Dressing Like Me

By Leila Adam comfortable in your own skin – why does it take so long to achieve? I’ve spent years feeling self-conscious in a crowd, stammering over how to respond to new acquaintances, struggling with finding the ‘right’ dress style, stiffening when presenting myself in new situations… the list goes on.

All this, I sense, is because of being unsure of exactly who I am and where I stand with myself. When you aren’t sure where you stand with yourself, where is the hope of knowing where you stand with others?

I’m sure some of the problem stems from temperament. Choleric and sanguine people would feel it much less. They might even not identify at all with what I’m trying to say. Whereas I’m certain melancholics and phlegmatics will know exactly what I mean. I can therefore safely assume that half the world suffers from this problem.

Getting to the root of the issue is difficult. What exactly is it that causes this vague lack of feeling comfortable and ‘right’ with the world of people? That sense of: ‘I have nothing to be stressed about in this social context, yet I know I’m not relaxed. I know I’m not completely being myself.’

For me, this matter manifested most clearly through my struggle with clothes (though it was subtly everywhere in my life). Finding that perfect dress style that expresses ‘the real me’ has been elusive. “Am I Bohemian, Funky or Traditional? I know I’m not Sophisticated or Trendy” The result of over thinking this has been that I usually leave the house looking like the Bag Lady.

Why obsess about clothes? Really it’s a symptom of a deeper crisis. Our clothes project an image, and we are inside them looking at others looking at us. Clothes are our flags of recognition for the outside world. Whether we are aiming to impress others or express ourselves, clothes matter more than most of us would like to admit.

As children we wear what adults dress us in, until a time when we start to exert our clothing preferences. For me there were some cultural confusions that compounded the matter. I’m half Indian and half English. Which half would claim my outward expression? This dilemma epitomised the deeper problem of “Which half do I feel I belong to?” The answer always came closest to neither.

For the first half of my life I couldn’t analyse this. Clothing and its deeper issue of comfortable rightness with the world was dealt with as a random succession of individual outfits, either sewn with great enthusiasm and anticipation (until I saw the reality of the less than dream-like result), or worn passively because it was given to me, and was therefore an expression of what others perceived I ought to look like.

I lived in the Middle East for a few years and wore the traditional black abaya most days. One might think that this would fix the problem, but it doesn’t. The dilemma just becomes more subtle. It also becomes disturbingly about class, and which fancy boutique you bought your perfectly cut and shaped abaya from. I still wound up looking like the Emirati Bag Lady, with my floppy abaya, and lack of high heels and sequined handbag.

In mid-life, I started the long process of questioning everything about how I was living my life, and digging down to the roots of matters. I took a long, hard look at clothing. I decided that because I was so ‘ungrounded’ in my own culture (well, I don’t really have one and that’s the problem), I’m a bit of a lost soul when it comes to dressing.

I decided that the root problem was one of identity. Being quarter Afghani (on the ‘Indian’ side) made me fantasize about being born in a little village, somewhere on an Afghan hillside. If I had, I would have grown up knowing exactly who I was and would have faced the world comfortably in that knowledge. I would have worn colourful dresses and flowing dupattas (traditional, long scarves), knowing that they were right for me. The way I fitted into the world would be forever grounded in a childhood spent running through fields with a bunch of goats.

I spent a long time lamenting this and being almost angry about my lack of cultural definition. It took a lot of time and soul searching, of fixing inner diseases of character one at a time, and of sitting and contemplating things with complete honesty with God – to finally stop feeling resentful and as if I was continuously treading water and trying to keep afloat in social contexts.

Know yourself to know God. This is what our teachers advise us and it is truly a great piece of wisdom.

If you can’t face God honestly and tear down the barriers between yourself and Him, then you can never be comfortable in your own skin. If you can’t face Him with every ugly vice that you force yourself to look at bare-faced without cringing away, then how will you face the world and have an honest interaction with it?

When you have gone through this painful process, you come to know that He, the most important Being, already knows how base you are in character and He hasn’t rejected you. In fact, He has guided you with Love; so much so, that you now know He is with you every step of the way.

This Love of His trips you up and makes you fall flat on your face so many times that after a while you stop counting. Every time it happens, you know that He is watching you and metaphorically chuckling, like a benevolent parent.

You make a thousand mistakes, you behave grossly, and still He picks you up, dusts you off, and teaches you how to do better.

If you’ve been through all this with Him, until finally you know a whole lot more about yourself and you know that He knows everything, then what problem is it, after that, to step out into the world and face people? Does it matter that they don’t see you at your best, when you know that He already knows you at your worst? Living and experiencing all this is what makes you begin to feel comfortable in your own skin.

I finally came to a point of orientating my framework properly. I set my face towards Allah and accepted the way He had designed things for me. I accepted that my being born and raised halfway in everything—a jack of all trades and master of none in the realm of cultural identity—was my qadr (fate) from Allah. He gave it to me in His infinite Wisdom.

That acceptance was when I began to feel a relaxation start to take hold. That’s when I started to feel a smile creep onto my face while walking down the street, knowing that if I wanted to, I could jump up onto a wall and walk along it without fear of reprobation. I finally felt like I could just be myself and not worry about the possibility of ‘myself’ not being good enough.

Knowing that my unique identity is good enough for Him suddenly makes it good enough for me and everybody else. I now know that if I want to go out and skateboard, I’ll go out and skateboard. If I want to sit in a park and write in my journal, I’ll sit in a park and write in my journal. If I want to be quiet at a gathering and people-watch rather than talk, I can do so without feeling the need to explain myself.

This freedom to relax and accept myself in Allah’s sight has, almost surprisingly, given me the sense of joy in dressing that I was searching for. I can now wear my skater dresses and motley collection of scarves with something approaching pizzazz, and ‘carry them off’. I’m comfortable with them. They are me. They are not a half-English girl trying to be Indian, nor are they a half-Indian girl trying to be English. They are just ‘me’.

I suspect that I still often look like the Bag Lady. But now I feel that I can just laugh and embrace her. She is me, and I’m okay with that.

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  • Great article.
    I can totally relate. Born in the UK to Indian parents I shunned the cultural side of my parents. I saw myself as British but others saw me as Indian. It’s really interesting how people view by appearance but you might see yourself as something quite different due to your experience. I felt like a misfit growing up, neither belonging here or there but I guess, like the author writes, that’s me. And I’m fine with that!

  • Great read! I never really fit in either, I was always the outlier or maybe I was the chameleon that tried to blend in. It seems I stumbled upon this at the right time and now I must do some self reflecting to gauge how comfortable I am in my own skin.

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