A personal essay on healing through clothes by Clementine Yost

Image by Briony Somers

Image by Briony Somers

I wanted to escape more than anything — to be rid of this body I loathed and to seek shelter from the cruel words levied against me by a loved one. I feared his words, but one more than the rest: SLUT. Sometimes the shaming was direct, ”you are such a slut”. Most often it was subtle, in my boyfriend’s refusal to hold hands with me. It was a bleak period of my life, head hung low – shuffling about in fear of bumping into or even catching a glimpse of the dreaded few, whom I was convinced shared those thoughts. My library desk of choice was next to the fourth floor window with a view of the cricket pitch. From there to the stairs felt like the longest walk of my life. It was, at times, unbearable. I called it ‘the gauntlet’. Clothes helped me to survive. I would pretend it was a fast-paced short distance catwalk. In my head, I was a model and it was my duty to show off this garment. At the same time, my dress was my armour. As Bill Cunningham once said, it protected me against “the reality of everyday life”; in my case, the onslaught of insults I had been told I deserved. I could, through fashion at least, feel fierce.

I was due to meet him for lunch. Popping back up to the library to retrieve his notebook, he returned, face twisted with disgust. Treading on eggshells, I tried to cheer him up. He told me “I had to walk past two lads you fucked on my way up the stairs.” Heart pounding, cortisol swirling through my blood, a panic attack began. The only thing keeping back the tears was the simple calming joy I got from feeling the raccoon fur of my Anne Klein parka. I tried to imagine I was Cara Delevingne in her oversized Phillip Lim parka. I tried to be strong, at least in my head — but he interjected — “Don’t you know how awful that is for me? To see lads you fucked and have them see me? They probably think I’m so desperate to be dating you.” These comments struck deep self­ loathing chords I knew I had, but had never met. That evening I contemplated cutting myself.

" dress was my armour. As Bill Cunningham once said, it protected me against 'the reality of everyday life'."

Instead, I resumed my bulimia full throttle. I ate without feeling able to stop — I desired the pain in my stomach, to be overly full. The pain took my mind from the shame I felt as a slut only to hate myself for being fat. This was supported by his matter-of-fact charge that I was disgusting. I know my way around the word, ‘disgusting.’ It was something I lived with everyday, fearing others would know I knelt again, praying to the porcelain gods, fingers clinging to the back of my throat as I purged the food I believed was too much. I popped laxatives like candy and drank my weight in diuretic tea. Because drinking tea wasn’t the same — drinking tea meant that I wasn’t actually bulimic.

My first year in college was confusing. After fourteen years in uniformed Catholic school, I hadn’t a clue what to wear. As the years rolled on, I began to come into my own. I loved the freedom of fashion. I could combat my confusion towards his love-painted hatred with the growing flicker of self-confidence I felt from pretty clothes. Unable to conjure true happiness within, I wore cheer on my sleeve. My style was a blithe disregard for floral’s usual residence in spring collections. I was as goddamn floral as I damn well pleased.

“I could combat my confusion towards his love-painted hatred with the growing flicker of self-confidence I felt from pretty clothes.”

The crippling shame was overwhelming at times. I felt the simultaneous desire to apologise and to fold away into nothing — to be as small as possible. I wanted to apologise for being disgusting — for putting them through this, through me, for being here, for ruining their day by the sight of me. Then my mom bought me a pair of Vagabond black leather creepers. With them on, I became a towering 5’11 and vanishing became rather out of the question. I found strength, when my will to exist happily, if not at all, had forsaken me. He told me these were my “lesbian shoes”. I found pride in his attempted slander. I saw power in my queer shoes. As my mom had said when I came out as bisexual — “more to love!”.  These shoes did not let me apologise for myself. At 5’11, they crowded his masculinity with brazenly unwelcome self-confidence. His control was slipping.

My anxiety-riddled brain could never fathom my own likability. Yet, fashion saved me from my self doubt. Getting me through my body dysmorphic hatred of too skinny thighs, fashion focused attention on me — instead of the distorted image I had come to have of myself. It was like a neon sign shouting to the world, in its blinky fluorescence, “I’m ok!”. It helped me reach my goal of actual confidence, on the outside for a start. The old adage, “look good, feel good, be good” seemed to actually hold some water. I felt powerful in my clothes. Like Valentino’s A/W ’15 collection, I had carefully shielded my vulnerable silk chiffon with something stronger. Courage, like heavy felt, fortified my exterior. While not as clearly reminiscent of armour as Sandra Backlund’s chainmail like bodices, I was nevertheless ready to fight. I would fight for my worth. I was able to realise that my  strength went deeper than my peacoat and that I was worth more than his fickle love. Stepping out into a world where I, for so long, had merely feigned self-assurance; I finally believed I was worth something. I did not know quite what yet, but I was starting to realise that just as my grandmother’s Alaskan fur coat can never be belted, I should never ever let anyone, especially myself, try to subjugate my sexuality. Calling someone a slut is to take away their freedom. It means to waive their autonomy with the logic of a deeply ingrained double standard. Finally able to love myself, it was clear I had been living a rose -tinted lie. Pushing my Jackie O glasses up onto my head, I could see him for the toxic influence he was and, like any good spring clean, I purged him from my life.