Even In A Dress, I Can Be Me
Photo by Danielle Weast
I have an odd relationship with dresses. Until I graduated from high school, despite attending schools without dress codes, girls were required to wear dresses or skirts—no questions asked. I did it, of course, because I had to. But having to wear something that made me feel so uncomfortable didn't do much for my self-concept. When I was allowed to stop wearing dresses, I did. For years after that, I owned nothing but pants. In the mid-1980s, when I was an adjunct teacher at the local state university, I had to leave early one day to go to an interview for a tenure-track job at the community college, where I ended up teaching for more than 30 years. As exciting as it was, the main question my students had for me was, “Will you come back here after your interview so we can see you in a dress?” The question shook me—so much so that when I did get the job, I wore a dress or skirt once a week for years, just to keep it a non-issue for my students. But it was always an issue for me.
Who knows what it meant or stood for—beyond me simply not feeling comfortable? I'm sure it had something to do with me realizing early on that I was attracted to other girls and not knowing what that meant about me and who I was. Regardless, I always just felt like a fake version of myself when I was not wearing slacks or shorts. Of course, I see now that it was I who gave the whole thing so much power. I spent many years feeling like my identity was defined by what I was wearing and how I was wearing it. Luckily, one look at Instagram demonstrates for me that I have not been alone in this feeling. In the bigger life picture, though, I can feel how much I have tied my identity to external pieces of my life—clothes, relationships, and jobs.
We each bring our unique souls to everything we touch—whether it’s relationships, the work we do, and even the clothes we wear.
Now that I’m retiring (again!), I find myself looking at that identity piece even more. Which part of me was the job and which was just me? Sometimes it's hard to know who we are apart from what we do for a living. I'm sure it harkens back to those childhood questions about “what are you going to be when you grow up?” No one ever asks us what kind of person we want to be, or what qualities in ourselves we want to develop, and it would probably be weird if they did. It’s much easier to make small talk with kids and teenagers if the answer is something like, “teacher” or “firefighter.” But having spent thousands and thousands of hours working, I find myself a little bit at Square One about who I am separate from that work. In a way, though, making this distinction is just a silly exercise. We really are all of what we’ve done and what we haven’t done. We each bring our unique souls to everything we touch—whether it’s relationships, the work we do, or even the clothes we wear.
Like with most things I’m thinking about in my late 60s, I’m a little sorry to have taken so long to learn these lessons, but I also know that this is when I can see it all most clearly. If by some lucky stretch I’d developed a super strong self-concept when I was very young, I might not have struggled with my identity as frequently as I have. But then, I wouldn’t be who I am. I wouldn’t be a person who has empathy for others who are struggling, and I wouldn’t see the world the way I do.
As for how I see myself, I brought my distinct personality and skills to my jobs over the years, and those attributes developed further based on what I did. It feels good to be able to perceive myself as a combination of everything I’ve done, a mix of all of my work and personal relationships, and a good dose of who I started out to be in the first place.
I still don’t wear dresses very often, but if I do, they’re ones that I choose because they feel like me to me. And that place—where we can sit with ourselves and be comfortable—is what I’ve longed for all of my life. If there’s a secret to life, finding the path to that spot is undoubtedly it.