I’ve spent most of my teen years in limbo about my appearance. I just always felt I should be doing more. Partly, that had to do with other people’s ideas about how I should look, and my belief that if you want to draw people in you have to look interesting. My idea of interesting has changed over the years. It’s included vintage ’70s looks I’d found on Tumblr (less Farrah Fawcett, more Foxy Brown), and riot grrl wear—dresses with peter pan collars paired with Docs. I even went through a very, very brief girlfriend-of-a-hypebeast phase (I had to give that one up, because I didn’t have the money to buy the Supreme to match the swag of my imaginary boyfriend, but I did try).
Clothing is like a bat signal. I’ve seen my brother bond with people over the latest Jordans. He and his friends form a secret, cultlike fan club: Meetings take place on the roof of his friend BJ’s building, where they fawn over the newest releases. Each one partakes in the ritual opening of the KicksOnFire app, and in figuring out a budget to support their habit. My brother: “I have some money saved up from Christmas! I can get my mom to go half on the Aqua 8s, and have enough left over for the matching retro pullover. Then, I can get my dad to buy me the Maroon Jordan 6s, you can wear anything with that.”
“Nah, you can’t wear anything with those, my guy. I’m looking for a Maroon Polo.”
He’s even got me involved. We go all over the tri-state area, between corporate spots like Footlocker and more “lowkey spots, I know they got ’em!” We enter raffles and await calls before ultimately deciding to get up early on Saturday morning in hopes of catching the sneaker before it sells out.
I allowed myself to be sucked into their world, their lingo, because that connection was something I longed for, too. Early on in high school, I wanted people to be drawn to me by clothing I wore, for the way I dressed to indicate my views on the world. I didn’t want the run of the mill affirmation,“Oooh, girl that’s cute, where’d you get that from?” but, “Wow, that’s such an obscure band that I’m also obsessing over, let’s discuss their entire catalog.” Hoping my dress sense would reveal me as one of the most interesting people in any room, I imagined the missed connection ad about me:
I saw you across the room. We barely made eye contact, but it made me aware that you’re cool and aloof. Your ’60s-Motown-girl-group–inspired bob frames your face perfectly, and your glasses also indicate that you’re a deep thinker. Or was it the bell hooks shirt you clearly made in your bedroom? Anyway, be my best friend for life. Hmu.
You’d think my arrogance would cancel out my insecurities about how I looked, but no. So much of my sense of self, and pride in myself, was rooted in what I knew, but I truly felt that clothing was the only thing that would draw people into caring how I felt about the world. If I was the black teenage girl version of the Dos Equis man I had to prove it.
I didn’t need a fly-ass outfit, I needed self-esteem. But I spent almost every day at war with myself, believing I “knew better” than to feel bad about myself—Mama raised me better than that! Botched attempts at makeovers left me hopeless, I didn’t want to be another version of someone else, I wanted to be myself, whoever that was. I laugh in retrospect, because at that point, “myself” was a pretentious art lover who soaked in new information and was dying to impress others with all she had learned. If I’d dressed to truly reflect who I was it would include an all-black outfit with one of those French tam hats, a cigarette holder, and blowing smoke in the faces of my uncultured enemies.
The thing about feeling inadequate is that you can always find a way to validate that feeling. I was using a bullshit excuse about “not looking interesting” to tear myself down and avoid engaging in conversation with others. Meanwhile, I lived in an antisocial fantasyland (aka my bedroom), where I built dreams for myself and hoped that one day I’d trip, fall, and find myself in conversation with people I’d normally be apprehensive to engage. I told myself that I was an introvert, or, in sillier moods, I deluded myself, believing the world wasn’t ready for the truth I was about to drop. Neither was true: It was self-sabotage, which I engaged in for a litany of reasons, all of them to do with feeling low. I didn’t just worry whether I looked good enough to talk to the boy at his locker. I worried whether I looked good enough to go to events I’d been invited to, then decided I didn’t, and didn’t show up.
And yet there I was, standing in front of a room of people and reading an excerpt of my work at the Rookie Yearbook Four event last fall in Brooklyn. It was the first I had ever attended, and I was very nervous. The kind of nervous where you put on a facade for your friend like, “Girl I got this! This is light work,” and distract yourself with other more important things like, “I really hope my twistout lasts through the night.” In reality, as you’re waiting off on the side to read and looking around the room at people you’ve long admired, you begin to shake.
As evidenced by the many pictures I took of myself that night, my hair was super on point. Not all twistouts are created equal, sometimes you just work your fingers ’til they hurt, put your bonnet on, and hope for the best. I had spent the first half of 2015 growing out a perm and that came with criticism from everybody. People I hadn’t spoken to in year emerged from the woodwork like, “Oh, girl, you doing that natural stuff? I don’t know about that natural thing, but I guess.” Deflecting that criticism with a shrug of the shoulder and the flip of a well-hydrated twist was integral to building my self-esteem. I was fully committed to seeing the end result, to trying to hairstyles I’d seen on the internet, to doing that silly thing where you define your curl pattern to a number and a letter. (I guess I’m 4c/4b? Who cares?) Nobody was going to stop that—not my aunties, not my best friend’s sister who works the cash register at the Rite Aid, nobody. Turns out that in the process of becoming the UNSTOPPABLE, NUBIAN, NATURAL HAIR GODDESS I imagined myself to be, I cultivated love for myself. That night, the natural hair goddesses must’ve been with me because my hair hasn’t come out that cute since.
I wore a minimalist outfit: a white button down with black pants and gold sparkly shoes. I was going for an Anne Sexton at her typewriter, Toni Morrison at Random House look. My clothes paid homage to versions of myself that helped comprise me as I am now. The ninth grade me who read sad poetry, half of it flying over my head, searching between the lines to find anything relatable to my devastating teenage life, oh woe is me! The sophomore me, not done wallowing in my own pity but freeing myself in the images of the black women writers, filmmakers, musicians, and dancers who came before me. It was too plain an outfit to draw others in—that’s a goal I’ve put behind me. What I wore felt right, it was very me.
I read my writing—a tool I used to articulate all that I was feeling during my lowest point in the life, which I’d hit earlier that year. My mom pointed out how funny it was that at a reading with fellow writers, I read a piece about telling Zadie Smith I didn’t think I was a writer. Calling myself a writer had always felt wrong, because the people I knew to be writers seemed to embody a passion, genius, and wit that I felt I lacked. Not to mention that most curricula consist of moody, tortured white men. (I can give the moody and tortured if need be, but white man I am not.) Reading in this magical space, that was open and yet intimate, validated me. I spent the rest of the night floating around talking with my peers: Girls who had the same interests and same insecurities as I do; girls who had read my writing, decided they’d liked it, and approached me to tell me so. I was brimming with happiness.
Meeting the women who support and mentor me contributed to assuring myself that I am enough. Probably the highlight of my life was meeting Gabi Fresh whose blog was so important to learning to love myself, especially because I’m a big girl. My friend and I used to cut school, eat at a Greek restaurant around the corner, and fawn over her Instagram. She was accessible, beautiful, and pointed me in the direction of some great clothing.
I also met Julianne Escobedo Shepherd in person. Back when I would look into the mirror as I put away freshly folded clothing—postcards of quotes, pictures of Michael B. Jordan, and people I planned on usurping in various industries sticking out of the side of the mirror—I’d lean in real close, looking at myself, striking poses for headshots that’d be in the back of my first published book, or photos used in a Rolling Stone profile about me. These were secret aspirations—I’d proclaim them on Twitter or whisper them to my mom, just to know they were real. After many Twitter exchanges with her, I emailed Julianne, telling her with great uncertainty, that I, like her, wanted to be a music journalist. Not only did she respond with encouragement, she made herself my mentor. Hugging her that night, I didn’t want to let go. I hoped that through that hug she could understand at least a little of that feeling.
It occurred to me that meeting these women prior to that night had never been impossible—the people I look up to are accessible, they often attend the events I’m invited to, and I don’t live a million miles away—but I wasn’t ready. It’s more apparent than ever that it was me: I was my biggest enemy, I was in my own way. It wasn’t my inability to put together an “interesting” outfit. What is that anyway? That night on the train ride home, I felt more than just capable of doing big things, I recognized that I am already doing big things.
That feeling has followed me into the new year: I am applying for, going to, and exploring any little thing that interests me. Since that brisk fall day, I have been to more events and met more cool people which, for me, is a triumph. It’s the little things, like fighting your way to the front to ask the director Cary Fukunaga a question, and then for a picture despite the fact that you’re shaking in your rainboots and you hope he doesn’t know you follow several of his fan accounts because how embarrassing? Last year, I wouldn’t even have considered asking my question, but I had questions that needed answering and a picture that had to be taken so that I could send it to the group chat and flex.
Recognizing that I’ve been my own obstacle unlocks a world full of possibility. I write this for the girls who feel on the cusp of their particular greatness but who convince themselves they don’t deserve it. We absolutely deserve to dream, and our dreams aren’t impossible. I have ways to go still, but whenever I want to quit, or stagnate, I remember I have my younger self to answer to, and she would none too pleased with me coming this far and turning back. ♦