I was going to use these photos for a Reader Request about how to wear a jumpsuit to work, but it wasn’t really coming together. You can’t really spin hundreds of words out of “I don’t know – I just would”. Instead, that question gave me the opportunity to think about what’s changed in the past 14 years, from that very young woman buying work appropriate clothes with her WINZ allowance, to the jumpsuit-wearing maniac I am today.
As we know, I’ve been clothes-mad for most of my life. I can remember specific outfits I had even as a very small child. I still remember getting a pair of new shoes when I was about 10, and walking around flat-footed “to keep them nice”. Nowadays I write a blog about clothes, as a hobby. Clearly, there’s never been a problem with self-expression via fashion as a concept.
Except – there was a problem with my self-expression, and that problem was self-consciousness. It came on a little later for me. After a reasonably confident teenagehood, living in a small town with the same group of friends for six years, I moved to Wellington at age 17 – technically and definitely still a child – and immediately became crushingly self-conscious.
I don’t mean shy (although I was also that). I mean, if I walked past a group and they happened to laugh, I burned with the shame of thinking they were laughing at me. If I was late to a lecture, I would be unable to enter late, in case everyone (anyone, really) looked at me. I felt constantly “wrong”, like my gait, clothes, voice, everything, were wrong and awkward. I had no experience with dress codes, so I worried about wearing the right thing to parties (critically important when you are that age). Once I got to those parties, I would say basically nothing in case what I said was wrong; if I only knew one or two people I would go and call one of my friends so I didn’t feel like such a freak. I didn’t trust myself to accurately guess when someone was joking, so when a boy rang me up in second year of uni, and told me that his weekend plan was to hang out with this great girl he’d met, I just said “oh, okay” because I was too unsure that he was talking about me and I was too scared he’d laugh at me if I assumed. (He was talking about me; he was a kind boy and made a major contribution to the diminishment of my self-consciousness). It was so sad, and lonely despite the friendships I was surrounded by, especially because it felt like everyone else knew what was going on and what they were doing and, most of all, it felt like they were all a lot cooler than me.
This might seem like a weird thing to visit on this blog, nearly 20 years after the experience. I’m writing about it because I am sure I am not alone. I am sure there are people reading this blog who know exactly how I felt. I am sure there are people who still feel this way – very rarely, I still feel it too, even after nearly two decades. And I think it’s important to be honest that confidence, and my “I do what I want” philosophy, were hard won after that little window in my life. But they were winnable, and if you’re reading this and feeling self-conscious (or feeling shitty about yourself), I hope you believe that you can win too.
Here are the things that happened to me that changed things. I met the kind boy, and he started teaching me what it meant to have Big Ideas and a bigger heart and to find people who were excited by both those things. I worked in retail, where they forced me out of my comfort zone and I realised the sky would not fall if I said “hey, how’s your day going” to a stranger (it remains a miracle to me that I got that job. I can only assume the psychometric testing was broken). The first time I talked to someone on the shop floor I felt physically sick. A few years later I was a natural. I went to law school, and specifically, elected to take Bob Dugan’s classes at VUW, where he asked me questions every single class for an entire year. On day one I nearly cried, I dug my fingernails into my palms under the desk to stop myself, and my palms were marked with red crescents for hours. By the end of the year I had learned to prepare, and I had learned that even if I prepared, I might still be wrong, and I was okay. I credit Bob Dugan with giving me about 5% of the sassiness I am proud to have today. I had counselling, and came to understand my unflagging need for other people to approve of me. I came to understand how much it would hurt me if I didn’t change that point of view, I learned how to manage it most of the time. I met some people whose opinions I cared about; and then learned that not every opinion matters. I met some other people whose opinions I care about; and I learned that those people are generous and kind and they will never make you feel small or wrong.
Basically I learned that almost nobody cares for more than about 2 seconds about what you’re doing or what you look like or how you sound or what you just said or if your joke was lame or anything else. The 0.009% of humans who do care, fall into two camps: dickheads who have nothing better to do; and people who legitimately care about you and how you’re getting on. The secret is distinguishing between the two groups – usually easy, but just watch out for the person who is full of advice on how you could be even better but completely lacking in thoughts about how you’re already succeeding.
There’s also another group: 100% of humans, who have all been horrifically awkward and wanted to fall into a hole. All humans have fallen over in the street or worn jeans to a fancy event accidentally or called their boss “Mum” or dropped a cake or ripped their pants or fallen asleep and snored on the bus. ALL OF THEM. I have done all of those things I just listed and I am just one human – together, we have embarrassed ourselves a billion gajillion times and so far nobody has actually spontaneously combusted from everyone looking at them. Self-consciousness is the price of being a human. It’s believing that everyone else in the world is living in your world, when in fact they’re all living in their own little self-centric worlds. It’s us and cats, embarrassing ourselves by slipping off the windowsill and then glancing around to see if anyone noticed.
Realising that every other human has felt the burning pain of self-consciousness is what made it recede into the distance for me. It still exists, because I still want to live in society so I guess I will keep feeling a pang when I don’t comply with the tribe rules (please don’t throw me into the wilds to fend for myself against saber toothed tigers, I haven’t done cardio in years). It’s just saved for suitable moments now, like when you realise you’ve been calling someone Sarah for the past two years when her name is actually Susan (not a real story but my god. That would test my resilience). To bring it back to the blog, that means I also realise people have worn things they regret. People (me) have worn things they thought they would look great in, but instead looked terrible in (like, recently). Nothing keeps your style humble like spending six hours stuck in an outfit that you have just realised makes you look absolutely ridiculous.
From talking to people constantly about clothes and fashion and style, I can tell you that happy and fulfilled people very rarely, if ever, talk about how bad someone else looks. They talk about how amazing a dress looked on Pippa at that party last week, they say things like “do you reckon she dyes her hair? I’d love to know where she goes, it looks fucking excellent”. They let you take a photo of them in a matching tracksuit with their hair messed up and their eyes closed from laughing and then they’re the one who shares it in the group chat. When you embarrass yourself they definitely laugh because it’s definitely funny but they also immediately help you sort it out.
In short, if it helps you, know that the people who matter will only laugh at you in a way that is intended to make you feel less ridiculous and the people who laugh at you in a mean way are on the path towards a karmic retribution. Get outta that comfort zone, via the comfort that comes from the visual image of all your enemies falling into a dog poo on their walk to work. Find the confidence that comes from knowing that ultimately – we’re all ridiculous.
(PS: If I’d been cripplingly self-conscious forever, I could never have started this blog (where I take photos of myself with a tripod), and I doubt I would have visited, let alone loved, New York. I would have missed the opportunity to have fun approximately 12,000 times by now. I would never have written a blog post where I confessed to ripping my pants in public (still not even CLOSE to the most embarrassing thing I’ve ever done). I wouldn’t be able to do my job; I wouldn’t have been able to do my last job either. I wouldn’t have been able to ask for help in the Spotlight store near me so I wouldn’t have bought my beloved sewing machine - yes, it was that extreme. I wouldn’t be delighting in my fabulous vintage suit from the weekend and I sure as shit wouldn’t be wearing the jumpsuit in this post. I wouldn’t be doing a pottery class with strangers and I wouldn’t have won my fancy award and I wouldn’t be sitting on a board. The three most important women in my life would’t have become my friends. In short, my life would have been a weak shadow of what it is right now, and it’s important to remember that holding yourself back for the crime of being an awkward human is a terrible, terrible waste.)