There are some who believe formative self-loathing is instrumental to becoming a cool adult. This particular lemonade is made over and over again by those attempting to ascribe meaning to what they fear would otherwise be seen as self-indulgent ennui, and who are comforted by fellow-sufferers able to tell their lives like a self-worth rags-to-riches story. Happiness is without substance; misery makes art. I started from the bottom, now I’m here. But of course, here comes much later. First you have to dislike yourself.
And this was, for a long time, my personal gospel.
In my story, I made all the right moves. I hated myself. I was skilled in the art of turning absolutely anything into evidence of my failings. At 12 especially, I was deeply invested in changing the person that I was to be a different, better person. At this age, a girl is still new to self-loathing, so of course, she makes mistakes. I fell prey to the idea something like a haircut, a pair of shoes, or a new school year would alter my situation so dramatically I would find myself cured. So it was when the time came for my oldest cousin to get married. That was when my mother took me shopping for my first vintage dress.
Despite my initial objections to wearing used clothes, once in the shop, I was instantly able to appreciate how much more cinematic these dresses were than any I had seen at the mall. I have always had a soft spot for dresses that reach the floor and never apologize for how they get there. A tangle of chiffon, silk, and sequins, these were the garments of which stories were made.
Though I had resolved not to leave this shop with an old dress, I was delighted to be in that room. While my mother went over the preliminaries with the shopkeeper, I traced my hand along the racks, remembering something half-lost about what I’d wanted before all I wanted was to be somebody better than myself. Just as I was getting close to some fuzzy truth, my mother came up from behind me.
“Okay,” she sighed. “Let’s go to the mall.”
Despite my mother’s whimsical intentions, I was still a child and these dresses were all woman-sized. Stunned, we moved towards the shop door, until the shopkeeper’s memory jogged. “Well, it’s hardly appropriate for a wedding, being cream and all, but that one will fit her,” she said, pointing to a short dress hanging from a hook high up on the wall.
The dress wasn’t something you gasp at—it was just exactly right. Like it was already yours and you recognized it out in a crowd and thought, “What are you doing here? Let’s go home, you silly goose!” I’ve experienced this comfortable confirmation many times since: on finding the right apartment, the right university, jobs, friends, men, and of course, clothes. We never discussed the fact it was cream, since a gawky twelve year old is at virtually no risk of outshining a bride. Obviously, we bought the dress.
This was, indeed, the first time I’d been vintage shopping, the first time I’d recognized myself in a dress, and the first time I remember expecting something I bought to change me in some dramatic way. In the lead up to the wedding, I would take the dress out of my closet and stare at it thinking, “Now that I have this, the hard part’s over.”
When the day of the wedding arrived, I dressed simply. And while I wasn’t certain I enjoyed a day-long event where adults I had never met made inscrutable jokes into a microphone, my girl cousins slow-danced with each other to be all like, “We don’t need no men!” and I got far less attention than I was accustomed to, I was sure of the dress. In it, I was a changed woman.
I was sure of this right up until my mother got her film developed at the local one-hour photo and I saw the picture.
No person was ever more ungracefully 12 as I found myself in that picture. It was the most jarring thing, having my worst suspicions about myself confirmed. The girl in the photo wasn’t changed for the better. She was a ragamuffin with thick eyebrows and a body that seemed to be introducing itself to her at every moment. And god, that girl was so serious. Her self-doubt and torturous sensitivity registered plainly on her face. I was repulsed.
My only recourse was to bury the dress in the back of my closet, forget it ever happened and try harder. During the years that followed, I employed all manner of tactics to solve the problem of me once and for all. I really believed I could will myself into flawlessness. After that, I imagined life would be just a lot of eating in hip family-style restaurants and people photographing you mid-laugh but it’s, like, always really beautiful.
Instead of achieving this clumsy approximation of perfection, I got something else entirely when, at 24, my mother and I were unpacking boxes and arranging my possessions in a west-end basement studio, the first place I’d ever live alone. Buried in one of the many boxes was a packet of photos. Among them, of course, was the photo, which I have no memory of ever taking from my mother’s albums. And with so many years separating the girl in the photo from the girl holding it, perspective was easier to find.
Before, whenever I discussed who I had been, it was always with a tone of mild alienation. Not only was the present day version of myself the best one but, rather, the only one. Who I had been was inconsequential, irrelevant, and lampooned in my most defensive jokes. As a militant self-improver, it is difficult to resist this temptation.
But there was something exquisite in the deflating realization that despite all the effort and dramatic change, so much stayed exactly the same. I am still a self-conscious, serious girl. My eyebrows still feature prominently on my face. And goddammit, will I ever feel graceful in this body?
Naturally, I had grown into myself. A decade plus of time, experience, and extensive introspection will do that. But more significant was that, standing in my new apartment, holding the once-repulsive photo, not only was I able to recognize myself in it but also to appreciate its beauty. It was a lovely, vulnerable moment captured on film. Just a very young girl in a very special dress.
“Mom, whatever happened to that dress?” I asked, my eyes still fixed on the photo.
She thought for a moment and said, “I have no idea, Nic. Honestly, it probably got thrown out.”
It was a shame. That dress had been coded with so much adolescent disappointment, and now, with a little clarity, it would have been nice to wear it like a nice dress deserves to be worn.
That night I got an email from my dear sweet mother with the subject line, “LOOK WHAT I FOUND!!!!” The email body contained only an attached photo of the dress, a little rumpled and desperately in need of a dry cleaner’s love, but unmistakably my special cream dress.
I was in her house for perhaps only five minutes before excusing myself and slipping down the hall to what used to be my bedroom and now is the extended territory of an ageing cocker spaniel. Quickly I stripped down and pulled on the dress. It fit. The dress and I had been given our second act by whoever it was that decided that I should never develop breasts.
I no longer allow myself the delusion of a self-worth promised land. The top is a lie, though, so too is the bottom. My new thing, these days, is conscious continuity. With this, it is important to acknowledge the small victories, and doing right by my first vintage dress is certainly one.
What are you doing here? Let’s go home, you silly goose.