One afternoon when I was 6 years old, I asked my mom why I couldn’t paint my fingernails red. It was in the car on the way home from school, and the other girls’ little fingernails were flying through my mind like ladybugs looking for a way out. I curled my own bare ones into a fist, my palms keeping them safe from anyone who might see them and laugh.
My mom asked me if I would jump off a bridge just because my friends did. I thought,“Well, maybe, if I had any friends,” but I said no.
When I got older, I made my bare fingernails—or whatever it was that kept me from fitting in—into a kind of willful strength. If I couldn’t be like them, I might as well try to be different, to show them (whoever “them” is) that I didn’t care about looking the same as everyone else. I dyed my hair green, stopped shaving my legs and shopped for jumpsuits at Goodwill. I told myself that I wasn’t following them off a bridge; I was trying to burn it down.
But, of course, I had no idea who I was trying to be. I was trying to make myself into a negative image of the girls I envied, the ones who straightened their hair into fried perfection and had painted nails when they were 6. Whatever they weren’t was what I wanted to be. I was trying to turn the fact that I didn’t fit in into a kind of power over my perceived ideological enemies.
But I was still the same person who envied those little ladybug fingers. By defining myself in contrast to other people, I really was still following them off the bridge. They had the power. They (or, really, some grand and mysterious marketing force working over them and all of us) were defining what was right and what wasn’t. In high school, it was Hollister; at Baylor, it was the infamous Nike shorts and oversized T-shirts. I wanted to wear these things, but I always heard my mom’s voice telling me that I shouldn’t, that I needed to be myself.
She was right, of course. But just because I wore dresses from Goodwill and gold boots from Urban Outfitters didn’t mean that I was being myself. And just because they dressed in Lululemon from head to two didn’t mean that they weren’t being themselves. Every time I’ve looked past someone’s clothing and hairstyle and spoken with the person in front of me, I’ve found someone absolutely unique and interesting, who doesn’t just need to express that uniqueness through the way she dresses.
This year, I started to wear things I wouldn’t have been caught dead in two years ago. I’m now the proud owner of two pairs of jeans (I went four years without owning any. Yes, I know.), two pairs of yoga pants and a pair of those seemingly omnipresent Birkenstocks. I shocked myself by liking these things. They’re comfortable, and they match better with my wardrobe than the striped or orange pants I’d been wearing since high school. What else had I been missing out on all these years?
Of course, I still find myself counting the number of people who walk by me in the library with yoga pants on. I occasionally roll my eyes when half the people in a class are wearing the same thing. But I know now that I’m no better than they are. We’re all just trying to find who we are, what we like and what any of it even means. If that means following a trend, that’s OK. We’re all a lot more interesting than what we’re wearing, anyway.
By the way, as I write this I’m wearing Essie’s “A-List,” my favorite cherry red nail polish. It’s a little chipped, though.
Helena Hunt is a senior University Scholars major from Sonoita, Ariz. She is the Arts and Life editor for the Lariat.