Once a year all the teachers wore shirts from their alma mater colleges which meant jeans could be worn along with the t-shirt or sweatshirt. I walked in on that day in one of ill-fitting dresses I lined up to wear each week and was disappointed to walk into hallways of comfortably dressed colleagues. I saw my department head and made some comment like, “I can’t believe I missed the chance to wear jeans” and his response confused me, “I don’t think jeans are more comfortable than just slacks.”
I could not fathom the reality he was referencing. Each pair of work pants in my closet had some major flaw that I had to weigh in the morning – scuffed hems at the ankle, waist too tight it left an imprint on my stomach, fit in the butt a little too tight that made sitting uncomfortable, a little too big requiring a belt which then made them too tight. I do not claim that I had a collection of perfectly fitted jeans, but at least in my denims I could squat down without fear that I would tear a seam.
I also have a larger size bosom than most retailers are prepared to fit. I avoided all shirts that required buttons to hold together the front, I bought a size up because my shoulders along with my breasts limited my arm mobility otherwise, I bought matching colored undershirts just in case some sort of busting out were to occur. When I was younger and associated some kind of shame with the size printed on the label I tried to use safety pins or even once simply sewed up the entire front of a shirt. I worried about what bra I had on under a sweater because as it stretched I didn’t want any fun color shining through. I constantly checked that my bra straps were tucked away out of sight.
I hated trying on pants because when I tried to button them I was reminded of the five pounds I had gained. I never had a sudden onset of weight gain but simply the ways that a woman’s body adds a little here and a little there. One summer I was relieved to discover that my work pants didn’t fit, but this time because I couldn’t get the waistband past my thighs. For my physique larger thighs do not trigger body issues. Unfortunately I still had to go out and find some new pants.
I managed to find one size by one brand in dresses that reliably fit me. I could grab the size 12 and be certain that it would slip on over my head the next day. If the material was too stretchy I had to be concerned that it might accentuated those breasts. With larger breasts a little material is stolen from the whole fit and so the skirt fits a little higher than intended. If the designer tried to add a little flair or special belt, then it would tighten around me, a few times convincing me to simply chop out the lining so that the stretch in the material could actually stretch as intended.
And do not even get my started on shoes. Shoes that could withstand a day of teaching is an entirely different Olympic sport.
Microsoft, Apple, Starbucks, Seattle, Silicon Valley, the West Coast aesthetic “revolutionized” business wear – allowing for a more casual style to still denote power and wealth – no more three piece Italian wool tailored suit was necessary.
I’ve written a bunch about the mindset that created my adolescent view of the world – how trying to be tough or not caring about social norms or dismissing the ideal sexiness – all helped to liberate me from social constraints. But when I became a teacher I decided it was a reasonable compromise to try and “look like” a teacher. The line between teacher and student was drawn most clearly through my uncomfortable stiff fabrics and their lazy sweats and sneakers.
In my ninth and tenth year of “dressing like a teacher” I would wake up and course my clothes. I would pull on an awkward fitting non-button up shirt, tight waisted pants, clunky shoes, hair up in a clip, bra in a neutral color and gird myself for another day just waiting until I could come back home and change into my own clothes, into comfortable clothes, into clothes that did not ask me to be anything more than simply who I am. Because that is what I felt like those clothes were really saying to me – you are not good enough, no one will take you seriously, there is a dress code, just blend in, fit the expectations, and maybe loose some weight because that is really why these clothes are so uncomfortable.
But that damn fifteen year old self just kept yelling at me, even buried under all those zippers and mute colors, “Amelie why do you care? What is this bullshit? How does being comfortable make you any less intelligent? When did you decide to play by their rules?” And trust me, I have spent most of my life within the paradigm of a teenage mind – it is brutish, stubborn, calculating, resistant, and ready for a fight.
At least for this fight now, I can wear sweats and sneakers.