On Everyone Else Defining My Identity

Mimosas-Lake-Michigan-Chiago-Steps-Summer Photo : Alanna Bagladi

I would put my transition from high school to college in the “pretty easy” category of my life.  I was very ready to get away from my small catholic high school peers. I was eager for bigger and better things.  The hardest part of my move from Pennsylvania to Chicago besides saying goodbye to my family was deciding what I was going to wear during my first impression days in a new town, new social circle, and new school.

Though this sounds like a rather small hurdle compared to finding my classes and finding someone to eat lunch with, it caused me a decent amount of anxiety.  Throughout my whole schooling career, I have gone to Catholic schools. I literally wore a uniform from age six to eighteen.  At times I hated the uniform, and at others it was a comfort to roll out of bed not having to think, ’what should I wear today?’  I played sports throughout high school, so I went from my kilt to cleats pretty seamlessly, falling into sweats, going to bed, and repeating.  When my high school had a dress down day, it meant that you better get a new impressive outfit because it may have been the only guarantee anyone was going to see you in street clothes.

At that time I also worked at a retail store, which greatly influenced my dress choices.  That store was Ralph Lauren, which made me believe it was normal and fashionable to pop my collar, wear very bright colors, and have my shirt tucked in most of the time.  I did not usually have much of a problem with this, but when I got to college things became a little more complicated.

I was so convinced that people wouldn’t like me unless I wore brand names – an impression deeply solidified in me during high school.  It was home to a lot of very affluent spawn, and it was not unlikely to receive a Range Rover, BMW, or new Audi for your sixteenth birthday. Fortunately, my parents taught me the value of work and a reliable classic car, which thankfully made me much more original and creative.  But back to college, where on my first day of classes I had total control over what I was going to wear, and ultimately who I was going to be.

This backfired quickly, and after the first few weeks of classes I was constantly told I look different every day.  I never really knew what that meant and didn’t know if it was a compliment or dig, so naturally it began to wear at my confidence.  Some days I wore my glasses, some days I wore my hair up or down, some days I wore it curly or straight.  However, I always felt I looked somewhat consistent because I was not changing.  I was the same every day, so constantly hearing, “I didn’t even recognize you!” started becoming pretty hurtful.

I think the issue was my lack of a particular “style.” I did not fit into what I now call the neat ice cube tray that everyone wanted me to fit into.  The names varied, I was called everything from hipster, to athlete, to prep, to business lady, but I was sick of my peers being offended by my lack of consistency.  For a large part of my freshman year, I stuck to generally the same style of clothing, wear my contacts, and straighten my hair everyday in an effort to look ‘the same.’  This, for me, was a pretty big feat, and I remember thinking, why am I taking time to do this for other people? And I now feel that it was really messed up.  I do not think I found my style until I lived by myself, where I had no outside influences besides my dog on what I was going to wear for the day. I spent a lot of time in college feeling the need to be silly in my attire because of the opposition from my peers.  If I was making the joke it was acceptable.

I find it somewhat comical being in the professional world now, I feel the freedom to wear almost anything I want (along certain parameters).  When I worked in downtown Chicago it was acceptable to wear heels, rock a cable knit sweater, or try a trendy leather top.  Now that I live in North Carolina, I tone it down a little more, but being an authority figure in my office gives me the edge of my peers not commenting on my outfits because they feel they are inappropriate.  Isn’t that ironic? I can (and do) wear rain boots, thigh high socks, and a zebra dress to the office and everyone still takes what I have to say seriously.  If I pulled something like that in high school, I would have been laughed down the halls.

Now I find what’s comfortable for me.  Today I wore khakis, tomorrow I plan to wear my prized unicorn scrubs to the hospital.  You can’t put your finger on my style because it is not yours to define, but mine.  My style is Sarah, and it does not fit neatly into a box (or ice cube tray), but it’s me and it operates on a fluid spectrum, so plan to be guessing tomorrow.


Sarah Maguire : Public Health guru specializing in sexual and women’s health issues. Usually spend my free time at dive bars, eating cheese, or in, on, or around large bodies of water.