Sanctuary in Fashion & Struggling with Body Image

Sanctuary in Fashion & Struggling with Body Image

“I don’t believe in fashion. I believe in costume. Life is too short to be the same person every day.”

– Stephanie Perkins

Several years ago, my buddy Sean came to Corinne and my home in Salem for a night out on the town. One of Corinne’s friends joined, so it was a “double-date,” but amongst friends. We visited a couple of eateries and breweries while enjoying the bustling Salem nightlife in winter. That night, I rocked a fabulous tweed vest, Ralph Lauren dress shirt with a tie, slim fit jeans, and a shiny pair of boots, all of which worked perfectly together. I also wore a sleek peacoat I purchased while living in Hawaii, which was wicked cheap. It was an investment piece. I enjoy dressing up, and while this was a simple night out, I felt the need to wear tweed. Sean laughed, rightfully. A history professor living in an 1890s home in Salem, wearing tweed and a tie, was a little on the nose.

We had a wonderful time in Salem that night, and I felt confident and comfortable. I enjoy fashion and see myself as a stylish person, but this is a relatively new reality. If my thirties were a time spent experimenting in fashion, my thirty years prior were hammered by trial and error. Not all fashion fails were solely a product of lousy clothing or poor personal insight. Instead, the apparel was a symptom of a personal issue. Lack of self-esteem, anxiety about weight, body dysmorphia, and color blindness – all played a role in maintaining a clothing status-quo for one purpose; hiding my insecurities. Today, I submit myself to a deeply personal conversation. I have alluded to this topic but kept it at arm’s length; let’s discuss my body image and fashion.

Difficulty Seeing Reality

“Clothes are like a good meal, a good movie, great pieces of music.”

– Michael Kors

It has taken me decades to comfortably admit that I have had difficulty living according to the lines of (Yufus) Cat Stevens’ prophetic song, “Don’t Be Shy.” With lyrics, “Don’t be shy, just let your feelings roll on by,” “Don’t wear fear or nobody will know you’re there,” and “Just lift your head, and let your feelings out instead,” Stevens’ song implores listeners to refrain from holding back. Life, as the song alludes, is precious. Don’t hideaway. Go out and experience life. Sadly, for a long time, I lived in fear. With a deep dislike of parts of my body, I wore clothing that often illustrated that apprehension with alarming accuracy. Repeatedly during my youth, I pointed my head down, not wanting to be seen. I often achieved invisibility. It’s not that I wasn’t happy; for the most part, I was. But I couldn’t maintain it in each aspect of life.

I didn’t know it then, but I suffered from, and still do, body dysmorphia. I don’t write to offer guidance to those with similar issues; instead, it is my experience, and I wish to share it. According to John Hopkins Medicine, body dysmorphia, or BDD, is a mental health problem causing a person to “be so upset about the appearance” of their body that it gets in the way of their “ability to live normally. Many of us have what we think are flaws in our appearance. But if you have BDD, your reaction to this ‘flaw’ may become overwhelming.” Negative thoughts are hard to control, and I have, at times, spent hours worrying about how I looked. I am unsure when or how I developed it, but bullies who teased me and pointed at specific parts of my body, causing me to paralyze with fear, helped foster feelings of inadequacy.

As a historian, I can’t help but look to my past and examine those moments that shaped me. I have researched historical trauma, so it makes sense that I get stuck in my negative past from time to time. I find clothing a heavy topic because it brings up dormant memories of playground ridicule and an inability to see myself through other people’s eyes. I didn’t know what BDD was or that I suffered from it, although Corinne had suspicions when we first met. I got an odd feeling when I watched Episode Two, “The American Dad After School Special,” from Season Two of American Dad. While the episode has a borderline ridiculous plot, the storyline centered on Stan’s obsession with his weight has gravity. Exhibiting rage at the thought of obesity, he works out constantly.

At one point, he is still gaining weight, at least to the audience, so it seems justified when Stan accuses his family of sabotaging his fitness journey. Viewers watch as his family adds lard to his celery, and his appearance does not match his workout regime. But we observe Stan’s fitness journey through his eyes, which becomes apparent halfway through the episode. While led to believe Stan’s family is hindering him as some well-orchestrated plot to shame him, they profess their innocence. Instead, they tell him he’s not gaining weight; he is losing too much. He doesn’t see himself as he truly is, and they want him to see reality. This episode affected me because the show unveiled that Stan was suffering from BDD. The viewer experienced Stan’s journey alongside him, misinformed and suffering from a distorted perspective.

The way writers of American Dad detailed this mental problem, forcing the viewer to follow Stan’s illusion unknowingly, was ingenious. American Dad’s depiction of Stan’s journey made me look inward, and it brought forward feelings of dread and apprehension. I don’t remember a time in my life, before the age of 24, when I wasn’t overweight. As a kid, it didn’t matter. Why would it? Many kids looked like me. With time, though, I looked less like my siblings and friends physically. Not a lot, but enough to feel different, especially when I could hear other kids whispering and smirking. In middle school, I was poked in my belly with comments about the animated “Pillsbury doughboy” or Chunk’s “truffle shuffle” from Goonies. I laughed nervously, humiliated but stoic.

Discussing this emotional roller coaster is a long winding bridge to exploring fashion, but the connection is clear. During those moments when I was eager to show off a new shirt, a denim jacket, something occurred that left me embarrassed. They do say, “time heals all wounds,” but that’s not necessarily true. It often took me a while to gain the courage to wear something I cared for because I was afraid of how others would react. I wish I hadn’t given it a thought, but I did. It hurt when kids at school ridiculed me for wearing a Star Trek t-shirt. I have traumas that I can’t quickly move on from, like going to a water park. I loved water parks, but I feared being teased by strangers. One time, I sat alone at a water park, wearing shorts and a shirt. Anxiety-ridden, I couldn’t take my shirt off. But my sister Becky stayed with me and made me feel comfortable and supported. 

During my childhood, I frequented the same barbershop for every haircut. Across from Cumberland Farms and down two steps in a garden-level space, the barbershop was dark. Once, around eight years old, I sat down, and my barber, a man, probably younger than I am now, pumped the seat up, so I was high in the air. I wanted a buzz cut, although I am not sure I knew what that meant. No more than ten minutes later, my hair was completely gone. I freaked out. For the next few hours, I was inconsolable. I don’t think I have felt worse about a haircut until my dad cut my hair with a Flowbee. I irrationally believed people would treat me poorly because of how I looked. Suddenly, Jeff walked into the room, hair buzzed off. I stopped crying and felt as cool as he looked, but it was temporary relief. Whether hair or upper body, I negatively obsessed over each section, and paved a long road of BDD from an early age.

Time heals lots of wounds, not all, but I am a work in progress. That slight tinge of insecurity, or unease, might always be here, but it’s about navigating each moment individually and accepting me for me. After nearly three decades of a false sense of myself, I have a new perspective. I feel slightly free. I am who I am. I have dressed to mask my insecurities or depict how comfortable I am in my skin. I have lived both ends of the spectrum, unhealthily hiding and radiating confidence unapologetically. Moments of pride arose while younger and timid, and I suffered unease while professing growth in adulthood. My clothing has changed wildly over the years. It’s been experimental yet conformist and hauntingly abysmal. I experienced periods of stylish versatility and moments of honest reflection.

My Disorganized Style Identity

“Playing dress-up begins at age five and never really ends.”

– Kate Spade

When I was younger, my closet was an absolute mess. I rarely bothered opening the bi-fold doors, whether filled with loads of dirty laundry, school supplies, or articles of clean clothing on hangers. Instead, I selected something, anything, that was in my dresser. Usually, as a kid, that “something” had a New York Yankees logo on it, either a t-shirt or jersey. I wore it with shorts in the summer and light-colored jeans in cooler months. White socks, no matter the bottom article, were on my feet, and white sneakers. Any button-down shirts I owned were flannel, but not good flannel. These shirts tore at the slightest pull, never lasting very long. Not sure where my mom procured these shirts, but they served their purpose for only a short time. The best quality pieces came from Silverstein’s clothing store in New Bedford, MA.

Although it closed in 1997, after 97 years in business, I still consider it the epitome of my youthful fashion. Barnet Silverstein, a Lithuanian immigrant, founded Silverstein’s, The Family Store, in 1900, and it was something of a local landmark. It was exciting when my mom announced that we would go to Silverstein’s to buy our “back to school” clothing. Getting new “threads” from Silverstein’s was the only thing that made going back to school tolerable. It was certainly better than going to the North Dartmouth Mall, which brought out my grumpy side. After several months on layaway at Silverstein’s, my mom bought me tan pants, jeans, excellent quality button-down shirts, and the random 1961 Cooperstown New York Yankees winter jacket. Silverstein’s offered the best garments in my closet during my childhood.

When I was younger, I was much more at ease. I wore anything my mom bought me, including a fantastic denim jacket. Wearing a denim jacket in the 1980s oozed badassery. I wore it around the house while listening to a cassette of Bon Jovi, quietly humming each verse. I looked and felt like a rock star. My mom enjoyed selecting winning combinations, whether my denim jacket, red sweater, bottom-down shirt and bow tie, polo shirt, or Disney Goofy sweatshirt, and I looked adorable. Sadly, the cuteness evaporated with puberty. Then, I rebelled against sweaters and tan pants. I wanted to dress like my brother Jeff. He was more advanced in his grunge style, three years older than me, especially in the mid-1990s. It was an era of alternative music, so Jeff played Nirvana, Oasis, Dinosaur Jr., and Soundgarden regularly from the CD player in his basement bedroom. Thus, the clothes matched the music.

In an attempt to mimic Jeff and shield my body from the gaze of ruthless schoolyard bullies, I wore oversized flannel shirts and one of my favorite pieces in those years, the turtleneck. Now, journalist and Chief White House Correspondent for CNN, Kaitlan Collins might rock a turtleneck perfectly, but I looked terrible. That didn’t stop me from wearing them, but they served to mask significant insecurities about my neck. I obsessed over how my neck looked in clothing, an early example of my dysmorphia. When I wore a turtleneck, those feelings subsided. Today, I realize how fictitious those thoughts were, but the turtleneck was my go-to piece for years. I usually wore it under a flannel shirt or oversized fleece sweater or vest, but always in black. I am color blind, so matching clothing was never simple.

I might have a much more progressive and fashionable sense today, but I have trouble with color. I wore similar colored attire in high school, black and grey color schemes to avoid embarrassment. It wasn’t exciting but helpful in getting dressed for school. Sometimes, it meant that my clothing choice was confusing, at best. While flannel shirts and turtlenecks were essential, I wore them with oversized light-colored jeans, usually accompanied by white sneakers. That pairing might seem acceptable, even if tedious, but other times I wore athletic warm-up pants, along with a flannel shirt. Made of nylon, with zippers at the bottom, they fit horribly. These were a far cry from today’s athleisure hybrid clothing. These styles were somewhat of a constant. Oversized clothes satiated my low self-confidence about my physique. Even so, I dreamed of an inspired fashion look.

Sure, I looked to movies and Jeff, but I excitedly copied my oldest brother, Bobby, who has an unapologetic style that adapts to time and seasons. His signature style; nicely designed dress shirts, stylish vests, blazers, and classic shoes. With Bobby as my muse, I elevated my wardrobe with stylish shoes, and dress shirts, while slightly ill-fitting, were better quality but remained black or grey. While not inspired by Bobby, I wore a leather jacket modeled from what I saw in a Quentin Tarantino film, Jackie Brown. So, a leather jacket and Kangol Ventair flat caps were a part of my emerging style. But my style changed as often as my body. During college, I lost a substantial amount of weight. I ended up, weight-wise, roughly where I am today – don’t know, don’t care. My new body required a new vision. I wore turtlenecks less and bought various khaki pants and flashy dress shirts from my favorite store, H&M. 

H&M offered styles that helped inspire confidence. In the early 2000s, H&M had some fashionable clothing. I bought several of their dress shirts, usually black, with a red one that quickly became a crowd favorite. I purchased a black suit with subtle stripes and bought what can be considered a couple of “club” shirts, which I wore to a few places in Providence, RI. They were polo shirts, tighter than usual, but fit perfectly. I stopped wearing white sneakers, resisted wearing baggy clothing, and threw out my turtlenecks. I grew my hair long and wore everything, as long as it didn’t resemble anything I wore before. It took time, but after college, I moved away from those insecurities that had defined me. I was learning. I tailored my clothing to fit my athletic/thin yet tall frame and my outgoing yet shy personality. On one occasion, I tried wearing one vibrant polo shirt under another, different-colored polo shirt with the collar flipped up. It didn’t work.

Currently in My Closet

“Style is very personal. It has nothing to do with fashion. Fashion is over quickly. Style is forever.”

– Ralph Lauren

I prefer clothing that speaks to me personally and professionally, in an academic sense. At least to me, how academics dress was shaped predominantly by what I watched on television. I paid little attention to my teachers’ dress, except for one professor. He wore denim jeans, a crisp, clean dress shirt, a lovely tweed or cotton vest, and boots and stylish glasses. The look appealed to me and was similar to those teachers I observed on shows like Head of the Class and Saved By the Bell: The College Years. My college history professor certainly inspired my professional fashion sense and illustrated that a professional academic look does not merely include suits. An innovative style can be personal and, slightly, experimental. I bought new shoes, uniquely cut denim jeans, various blazers worn with denim jeans. It was a style I felt comfortable in, and, as I began teaching, it separated me from what I deemed other “uptight” faculty members to who I never felt connected.

After moving to Hawaii, I couldn’t count on seasonal styles. I lived in a warm climate, so shorts, t-shirts, and short-sleeved Aloha shirts became part of my regular rotation. I threw off my sneakers and traded them in for sandals and my jeans for the everyday use of bathing suits. It wasn’t until my second year in Hawaii that I elevated my style, and it was honestly thanks to the high-quality clothing from J.Crew. I wore brand new, non-cargo style shorts, light, long-sleeved colorful dress shirts, and tank tops under those shirts, rather than a white t-shirt. My style was going through a metamorphosis, subtle but confidently demonstrated. Even after moving home to New England, I wore J.Crew exclusively for the next few years, and I still wear those shirts and shorts three seasons out of the year. No longer are my clothing colors purely black and grey. On the contrary, J.Crew opened my eyes to wondrous possibilities.

My style has remained somewhat unchanged, other than moving from a bootcut style denim Levi jeans to a slim/straight style offering no extra space, something I wouldn’t have attempted during my younger years. I rock tweed and cotton blazers, and my glasses are fashionable. Like my college history professor, my tweed vest is the most trusted professional article of clothing I own, especially if worn with a light-colored dress shirt and skinny tie, maybe with whales on it. I am from New Bedford, after all. Since turning nearly 40, I have added sweaters from L.L.Bean, Lucky Brand boots, and a whale sweater from Macy’s, which I wore to a theater production of Moby Dick: A Musical Reckoning, which is so typically me. I am not a fashion expert, but I enjoy the clothing in my closet and often comment on new fashion trends.

L.L.Bean has been an excellent new partner in this endeavor. Comfortable slippers, amazing Bean Boots for cold, rainy, or snowy weather, and a new type of plaid flannel shirt bringing me back to that style for the first time since high school. I had avoided such shirts, connecting them to those days when I lacked style confidence and suffered negative feelings about my body. I avoided anything flannel rather than deal with the trauma or focus on my mental health. But with therapy and a dose of body positivity, I went back to that plaid well, but on terms entirely of my creation. I added several colorful button-down flannel plaid shirts, new boots, two wool crewneck sweaters, several quilted sweatshirts, and a fleece zip-up that, as Corinne argued, is incredibly versatile.

L.L.Bean and J.Crew make up 75% of my closet. They define my style and fashion in several versatile ways. The other 25% combines football/hockey/baseball jerseys, running gear for warm and cold months, polo shirts for golf and warm months, my fabulous tweed vest, and a new three-piece suit for special occasions. I maintain my clothing, as I do most possessions. Those dress shirts, rarely used, often get donated, and I wear what I have and don’t add pieces that I won’t take off the hanger. The pandemic reshaped and redefined “style.” Work remained at home, and home was a box of isolation, where style was neither desired nor required. Recently, fresh air has offered hope, and my style imitates my lease on life.

This post is more about the past than it is the present. I am sure if past me, present me, and future me walked into the same bar, at the same time, we would look vastly different but have some wild stories to tell. I have come a long way in seeing clothing as a fun accessory, not a shield for deep-seated insecurities. I choose garments for the simple pleasure of enjoying fashion, nothing more, nothing less. Television and film offer lovely inspiration, but I am not sure how to get a hold of Frank Grillo’s jacket in Boss Level. I also don’t have the budget for all the tweed suits worn by Steve Buscemi and Michael Kenneth Williams in Boardwalk Empire. A tinge of excitement will always reveal itself as I watch or observe something stylish on the screen in front of me, but I do not fall into pits of negativity about my body as often as I did. Still, the whisper of negativity sometimes seeks an audience.

A Locked Wardrobe

“Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say and not giving a damn.”

– Orson Welles

Recently my closet has become so filled with L.L.Bean that Corinne has purchased sweaters and jackets for Mr. Tuttles, our dog. He is photogenic, and I love putting on my shirt and taking pictures with him, usually holding him like a Muppet. He accepts the constant holding, the costume parties, and kisses. Seeing Tuttles in a plaid jacket, fleece sweatshirt, or wool fisherman sweater brings on a smile no matter how I feel. It’s true, life is far too short, and it has taken my entire life to discover that. I cringe at some of the clothes I wore or that I sported a turtleneck and fleece to a college party at Jeff’s off-campus house. I sweated profusely, but I irrationally feared smirking faces. I am sensitive, so I used clothing to hide when I gained weight, was bullied, and developed body dysmorphia.

Today, I think very little about what I used to think about constantly. Some issues remain, but I am currently burying them for good. With help, my reflection in the mirror, clothes and all, is what it truly is; me, perfect and imperfect. I don’t select clothes because they fix a perceived flaw. I am no stranger to fashion peer pressure, and if I see something that “speaks to me,” I will give it a go without thinking. I used to think far too much, most of it originating from negativity. I am not solving the climate crisis, so this might seem unimportant. Even so, clothing played various roles, hiding my insecurities brought on by body dysmorphia and navigating towards personal happiness. Writing helps me acknowledge reality. Now, if only I could get that Frank Grillo Boss Level jacket!

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