Shirt - Vintage, Belt - J. Crew, Tube Top worn as Skirt - Vintage, Tights - Forever 21, Jacket - Vintage, Earrings & Bracelets & Rings - Konstantino, Necklace - My Great Grandmother's from her Modeling Days!
I grew up in Fresno, California. You may have heard of it, given that it tends to be the butt of many an American joke. In the event that you have somehow missed out on this nugget of a national treasure, allow me to paint a picture of my upbringing through a disjointed list of applicable nouns: monster trucks, tract housing, tribal tattoos, the mall. You are now adequately up to speed.
By the time I reached fifth grade, it became apparent that I was just a little bit different than my schoolmates. I did not own K Swiss. I was not on the pep squad. I loathed TGIF. I did not wear my hair wrapped up in ribbons puff-painted with my name and a heart. Instead, I wore my hair stringy and long in my face. I raised my hand in class. I listened to The Clash. I stuck my tongue through the gap in my front teeth. I read, voraciously, books and comics and liner notes. I drew pictures and sang songs and told jokes. I was peculiar.
I remember trying to reconcile these differences. Maybe I was a tomboy. I tried out for basketball but never made it past B team. Maybe I was a nerd. I hung out with the smart kids, but grew irritated when they did not like my music. I remember sitting on the school bus, my headphones wrapped around a friend’s ears, her face crinkled in a grimace. “This boy sounds like a lady!” said the friend. “It is a lady,” I replied, showing her the picture of Courtney Love on the CD. Maybe I was a troublemaker. I hung out with the class clowns, mostly boys. They said curse words at recess and smoked their older brothers’ cigarettes. “I don’t think we’re supposed to be doing this,” I said sheepishly.
My parents had satellite TV, which was a big deal at the time. I would stay up late to watch television with my dad. Mallrats would come on at night, and the first crush I ever had was on the fictional character Brody. We were also treated to MTV2 in its first incantation. MTV2 was a bit of a treasure then, with what appeared to be an intern standing in front of a wall in a small studio. He was a VJ, but just barely. They talked about their videos as though they were rejects from MTV proper. “We managed to get our hands on this!” “Look at what we found!” “This is my buddy’s band – I think you’ll like them!” They played ska and grunge and unpopular new wave.
It must have been 6th grade when girls began wearing training bras. I remember that I didn’t really need one (and still probably don’t), but wore one anyway. The girls who developed early suddenly became the most popular. I was just flat-chested. Flat-chested seemed like the worst thing you could possibly be. Flat-chested became synonymous with ugly. Secrets were whispered and crushes were had. Pimples popped up here and there (pun slightly intended) and makeup was purchased discreetly and hidden under girls’ beds. Nobody brought their Barbies to sleepovers anymore; instead, sleepovers became the appropriate opportunity for makeovers, 12 year old girls trying to look like their Barbies now, blonde and plastic and shiny. The girls talked about what size breasts they wished to develop, and showed off their bikinis.
I remember I hated grocery shopping at that age, and don’t much enjoy it today. I would spend grocery trips camped out on the floor of an aisle reading Archie comics. Jughead was always my favorite. It was on one of these trips that I discovered, for the first time and quite accidentally, Vogue magazine. My stepmother had women’s magazines, I remember, but Vogue was different. Vogue was a fashion magazine. The titles on the cover weren’t about losing weight or pleasing your man. Instead, it was about ways to dress and things people wore and how people chose to look. I don’t remember why I picked it up. I just remember that I did. I couldn’t tell where the ads stopped and the magazine began, because each advertisement was as beautiful as each feature.
I think it was actually the first page that really caught me. There was a girl there, in a draped dress and mismatched clunky boots. She was too thin, just like me, a knobby-kneed beanpole of a breastless girl. Her teeth were gapped, just like mine, and her hair was an un-color. Not blonde, not brown, just hair. She looked…interesting. She did not look like she cared about acne or volleyball or the Backstreet Boys or boobs. But here she was, in a magazine, wearing fantastic clothing and makeup, so surely someone in the world besides just me thought that she was beautiful. It was there in those moments, flipping through that first magazine, when I learned that I did not need breasts to look like a woman, and that I did not need braces again to fix the unfixed gap in my teeth, and that I did not need to wear my hair long and paint pink on my face and be girly or frilly to be pretty. In an era where Pamela Anderson was the standard of beauty, in a town where women strived for that exact look, I felt as though I had found a secret way of looking at the world.
That was the first trip to the grocery store from which I returned home with both Vogue and an Archie comic. I read the magazine from cover to cover. I drew pictures of the clothing I liked, sometimes drawing the outfits on my own versions of Betty and Veronica. I designed my own looks, then spent forever trying to duplicate them in reality. I demanded that my hair be cut short, a woman at Supercuts raising her eyebrow. “Are you sure?” she asked, to which I replied with a resolute, “Yes.” She chopped my hair off into an angled jaw-length bob. My stepmother, while dying her roots blonde, gave me thick chunky highlights. During school choir the next day, a boy standing on the bleacher above me said I looked like a tiger. I sought silly clothing, clothing that was funny. My favorite garment became a pair of cloth pants printed to look like wood paneling. I wore then with a white tank top. Another favorite outfit was a mauve thrift store tee shirt with a pair of tight brown cropped pants. I remember that I liked the color combination.
One day after school, I rode my bike down to Safeway and bought a box of burgundy hair dye. It was the kind of color that looked crazy in comparison to all of the other drug-store hair dye options, but was still tame enough to be considered an actual hair color carried at a suburban supermarket. The color was called Black Cherry. I dyed my hair myself in the bathroom.
There was a song that came out around this time, “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)” by Baz Luhrmann. You probably remember the song; it was a speech addressed to a graduating class. One of the lines in the song always stuck out to me: “Do not read beauty magazines, they will only make you feel ugly.” Beauty magazines, which I interpret to be the same as fashion magazines, never made me feel ugly. They made me feel beautiful and powerful, and they taught me that inside, everyone is beautiful and powerful. They seemed to be a handbook for outcasts. They taught me that every face and every body was perfect for how unique it was, and that every scar and mark and mole told a story. They inspired me to be creative and interesting, and showed me that there was more to life than good ol’ Fresno, California. There were big cities and films and artwork and photography, whole other continents with their own histories and languages and beauty. They taught me that everyone has the ability to decide for themselves how the world will view them. I decided that I never wanted to be boring.
I recognize that this experience is uniquely mine. It is not intended as a defense of the fashion industry on the whole. It is only meant to serve as a new perspective – a perspective that I, personally, have not seen explained anywhere else. I know that there are elements of privilege and ignorance inherent to this story. I found these young, awkward, skinny models to be inspiring pillars of body-acceptance because I had been shown that ideal bodies were full of breasts and hips. I understand that someone with a different body type might feel as though society tends to favor thin over all else. I also understand now that these awkward thin bodies are not always natural, and that women will strive to maintain figures that they ought not have, often to their physical detriment.
I found these women beautiful because I grew up white, and thus I was not aware of the lack of racial diversity in mainstream culture. I remember it was not until high school that it occurred to me how exhausting and isolating it must be to see nothing but whitewashing in the media. On a Speech and Debate field trip (yes, I’m a nerd after all), my friend Aisha bought an Ebony magazine. Another girl on our team said, “That is like reverse racism. You don’t see magazines dedicated to white people.” Aisha replied, “Yes, you do: ALL OF THEM.”
I found the clothing in these magazines to be inspiring because I viewed it as art. However, like all art, I know now that this is subjective. It is true that what is “fashionable” changes every six months, largely in relationship to what is changing in the world. Every six months seems, to me, to be an opportunity to comment on where the world has come in the past half year. There is something anthropological about the experience, fashion serving as social commentary. However, I know that to someone who does not follow fashion, this connection seems nonexistent, and the whole ordeal must seem rather peculiar.
So, I leave you with the understanding that this is just my story, and I do not expect it to resonate with you. I only hope that I have offered a unique viewpoint from which you can relate to fashion and beauty, and I offer you my own breed of aesthetic encouragement: have fun.