Stumbling into a 12th step recovery program at age twenty-seven, I “came to” rife with fear, guilt, shame. Self-confidence was in the gutter. I hadn’t lost much else as I hadn’t possessed the skills and mental health to achieve anything of value to lose. There wasn’t much in the way of a wardrobe. I waited tables and outside of that uniform, it was the grunge era. My clubbing outfits were sparse ensembles of plaid mini skirts, flannels, tank tops and Doc Marten boots.
I plunged into the “stream of life”. Participating as a new (albeit raw) self-aware adult, I found the current – without any buffers or numbing agents – to be excruciatingly painful and humbling. Less like a “stream”, I felt violently buffeted and rushed in its level five rapids. And then scraped bloody and bruised by its drought-seasoned, rocky beds.
Was I A Mistake?
Anxiety and depressive thoughts churned through me. While I was no longer using unhealthy vices to cope or escape, it was clear I was far from the bedrock of mental health. The feeling that somehow, me being on this earth was a giant mistake (which had always been with me) plagued me with new certainty and volume.
My fellows in the twelfth step group shook their heads. They rejected that idea and shared with me one of their more well known axioms, “Act As If”. Initially, I recoiled from the, “Fake It ‘Til You Make It” idea. I had been posturing as a self-confident, artistic-type for years. Smoke and mirrors was my thing. I was especially adept at animated storytelling i.e. lying. I embellished about my heritage and exaggerated anecdotes. In some cases I borrowed those of others or just plain fabricated them wholesale.
Act As If
“Act As If” seemed like very bad advice for someone who was desperate to find a way to live on this planet, in her skin, in an authentic way. Still, my ingrained perceptions, I had discovered with their help, were often chronically narrow and heavily influenced by fear.
One day, a woman with a throaty, confident laugh and a comportment of ease encouraged me to follow a sensible grooming routine. “Get out of your sweats, put something nice on”, she gently urged. She also suggested I make an effort with my hair and put on a little make up.
I did. And quite honestly, it was uncomfortable. There was no bibbidy-bobbidy-boo, transformative magic. I felt like a fraud, of the you-can’t-make-a-silk-purse-out-of-a-sow’s-ear variety. I personally don’t understand how Cinderella was able to just waltz right in that night. My advisor lovingly urged me to continue. Bring the body, the mind will follow. Take the action, the feelings will follow. “Fake It ‘Til You Make It”.
I Was Transformed
I remember the first ensemble that was a boon to my self-confidence. It was a simple Calvin Klein wool tunic in a royal shade of purple I borrowed from my mother. It had slightly belled sleeves and a subtle A-line silhouette. I wore the tunic over opaque black leggings and black suede, knee-high, slouchy boots. An ample, art deco pendant with an amethyst in its center rested elegantly just below my sternum. I was transformed into a modern day pirate, plundering my mom’s closet.
With my untamable, curly, blonde hair, the modern, simplistic styling of my clothes was a pleasing balance. I felt the power of possibility, if not yet truly empowered. The approving glances and occasional compliment from a female coworker were both superficial victories as well as profound.
The feeling was, “If I can do this right, dressing and moving among all you people and learn how to format a word document, perhaps I am not a lost cause. Perhaps I can be a late bloomer and still be something? Do something?” Perhaps I was capable.
Of course I’ve learned through years of living (and copious hours of therapy) self-esteem cannot be bought. It comes from taking estimable actions. The idea that “I’m ok because I look good, am wearing the right labels or am styled “just so” often dovetails into the chasing-of-the -dragon’s-tail-high of overspending and over-consuming. This only serves to fatten rapacious clothing manufacturers’ bottoms while the self esteem becomes emaciated and stops having her period.
Snake Oil Salesman
Fashion – while historically, sociologically and artistically relevant has also become a snake oil salesman of sorts. Voracious in its determination to be the hottest, latest and the “must have-est” to the detriment of humanity. It is an ocean to be navigated with awe, enjoyed for its soul-lifting and playfulness properties as well as fearfully respected for its dark and destructive powers.
And if all of one’s self esteem is what lies on the skin, fashion’s tide will eventually rip it away. Leaving one naked and shivering. Conversely, if one is starting over, coming up from a place way down low, or just having a random, human, insecurity attack, that favorite pair of pants, heels, dress, scarf or even underwear can be a sturdy railing while regaining one’s sea legs.
Fashion can have the power to calm the storminess of fear and faulty perceptions until we are able to clearly see and feel our inner reflections once more. There is something meaningful in enduring and persevering. Of taking contrary action to how we feel. Physically putting on the “power” of fashion can be a kinetic act that communicates to an anxious mind, “See how brave I am? How capable?”.
Donning even just a favorite article, can guide the anxious mind out of the harbor. Help the depressive mind move through the pain and into the open water of life, where abundant opportunities exist to construct sustainable self-confidence. Perspectives will shift, epiphanies will be had. One more day of grieving, healing and forging through will be successfully chalked up.
Fashion isn’t the answer to self-confidence or to healing a mental or emotional health malady. However I’ve found it has the profound magic of hand holding, while navigating turbulent waters.
Written by Angela Borneman.