Design by Arunika Shee

Content Warning: Mentions of body dysmorphia.

For 13 years, I wore a school uniform. From kindergarten to fifth-grade things were pretty lax — jeans and a school T-shirt sufficed. In sixth grade, the uniform tightened up. Every day was a variation of polo shirts, button-downs, skorts or pleated skirts in yellow, gray, blue or plaid. My outerwear had to be a school color, and any logos could be no bigger than an index card. No boots, no sandals, no flashy socks. The shortest permissible skirt was the width of a dollar bill — 2.61 inches — above the bend of the knee — and trust me, teachers checked. At the time, the uniform wasn’t fun. For a kid desperately trying to figure out how to express myself, the school uniform seemed like the most restrictive thing I could have endured. 

My 13-year-old need for artistic expression, however, was no match for the opinions that adult faculty rolled out every time students complained: School uniforms prevent bullying, they said. They enforce discipline; they create a safer school environment; they “make everyone equal.” 

Despite research that disproves these arguments, we didn’t have a say as students, so we put up with uniforms. Year after year we bought overpriced skirts and jackets, cut shirts to wear as dickies under sweatshirts and hand-hemmed skorts to fit better. Year after year, we all looked the same. From sixth grade to senior year, I never had to wonder what I was going to wear and, looking back, I do see the benefits of that. My mornings weren’t spent wasting time over what colors went together or which jacket to wear that day. I didn’t have a choice. But this certainty is a double-edged sword. I never had to worry about what to wear, but I also never got to worry about what to wear.

I got to college and, for the first time in 13 years, I didn’t have to wear a uniform to class. That’s when I realized that I had no personal style. For 13 years, I only had to choose outfits on weekends and for events, not for everyday life. Conceptually, I loved fashion and spent most of my teens consuming fashion blogs and influencer tips, but I personally had no idea how to dress. Even if I had, most of my clothes were bought by or under the supervision of my mom. Mom, if you’re reading this, thank you for teaching me the basics of fashion, but we do not have the same style. 

The revelation that I lacked a fashion sense occurred one morning in the second semester of my freshman year. I was getting dressed for class, it was colder than a tiny Tennessean baby like me knew how to handle, and I was wearing dark wash skinny jeans and a flannel button-down. I looked in my mirror and realized that I didn’t like my outfit — not just disliked, I abhorred my outfit. I would have worn the same thing in my junior year of high school, but I was a freshman in college now! I was still wearing the clothes and styles that had been fed to me through the school uniform filter, and I didn’t want to dress like that girl anymore. I was ready to be a new, worldly, college-ready woman, and changing my style was one of the first steps toward becoming her. 

Building a new wardrobe, a new style, took a few years, money I didn’t have and, surprisingly, a lot of tears as I just tried to get it right. I thought maybe I had a preppy style, then possibly grunge. For a while I dressed like a grandma, wearing baggy clothes and vintage sweaters. Over the years, certain patterns started to emerge: I’ve come to realize that I love neutrals and an androgynous mix of more feminine, fitted clothes with the relaxed cuts and heavier textures of masculine fashion. But those initial trials — oh boy. My closet experienced its fair share of revolutions and revelations as I tried to find my place in the fashion world after spending my entire life being told what my place was. And those revolutions didn’t slow until very recently because they were fraught with a litany of other issues.

During my stint in therapy last spring, one of the first things my therapist asked me was if I thought I knew what my body looked like. The answer was an immediate, hard and fast no. I am currently a U.S. size six in jeans, but in high school, I was a U.S. size 10. At the same time, I was a size 14 in my uniform skirts. My school uniform wasn’t the only contributor to my body image issues, but facing such drastically different numbers for so long can start to mess with you — the facts didn’t line up, so of course I didn’t know what my body looked like. I’m still not sure if I do, but I’m getting there. Once I had a handle on the clothing I actually liked, the second obstacle in building my personal style was born: learning to dress my body. 

There are a few things about my physicality that I know as a fact: I have slim shoulders, my hip-to-waist ratio is typically considered “curvy” and I have extra bones. But how do I dress those features? Fresh out of high school, I didn’t know. All of our uniform pieces were cut the same — skorts were straight and flat, skirts were slightly more flattering with pleats, but that didn’t make up for button-downs that never accounted for varying chest sizes. Dressing my unique features was a foreign concept. Beyond that, I had never learned to identify the features I wanted to emphasize or disguise. 

I don’t even think I knew my conventional body shape — pear, for those interested — until a year or two ago. In fact, I could still be wrong, but that bit of knowledge alone has been astronomically helpful in abandoning the uniform-esque outfits that made me look like a box and building a wardrobe that actually complements my body. Nine times out of 10, I now shoot for high-waisted, straight-leg pants, fitted tops and flowy midi-skirts that emphasize the things I like — my shoulders and waist — while minimizing the things I’m less fond of, like my stomach or thighs. While I now understand which clothing makes me comfortable in my body, I’ll remind you that I didn’t learn that until a little over a year ago. I couldn’t speak intelligently or certainly about my body in relation to clothes because for 13 years that part of my vocabulary was stunted. 

Okay, so I recognized that I had no style and rectified it. I discovered what body type I have and learned how to dress it. You’re probably thinking all my fashion problems are solved; I’ve escaped the long-lasting effects of a school uniform and am now a liberated woman. In some ways, yes, but there’s another crucial element to consider: confidence. 

I’ve learned my style and how to dress myself, but am I ready to act on this knowledge? I don’t claim to be the most body-confident person, and I would have actively rejected any such claims a few years ago, especially regarding style. I knew that I loved quirky pants and skirts, my colorful coat collection and getting dressed up every day. While none of those styles are incredibly “out there,” they do fall outside the realm of typical college fashion, and they seemed particularly outlandish compared to my old school uniforms. I knew my style, but I was afraid of it. I was terrified of standing out too much, of standing in active opposition to how my peers dressed. 

Then, last summer, the penny dropped. 

In the interest of transparency, I’ll tell you that I lost quite a bit of weight last winter. I do believe that this renewed my confidence in my body and the clothes I felt able to wear. To be clear, any body can wear any clothes, but I have to recognize my own mental blocks when it comes to the relationship between my body and fashion. In addition to these changes, my mindset altered when I studied and traveled in England for part of my summer. The new environment and people helped me feel better able to express my style without rocking the boat. As far as these people knew, that was just how I dressed. 

And, of course, there was the therapy. Something my therapist told me that continues to stand out is that I was perceiving too much authority in strangers. In a fashion context, I was unconsciously giving total strangers far too much power over how I dressed because I was so scared of social rejection. In a school uniform, there was no room for this attitude. We all wore the same things, so no one could judge anyone else’s outfit. But in the great wide world, I could spend all day wondering what others thought of my outfit rather than feeling good in the outfit. Now, do you need to lose weight, go abroad or start therapy to feel confident in your body and clothes? No. Well, maybe the therapy, but talk to a professional. This just happened to be the unique combination of factors that guided me away from the mentality enforced by the school uniform and toward a healthier, more confident relationship with my style. 

Despite my ravings, I maintain that the school uniform wasn’t all bad. I didn’t have to endure back-to-school clothes shopping and it certainly created camaraderie among the girls at my school as we all tried to find ways to make our skirts shorter than the dollar bill allowed. This still doesn’t negate the long-lasting issues with fashion that utter uniformity created, and I still can’t claim these issues are entirely solved. Sometimes, when a pair of pants doesn’t fit the way they did yesterday, I can’t help but remember the girl who didn’t understand why she was a 10 in jeans and a 14 in her uniform skorts. When I can’t get a button-down to sit how I want, I remember how uncomfortable they once were for a growing middle school body. When I clean out my closet, I try to remind myself that style is evolutionary and that mine is capable of change — I am no longer stuck. I know my style, I know my body and I’m coming into my confidence. A school uniform might have stunted these things, but I find that I prefer taking the long way ’round anyway.

Daily Arts Writer Maddie Agne can be reached at maagne@umich.edu.