the greenness of its form, I know that it is far from soulless. Something in it is like me. And that calms me down.
As the trolley arrives, I join the back of the line that’s forming, crumpled cash in hand. As I walk onto the crowded trolley, I start to feel claustrophobic. The slightly sticky floor seems to try and grab onto my shoe. I shuffle through the car, inches away from both the woman in front of me and the younger man behind me. I didn’t think anyone was really looking at me, but for some reason, it felt like they were. Biting down my anxiety, I quickly shuffle down the aisle and sit in an empty seat, and I look at the window, trying to find solace in the glass.
I usually quite enjoy riding the trolley. Underground, with no cellphone service, watching the other passengers and wondering about their worlds… In the back of the car, a man rests his head against the glass window, snoring in sync with the rhythmic shakes of the car on the tracks. Just behind me on the other side of the aisle sits a very tall woman. She wears a dark navy blazer paired with a hot pink button-up shirt. Her hair is immaculate, looks freshly styled, and glistens under the dim yellow lighting. As I look around, I don’t think any single person around me is giving me as much thought as I am giving to myself. They’re all probably thinking about the rest of the world as it relates to them.
I wonder if they feel like they don’t fit in either.
The trolley stops at my stop and I stand up swiftly, making sure my skirt is in place. I hop out of the trolley and look up at the imposing student health office. It’s obviously one of the newer buildings, designed to complement the modern look of this section of Market Street. The street number is spelled out in huge green letters on the side. Now, I start to think about why I have booked the appointment. For the past few days, I have had to pee like seven billion times a day and it kind of burns. I’m pretty sure I have a UTI, because I had one a couple of years ago, and it feels pretty much the same. UTIs are so strange because they never really tell you about them in health class. Maybe they gloss over it, but they definitely don’t tell you that UTIs are the second most common type of infection and that 10 out of 25 women will get a UTI within their lifetime.
In this silent narrative that surrounds UTIs, there is an echo of an unspoken story, particularly when it relates to women’s health. This silence breeds a shadow of shame and embarrassment, a feeling of being alone in a struggle that, ironically, is far from unique. This is how I feel today, weighed down by a sense of shame even though I know how common UTIs are.
I walk into the building and make my way up to the student health office. The elevator moved a little too quickly. No one is sitting in this entry room, just a large man behind the front desk wearing a mask. For a second, I am concerned about whether or not I should be wearing a mask too, but the guard said it is optional. After signing in, the computer directs me to the women’s health waiting area, which I have never been to before. I ask the man at the front where it is, and he directs me. I impulsively pull down my skirt.
Venturing in a new direction, I head towards the women’s health section of the center. The waiting room here is noticeably small, there are only four seats. I hope someone doesn’t come in and sit next to me. I take a seat, instinctively crossing my legs at the ankles, a posture that offers a sense of composure. My green purse, a small shield of sorts, finds its place on my lap, providing a sense of coverage, however slight. The quietness of this section is palpable. Behind a glass sliding window just a few feet away, there are only two nurses, their presence markedly different from the bustling activity usually encountered in the other sections. This relative stillness of the women’s health area adds to the weight of my introspection, as I sit there amidst my thoughts, awaiting my turn in this secluded corner of the building.
One of the nurses comes out from behind the glass, and says “Mya?”
It’s at this point that I realize it’s the first time someone has spoken to me all day. I smile and rise from my seat, straightening my shirt. She leads me to the examination room, where she takes my blood pressure, my temperature and my weight. I feel like I am taking a test. She asks me lots of questions,
“When was the last time you had your period?”
“Do you have any allergies?”
“When was the last time you had sex”
I feel like I am taking a test, and I am not sure how good I am doing.
Eventually she leaves me to myself in the small room. Usually, I would pull out my phone, but I want to try to feel it. All that stuff circling from my brain, through my veins, and to my limbs. And while sitting there silently, I rationalize confidence. My old horse riding coach used to always say “Fake it til you make it.” Which never really made a lot of sense to me, because when I tried to do that, I still knew I was faking, and that was the stressful part. The idea that I wasn’t really enough. But a few years ago, after listening to some fateful recordings of philosophical lectures by Alan Watts, I adopted my own mantra: “Life is like a cloud, there is no such thing as an imperfect cloud.” It’s this idea of just being me. There is no wrong or incorrect shape that I could take, that would invalidate my me-ness.
And so when the doctor finally came in, had me sit on the table and spread my legs, I didn’t even feel embarrassed. Because why would I.
After my appointment, as I step outside, I am immediately enveloped by the somewhat fresher air of the bustling intersection. As I make my journey home I think about my younger self. That beautiful little girl who experienced so much. Maybe too much.
The world I knew growing up had a lot, if not everything, to do with the color of my skin. Out in the open, I wasn’t protected by walls that knew my personal laugh. Out in the open I didn’t know who I was. Against the whiteness that surrounded me, my Black skin was an eyesore that I felt I couldn’t truly belong to and yet I couldn’t truly escape. Eyes of my white peers seemed to follow me as I walked down the hallways, my skin literally illuminated like a spotlight. Unknown fingers would reach and touch my hair, like I was an animal in a zoo. I was like a specimen being observed by no one who really bothered to ask me about myself. The assumption, the observations, the studying of me made me afraid to be anything.
Every Black girl embarks on a unique journey with her hair. Its shapes and forms feel like they weren’t supposed to be. And yet they are. And we have to walk through life feeling the
My curls feel like they’re too much. My clothes feel like they’re too much.
I feel I am too much.
And when you feel like too much, when you are afraid to be anything, you just want to blend into the background. But camouflage doesn’t allow you to really be you. So you might as well wear the bright pink jumpsuit when you feel like it, because maybe you don’t fit into everything else, but maybe you never will. Maybe you don’t need to.
Even though little children will always draw clouds the same way, with perfect uniform rounded curves that pillow off of each other like white cotton candy, that’s not what clouds look like in the sky. So, perhaps my clothes, my curls, and I are like a cloud. And there’s no such thing as an imperfect cloud.