Katie Caracciolo //
On the first day of seventh grade, I confront my reflection in the mirror: the epitome of middle school awkwardness. Barely there blonde hair hangs down over my forehead, pimples freckle my chin, and horrible plastic glasses frame my nearsighted eyes. But my recently-tightened braces shine bright in the mirror, because today is the day. I’ve graduated from jumpers to a skirt, from a cardigan to a pull-over sweater. It’s the first day of seventh grade, and I’ll be waltzing into my K-8 Catholic school in a gently used junior high uniform.
I’m comforted by the length of the skirt, the way it hangs down around my bare knees, hiding a childhood’s worth of scrapes and scars. I pull my white crew length socks up high over my ankles, attempting to conceal the shoddy leg shaving job I’ve done in the shower the night before. Unfortunately, a foot of bare shin still shines bright white in the bathroom fluorescents. I guess I’ll have to learn to live with it.
And I do. Even as the hand-me-down sweaters (one from my brother, one from my sister) begin to fray at the cuffs, I appreciate that the sleeves hang loosely around my wrists, hiding last summer’s friendship bracelets from my eagle-eyed algebra teacher. I admire the way the white Peter Pan collar rises high up my throat, only the top button unbuttoned.
I laugh along with my classmates as they complain about the ugly green plaid, rolling the tops of their skirts so that they fall at a more twenty-first century length, but deep down I feel more comfortable than I’ve ever felt. At the age of thirteen I’m already wary of the gaze of others, of what they might see (or not see) when they look at me. But for the next two years, much of the stress of being perceived has been generously lifted off my shoulders by the modesty standards of Jesus Christ himself, or at least the principal of my grammar school (who is, as far as I know, the next closest thing).
I don’t have to think about how to wear my hair, when I should start wearing makeup, or if I should get my ears pierced, for it is written. The Church teaches that the burden of choice hangs heavy upon young, impressionable shoulders, and as far as fashion goes, my adolescent self agrees.
Everywhere I go, I claim my place as an insignificant member of something much larger than myself. Passersby recognize the uniform, but not me. I am simply a nameless, faceless Catholic schoolgirl, one of thousands in the city. The stereotype does not quite fit as comfortably as the navy blue sweater does, but it offers me a layer of protection nonetheless.
There is nowhere to hide.
I look at the students around me. Girls in white skinny jeans, boys in slim-cut khakis, unbuttoned Abercrombie flannels over tight t-shirts or camisoles fly through the halls, and I have no choice but to conform. I have entered the age of peer pressure, but it has reared its ugly head in ways I did not expect.
Though I initially delighted in the relative freedom of a more relaxed dress code, I’m discovering challenges that I couldn’t even dream of in my younger days. I hesitantly don the unspoken uniform of skinny jeans and revealing tops, but secretly I dream of bulky sweaters, high socks, and long skirts to hide behind.
I live with an eternal sense of discomfort. The heat in the school building is for some reason always cranked high, even in the mild San Francisco winter, and I sit in pre-calc and sweat, all because I refuse to take off my mom’s giant windbreaker. Perspiration pools in the crook of my knee, and I long for the carefree days of long skirts and bike shorts. Sure, we’re allowed to wear shorts, but they must be to the knee, and that’s not exactly en vogue amongst the local teens.
“It’s part of the look,” I joke to my friends, when they question my bulky winter coat. “You’re not gonna make me sacrifice the ‘fit, are you?” They laugh, but we’re all living in the same sense of unease. Living by fewer rules than we did in younger years, we cannot figure out what to do with our stylistic freedom. Some of us branch out, dabble in slightly edgier looks, but most of us feel compelled to conform with the implicit message to maintain slick, exposed professionalism.
In the spring I’m shocked by the androgynous familiarity of the graduation robe, the way it billows around my body, hiding my true form. It brings me back to my grammar school days, drowning in my older siblings’ worn out clothes.
I look up and down the line of all 350 of my classmates, and finally, finally, we’ve achieved what we’ve (intentionally or not) been pursuing for the last four years: we all look the same. Nameless, shapeless, we wait for our turn to be called up on stage, to be handed a certificate branded with who we are meant to be in the world. It feels shockingly similar to my eighth grade teacher calling us up one by one, each dressed to identical perfection, to receive our marks on a long-ago math test. Not for the first time, I allow myself to take comfort in modest conformity as I step into the future.