(Note: Published with Anna’s permission and preview)
Our eldest made it all the way to fifth grade before she noticed the social hierarchy that had sprung up on the playground, anointing some kids more desirable to hang with than others. She may well have been the last to find out, as she had always been too immersed in play to notice subtext. (When she was the lone girl invited to a party with 16 boys in first grade, the birthday boy’s mom called ahead, asking if she’d be uncomfortable. I said she wouldn’t even notice. And she didn’t.)
Subtext finally found her. She started coming home perplexed and deflated, wondering tearfully why no one wanted to work on class projects with her, and why lunch tables had morphed into fortresses. She saw that groups now coalesced around clothing choices, which baffled her. My tomboy, in her boxy boys’ department T-shirts (often featuring sharks) and durable LL Bean cargo pants, knew perfectly well she didn’t dress like other girls. What puzzled her was why anyone cared.
“What am I supposed to do, go to Ivivva and get those clothes so people will talk to me?” she wailed, already recognizing the inherent absurdity. I responded with the standard script: Trendy clothing and popular labels are fun for some, but it’s a waste of time to invest energy in people who treat you well only when you look just like them. She agreed in theory, but struggled through the year with feelings of rejection and loneliness – while voluntarily clad in Target shoes and Old Navy boys’ getups.
She had been unique in the clothing department since she could dress herself. Her first sartorial crush was a flashy orange cap with a giant flower; from there she embraced unusual pattern combinations, funky, clunky footwear and some one-of-a-kind sock habits. Far more tie-dye and plaid (often at the same time) than pink. No one (except for her Nana) mentioned her unconventional look, and she cavorted colorfully through her days.
It was heart-breaking to see that innocence end. Wanting to lessen her new fifth-grade angst, I asked if she wanted some Ivivva gear. I thought we’d connect it to her birthday, and she could arrive at her new (and sure to be even more confounding) middle school campus with some fashion in her arsenal if she wanted. She’d always be unique on the inside. I’d never encourage her to alter her exterior to fit in, but wanted her to have the option. My own middle school years were consumed with yearning for the trappings of belonging circa 1980 – Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, Famolare shoes, Izod Tshirts. My family couldn’t afford any of it, and I spent years embarrassed, awkward and nauseous with envy of seemingly every other girl in school.
As summer vacation loomed, she decided she would indeed like to visit Ivivva. But she didn’t want to discuss it. She seemed conflicted, so I didn’t make a big deal about it. The week of her birthday, we hit the shopping center, under the guise of doing other errands, and I tried to hide my excitement. It felt like my sixth-grade back-to-school shopping trip; the one I never had. As we drove past, I casually said, “Hey, there’s Ivivva. Should we go check it out?”
“I changed my mind about that,” came her answer from the back seat. “I don’t want to look like everyone else.”
For a moment, I was disappointed. Then it awed me that by age 11, she had figured out something that takes most of us, myself included, decades to learn (and that some of us never learn). And then I was happy for her – the ability to commit to be herself under the pressure exerted by small school politics showed nerves of steel. What a way to head into life!
Sixth grade got underway, and lunchroom divisions deepened with the addition of cell phones, lip gloss, Instagram and apparently, apps that calculate girls’ hotness. (Note to that inventor: YOU’RE A TERRIBLE PERSON.) Anna continued to mull over the mystery of coolness and fashion with an almost scientific curiosity – and a tomboy’s practicality.
“Sometimes when I’m next to the popular kids I feel kinda sloppy,” she said. “But then I think, ‘but that looks uncomfortable.’”
Now in seventh grade, she’s caught up to me in shoe and shirt size. She even wore my ski pants this month; she’ll pass me by before long. She’s toned down her closet slightly, but it’s still a pretty eclectic blend of my hand-me-downs, plaid shirts and concert T-shirts, some Gap womens department stuff, and her beloved Old Navy. Teal Converse with striped socks showing. Sometimes she resembles her peers, sometimes not. Her look and demeanor fairly scream “I like this, and I’m not concerned with what you think.”
She’s not a teenager yet, and who knows what we’re in for, but for now her funky mashup is a metaphor for who she’s turning into: Someone who doesn’t totally blend in – and doesn’t mind. It thrills me to think about all she may accomplish with the time and energy saved by not struggling to mold herself into a pre-cut persona.