I remember my mother picking me up from a half-day of school on a random Friday afternoon when I was 6 years old. She waited at the front entrance of the building with my hyperactive, 4-year-old brother buzzing around at her side. I ran to her with a wild grin on my face, so excited to show her the macaroni necklaces I spent the day crafting with glitter pens and rainbow glue.
Back then, I was a “girly girl” in every sense of the term. Pink was my favorite color, I was obsessed with American Girl Dolls and “The Little Mermaid” was the greatest cinematic masterpiece of all time. So, of course, when my parents told my brother and I that they were having another baby, I spent every night wishing, hoping and praying for a little sister — someone to try out funky new nail polishes with and make up dance routines to “Under the Sea.” But on that fateful afternoon after kindergarten dismissal, my mother came to us with an update, and I experienced the first real disappointment of my young life.
I didn’t even make it into the car before the tears began streaming down my face with shameless abandon. My brother was ecstatic — unlike me, he was hoping for a little brother. Of course, I was excited to have a new baby in the house, but at the time, all I wanted was a sister to play dress up with, to exchange clothes and secrets with, all from the safety of the bedroom we would one day get to share.
While I’ve certainly stolen several hoodies and T-shirts from each of my brothers’ closets over the years, I knew the experience I had growing up would never be quite the same as having a sister. And though I don’t consider myself as much of a “girly girl” as I used to be, my high school self was excited by the idea of living with all girls in college. When I moved into a house with five other women, I felt like I was finally gifted the opportunity I missed out on 13 years ago when my mom announced she was having a boy.
In many ways, living with girls — and my best friends at that — has been everything I’d ever hoped for. When we go out, we do our makeup together in the living room or each other’s bedrooms — I still can’t do my own eyeliner and will probably never stop asking my roommate to paint her winged masterpieces, with their perfect subtlety, on my eyelids before a night out. And, like I hoped for all those years ago, we borrow each other’s clothes. Constantly. Instead of fall sweaters and fashionable hoodies, however, the items we most frequently exchange are the going-out tops.
There’s a small portion of each of our wardrobes unimaginatively referred to as “going-out tops.” The going-out top is a blouse of sorts which usually resembles a shirt, tank, corset or bra-like contraption, often possessing a fun, yet defining, twist, like a plunging neckline or sheer, glittery fabric that makes it nearly impossible to wear for casual occasions or under the light of the sun. Going-out tops should make you feel particularly special and confident. Only intended for use on weekend nights beginning at 9 p.m. and beyond, they are a limited but essential part of every 20-something’s closet.
Given the nature of going-out tops, my friends’ versions of them can sometimes be more or less revealing than the tops lining my own wardrobe. And while it’s certainly fun to try on a different style without fully committing to a new look, I found that there are certain insecurities I haven’t been able to shake while donning my friends’ clothes for a night or two.
As a woman, I’ve always tied negative emotions to body image and overall appearance — which is not a unique experience. Toxic messaging surrounding diet culture and disordered eating skyrocketed with the rise of social media. And in Hollywood, the entertainment industry determines which body type is most “in” this season — as if a woman’s genetic structuring is as interchangeable as swapping out a pair of boots that have gone out of style since last winter. And regardless of an individual’s gender identity, many young adults are navigating the difficulty of accepting and loving their bodies in a society that forces us to constantly compare ourselves online. While I’ve been on social media long enough to expect unrealistic, edited appearances and beauty standards, I’ve experienced a new type of off-screen comparison in college that I never anticipated.
As my roommates and I got ready together last Friday night, I complained about not liking the outfit I had picked out for the occasion. I noticed they each wore a fun color or asymmetric style, and suddenly, my plain black short sleeve from freshman year felt inadequate. And like the ever-generous and lovingly-kind people that my friends are, they came running with several solutions — a myriad of going-out tops plucked from their own wardrobes. When you go out with the same people often enough, you become familiar with their clothes and overall style. So, of course, I had seen each of these tops worn before by my friends. But when I tried them on myself, they looked different. I felt like none of the tops flattered me in the same way I’d grown to recognize. And why should they? I’m not a character in “The Sisterhood of The Traveling Pants.” We can’t all wear the same pair of jeans and expect them to fit us just right. But the moment sparked a fear in me. As I stared in the mirror — hating the way one top rolled up on my waist and another’s capped sleeves hugged my arms — the act of sharing clothes, which I had looked forward to since kindergarten, now came with the sting of comparison that I knew all too well.
Nevertheless, I tried on each of the tops for my friends. And they, of course, hyped me up with each piece, reassuring me that the white cropped tank with a sweetheart neckline was superior to my three-year-old black short sleeve. While I would love nothing more than to say that I felt confident and self-assured when it was time to go out, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how I spent the night fidgeting with my outfit, trying to pull the top down lower on my stomach or adjust the straps as they dug into my shoulders. This is not to say I didn’t have fun that night, because I did. But in the back of my head, I knew I would have felt more confident and more like myself had I worn something from my closet, like the piece I started out with.
With this specific, body-to-body brand of comparison, I think learning to dress for myself is the best thing I can do for my own confidence. We all look for validation in one space or another: some turn to social media, others may look toward love interests. On this night, and many nights before, I sought validation from my friends. And, as I’m sure we’ve all experienced at one time or another, external validation rarely lasts as long as you think it will. External validation itself is rooted in a fragile basis of others’ opinions — a sentiment that can be taken away just as easily as it was once given. Though some women have mastered the art of dressing for themselves, I still struggle with having confidence in my own clothing. Whether it’s because I’m worried about how men might interpret a certain piece — as an invitation to touch or a reason to judge — or wondering how my simple black short sleeve measures up to other women’s fashion choices, I continue to look for validation elsewhere.
While I still struggle with comparison from time to time, I also continue to exchange clothes — specifically going-out tops — with each of my friends when the occasion arises. Because, sometimes, I do love their pieces and how they look on me. And, more than anything, I love lending my clothes to my friends and watching them feel confident in something I picked out. I’ve always wanted this kind of built-in companionship, one I thought I could only have with a sister. So, now, when my roommate offers me a going-out top, I put it on and try to look at it as if I’m seeing it for the first time. I refuse to let negativity tarnish moments I’ve spent my whole life looking forward to.
Statement Deputy Editor Reese Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.