What Do You Become When You Can’t Be Yourself?

A look at the role of clothing in the struggle to shape one's identity in the film Pariah

Something stuck with me after I finished watching Pariah for the first time, but I couldn’t quite put it into words. The film is strong, emotional, and surprisingly realistic compared to other lesbian films I’ve seen over the years. It took a second watch for me to realize what was really moving me throughout the pain-laden plot: the clothes. I have never seen a life so ruled by clothing as the main character Alike’s. For her, clothing can mean fear, strength, punishment, or acceptance. It’s all about the timing.

Pariah opens in an all-ladies club, and Alike (or Lee as most of her friends call her) sits in awe of the women dancing on poles in front of her. She’s accompanied by her best friend Laura, who appears to be much more experienced in the scene. The two complement one another perfectly: Laura with a diamond stud in one ear, an Afro, and a red plaid shirt, and Alike in an oversized striped polo, do-rag, and cap.

But when the pair separates on the bus ride home, Alike starts to strip. The hat comes off and a bun of corn rows is revealed. Under her polo she wears a tight pink t-shirt with sparkle embellishments that spell out “Angel,” and small hoop earrings are added to complete the look. Her old clothing, along with her lesbian identity, is tucked out of sight into a small army-print bag.

At home, it becomes obvious why Alike needs to hide. With an extremely religious mother and absent father, she is constantly pressured to look like a normal, pretty, teenage girl. Her mother, ruled by the fear that Alike is in fact a lesbian, constantly urges her to go shopping, and makes a point of commenting on clothes that “really complement her figure.” Like her hidden bag of boys’ clothing, Alike stuffs the truth beneath layers of fear and uncertainty, and continues lying to her parents. Meanwhile her mother continues buying tight pink clothing in too-small sizes and complaining to her friends that, “For some reason Lee just doesn’t like anything I pick out for her anymore.”

Upon arriving at school the next day, she rushes to the washroom to change again, this time swapping her feminine attire for a tight white undershirt, a large graphic t-shirt, and a cap. Although she’s in clothing that mirrors her friends, she still seems uncomfortable and detached, miserably drifting through the day alone. When school is out, she switches back and heads home where she’s pressured about what boy she’ll take to the homecoming dance. The switches continue back and forth, over and over. Just watching it is exhausting.

From “strapping” with a dildo in her pants to look “harder” to impress a straight girl, to softening and finding a middle ground between who her friends think she is and who her mother says she is supposed to be to try and find happiness, Pariah covers every step of Alike’s transformation and every layer of clothing she pulls onto her body and off again. When she finally realizes there’s nothing wrong with the person she’s been hiding, she breaks and the truth she has been piling under bedazzled t-shirts, cardigans with pulling buttons, and skirts is revealed. She finally gives herself permission to stop changing, and settles somewhere between the two extremes she’s been trying to dress for. With her hair uncovered and tied in a loose knot, earrings in, and fitted sweatshirts where massive polos were once donned with shame, she is no longer Alike or Lee: She is simply herself.

Pariah puts the importance of dress into perspective for us. Not only is dressing important to how we feel about ourselves, or how others perceive us, but it has the power to change our lives, for better or for worse. In Alike’s case, one poorly timed outfit swap could crumble her entire life, her family’s love, and her friendships. It made me realize although clothing has always meant freedom for me, it can be the opposite too. Some people are trapped in their clothing, and there’s no simple zipper or button solution to release them.

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