When my mother brought me into J. Crew to buy khakis for the first time, I threw a fit in the changing room stall. I told her, “There is no way that anybody shops here.” She told me, “Yes, they do,” and I screamed at her so loudly for lying to me that a saleswoman approached us to ask, “Is everything all right?” I was nearly in tears. I wanted to know if she was purposely manipulating me or just so delusional that she believed someone would actually wear something called a “cardigan.”
I was a “shorts are conservative if your ass doesn’t peek out the bottom” California pre-teen who grew up wearing extra-large T-shirts as full outfits.
Now, I was scheduled for an interview at a prestigious New England prep school and my mother was telling me that a striped tube dress with a jean jacket was “too casual for the occasion” and that “I don’t understand New England culture.” I told her, “I think I understand when I look good,” and that if there’s a jacket in the outfit then, like, that’s so formal, I never wear jackets. Sometimes moms are so dated.
As you can imagine, I was very disappointed come fall when I discovered how right my mother had been. My first year at the prestigious New England prep school was a body war. I was required to change clothes nearly every day:
leggings — those aren’t pants
light-wash jeans — those aren’t pants
dark-wash jeans — somehow, still (on occasion) not real pants?
skirts — hands by your side, half an inch too short
T-shirts — that’s not a blouse
blouses — that’s too low-cut
tank tops — just no
Eventually, I took their dick-ish attitude as a challenge. I developed mental lists of what I could wear. My favorite discovery: the see-through shirt. I’d flounce into class with a tucked-in blouse buttoned to my trachea and stare my teachers right in the eye while my hot-pink bra seared into the minds of my classmates. I once watched my French teacher flip furtively through the regulations for 10 minutes before reluctantly allowing me to sit. You’re not gonna find anything in there, bitchacha.
My classmates often asked me for my opinion on the dress code — why I cared so much. And I was like, you mean to ask why it’s a problem that girls are judged on skin coverage while boys are either “tie” or “no tie”? That’s like asking why clitoral stimulation is better than vaginal sex! It’s about what gets the attention. A woman’s body, like her vaginal canal, is not the appropriate focus.
But it’s tricky because my school never forced me to do anything. Not really. Not when I chose to be there in the first place. They’re transparent with the service they offer: They will teach you to succeed in the world. They never promise to shape you a new one.
Our world is a place where appearance is a commodity. I never met someone accepted to the academy without a story of their over-the-top interview get-up. You can spot a young applicant just as easily at the sandwich shop in town as on the stoop to the admissions building. They’re always well-tucked and polished. In 2011, with a preppy maroon cardigan, my mother had bought me $200,000 of high school tuition. Plus a MacBook Pro, an iPad, two extended trips to France and one to Ireland. And, attending prestigious institutions on financial aid gives you more than material gain. Prep school taught me the import of presenting well, the ways of the 1 percent. If you want to work with them, you’ve got to pass with them, and passing means looking the part. Our world is a place where professional women wear slacks or skirts and conservative blouses.
I was stopped once, leaving the dining hall after lunch by a teacher I’d never spoken to before. She told me that while my outfit was technically currently within the dress code, hypothetically, if I were to walk up the stairs and my skirt consequently hiked up, during those moments of ascent if one were to measure the length of my skirt, he or she would probably find it to have ridden up too short. Really, I should change. My attire was not appropriate for school.
“Thanks, but I’m late to class. So, I think I won’t. I like my outfit and it’s in the dress code.” She called after me to watch my attitude. I turned around so I could reply “whatever” and proceed to hike up my skirt.
I once had a dorm parent tell me I couldn’t lounge about bra-less when she came into my room to check me in for the night. If not noted, be sure that’s read, “when she came into my room to check me in.” Mind you, this isn’t full frontal I’m talking. This is braless under a shirt. O tell me: Why do my breasts intimidate you so? I immediately reported the news to my friends across the hall and was surprised when one girl asked in response, “Julia, why do you hate bras so much?” Why do I hate bras so much? A preposterous inquiry! I was outraged!
I stripped down to bra and lacy thong, announced, “I’ll explain with a poem!” and dramatically scratched a few lines before bellowing out “An Ode to my Bra,” sarcasm sliding heavier from my tongue than my clothes off my body. I cleared my throat, scanned my audience and pronounced in a low, emotional tone:
thou does nothing
sitting close yet spiting my very existence
when I place your two halves together, (pause) you spherify
but — if you are a home then I am a gypsy
without you, I am free
free from your metal wires and hooks
I am no animal
My dorm-mates giggled at my theatricality. Their warm voices split and propagated, stuck to my now-sweaty skin. I could taste the naive joy in their laughter, as if the sentiment of my complaints were a joke too. Soon, we’d all shuffle into bed for the night. We’d roll out in the morning, try on various skirts and shirts and blouses, scrutinize our reflections and consider: I don’t think so hunny, that neckline is a little low. What will people think?
Julia Leatham | email@example.com