At the beginning of the fall semester, I went thrifting. Alone.
I spent a couple of hours walking through aisles, paging through shirts and sweaters before deciding on three button-down shirts: One plaid, one polka-dot, one gingham. They were the first patterned shirts that I’ve owned since the first grade.
I don’t know how it started. I have often wondered to what extent my gravitation toward men’s clothing was simply a case of internalized misogyny. I must have seen the bright pink colour my parents had naively painted my childhood bedroom, soaked in the gender narratives my grandparents, my cartoons, and my toys produced. I took one look and said “nope.”
You can see the shift in my family photos: Sitting peacefully in a white dress in a mall-photo-studio seashell at age two transformed to shorts and a polo at age three, tuxedo and Converse at age five.
At some level, there were a couple of happy years spent in that tux, where I didn’t worry about my body or my hair, about the complexities of gender expression in modern America, or what people must have thought of me when I wore that clip-on necktie to kindergarten.
But as I got older, instances of gendered expectation began to intrude into my childhood mind. The pink underwear. The American flag bikini offered to me one Fourth of July. Even the suggestion of a heart-shaped sticker on the cover of my English notebook.
Shopping was always the moment which brought this conflict to the forefront: For the rest of the year, I could play Minecraft and try not to think about it too deeply, but on shopping days, I confronted the gendered adult world head-on. And so I chose the most nondescript pants I could find. I shopped in the school uniform section of the store, going plain and simple and sticking to the default—of course, meaning male.
Gradually, patterned clothes disappeared from my closet, swimsuits were off the table, and by middle school, only the black pants and button-downs remained.
Somehow, I had transformed my gender confusion into a presentation of stubbornness and rigidity. Classmates, teachers, and friends asked me how I could cope with the tedium of wearing the same thing every day. I said that it just worked for me. I did not tell them that it was too stressful to imagine doing anything else.
Gym class began to unravel this precarious system of dressing. While the clothing policy was flexibly enforced, I quickly discovered that you got 20 per cent off of your grade for wearing a button-down during volleyball. I sheepishly approached my mom after school: We needed to go to the store and buy a T-shirt.
So, standing there, last pick for the dodgeball team, I showed my arms in public for the very first time.
And yet, after my 45 minutes of dodgeball were over, I realized I had stumbled upon an opportunity. I left my button-down unbuttoned on top of that gym T-shirt on my way to geometry class. I didn’t die. I felt ashamed of how small a step this was, and how big of a step it felt like.
I began to push the boundaries in ways that felt too feeble to admit to people at the time. The next summer, I bought a pair of jeans. This year, a patterned shirt.
I realize now that the problem was not that I was stubborn, or inflexible, or any of the things I thought I was during that gym class. It was that I was unhappy. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to a place where I feel comfortable enough to wear a dress, but I don’t know if I care, either.
What I do know is that walking around in my polka-dotted shirt, a pair of Converse, and the occasional hoodie, I feel more at peace than I did as that kid in that uniform.
I still put off shopping for as long as I can. But I did go thrifting again last Saturday, and I added a pink sweater to the rotation.