Monday, March 29, 2010

The Girl in the Prom Dress

I was flipping idly through some pictures that had been posted to my Facebook account. I stopped short when I saw my prom picture. What a different world, I thought. Never again will you ever see me in a dress. Much less a sleeveless one, with long hair, a necklace an even, of all things, a handbag. Although I have to admit, the dark blue color sure did look good on me.

My friends all wore long, flowing dresses, but I stood barefoot in a simple, short, dark blue dress loaned to me by a friend only a few hours before, when I had made a last minute decision to go to the prom. Dances are not my thing, but despite my objections I decided to give it a try. My hair was long, blonde and curly, one of the few times I have had hair longer than an inch in the last ten years.

Then I flipped to a picture I had just added recently of me on a hiking trip with some friends. The picture was far from glamorous. I had on a grungy grey sweatshirt, white cotton pants and very short to almost non-existent hair. This, or some variation, is my usual outfit. The picture was less than flattering, but I didn't care, because after all, it was me. My smile was joyous, and to me that meant everything. I had captured the joy of the day with that picture.

Many times, over the years, I have been told by well-meaning people that I should change my appearance. People would like you better, they say. You'd get along better in the world, they say. People judge by first appearances, they say. Why don't you grow your hair out? Why don't you wear nicer clothes? Is that really the nicest clothes you have?

What they, or at least the world at large, often don't understand is that I don't have the luxury of looking nice. Severe sensory issues prevent me from wearing almost any piece of clothing known to man. I need soft, loose, cotton clothing to be comfortable. And even in that category, well, very few things work. I have spent several hours in large clothing stores before and came out with nothing. My dad once took me to Bloomingdale's on a New York City trip, and all I came out with was a Tamagotchi t-shirt. And that was good for me! Everything is too tight, the textures are uncomfortable, the seams are sewn in the wrong place, it sits on my body wrong, it's got buttons, and so on and so forth. And that was before I developed chemical sensitivity issues, which complicates the issue even more.

Because of this, a good clothes day for me is when I can actually wear them. Anything, that is. I'll take anything that doesn't make me want to start screaming when I put it on.
As for my hair, I can't stand the feeling of hair on my head. It just feels heavy, and when it gets too long, it is literally the only thing I can think of until I get it cut.

I'm a firm believer that people should be functional in their clothing. I don't understand why people torture themselves to wear high heels that make their feet hurt all night, or squeeze themselves into an outfit that makes them feel like they can't breathe just because they think it looks good. As far as I'm concerned, if I'm not comfortable in something, I'm going to be grouchy and irritable all day or night because of it. This will
affect my interactions with others, and give them a bad impression of me. It will affect my experience of them negatively as well. The effects of these uncomfortable, intolerable clothes will send my stress levels through the roof, and make my coping abilities nil. Now, why would I choose to have clothes or hair that looked good over being able to function in the world and having a smile on my face when I interact with others?

When I looked at the prom picture of me, with my curly blonde hair and my perfect dress, for a moment I felt a stab of envy. This is the kind of girl I could be. I could look like other people my age if I wanted to. It's possible. I could look, well, more "normal." But then I remind myself how foolish this is. What did I really want when I looked at that picture? I wanted what went along with my perceived notions of what that girl's life would be like. I wanted the life of a typical 20-something. I wanted people to like me; I wanted lots of friends; I wanted a life of social ease and happiness.

It's an illusion, of course. Because that isn't me. And you don't get friends, social ease and happiness by being something you're not. My warm smile, my enthusiasm, my care and concern for others? Those will, in time, get me friends who mean something to me, and they'll do it whether or not I'm wearing a Tiffany dress or a Marshall's grey sweatshirt. Mascara, tight clothes and expensive haircuts do not a make a person into who they are. Integrity, kindness and being true to oneself do. So when I look at that prom dress now, I am glad to have it as a memory of a time when I tried something new and succeeded. But I am even happier that the real me was still waiting for me, unchanged, when I got home that night.


  1. I have similar issues with clothing, but more recently have been able to find clothes that look reasonable and are comfortable. Mind you it does take some energy to do so. But I've had enough of groups of teenagers taking the proverbial because of how I dress, and the effort does pay off. The problem now is that living down a dirt track without a car I can seldom leave home without getting my clothes/shoes muddy. Ah well!

    I advise doing the charity shops every week - then if you find you've bought something you can't wear at least you've not spent a fortune on it. And they're much easier to cope with than large stores.

    I like the photos on your blog :-)

  2. Kate, your genius with words and description shines through here. Don't ever stop writing!

  3. I, too, have trouble finding clothes that work for me. Loose clothes are best, preferably very soft cotton. And hoodies. I love hoodies, with sleeves long enough to hang a good five inches over my hands. And I cannot stand my hair long--I generally have it shaved with a 0, all over, and go to the hair place once a month, at least, to keep it short enough. (I wish I could do it myself, as all the smells in hair places drive me bonkers, but I haven't managed to find a decent clipper set that both myself and the husband can use, yet.)

    Oh. And I also love Maine. I used to go to Emerson College in Boston, and my father was living up in Camden, ME at the time, and I went up there every other weekend to stay with him. I loved Maine so very much. All the trees, and the water. Lack of mountains (I grew up in Colorado, with lots of tall mountains), but the trees more than made up for that!

  4. I was thinking I don't have quite so many issues with clothing, but then I thought about a collegue who commented that he never saw someone as "allergic" to business suits as me. I've had to get used to the workplace equivalent to prom dresses, but will quickly switch to old jeans and well-worn shirts at first opportunity.

  5. Hello.

    I recently found your blog via my friend, Dan. I enjoyed this post. I am the same way with clothes, and always have been (much to the frustration of my mother and three VERY "stylish" younger sisters.) I have what they call a uniform: 100% cotton LOOSE cargo pants/shorts (usually 1-2 sizes too big, just because I hate tight clothes), a loose-fitting 100% cotton t-shirt, and 100% socks worn inside out. If it's cold, I have a 100% cotton sweatshirt. The pants are always khaki. The shirt is always some shade of blue. And the socks are always white. And I wear the same pair of shoes everywhere I go. I do not understand wearing uncomfortable clothing "just because." There is no possible way wearing painful high heals makes you feel pretty--or, rather, at least not a way that I can understand.

  6. Good to hear from you all, and thanks for commenting. Ashley, amen to that! s0_, I am glad I dont have to wear business suits!

  7. Wonderful post, Kate! I love the way you put it about wanting to have friends, but finding friends who accept you when you are being true to yourself. That's me too. I like to dress up for special things, but only if I can do so comfortably. No high heels, no bras, no seams in the wrong places, and no toxic fabric!
    Your writing is wonderful, Kate! Thank you!

  8. Brava, Kate, marvelous post! I like the shots you used from the hike, infectiously happy!
    I've had similar, though not nearly as pronounced, issues with clothing, tearing collars I can't stand for another second etc and can't imagine standing the sort of sensory onslaught you describe for any length of time.
    Glad you find You in the adjustments you've made to deal with things!

  9. this is what i love so much about this post ..

    "But I am even happier that the real me was still waiting for me, unchanged, when I got home that night."

    as a mother, that is the crux of everything i hope to teach my girls. because when you know, accept and like who you are, the surface is just that - surface.

  10. Reading this post reminded me of my own prom experience (yes, I actually had one). It also connects with a theme from your earlier post re: Temple Grandin (playing the "social game" to build relationships). Thanks for sharing your experience.