Thursday, August 20, 2009

Is Your T-Shirt Who You Really Are?

I think often that fashion is the mirror to the self. I wrote recently, next to a photo of my fierce Barbarella sandals on Facebook, that shoes really show how hard one is trying. I mean, people can opt out of the whole fashion thing, certainly, but that in and of itself speaks volumes, doesn't it? People will often judge a book by its cover, let's be honest, whether we want them to or not.

Well, there is a hot new trend, around for a while but finally coming hard and fast into the mainstream, like tattoos, to wear sayings across one's chest. It seems we are being forced to know things about people we'd rather not, just by walking down the street and seeing them in their t-shirt. The "Offensive" section on websites selling such graphic tees brings new meaning to the word graphic.

Just yesterday, as I sat minding my own business at Southside, where every espresso shot is a double and I am often afraid I've ordered a double double, leaving Park Slope in great jeopardy, just such a graphic phrase made its way into my vision. It was on the chest of a 20-something kid, a contractor's assistant it seemed. In white lettering, clearly visible against the black tee, all undercase, it said, "i f***** your girlfriend."

When he saw me reading the lovely sentiment, the kid got all flushed and went to cover the saying with his hand. I laughed.

"Really?" I said. "You're embarrassed? How could you be, you're wearing it?"

He just smiled and laughed a little.

I thought, in that moment, of asking him why he bought it, why he was wearing it if he felt embarrassed, of giving him a gold star for having the good sense to be embarrassed even if he was wearing it. But I did nothing. I left him and it alone, except in my head. I just thought about why myself, wrote about it and will write about it here. Odds are if I'd asked him, he wouldn't really know, I reasoned. He was clearly conflicted.

Here was a kid wearing a t-shirt whose intentionally self-reflective message was not actually reflective. It was clearly disingenuous. He likely wasn't the kind of guy to f*** someone else's girlfriend if he even thought about covering up the message for judgmental moms like me. Certainly, if he did do it, he wouldn't seem to be the type to throw it in someone's face, I could tell that just from his sheepish grin.

Who we are and who we want to be are in constant conflict and, nowadays, able to choose literally what we want to say about ourselves in our fashions, I'm not confident we know enough to choose. It takes a lifetime of figuring and even then...I think we're so often wrong. We pay therapists to ask us about our mothers, life coaches to repeat our own words back to us in a more resonant way, but in the end we have to sit with ourselves and think, to try to reconcile our feelings and our actions and imagine how the two together might paint a somewhat realistic picture of who we are. And, of course, we can decide in some measure who we want to be.

I said to my husband once, in a line that has become famous between us, "You're not actually insecure, you just think you're insecure." Hmmm. But, weird as it sounds, roughly 18 years later, I stand by that statement. He is confident at his core. Despite oversized coke-bottle glasses, too tight plaid floods and a shock of bright red untamed curls, I can tell in a photo of him in grade school that he was well liked for his centeredness, for his inner calm even while hyper. There is something about him that people admire, that they can see even if he, looking in the mirror, does not. He has, most of his life, opted out of fashion in fear, not knowing exactly what to wear to paint himself as he is or wants to be, but that's been fine. He is honest enough that people get a clear picture of him without a graphic graphic tee.

There is nothing wrong with being clever or cute or trying to give people a window into your world with a literal fashion statement, but these t-shirts seem to be just another weapon in the war of miscommunication, a sign of our messed-up misreading of the signs that might help signal our way into better relationships, better communities, better times. We are not being honest about who we are and how we've gotten to this place, that seems patently obvious.

Now, I may be reading way too much into a t-shirt, but isn't that the point? Isn't the motive to make us stand up and take notice? But what are we supposed to be noticing? That a lot of people want to be saying a big f*** you to everyone who passes by? The truth is, the people with the boldest, biggest f*** you on their t-shirts are likely the most sensitive, the ones who need positive attention the most. But, as the saying goes, the best defense is a good offense. People are clearly taking that to heart. Offensiveness is definitely on the rise.

P.S. A note on medicine and prescriptions. Just to prove I do not vilify the medical world or pharmaceuticals just because I question their practices, I took my littler son to the pediatrician yesterday to check out an earache he's been complaining about for a while. After an hour's wait, the doctor walked in, took a quick look, diagnosed the problem as swimmer's ear and wrote out a prescription on her pad. I had to laugh. I had been giving him Swimmer's Ear, an over-the-counter medicine, for a while. It wasn't strong enough.

"I diagnosed correctly on WebMD," I told her, "but I just didn't have the prescription pad." She kind of laughed, but not really. She had many other patients to see, many more prescriptions to write and it was getting on toward nightfall. I'll keep you posted on the progress, whether a pill (or in this case, drops) can offer a quick fix. Two doses in: still a problem.

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