I used to have an outfit for each transformation of my body. More recently, my relationship to clothes has become complicated. I made a vow not to buy anything new—new to the world, that is. It’s been a strange, uncomfortable journey. At one time, a weekend trip to the mall was the only fix I could afford, a temporary quench for the endlessly parched throat of body dysmorphia. But I had to sever the link—it had to be done for both my personal and political health.
Fast fashion’s human impact—its global, environmental, any-way-you-look-at-it impact—is impossible to ignore. Those clearance sales at H&M, the Shein hauls, the clothes made to last for a season or trend or even just a night, are tossed like leftovers found at the back of the fridge once they have outlived their use. Or maybe outlived isn’t the right word because very often, they have fulfilled their purpose.
For me, that purpose was to hide whatever transformation I thought had occurred in my body. How funny that these garments, with such promise, always ended up feeling unworthy against my skin. That is to say, I felt unworthy. My body was unworthy.
Once, I looked at myself for a little too long in the mirror without turning off the overhead light. Quite suddenly, I was seized with the idea that my skeleton was crooked and my flesh was misshapen. It explained my uneven smile, why my nose tip demurely glanced to the right. The spaghetti straps of my tank tops only highlighted how fucked up my body was. I tore everything out of my closet and put it in a garbage bag. I went to the mall and returned with sweaters and loose, long-sleeved dresses that better hid my defect. I learned to smile with my lips sealed, the secret trapped discreetly between my tongue and teeth.
The crooked skeleton was the longest-lived of all the delusions brought about by OCD and body dysmorphia. But it was not the only time I became convinced something on my body wasn’t right, and I needed to hide it. Pieces of clothing I once felt confident in, outfits I loved to wear, suddenly made me sick. Physically ill. As I caught my reflection in the mirror, I would blanch like a scandalized woman in a decades-old novel. Something I had worn just a few days before with zero qualms was now a revolting sight.
Once, I didn’t leave my apartment for a week because nothing I owned would protect me. Something was wrong with my legs, and I needed to keep them hidden. I only had skinny jeans, which only emphasized my body’s wrongness. Already I had attempted a trip to the store, but when walking by a group of strangers, one of them laughed. I felt it had been at me, and I started to cry. People looked my way, and rather than worried, I sensed they were angry. Disgusted. I saw a mob with torches and knew that any monster would be at risk, so I ran home. I wept openly on the train car that was the emptiest and didn’t leave my bed for the rest of the day, and my bedroom for another few days.
I find it hard to love myself when limited. Not too long ago, I felt good about my shoulders. I lovingly thought of my soft figure and roundness as romantic, rosy, and cheerful, like an old painting. More recently, a sight I once admired in the mirror makes me cringe.
Once, I adored the camera. I eagerly asked friends to immortalize our evenings and outings. I posted photos of myself and my body in a variety of outfits and fits, pleased and if you can believe it, confident. I don’t remember when the change happened, when low self-esteem morphed into something with sharper teeth and bloodlust.
Perhaps I could go back and look at the photos to see when they became less and less frequent, but I’ve since deleted them all. No photos exist of my time in high school, my first few years of college. I wonder what that version of me looked like, but I can’t remember her.
When I made a vow to spurn fast fashion, spending my time instead in thrift stores or on Depop, it was because I wanted to do something good, something I could control. They say there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism, but that doesn’t absolve me from my role in consumerism; it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t think more critically about what systems I uphold with my purchases, where my money goes, who it supports. I have to shield my body. So, I decided it was my duty to make sure my shield was chosen carefully.
I’m lucky. My switch to second-hand purchases was well-supported by the infrastructure of my city. Thrift stores, vintage resellers, and gently used goods suffuse the landscape. I live down the block from one, a short drive away from a dozen. In my neighborhood, finding new clothes made from polyester blends in a sweatshop is a more difficult task. If thrifting were a religion (and some might say it comes close), I should feel lucky to live on hallowed grounds.
Unfortunately, though, the gods don’t subsidize the purchase of thoughtfully-sourced, gently-used clothing. The price between the two has been difficult to reconcile. Income instability is familiar ground for those of us in the service industry, especially in the last few years. Paycheck to paycheck is the only way I know how to live. Fast fashion relied on my low wages, asking that I overlook the skeletons in its closet so that mine could be full.
My decision meant I had to think more carefully about the fabrics I was buying, how I was cleaning them, and how I took care of them. Being “bored” with my wardrobe wasn’t an option. In making the change to a more sustainable relationship with clothing, I needed to rid myself of the impulse to buy more. Instead of five clearance shirts, I would have one. And I needed to love that one.
Fast fashion relies not just on the allure (and necessity) of low prices but also on the ways bodies go in and out of style. The twin demons of disgust and self-loathing generate sales for fashion giants. If you hate the way you look, all you need to do is hide. Cover up your flaws, arrange the newest trends in ways that distract the eye. You need more drawers, more closet space. If you’ve run out, simply trash what you had before. A hundred-dollar haul can get you enough clothes that you could wear something new every day for weeks.
Body positivity as discourse has paved the way for some meaningful conversations, but in its most basic form, it has only extended the types of bodies we gleefully sexualize and prey upon. This “movement” is a rethinking of body commodification; with the teeth removed its rethinking of bodies comes across more like a gentle kiss. For those of us who struggle with even body neutrality, the whiplash of looking in the mirror and coming away, frightened into pursuing major fashion brands begging us to feel empowered in their cheap clothes, promising us we are sexy and hot and wanted and desirable now. We can be marketable now.
I gained nothing from fashion except a modicum of relief that lasted weeks, or maybe a few months, if I was lucky. I wanted to be seen but never looked at. My relationship with fashion was parasitic—the clothes I wore and how I styled them had everything to do with what I was trying to hide. Promises of attention frighten me.
Ironically, although I despise feeling like I’m noticed while moving through a crowd, I came to realize that I had overinflated my (false) reality. It lifted above my head, over the crowd, up past the horizon, so big that I couldn’t even remember that I was the one holding the air pump. My reality had taken over the issue at hand, and darkened under the shadow was the impact I contributed to, the revenue I created, and the immediate problem I could solve.
For me, the band-aid of fast fashion was entangled in the small hairs of my psyche, but its removal was morally, ethically, and environmentally necessary. My closet has shrunk, and with it, I hope, even in some minuscule way, my impact on the workers who are taken advantage of, whose health is sacrificed on the altar of fashion, or the strain of my existence on the world.
Fashion only ever reminded me of what I hated most about myself, and to shop more consciously meant I had to think about my body and the shield I hid behind more carefully. It was, and continues to be, a struggle. I sometimes miss the convenience of buying what I thought I needed, delusion to delusion. Even today, more often than not, I feel like a monster. But in this small way of changing how I shop, I have allowed myself to feel like a human again, standing side by side with my fellow beings, promising them that I care—even if I haven’t always cared about myself.Become a Patron!