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Do Clothes Really Make the Person?

Sarah Hadley Brook blog

Abercrombie & Fitch recently rolled out a “Gender-Neutral” line of clothing to mixed reviews. I’m not here to judge their clothing, but it did get me to thinking. Do clothes really make the person?

Growing up I was the ultimate girly-girl—my mom insisted I wear dresses to school (which she usually made), I wore anything pink, played with dolls, and was the last one chosen for any team sports. I was also the hairiest little girl you’d ever seen.

I was teased mercilessly about the dark hair growing on my arms and legs. Hell, I even had sideburns that could have rivaled Elvis, although he was before my time. My mom taught me a line that seemed to work with the bullies. I used to say, “Yeah, my mom is an ape and my dad is a gorilla.” It worked most of the time. It also taught me how to use humor to deal with life, but that’s a story for another time.

So, yes, I was put in a “hairy girly box”, labeled early on as a child. It never occurred to me that gender-assigned clothing could be challenged. And it never truly bothered me. Until third grade.

As I’ve said before, I grew up in a very religious home. Well, one Sunday I met the daughter of our new minister and she was wearing slacks. A girl could wear slacks? I was in awe. I knew grown women wore some, and even girls at school, but a girl from my church? That was a new concept to me. They were pleated in the front and she wore a cute gold belt. I begged my mother for slacks. Begged. I began an all-out “Slacks for Sarah Campaign” that went on for months. My mom finally gave in, probably from sheer exhaustion.

I remember being so excited about these damn slacks I couldn’t sleep. And then after school, there they were. Laid out on the sofa for me. Three pairs! I squealed and ran off, taking them with me to my room to try on.

And it was there that my celebration ended because I quickly realized they were nothing like the slacks I wanted. Not even close. They were made out of a thick stretchy knit fabric that reminded me of old lady slacks. The kind my grandma wore. Elastic waist, no pockets. They were hideous.

I fought back the tears and tried them on for my mom, pretending to be excited about them. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, so I wore them that year. I tried to look at the bright side—at least they covered my hairy legs. But with my short haircut, full sideburns, ugly slacks, and brown leather shoes, I was often mistaken for a boy.

The daughter of our minister continued wearing cool slacks and I continued to be envious of them. Until our married minister had an affair with a married woman in our church and he was transferred to another state. In fourth grade, my mom made me go back to dresses.

It wasn’t until I got older that I realized I could wear what I wanted to. I didn’t need to wear what was expected. I found I was more comfortable with myself wearing jeans, leggings, comfortable shirts. I still like to dress up from time to time—and my favorite color is still pink—but tunics and leggings are my go-to wardrobe. Makeup? Sometimes. But I found out I was finally comfortable in my own skin.

So do clothes make the person? I’ve been thinking of this a lot lately.

My 15-month old grandson’s favorite activity is to pull out his mommy’s high heels and play with them. He doesn’t like the other shoes, just the high heels—especially the sequined pair. He likes to carry them around, have them near—basically he just wants them within reach. Recently his cousins came over to visit and one of them was wearing a headband adorned with crystal flowers and he loved it. Wouldn’t quit trying to touch it. So his cousin took it off and let him wear it and he refused to let it be taken off the rest of the day.

I was proud of my daughter-in-law because not once did she make him feel bad, or that he’d done something inappropriate.

Now I realize that toddlers like anything shiny and this could mean nothing, but I think it’s important to let a child find who they are.

When my son, my grandson’s dad, was younger, he hated jeans. Refused to wear them. Until sixth grade. He and a friend rode their bikes up to Wal-Mart and he came home with a pair of jeans he’d bought with his own money. I was shocked. I was even more shocked when he showed them to me and they were girls’ jeans—with sparkles on the back pockets. He said they were good for skateboarding because they were stretchy.

So he wore them constantly. At the same time he was letting his hair grow out. The deal was, as long as he kept it clean and brushed, he could wear it long. At one point it was well past his shoulders.

There were some parents that had an issue with his jeans and hair. Even the school told him he couldn’t wear those jeans there. I was shocked at this.

And then one day we were at the grocery store and I turned around and saw someone looking at the cans of soup and I remember thinking, “she has beautiful hair”. Then the kid turned around and I realized it was my son! First of all, I was ashamed at my prejudgment that the child was a girl.

It made me, once again, consider the stigma associated with clothes. Why do we have to dress a certain way? Why do we have to put a label on children so early in life? Why does it matter?

My son began to wear boys’ jeans, but he loved wearing colorful shirts, and had a favorite rainbow belt. Kids bullied him, but they already bullied him for having Tourette, so he ignored them and wore what he wanted. In tenth grade he did go through that whole “wearing black everyday” thing, and I have to admit, I was happy when he moved on to something else.

I guess what I’m getting at is this: for too long we’ve put people in boxes by assigning clothing labels from the very first day of birth. And if clothes make the person, shouldn’t that person be allowed to choose what makes them comfortable?

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