When I was six years old, my parents gave me a large pink dress-up truck.. They said it was from Santa, but the sticker on the bottom said K-mart clearance, and inside contained a rainbow of taffeta, polyester, and sequins. The outfits in the box were a bizarre mix of princess and flapper girl, which fit perfectly with my eclectic tastes. For the next few years, I spent countless hours putting on itchy sequin dresses, plastic kitten heels, a tiara with most of the rhinestones missing, and a neon pink feature boa that shed everywhere.
But at the same time as my interest in play fashion were blooming something else was too. I found myself spending a lot of time staring into the mirror, wondering:why is my nose so crooked? Why aren’t my eyes weren’t quite right? Why are my thighs so big? I would keep looking and looking, not being able to turn away until my stomach hurt from the longing of wanting to change myself as easily as I could change from one costume to another.
Nearly twenty years later, now with a fully developed case of body dysmorphia and an accompanying eating disorder, I found myself looking again into a mirror, this time in a dressing room surrounded by a pile of clothing I was trying on. I couldn’t see the clothes: all I could see was the hideous reflection of my flesh prison in the mirror, which I wanted to rip off as easily as I could rip off the clothes I was wearing. In the midst of a full-on panic attack, I put my clothes back on, and walked out of the dressing room, pointedly avoiding even a glimpse of my reflection as I walked out.
All I could see was the hideous reflection of my flesh prison in the mirror, which I wanted to rip off as easily as I could rip off the clothes I was wearing
And with that, my love affair with fashion came to an end. Over the next two years, I suffered a depressive episode that ruined everything for me. I couldn’t try anything on at a store without having an anxiety attack. I couldn’t order online because I would obsessively trying to get the smallest size possible, even if it hurt—especially if it hurt. Dressing became a cruel game I would play with myself, keeping clothes that were too small for “motivation”.
It was during this two-year depressive episode that I discovered vintage fashion, which was starting to trend through social media channels like YouTube and Instagram. Following vintage fashion bloggers, I lived vicariously through them and sites like ModCloth and Lindy Bop.
It was a massive sale event that spurred me into dipping a toe into the vintage fashion trend. What caught my eye was a grey boat neck A-line satin dress with circus animals on it. It was too amazing a garment to pass up. Still, I was so afraid of the surge of self-hate that I would feel if it didn’t fit or I looked bad in it, it took me days to open the box when it arrived, and days more to try it on.
Eventually, I convinced myself to try it on, even if just to confirm my worst fears. But surprisingly, the dress fit… and more than that, it fit nicely.he wide skirt covered my hips and thighs nicely, the belted waist made me feel like I had a waist, and the boat neck top made me feel less exposed. Plus, the lions with top hats were super cute! And it had pockets–real pockets I could carry things in! I was so excited, I twirled around in front of the mirror like I was a five-year-old in her princess dress again. And it felt so good, I just kept twirling and twirling.
It had pockets–real pockets I could carry things in! I was so excited, I twirled around in front of the mirror like I was a five-year-old in her princess dress again.
Over the next few months, I waded deeper and deeper into vintage fashion. I bought more A-line dresses in various quirky patterns, from London buses to kittens. I bought oxford shoes, vintage-style heels, and a petticoat. I got jeans with the waist so high it rivaled Lionel Barrymore. In a way dressing vintage was similar to the dress-up game I played when I was younger. To my dysmorphic mind, the stakes were different: where trying on contemporary clothes had become as serious as a heart attack, there was just something light and fun about wearing a corgi pattern dress with cat-eye sunglasses, playing with a style that still felt old enough to be art.
As I experimented with vintage fashion, I started to create different characters for each curated look. There was Lola, who was sassy, witty and a little dramatic, always wearing something with leopard print; Mary-Sue, who wore peter pan collars and cardigans or bookish tee shirts;Lolly, who was creative and quirky in her patterned dresses; and Cherry—wild, passionate, and sexy. These characters would come out when I needed a certain type of confidence to get through the day.
The more I played around with the outfits, the less I found myself overwhelmed by my body flaws. The dysmorphia didn’t stop completely, but it became more manageable. I’ve never been fully able to recognize myself in the mirror– a disorienting experience—but creating a persona, this “other” person looking back at me, eased the anxiety. I can just go: “Oh, it looks like a Sadie day. And I’m not going to be an asshole to her.” It didn’t alway work, but things became bearable. It was enough to make me realize I had to treat my body kindly, because I needed it to wear things.
I’ve never been fully able to recognize myself in the mirror–a disorienting experience—but creating a persona, this “other” person looking back at me, eased the anxiety.
So did wearing poodle skirts and high waisted bikinis made me love my body? God no—but that was never the goal. I will probably never be one-hundred-percent in love with my body,but I did get pieces of my identity back that my anorexia and dysmorphia had stolen from me. I realized that my body, and how I feel about it, is not my whole identit. I am a hundred other cool things that this body is merely a vessel for. A vessel I can dress up—and that’s reason enough to make peace with it.