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Breaking Uniform

Roxane Gay on the complicated ritual of dressing herself

I have two wardrobes. One is the clothes I wear every day, mostly dark denim, black t-shirts, and for special occasions, dress shirts. My other wardrobe, the one that dominates most of my closet, is full of the clothes I don’t have the courage to wear.

I am nowhere near as brave as people believe me to be. Armed with words, I can do anything, but when I have to take my body out into the world, courage fails me.

I am fat. The technical term is morbidly obese. I am 6 foot 3 inches tall, and wide. I take up space in nearly every way. I stand out when my nature is to very much want to disappear.

When I wear my typical uniform, it feels like safety, like I can hide in plain sight. I become less of a target. I am taking up space, but I am doing so in an unassuming manner so that I am less of a problem. This is what I tell myself.

But, I love fashion. I love the idea of wearing color, blouses with interesting cuts and silhouettes, something low-cut that shows off my décolletage. I have any number of fine dress slacks, and I enjoy staring at them in my closet, so sleek and professional, so unlike me. I dream of wearing a long skirt or a maxi dress with bold, bright stripes. My breath catches at the mere thought of wearing something sleeveless, baring my brown arms. Fierce vanity smolders in the cave of my chest. I want to look good. I want to feel good. I want to be beautiful in this body I am in.

The story of my life is wanting what I cannot have or, perhaps, wanting what I dare not allow myself to have.

Many mornings, most mornings, I stand in my closet, trying to figure out what I am going to wear for the day. Really, this is part of an elaborate, exhausting performance in which the end result is always the same. But, I have my delusions, and I entertain them with alarming frequency and vigor. I try on various outfits and marvel at all the cute clothes I own. If I am feeling particularly brave, I take a look at myself in the mirror. It’s always surprising to see myself out of my usual clothes, to see how my skin looks shrouded in color or anything other than denim and cotton.

Sometimes, I decide on an outfit and leave my bedroom. It may seem a mundane moment, but it is not. I decide, “Today, I am a professional, and I will look the part.” I make breakfast, or get my things together for work. I feel strange and awkward. In a matter of moments, it begins to feel like these unfamiliar clothes are strangling me. I see and feel every unflattering bulge and curve. My throat constricts. I can’t breathe. The clothes shrink. Sleeves become tourniquets. Slacks become shackles. I start to panic and before I know it, I am back in my closet. I am tearing the bright, beautiful clothes off because I don’t deserve to wear them.

When I slide back into my uniform, that cloak of safety returns. I can breathe again. And then I start to hate myself for my unruly body that I seem incapable of disciplining, for my cowardice in the face of what other people might think.

This is really about shame—being ashamed of how I look, ashamed of my weakness, the shame of knowing it is in my power to change my body and yet, year after year, I don’t. Or I try, I do. I eat right. I work out. My body becomes smaller and starts to feel more like mine and not a cage of flesh I carry with me. That’s when I feel a new kind of panic because I am seen in a different way. My body becomes a different source of discussion. I have more wardrobe options, and there is that intoxicating moment when a much smaller pair of pants slips over my body and a shirt drapes easily over my shoulders. The vanity nestled in the cave of my chest swells.

I see myself in the mirror, narrower, more angular. I recognize the me I could have, should have, would have been, and want to be. That version of myself is terrifying, so I undo all the progress I’ve made.

Most of us have these versions of ourselves that terrify us. We have these imperfect bodies we don’t quite know how to cope with. We have these shames we keep to ourselves because to show ourselves as we are, no more and no less, would be too much.

In my closet, in the closet containing the clothes that shroud my cowardice, I have 40 or 50 pairs of dark jeans, an absurd number of black t-shirts, and six or seven nice dress shirts. These are the clothes I feel safe in. This is the armor I wear to face the world, and I assure you, armor is needed. I tell myself this armor is all I need. I tell the worst lies to myself. I suspect most of us do.

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