When I was a teenager, I was a label snob.
I’m ashamed to admit it, because it is so far from the person I now want to be, but it’s true. I desperately wanted to wear the right labels and I felt more confident when I was wearing something that other teenagers would call “cool” or at least acceptable.
Thankfully, I don’t think I was the kind of snob who rejected others because they weren’t wearing the right brand. I don’t remember ever doing that. I was more the type of kid who asked for a Polo shirt with the embroidered horse and then got upset when her mother brought home a knockoff that had a horse on it—but didn’t have the rider holding the polo stick. Not okay at all—everyone would know not only that I didn’t have the money for a real Polo shirt but also that I was a pretender. I never realized that there were lots of kids who were worried about the same things I was.
But I definitely noticed those who were decked out in the most expensive things, and I wanted to be like them. I wanted to be one of them. Fashionable clothes seemed to me like a requirement for membership in a secret, exclusive club. Once you were in, you’d understand. I never got in, so I can’t tell you the secret.
My parents were understanding, so they helped me out to some extent. I had some brand-name clothes, but not a closetful. Most of the Polo and Guess? clothes I had, my mother found at outlet stores (a tradition she and I still continue for ourselves and my kids today—why pay retail when you don’t have to?) If I wanted a bigger-ticket item, like a pair of shoes or a purse, I had to wait for my birthday or Christmas. The first pair of shoes I wanted was when I was ten or eleven. I wanted a pink pair of Reeboks with tiny strips of blue and white leather woven into the toes like basketwork. I waited for those shoes. I was so happy to get them. They went perfectly with my pink L.A. Gear sweatshirt and acid-washed denim skirt. I was careful how I walked for the first few months. After that they got a little scuffed up and just became regular tennis shoes. Plus, the little strips of leather got twisted and the shoes were not even pretty anymore. But now I had my heart set on a pair of Cole-Haan loafers. Surely they would be my ticket.
As I said, label obsession happens to a lot of teenagers. I laughed when I heard an old Billy Joel song recently: “Have you heard about the new fashion, honey? All you need are looks and a whole lot of money.” Yeah, those two things are always necessary to be popular. Or one at the very least. Gorgeous people get invited to the party; sports ability gets you in; and money never hurts in that regard. I knew girls in college who weren’t really pretty at all, but you didn’t notice it because they had perfect haircuts and clothes and the kind of unselfconscious arrogance F. Scott Fitzgerald made a career out of documenting in his novels. As for me, I hung around on the edges of whatever crowd I was attached to and waited to grow up.
I’m sure that most, if not all, teenagers, spend a lot of time moping around feeling like a square peg trying to wiggle into a round hole. I don’t think I would have much to say to anyone who didn’t feel like a weirdo sometimes—someone who was a Golden Girl or Guy in high school—because a feeling of being different has defined every aspect of my character. (You can’t be a fiction writer if you aren’t delusional enough to think you have a different take on things. It’s too discouraging otherwise.) Yet I also know that I am not that different, that pretty much everyone else I know would not go back to high school for any amount of money. Anyone who tells teenagers, “These are the best years of your life” is either sadistic or delusional, I’m not sure which. When people used to tell me that, I’d think, “If that’s true, I might as well kill myself now.”
Luckily it turned out not to be true. I like being an adult, except for the paperwork (and even that’s easier than it used to be, now that I can pay bills online). I think what I like about being grown-up is that I know who I am. I like to dress as well as I can, but what I wear doesn’t define me. I like to look good, but I’m not worried about being rejected for not wearing the right label. Which is a good feeling.