I notice the red holes in my sneakers as I walk into an outlet mall’s T.J. Maxx. Wearing a $10 graphic tee purchased on clearance, I wade through aisles of affordable clothing. I’m looking for a particular shirt.
I move around the men’s section until I lay eyes on my intended purchase: a blue polo shirt with a yellow Ralph Lauren logo embroidered in the top right corner.
I quickly grab the polo, pace toward the fitting room and throw it on. It fits me well. A few seconds later, I'm hit with concern.
“You shouldn’t purchase this,” I think. “It’s such an expensive brand. It’s not your style.”
“But it’s $35 here — over 50 percent off,” I respond. “You’ll get a lot of wear out of it at the bars. It’s nice quality.”
I override my concerns, head to the cash register and buy the shirt.
While purchasing a Ralph Lauren polo may sound frivolous and trivial, it’s emblematic of the difficulties I navigate in transitioning out of being from a lower socioeconomic class. It’s a constant war, shaded with difficult emotions to articulate that feel silly to discuss.
If you asked me about purchasing a Ralph Lauren shirt three years ago, I would have laughed at you.
I grew up in Ypsilanti, a town with a reputation for being low-income. I lived in a low-income household. As a child I cringed when handing money over to see a movie with friends. When I showered, I looked up and saw clear-looking tarp covering the hole in our roof that we couldn’t afford to fix. I became accustomed to poverty — its patterns and rhythms that would strike fear and confusion into others if they lived like me.
But that all changed when I came to Michigan. I attend this school on an incredibly large need-based scholarship, one that lends itself to covering my rent. Not only is my rent paid, but through making financially smart choices like sharing a room with my best friend, I pocket some of my student refund each semester.
This money provides me a source of disposable income, and it’s more than I’ve ever had in my life. It’s not, say, enough money to buy a car, but coupled with my jobs, I can afford to eat out with friends, buy drinks at a bar and make occasional $30 to $50 purchases on clothes I’ll wear two to three times a month.
While this feels very American-Dream-Come-True-esque, each step out of poverty leaves me feeling weighted, shameful, and guilty.
Take, for example, the blue polo shirt. Even though it was reasonably priced, I felt guilty because I purchased it to blend in with other people that wear those shirts — people who are financially stable. It’s tough, because when I’m wearing it at a party or bar I look like everyone else. But that blending feels like I’m lying to myself, to the world around me.
Not only that, but it’s a stark contrast to the core values I held.
I remember during high school when I’d wear whatever I wanted and feel proud of myself.
One day, I wore a polo shirt that looked like it belonged to a safari guide. I got it for a few bucks at Plato’s Closet. As I interacted with my friends that day, I got a wide range of responses to the shirt. Some friends thought it looked amazing while others teased me in good spirit.
Regardless of the response, I liked that shirt and didn’t care what others thought.
I compare that to myself now. Looking around at Rick’s one night, I realized how many people wore Ralph Lauren polo shirts and I immediately felt self-conscious wearing my plain shirt. Instead of reassuring myself that I don’t need to wear what others do, I realized I could just go out and buy a polo shirt.
It’s as if the more money I’m given, the more things I can purchase, the more I feel my self-confidence slipping through my hands like sand. But I can’t tell if that’s actually what’s happening, or if I’m simply developing a rational and logical solution to a problem.
Throughout my life, I’ve gotten the impression that low-socioeconomic status is an identity I should escape. I need to work hard, attend a good school, graduate, get a high-paying job and proceed to live happily ever after.
And I’d have to agree that escaping poverty is important and beneficial. But, then, why do I feel like I’m losing more than just a set of poor circumstances? Even the mundane, day-to-day activities like wearing a shirt make me feel as if part of my identity, beliefs and lifestyle are being ripped from the very core of who I am.
I’ve been thinking of how to end this story for the past few weeks. I wanted to leave with some sense that I’m meshing the two identities. But it’s just not happening.
I hoped this story would inspire me to wear other shirts, but I still love the Ralph Lauren Polo. Some nights I feel that same sense of guilt tugging at my stomach, but other nights I look at myself in the mirror and ask why I’m making such a big deal out of a T-shirt.
“Seriously, you’ve had enough of this. It’s a shirt. You like it. You look good in it, you didn’t pay much for it. It’s not that big of a deal. You have money now, and you can buy stuff like this. It makes you feel confident. Just stop making a big deal out of this,” I constantly tell myself.
But sometimes when I’m walking away from the mirror I see my reflection not as who I am in that moment, but as every image that I’ve ever seen myself as in a mirror. They’re smashed together into one being while also being individual and fragmented, like every past version of myself is present in that glass. In that moment I’m whole yet unbelievably disjointed. And I hear in my head — as if one of the old fragments is coming into focus — a whisper.
“I miss who you used to be.”
That whisper is fierce and chilling. It shocks me to my core. I can’t tell whether it’s a voice of sincerity and truth, or the voice of a jaded, wildly irrational 16 year old.
But as I walk away, I hear my most current fragment respond.
“I miss you, too.”