Dressing Up and Connecting

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Dressing Up and Connecting…No, not what you may be thinking…

From the time I can first remember, I was into fashion.  This can be hard for a kid with very little resources.  I’m the youngest in a family of five “kids.”  I’ve stated in previous blog entries that we grew up working-class poor, and by the time I came along, money was pretty tight.  Yeah…few pictures of me, the usual stuff for the youngest, but it was also a time when my dad was chronically ill, we were living through a bad economy (he was laid off), and/or was on strike…not great economic times in the U.S.

But, if you’re me, at five years old, on school picture day, you’re just thinking about looking cute with perfect hair and an amazing dress.  Money, be damned!  So, yes, that is my kindergarten picture, and I HATED it.  Yes, ask any one of my siblings…oh, did I make a stink about kindergarten picture day and THAT picture.  I was so excited for picture day.  My mom indulged me and set my hair the night before with those hard pink curlers that had to be attached with bobby pins.  I swear I don’t even know if I slept, or how I possibly could have.  I awoke the next morning excited to see the results of those curlers wrapped around thin wisps of hair (I have thick hair now, but I had thin, unruly hair, that refused to grow until maybe third grade.)  She unwrapped those curlers, and…no, not cute.  Oh. No!!…this was not okay.  Not by a long shot.  A huge damn poof on my head.  (I swear I can feel the emotions of that day, and no…no bueno.)  If I knew the words, I would have asked, “and what the hell is this mess on the top of my head?”  I remember my mom frantically trying to tease it out.  She is a patient woman.  (Because I almost died at birth I think she was especially patient with me.)  As far as I was concerned no amount of combing was going to save this thing.  It was a mess.  And then there were the socks…oh, sure the dress had been picked out and was ready to go, but what about the socks???  This hadn’t been worked out, I’m sure to my mother’s chagrin.  They needed to match the dress!  (okay, so maybe I should have been diagnosed with OCD, but we didn’t know about those things then.)  We finally found some socks that calmed me down; some ankle ones with the lace frill trim.  Yes, I do remember.  Don’t judge.  Some may call my reaction “spoiled rotten.”  I can see that, but I blame my dad…

And this is where I had a light-bulb moment in therapy.  (Side note:  If you are tenure-track in academia and not seeing a therapist, pick up the phone right now.  I’ll wait.  You’re welcome.)  My dad was a debonair man.  Sure, I mostly remember him in polyester pants with white tank tops, but he loved to dress up.  Yes, I’ve mentioned the Old Spice wafting in the air (I love smelling good too).  When he would go to church, it was in full suit regalia.  And when he’d take my mom to the “Latin American Club” dance and dinners, same thing.  I loved watching them get ready.  My dad was especially about attention to detail.  He’d work on that thick wavy black hair, smoothing the Breel Cream on until it was just right.  See where I get it now?  He was tall, dark, and handsome.  I am glad to always have this image of him.  (When he died I refused to see him in the coffin; I knew that image would haunt me forever.  I’m glad I made that choice at 16).

So about those socks…my dad had to match too…the tie, shirt, suit, even if not the best quality, he insisted on looking good when he went out.  He loved dressing up.  I love dressing up.  He was all about “the fashion.”  And I am just like him in that regard.  My dad came up in therapy as he regularly does.  This time in relation to my feeling guilty about how hard he worked for the family.  As I was growing up I saw him tired and sick, and still working on his sense of style :).  It came up in the context of my brother being sick.  He was just diagnosed with kidney cancer (side note: my sister’s husband died of kidney cancer in January so we are basically shell-shocked right now).  He works at an oil refinery alongside all kinds of nasty chemicals.  I think this may have something to do with his being sick, but who knows?  Up until my other brother got a B.A. much older in life, I was the only one to attend a four-year university and eventually obtain a Ph.D.  Sometimes I wonder, “why me?”  Why did I get this opportunity and not them?  This hit me in the gut with my brother being sick.  What if he didn’t have such a difficult labor-intensive job with chemicals surrounding him?  How come I’m the only one of five who went on to college?  For as much stress as a tenure-track job can be, I love what I do.  Maybe he loves what he does too?  Maybe.  But his body gets wracked, and he may have wanted a different path.  As a first generation Latina college student the odds were against me, so why me?  (My dad had died the year I would be applying to college.  The financial aid forms alone where enough to make me want to stop the whole process.  It’s an academic version of survivor’s guilt.)

If you know me (or have read my other blog entries), I digress…but it’s all related…so hang on.  My guilt was a topic of therapy because I was having a very hard week and reverted to buying a dress online that I didn’t need (but it’s soooo cute!).  I told my therapist and felt like a failure.   She said, “Are you returning it?”  I replied, “of course not!”  She smiled and said, “So why are you beating yourself up?”   I laughed, “At least you recognize it as a coping mechanism.  Don’t be so hard on yourself.”  I’m a perfectionist in all that I do, and I don’t like failing at therapy.  Retail therapy? Yes, it’s a real concept.  I told her that I feel guilty for my dad working so hard and for my brother working so hard.  Those damn Vans tennis shoes are still in my head.  I was in junior high school and wanted them so badly.  My dad got them for me.  He may have worked overtime.  I don’t even know, but we were poor at that time and could NOT afford them.  Yet, he got them for me.  Those light blue and white slip on Vans.  Oh, those shoes!!  When this came up in therapy I was beating myself up.  (My therapist is constantly telling me that I’m very hard on myself, and that it doesn’t accomplish much.  This part hasn’t sunk through yet though.)  She told me something that then made me feel very connected to my dad.  She said that from what I’ve been telling her about my dad, he was into getting me the latest fashion.  This was a joy for him too.  He wanted to do that for me.  And she said, “you’d do that for your kids too.”  Yes!! I would!  Fashion was important to him; it wasn’t superficial.  It was an expression of who he was.  And I’m just like him.  He wanted to see me enjoy the latest style, just like him.  And it’s funny but I just took my son Tomas to the mall to buy clothes because it’s an expression for him too.  Yes, I get it.

Often times, dressing up is seen as superficial, but it isn’t.  It’s about connecting.  My sense of style connects me to my dad and to my son.  When my son first laid out his clothes for picture day I had a flashback…like this is payback!  He was so insistent that his under-shirt match his sweater.  He missed the bus because he was still working on his outfit.  Oh, what a headache.  I though, “you deserve this.  LOL.”  It means something so powerful to me now to think about this connection through dressing up.  You want your loved ones to be happy, and you’ll do what it takes to help them fit it and support their expression because we cannot escape our culture.  Dressing up is not superficial.  It’s connection.  Why do we consider this form any less than other forms of connection?

Then, I had another light-bulb moment that sealed the connections for me.  A former student of mine who is now in grad school posted a picture of a beautiful maxi-dress with the caption: “I can’t wait until I can afford this.”  I was moved.  I love beautiful dresses, but it was more than that.  I’ve been there.  I wanted her to have that dress.  Normally I do things like this anonymously, but it was difficult in this case.  I needed an address.  I bought her the dress and sent it to the address she provided.  I can explain it now…dressing up…it’s important.  It’s expression.  My connection with her was also my connection with my dad and my son.  Don’t tell me dressing up is superficial because I know better…

Oh, and that kindergarten picture?  I got through it.  I like that picture now.  Just a bad hair day 🙂

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