On a new year, Amanda Palmer, school uniforms, and being ferociously ourselves.

By | January 5, 2010

I spent the eve of 2010 at Symphony Hall in dear Boston, watching Amanda Palmer play (in every sense of the word) with the Boston Pops. That night gave me many things to think about, the most immediate at the time being a vivid reminder of the complications of wearing a dress, and a crinoline, and a pair of tights, and trying to use the restroom, which my husband will tell you I need to do approximately every thirty seconds, every day, all day long. It has been many years since I’ve had cause to wear a crinoline anywhere, for any purpose, and yet in the time when I DID have reason to do so, I wore crinolines fairly often. The crinoline was a much-loved part of my clubbing costumes, from the years when I went to clubs multiple nights a week, and dressed for the occasion (i.e., college). However, peeing in such a getup is a huge production, as once the deed is done, inevitably some part of the dress/crinoline ensemble is stubbornly caught under the waistband of one’s tights such that one practically has to disrobe and redress—all in a typically-unpleasant nightclub bathroom stall—in order to remedy the situation.

But the louder thought ringing through my mind post-concert was about how challenging it is simply to be ourselves, and how challenging it is to even know what that means.

Amanda Palmer, for the unintroduced, is a somewhat eccentric artist and performer. I tend to instinctively rebel against fannishness in any form, so I will instead say that I have a keen appreciation for what Palmer does and for her willingness to be herself, even when “herself” is an odd-shaped cog that doesn’t fit in any known machine. For Palmer to be a raging mainstream success, we’d have to build a whole new cultural apparatus to fit her. As it is she tends to flutter on the edges of popular culture, one of those figures who creates powerful reactions in people, some of whom are madly in love with her, some of whom can’t stand her at all. Pre-show, Palmer performed a couple songs with one of the other artists playing in one of Symphony Hall’s function rooms; when she’d finished, I turned to leave and was nearly mowed down by a cluster of teenage girls bolting through the assembled crowd toward Palmer as she exited, the collected force breathlessly exclaiming “ohmygodohmygodohmygod” endlessly as they went, ostensibly bent on catching Palmer before she got through the door. Powerful reactions, from people who relate, or who want to relate, who want to know the person they think knows the answer to “who I am” and “how shall I be that person”. Palmer works hard at being who she is and being successful at it, and while this may never gain her broad popular approval, her uniqueness and her quirkiness and her unselfconscious trueness to herself are more precious than gold to those who, in the course of being themselves, are also put outside the normative world. Amanda Palmer, and folks like her, help to validate the existence of those people who think they are so terribly alone in their outsider status. And that, more than anything else she does, is why I admire Amanda Palmer.

Now, let me tell you a story, of a teenaged Lesley, and of socks and school uniforms.

As a kid and teenager I often stymied my parents with my stubborn refusal to participate in whatever trends were rampant amongst my peers; more than that, I developed a habit of actively avoiding anything understood to be popular. One parent or the other would say, “Oh, is this what you kids are into,” and I would recoil, aghast, wanting nothing to do with what you kids are into. I suffered a compulsion to distinguish myself, occasionally to my social detriment, but occasionally to my advantage. This was well in place by the time I reached high school.

A week or two prior to the start of classes my freshman year, I was to report to the school to be fitted for my uniform, which would then be ordered and delivered the first week. I was shifting, by choice, to a Catholic high school after spending my elementary and middle years in public institutions, so the uniform concept was new to me, though I found the idea thrilling because I’d seen Girls Just Want to Have Fun many times and imagined myself in Helen Hunt’s brilliantly-accessorized, transformable ensembles. I saw the uniform as a blank slate on which I could perpetrate all manner of subversion, of the uniform, and of myself. I also saw it as a way to belong. It was deeply appealing, a creative challenge.

The fittings took place in two classrooms leading off the school cafeteria, one for boys, and one for girls. We stood in line until space opened in the appropriate classroom. Later, it would happen that the classroom where the girls’ fitting took place would be where I’d attend my first theology class, required for all students, and where I’d be pleasantly scandalized by hearing the teacher say the word “fuck” (he was quoting from The Blues Brothers at the time). The cafeteria, on the other hand, I would never once in four years utilize for its primary purpose of sitting down and eating—being in South Florida, sitting out on the patio was preferred year-round, and if it rained, we’d sit on the concrete floors of the outdoor breezeways.

Of course, I didn’t know these things then; I was just being fitted for a uniform.

The uniform components were two pieces: a stiff, woven button-down shirt, white, with the school’s initials in navy embroidery on the left front breast pocket; and an equally-stiff woven navy plaid box-pleated skirt, with a button and zipper closure on the side. When my turn came to enter, I found the room occupied by a number of girls quickly trying on an assortment of uniform pieces to determine what size to order. I approached a woman at the desk at the front of the room, who reached into one of the many open brown boxes behind her and handed me a shirt and skirt to try on, amongst the other nervous would-be freshman girls wrangling blouses and skirts over their civilian clothes, as fully undressing seemed out of the question (I still am not fond of community changing-rooms). I attempted to put the blouse on over my t-shirt; it was too small. I pulled the skirt over my jeans: it wouldn’t even button, it wouldn’t zip an inch. I brought them back to the desk, sheepishly, though no one had asked me—or anyone there—our size, but instead they looked us over like we were cattle at auction and guessed based on what they saw. The woman handed me another shirt and skirt, from another box. The shirt fit marginally better, buttoning up without trouble, though it was, in retrospect, brutally tight across my shoulders and upper arms. The skirt was still hopeless. I brought it back again, caught between feeling angry at being so misjudged and embarrassed at being so apparently large (I was 14 years old, and wearing a women’s 18/20 or so at the time). The woman mumbled something apologetic, her eyes on the order forms on the desk in front of her, and then she turned and dug through another box for a moment. Eventually she waved me toward the boxes stacked two high beside the desk, bursting with chaotic heaps of discarded white poplin and navy plaid: “See if you can find something that fits.” I don’t remember her actually speaking to me before this point, I just remember her handing me garments without making eye contact.

I went into the boxes and dug. Too small, too small, too small. Everything was far too small and I knew it. It seemed the blouse I’d been given was the largest size they had; though now I regret not demanding they order me blouses in the next size up, at the time I was still a true believer in the power of numbers, so I was simply relieved to (technically, if not comfortably) fit a blouse marked as a 16, and not to require special consideration. As I pulled out skirt after skirt, looking for anything larger than a 12, I felt my panic rising. At this point in my life I’d spent a few years buying the largest size in the straight-sized store, even when it was so tight as to be painful, because in 1990, succumbing to plus sizes would have been Style Death, my only options a Lane Bryant a thousand times more matronly and shapeless than today (if such a thing is even fathomable), or the abysmal torment of mail-order catalog doom. If avoiding that fate meant having to lie on my bed and breathe deep in order to zip up my size-18 jeans from Lerner’s, then so be it. But here, in the terrible land of unforgiving woven polyester uniforms, what if the largest size wasn’t an option? Inside my head I couldn’t even conceive that larger sizes than those represented in these boxes existed. I imagined myself being turned away from the school simply because they didn’t make a uniform skirt to fit me.

But finally, at the bottom of a box, neatly folded and untouched by teenaged-girl hands prior to my own, I found a skirt marked an 18. I grasped it like a drowning man clutches a life preserver and unfurled my plaid victory, waving it like a flag to the rest of the room, which blessedly ignored me. It didn’t matter if it didn’t fit now; I would figure out a way to make it work. Pulled over my jeans, buttoned and zipped, it was gasp-inducingly tight at the waist but I didn’t care. Triumphant, I brought my too-tight blouse and too-tight skirt back to the desk where the women were filling out the order forms. I would bring that particular uniform set home with me that day, as everyone did, to have a uniform to wash before the first day of school, when the rest of the ordered items would arrive. I ordered five too-tight blouses and three too-tight skirts.

(Little did I know I would keep and wear those same blouses and skirts for four whole years. The blouses were so tight in the arms as to make it difficult for me to reach forward and down to pick up a pencil if I dropped one on the floor; the unyielding fabric kept my arms half-immobile except for a narrow range of comfortable movement. The skirts I would cherish as priceless, because my sophomore year the uniform code changed and the skirts were traded for culottes, and oh my friends, you cannot imagine the horror that is me, an apple-shaped fat girl, in knee-length plaid culottes. Those of us with skirts from the prior year were allowed to keep wearing them, and thus I treasured my waist-constricting, breath-impairing skirts for the rest of my high school career.)

Unfortunately, I would discover before long that the uniform did not eclipse style fads in the prevailing culture at school. In fact, it just narrowed the field. The axis on which the trends at my high school revolved was socks. Yes. Socks. I learned rapidly that the correct socks were E.G. Smith slouch socks (which, astonishingly, have only recently been discontinued by the manufacturer). These were cotton socks that came in many colors (including tie-dye) and were meant to intentionally bag loosely around one’s ankles, not unlike legwarmers. Because they had no elastic at all, by day’s end one’s EG Smith socks had often slumped over the back of the heel to drag on the ground, which made keeping the lighter colors clean a challenge. The inventive could fashion sock garters from standard rubber bands, hidden by folding over a narrow cuff at the top of the sock, which many of us did. These pretentious socks were also criminally overpriced; as I recall, on back-to-school shopping trips in high school, at the late lamented Florida-exclusive department store Burdines, the social status afforded by a single pair of these name-brand socks would cost you between $12 and $14 (tie-dye was more expensive). In 1990.

(It’s just occurred to me that I am talking about socks I bought almost twenty years ago. Shudder.)

Yes, I bought some of these ridiculous socks, with the vivid “love, eric” printed in gold ink on the sole, to identify them as the real thing and not some knockoff. And I wore them, briefly, to see how it felt to fit in. Except it didn’t work; I still never felt like I fit in, even in a school uniform, even with the correct socks, even dressed like everyone else. The longer story of how I came to attend a private school is a topic for another post, but a large part of it was rooted in my overwhelming social isolation in eighth grade, and my belief that attending a private school, instead of going on to the public high school with many of the same people who’d known me in middle school, would give me a chance to reinvent myself. The uniform aspect would seem, on the surface, to give me the option of blending-in, if I felt so inclined, or standing out, if I was feeling my inner Helen Hunt. I thought of the uniform as a fresh sheet of paper on which I could write my identity every day. I thought of the uniform as a costume in which I could hide. But it failed. I was too awkward, too brainy, too big, in multiple respects, to blend in, and I was still myself, in a uniform or not. I was bursting at the seams—literally, figuratively, in every conceivable way. It wasn’t long before I’d cast aside my EG Smith socks in favor of odd legwear collected from clearance bins and discount stores, patterned kneehighs, fishnet anklets, anything that spoke the opposite to the giant cotton slouch socks that everyone else seemed to covet and favor. Because it seemed to me, even in those hoary teenage years of trying to figure out who I was, that a sizable part of being myself meant standing as a contradiction to popular conviction. It meant not just being willing, but being compelled to be visibly different, to provide a counterpoint to the norm, and accepting the abuse as well as the admiration that a life of even subtle subversion seems to attract.

I cannot shut up about the things that are important to me. I have to speak up, I have to break down the culture I see and the world around me, I do it on this website and I do it in my three-dimensional life. I don’t know how to live any other way; I don’t know how to be any other person. And as difficult as this can be, I’m grateful because I have the sublime luxury of knowing who I am, and of knowing how to live as myself, brightly, and cacophonously.

Being who we are—being, ferociously, ourselves—is both an act of terrible bravery and an act of desperate survival. Let this year, and every year, be a time for knowing yourself, and for being true to your convictions.

Happy new year, my loves.

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