When Backpacks Made The Outfit
Now We Are Seventeen (and a Half)
Now We Are Six
When I was One,
I had just begun.
When I was Two,
I was nearly new.
When I was Three
I was hardly me.
When I was Four,
I was not much more.
When I was Five,
I was just alive.
But now I am Six,
I’m as clever as clever,
So I think I’ll be six now for ever and ever.
– A. A. Milne, 1927
Ah! The first day of school! So full of promise. Remember? This year, I will be organized and brilliant. This year I will be friendly and popular, a role model. This year I will be new and different, the amazing me I aspire to be.
When you are a 17-year-old girl entering your senior year of high school, the stakes are high. Where else to play out your dreams of being a better, bolder you than with your outfit? The first day of school outfit. Remember?
It was simpler when a cute backpack gave her all the confidence she needed.
I should have asked her what she was going to wear. But I didn’t want to attach too much importance to The Outfit. I’ve spent my life thinking that if I looked right, then I would be successful and people would like me. I imbued my outfits with so much importance. I don’t want that for my daughter. I want her to know she is beautiful, completely and thoroughly, inside and out, regardless of what she wears. I want her to know she is loved, completely and thoroughly, regardless of what she wears.
Besides, she is more creative with fashion than I ever have been. She watches fashion in music and entertainment and is keenly aware of who is wearing what and what looks stylish and flattering. She is my style consultant these days, not vice versa. (Though she cares what I think. Still. Thank God.)
Besides, I believe that at 17 you should be trying on different looks, different personas. You don’t know who you are at 17. Now is the time to practice being independent and grown up, especially during your senior year of high school when you have the safety net of a home base. I purposefully did not ask her what she was going to wear.
When she came downstairs that morning, I paused. Long enough to think. But I didn’t think. I went to blurt-out mode instead. In my sternest MOM voice, I proclaimed: “You can NOT wear that to school. Those are hooker stockings.” Really. I said that. “Hooker” is hardly even in my vocabulary but it poured out of my mouth. (Ironically, they are my stockings.) Who was that woman I turned into in that moment? What happened to all the wisdom I’ve accrued over the years? What happened to putting myself in her shoes and gently suggesting that her outfit was not appropriate for daytime nor for school?
I don’t want to face the fact that my little girl is beautiful and sexy and ready for a boyfriend, or at least a date. I don’t want to remember some of the outfits I wore to high school that make me cringe now. I remember, at the height of my thinness, wearing skinny jeans and stiletto mules. I wanted to look sexy. My mother said I looked cute. I didn’t want to be the mom who was clueless about her own daughter, the way my mom was. I want to give my daughter support and freedom to explore. And yet…I lashed out. Frightened, embarrassed, protective. Don’t make the same mistakes I made! Don’t be too sexy!
Don’t be too sexy. Ah, that is the crux of it. The judgment about looking too sexy. Smart girls use their heads, not their bodies. The judgment about being too sexy. Good girls have more worthy activities to pursue than dating boys. The fear. The fear inherited from my mother’s stabbing. The fear I’ve buried from my own murky memories. Did that really happen? I am not sure. But judgment and fear – of sex, of food, of all things pleasurable and delicious – is not what I want to pass on to my daughter.
My nasty, thoughtless judgment merely solidified her own uncertainty about her outfit, her anxiety about the day and the upcoming year. She didn’t defy me. Another 17-year-old daughter might have said, “You can’t tell me what to wear!” My 17-year-old rushed upstairs in tears and changed her clothes (to an amazing, adorable, and appropriate outfit, by the way). I apologized. She apologized. We gave each other space. But there’s no taking those words back. No getting that day back.
How many days, how many years would I like to get back and do over? We don’t get them back and we can’t do them over, but we can learn from them so that the next day, the next year, is better than the last one.
When we circled back to speak about the day, it was her half-birthday. I gave her Rosemary Wells’ Voyage to the Bunny Planet (thank you my friend for the suggestion), where the day that “should have been” gets reimagined. She said that she was sad that she would never have that day back, the happy and confident first day she had dreamed of and hoped to memorialize with a photo. She shared her dreams for a fun and social senior year, in spite of the rigors of an AP-heavy workload and the anxiety of applying to colleges. And then she confided that she wishes she could hang on to being 17 forever. I too want this time to last forever. To hold my girl close. To magically turn the bad days into good ones. But it is her time. Her time to grow up, to become a woman, to figure out what makes her happy, what interests her, who she is. Fly, beautiful girl! Find your passion. Live your life. Don’t let me hold you back.