by Brenda Miller
You must wear something clean. You must wear clothing that matches even a little bit—some hint that the colors are trying to coordinate. Yes, we know you can dress yourself, but you must wear shoes. You must wear socks with those shoes, preferably two that match. You must not show your underpants, but if you do, accidentally—as you are prone to do when lost in the spiral of the carousel or the wide momentum of the swing (which you always insist on swinging high, too high, to the very edge of the acceptable arc)—these underpants should not be dirty. Dirty underpants bring shame upon you. And upon your poor mother, and your mother’s mother, a shame going back generations to the field in Tasmania, where—although these women were poor and had little they could call their own—they still knew how to keep their underpants clean. Why can’t you keep your underpants clean? What is wrong with you?
You must wear a green corduroy jumper that’s too heavy for the weather, and you must wear green striped knee socks that do not slump to your ankles. If you do have knee socks that slump to your ankles, at least have clean kneecaps, pink and unscabbed. If you can’t manage even that, you are a shame upon yourself and your mother and your mother’s mother. Do not cut your hair above the ears. If, by mistake, you do cut your hair above the ears, be prepared for the taunts: you look like a boy! You look like a boy! Be prepared for the one that hurts the most, the one hissed by your best friend as she stands a few inches behind you in line, her face half turned to the other girls to get their approval. Her hiss will be like a dart entering just under the breastbone.
For 6th grade graduation, you must wear a pale blue dress with puffed short sleeves and an empire waist, so that you resemble, quite closely, a parade float: the kind you’ve seen on television on Thanksgiving Day. All you need is a string tied to your hips and a motorcar slowly dragging you down 5th Avenue. You must wear white pantyhose that sag at the knees, and white patent leather shoes that pinch at the toes. These shoes are impossible to keep clean, but you must keep them clean, at least for the duration of the ceremony. But they smudge the second you walk out of the house—what is wrong with you? Now all the pictures will be marred by dirt. You will stand flanked by your best friends, whose dresses are pale yellow, whose hair is combed neatly, whose smiles are never forced.
You must wear a sweater to the first day of junior high, Patrick Henry Junior High, even though the temperature is in the high eighties. Don’t change, even if you’re already sweating in your bedroom. Don’t Change. That’s what your grammar school yearbook told you over and over: Don’t Change. See you next year! So you don’t change. You must be determined to stay the way you are, forever. So you wear the sweater—the one you bought especially for the first day of school, because in the air-conditioned dressing room it felt so soft against your skin, and that green so pretty against your eyes—and it will make you so hot you’ll get nauseous and throw up on the grass when your mother parks the car.
An inauspicious beginning to junior high, to this school named after a patriot who famously cried, “Give me Liberty or Give me Death!”—an odd slogan for a public school, where all the students fidget against their restraints and spend nearly all their class hours yearning to be free. You won’t know it until years later, but Patrick Henry not so famously had a wife who went insane. When she became dangerously disturbed she was “clothed in a Quaker Shirt,” precursor to the straitjacket. You’ve never been in a straitjacket but imagined it many times, how it would feel to be so swaddled you could harm neither yourself nor others.
You’ll think of Sarah, Patrick Henry’s wife, and her six children, and the Quaker shirt tight against her shoulder blades. She will live the rest of her life in a basement apartment, tended to by her loving husband, a man who knows something about restraints. You will try to imagine such love, how it wraps around a person—not like a Quaker shirt, but a heavy terry-cloth robe, white and oh-so-clean.
You must be preoccupied with uniforms. You will watch movies of girls in boarding school and crave their crisp khaki skirts, their pressed white blouses, the little kerchiefs knotted neatly at the throat. You will study pictures of women in uniform—stewardesses, waitresses, nurses—and envy even the utilitarian shoes with their thick soles. Ah, to be freed from the tyranny of the closet! Your closet—which offers up its sad retinue day after day, asking you to choose.
When you enter high school—Granada Hills High—you will set your sights on becoming a Granada Hills Highlander—those girls who dress in Scottish costumes and dance the Highland Fling during Friday night football halftimes. They wear plaid kilts and tight fitting waistcoats fastened with hook and eye. They wear black lace-up slippers and white knee socks. They must always smile; the smile is part of the complicated dress code, the Highland Fling a joyful dance, a dance of victory. The dancers all look tall and chiseled and fit; when they dance, their pointed toes cross in front and behind and in front of the opposite knee. The moves are all sanctioned and perfect. There is no improvisation in the Highland Fling.
You practice the Fling in gym class. You must kick out your legs and raise your arms into an arc above your head, your fingertips touching. You smile hard. But your moves are clumsy and imperfect. Your knees pull in at odd angles, your ankles thick and heavy, so you do not fling so much as stomp. Your toes cramp when they point. You won’t make even the first cut.
So you set your sights lower—on the “stat girls” who keep score at the basketball games. Their uniform is a simple letter jacket, in green and white leather, which they wear on Friday afternoons no matter the weather. These girls do not have to be tall or fit; they simply have to be observant, and good with numbers, keeping track of stats for each player: the number of rebounds, assists, goals, fouls. They sit in a row high above the players’ bench, so they get a clear view of sweaty backs, muscled calves. While the players look to the cheerleaders—in their short pleated skirts, the big H emblazoned on their breasts—behind them the stat girls stare at cute bums in long shorts, take the players’ measure in more ways than one.
You take the test, studying stats and percentages, dreaming of that heavy letter jacket and your own clipboard. On the day they announce the stat girl roster over the PA, you’re sure your name will be mentioned. You set your face to act surprised, that anticipatory smile on your lips, but when the announcement is over your name remains unsaid. You sit for a few moments with that smile still on your lips, then let it fade inconspicuously as you can. No one else will really be listening to the announcements; your classmates ignore you in their customary ways, nothing special in their disdain. You’ll look down and notice a stain—orange juice? Jelly?—on your white Keds. You see that your knee socks have once again slumped to your ugly ankles. What is wrong with you?
By this time, you must give up on the idea that you’ll be appropriately dressed for the occasion, any occasion. You will get sent home from your job at JC Penney for wearing argyle knee socks, though they are clean and do not slump to your ankles. You will go to what someone told you was a costume party, wearing kitten ears and a tail, and at the door all eyes will turn your way as you survey in horror the room full of jeans and t-shirts. We know you’re trying. You’ve tried to follow the dress code, but must have missed the tutorial on the special function of the decoder ring. The one that tells you how to interpret all the changing signs of fashion.
You’ll start wearing a lot of plaid, not because you’re a thwarted Highland dancer, but because it doesn’t show the dirt. You’ll shop at Sears with your mother, and buy nothing because nothing fits. You are between sizes. For the rest of your life you will be “between sizes,” no matter your weight or your level of fitness. It will be as though no size has been devised that conforms to your particular curvature of muscle and bone.
Most of the time, in your clothes, you will feel as though you’re trying too hard—even in jeans and a t-shirt—so you pretend to not care, wearing hippy clothes carefully assembled to give the curated pose of not caring. You’ll wear baggy shirts, worn-out jeans, halter-tops, or peasant shirts with elastic at the throat and the wrists. This elastic chafes at your skin, leaves small welts that itch and itch. You suffer under this clothing that’s designed for comfort.
Later, you’ll read about clothing used as various forms of penance: the hair shirt, for instance, woven of goat hair to girdle the loins. You’ll feel the shame your ugliness brings upon yourself, and your mother, and your mother’s mother. You’ll wonder what penance you are serving: you, in your mismatched clothes that hurt.
Okay, this casual thing, it’s going a bit too far. You’ll embarrass your big brother by showing up on campus in dirty overalls and bare feet. What is wrong with you? The sidewalks in Northridge heat up to 100 degrees; you will hop from foot to foot as you cross the burning asphalt.
You’ll make your way north, to Berkeley, where it’s cooler and you can wear the ratty sweaters you favor. But the sheer number of hip people frightens you. You get there just in time to hear of Jim Jones—a Bay Area pastor—leading his followers to Africa. Something’s not right in the air; people gather in clumps and solemnly shake their heads. You want to understand the desire to follow a leader to your death, to have faith that an afterlife is better than the life you live on earth. You hear a new band, the Talking Heads, in the quad, and something about their music sets you dancing, though you don’t really want to dance. You want to cry instead.
You become a Deadhead. Here, the uniform is clear: Fatigued army jacket with swirly skirt. Patches of skulls and roses. Dilated pupils. You take on this uniform easily, and the dancing you do is fluid, all kinetic motion, frantic to fling off anything that binds you to you.
You must find a place that has an “undress code.” This place will be Orr Hot Springs, a place in the Mendocino woods that declares, at the gated entrance, “You may encounter nudity beyond this point.” This declaration can be taken as both warning and self-congratulation—a grin.
You’ll end up living at this place for four years, and during this time you must be nude for approximately a third of your waking hours. There is nudity in the bathhouse, in the sauna, and in the swimming pool. There is nudity in the communal shower (but no shampoo allowed!). There is nudity on the paths to and from these various areas, though most people put on some form of clothing while cooking dinner in the communal dining room. Still you see many bare breasts dangling over the chopping block, many a naked behind swaying as someone washes the dishes.
During the community meetings, some of the residents show up in bathrobes or towels. You have no money, so you scrounge your outfits out of the Free Box on the porch. The lid of the Free Box is heavy and thick; you have to hold it open with one hand while you rummage with the other. You find large tie-dyed t-shirts, cotton shorts with fringed hems, wrap-around paisley skirts that are not quite threadbare. It’s as though the Free Box time traveled from the 1960s, its contents held snug in a treasure chest for you to open. When you’re not naked, you’ll wear these things like a uniform, sashaying through the lodge with your tanned calves, your strong shoulders.
When you’re naked, you still feel clothed. You sit on the edge of the swimming pool, one foot lazily stirring the body-temperature water. You steam yourself in the sauna, simmer in the hot tub, until you feel closer to naked, your personas melting away one by one, until there’s nothing left but a core that burns.
When you’re between sizes, it’s tempting to buy pants with elastic waists. You must avoid this temptation, for elastic waists are truly the most unflattering cut ever invented. Yet, there’s one pair of pants you can’t resist, from Chefwear: your vegetable pants. They are made of a sturdy cotton, with rows of vibrant vegetables running up and down the legs: violet eggplants, pencil-sharp carrots, asparagus shafts, ripe tomatoes, purple cabbage, ears of husked corn. Each of these vegetables stays in its furrowed row, the black field mimicking the fertile earth from which they came.
You will get compliments on these pants, which will keep you wearing them at inappropriate times. You wear them on a meditation retreat, the bright vegetables so vibrant against everyone else’s muted brown.
On Buddhist retreats you’ll notice, of course, the monks, and the way they can pull off the brown robe draped over a shoulder. At a retreat in the YMCA of the Rockies, you’ll see nuns swimming in the pool, still clothed in their raiment, the robes fluttering out behind them like the skin of an otter. Their bald heads shine as bright as their smiles. You know the robes are meant to create a blank field for the true self to emerge. You look down at your vegetable pants and feel a shame that goes back to your mother, and your mother’s mother. What is wrong with you?
After taking yoga for twenty years, you must finally advance beyond the beginning class. You take yin yoga, vinyasa yoga, intuitive flow, and feel the way your body has started to adapt to the postures, to become them. You take your glasses off, so if there’s a mirror in the room you see only a blurred outline of yourself—the hips narrow, the shoulders wide. You see this body finding the core of itself in plank, lowering slowly to the belly the way you’ve been taught, and swooping into upward-facing dog.
It’s not until after the class is over that you notice you’re wearing dirty sweatpants, smears of your breakfast yogurt decorating the knees. You see the way your tank top has stretched out along the straps, the elastic showing. You envy the younger yoginis and their tight yoga pants that emphasize the flat belly, the shapely butts, the strong back.
The Athleta catalog comes in the mail. It always comes in the mail, sometimes two or three times a week, an annoying voice nattering in your ear: See how these $80 yoga pants will shape you up? See what you could do in this $50 camisole? The women in these clothes do yoga on stand-up paddleboards. They swing through a Bali marketplace in a cute little dresses they’ve thrown over their yoga clothes. They do downward dog in a desert, or straddle splits atop a horse. On the website, in the “inspiration gallery,” they say: Out here, I’m free. To be me. Ready to take on anything. You fill your virtual cart with spandex that will let you be free, to be me, but then balk at the final price tag this freedom requires.
When you hear the word “becoming” directed, for the first time, at you, you’ll flush with pleasure. That’s very becoming, the saleswoman says as you walk timidly out of the dressing room, and you turn in front of the three-way mirror, seeing parts of yourself you never consider: the back of your head, the indent of your knees. You’ll think about the way the word becoming means both attractive and emerging. The word for God, in Hebrew, means I am becoming who I will become. When you wear something that fits, you feel yourself becoming in all senses of the word.
You’ll remember the men in the synagogue, decked out at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The men in their fringed tallis and yarmulkes, veiled in the name of God. The veil both reveals and conceals, and God hovers both visible and invisible at once. For the devout, God abides in the spaces in between; God is between sizes. Some of the men wear tefillin: a small box that holds fragments of Torah. These men are clothed in sacred text.
At some point you find yourself in a Quaker meeting, and the silence wraps around you like a robe. Here there is no need to worry about your clothes; no one notices. Traditional Quakers wear “Plain Dress,” so as not to bring attention to worldly things. Plain, a word you did your best to avoid as a child. For a while you wore clothes to get attention, then clothes to not get attention. Here, you are clothed in silence, a substance that fits you like a glove.
It reminds you of a story your friend Connie told you about working at a pre-school in Manhattan. They built a butterfly cage, filled it with Monarchs. The children spread sugar water on their arms and legs, then walked inside the chicken wire. The butterflies lit on them by the dozens, sipping at their skin. Some of the children might have cried, some must have laughed, but all, for a few moments, stood clothed in this unearthly gauze.
Don’t be surprised if you find, at the end of your life, that you’re still between sizes. And though you will have finally earned the right to wear whatever you want, you must still wear something clean. You must wear clothes that match even a little bit—some hint of the colors at least trying to coordinate. Yes, we know you can dress yourself, but you must wear shoes. You must wear socks with those shoes, preferably two that match. You must not show your underpants, but if you do, accidentally, as you are prone to do zooming your wheelchair down the wide corridors of the nursing home, these underpants should not be dirty.
After all this time, you’ll still be on the lookout for the garment to properly contain you. You imagine a tailor at the gates of heaven, one who takes your measure and drapes across your shoulders a cloth made entirely of light. You step out of the dressing room and turn before an infinite mirror. The angels applaud. Your mother and your mother’s mother will nod their approval. There is nothing wrong with you. You’ll look at yourself a long time, this new raiment reflecting onto your face all that is good and fine. It fits, you say. I’ll take it.
Brenda Miller is the author of Listening Against the Stone (Skinner House Books 2011), Blessing of the Animals (EWU Press 2009), Season of the Body (Sarabande Books 2002), and co-author of Tell it Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction (McGraw-Hill 2003). Her work has received six Pushcart Prizes and has been published in numerous journals. She is a professor of English at Western Washington University and serves as editor-in-chief of the Bellingham Review. Her latest book The Pen and The Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World, co-authored with poet Holly J. Hughes, was released in 2012 from Skinner House Books.