Dora Guo

I cut my hair on Jan. 9, 2020. Before then, I had hair that went down to my shoulders in waves. I sometimes put it in a ponytail or in buns, but most of the time I left it down. I cut it short. Very short. Upon returning to campus for my second semester of my first year, I was welcomed with a strange reaction from my friends. I don’t know what I was expecting from them — or from myself, really — but what I got was an increase in attention toward my fashion. When I cut my hair, I lost my defining physical feature. It was up to me to redefine how I presented myself.

Second semester turned out to be a huge confidence booster. I was doing well in classes, making new friends and being pursued romantically in ways I wasn’t in the first semester. I can’t attribute all of this to a hair change or a style adjustment, but it was certainly a contributing factor. I forced myself to make deliberate choices with every outfit. Even if I was wearing sweats and a sweatshirt, I’d make sure they were complementary or fitted. I also became a more patient shopper. I’d go into Urban Outfitters about once every two weeks to see if there were any new items on sale that I liked. If something caught my eye, I didn’t buy it then. I’d come in the next day to see if I still liked it. Then, I’d buy it. This led to the purchase of one of my favorite clothing items, a long-sleeved blue T-shirt with a small embroidered bear that I got for around $15, a steal at Urban.

Then, COVID-19 happened.

Like most students, I neglected my physical form for the first month or so of quarantine. I didn’t really care about putting together outfits or looking presentable. I wasn’t seeing anyone, and no one was seeing me. I pretty much lived in pajamas and a sweatshirt I got at an art museum in high school. The one time I put on real clothes was when I entered the digital world. I posted on Instagram more at home than I had in the whole of my first year at Yale. If I was put-together online, eventually, it would carry over into the rest of my life, right?

When no one sees you, it feels like you don’t matter. You feel like your body is useless. If no one is around to see you, why take up space at all? These thoughts simmered in the back of my head as I finished up classes and reading week began. Without classes to attend, my days had little structure and little motivation, which made it difficult to ignore the image crisis I’d been quietly grappling with. I was in a lake of nothingness. Studying business cycles and market structures felt useless when the world was burning. I trudged through finals with self-image at an all-time low. I didn’t shave for weeks. I gave up on skincare. I ate sporadically and solely from the frozen aisle at Trader Joe’s. But as the semester came to a close, the metaphorical clouds began to part. 

Quarantine restrictions began to lift in San Diego at the end of May. Even though I wasn’t interacting with friends, going out to pick up food was enough perception for me. I found myself dressing up to get boba or to put gas in my car. And with the increased attention on me, my mental health started to turn around — as much as it could in a global pandemic, at least. The lack of structure I had found torturous during finals week was liberating as the weather heated up.

Summer arrived, and with it came a severe addiction to TikTok. I became enamored with teenagers wearing crop tops, chains, oversized crewnecks and mismatching patterns. Bored and impulsive, I tried some of these styles myself. I loved it. Getting stares from surfer boys at coffee shops while I wore a crop top, short shorts and Doc Martens brought an unparalleled rush of serotonin. I also started hanging out with a couple of friends that I felt safe with. We would always dress up for each other, coordinating our outfits so we could do an impromptu photoshoot at any moment. Leaving them to return to campus for sophomore year was harder than leaving the first time.

Now that I’m back on campus, I relish in the eye contact I receive from people studying on Cross Campus. I actively try to show a new side of myself every day. Even though I’m still pretty lonely, a good outfit feigns popularity better than anything. Being alone in my dorm has also led me to post some TikToks of my own. With a thrifted skirt, some chunky white Filas and an LED strip, I felt like those teenagers I’d admired all summer. I’m by no means famous or talented, but it’s fun to get complimented by strangers I’ll never meet.

My fashion has certainly gone on a journey this year, from the lowest of lows to the highest of highs. Before this year, I’d avoided perception as much as possible. Attention on me and my body made me want to stay in bed all day. This year, when perception was forcibly taken away from me, I realized how much I needed it to be happy. Being noticed for something that you put effort and time into creating is rewarding. I put my time and effort into fashion, and being recognized for that effort, even by strangers, makes the effort worth it. Fashion is so often seen as a frivolous thing that shouldn’t be cared about unless you’re vain. This year, I discovered that wasn’t true. The confidence I’ve gained this year wouldn’t have happened if I’d stuck to my old style. Try changing your look. You might like who you see in the mirror.

Camden Rider | camden.rider@yale.edu