Style and appearances are associated with status at many universities. Students across campus litter themselves with Vineyard Vines whales and Anthropologie sweaters, creating a visual norm. I know my university definitely falls prey to this sometimes. At UVa, you’ll find “guys in ties and girls in pearls,” especially at our football games. But with clubs like “sweater vests as tank tops,” students try to break this trend which leaves others feeling forced to buy certain brands so they don’t feel ostracized.
Noting this, I decided I wanted to switch up my style to see if people did treat me differently.
While I never described myself as preppy, my wardrobe has changed in my three years at UVa. I always wear some percentage of makeup to leave the house (even during my three straight days of finals a year ago). Clothing also dictates how I feel on a given day. A bad day drives me to put on something I feel confident wearing. This is my life. So this challenge was very… challenging.
First, I decided not to wear boots—only old sneakers or running shoes. I wouldn’t wear athletic clothes either (I see you Lulu Lemon running shorts). In my search for clothes, I found some old pairs of jeans from before I lost my freshman 15 that sagged so much it made me look like I used to have a donk and holes in the knees made massive from accidentally shoving my foot through one too many times while putting them on. I also had a couple triple-hand-me-down sweatshirts with no recognizable labels and a sweater littered with holes.
Not wanting to associate with any status on campus, I decided not to wear anything with my sorority letters. This lessened my t-shirt collection from 26 to six—including one I designed myself for when I dressed as a zombie for Halloween. I also pulled out an old, white tank top that still fits me from when I was 13. If I learned nothing else, I now know just how much effort I put into my appearance.
When I started on Saturday, I was having a bad day. I just hung out at my boyfriend’s apartment while he and his roommate were out. He knew about my mood so I don’t think he was surprised at my ragamuffin appearance when he returned. That said, he didn’t treat me any differently.
Sunday felt different—time to face the world. I went to work at the library for most of my day, blending in well with my stressed-out brothers and sisters. The only difference I noticed was I felt more comfortable and saved time getting ready that day. Later that night, my boyfriend did question my outfit (I was wearing my blood-splattered zombie t-shirt), but quickly brushed it off, saying he just had never saw me wear it before. I wonder why? When we went by his apartment, his roommate looked at me and said, “What happened to you?” I realized then that I hadn’t showered since Friday.
The next day was harder. I woke up, still unshowered, and hated the way I looked. After wanting to hit the gym but being unable to get my greasy hair in a ponytail without having huge cowlicks, I got very frustrated. I kept looking forward to my shower that day, telling myself I’d look so much better. After a long, steamy shower, I stepped out and hated looking at my totally clear face in the mirror. I felt even worse donning my outfit for that day. My jeans sunk and I kept my finger constantly on a belt loop while I walked to class.
Class was awful. I hated looking around and people looking clean in fitting clothes with nice, harmonious colors. Walking home quickly I kept my head low, lest I catch someone looking at me. I felt embarrassed by my ratty appearance. I knew I could do so much better and people didn’t get to see the best me. When I went to buy groceries, I felt ashamed to go to the checkout with a human being looking at me. I stared in the mirror for a while that afternoon wondering how my eyelashes looked so short and my cheeks so pale.
The next day was Election Tuesday and I to hit the polls early (hell yeah #civicduty). It felt great waking up only 15 minutes before leaving. I didn’t have to worry about picking out my clothes or doing my makeup. I just brushed my teeth, brushed my hair and dressed myself. It felt like I was in elementary school again.
I met some friends for breakfast after voting. They didn’t mention anything about my appearance, but they did talk about clothing for a while and I felt pretty left out. Later that day, something awful happened—and I’m not talking about the election results. My old knock-off Keds gave out and the holes hit the bottom of my socks.
After that, any bit of water I stepped in seeped into my socks, which is probably one of the easiest ways to ruin your day. When I got home I didn’t linger when I looked in the mirror. I went to an election party that night and I felt really sad to not look my best. I found myself feeling weird when I met new people that night. I kept yelling at them in my head, “This isn’t me!”
The next day, the election results left almost everyone pretty down. My boyfriend and I decided to cheer ourselves up with some French toast. I began to realize that he hadn’t treated me any differently me and I wondered if he noticed my change in appearance at all. I tried hinting with him that I looked different from normal and he was worried I felt upset that he didn’t notice something.
He didn’t even think I looked bad. Any difference in attitude I thought I noticed was just a result of my lack of confidence without makeup. I felt like I wasn’t pretty enough to not wear makeup, but that only reflected the way I felt about myself—not how others saw me. The rest of the day, I felt like me again. I felt confident talking to strangers and I didn’t avoid people I knew when I walked around campus.
On my last day of the challenge, I decided to ask my friends if they noticed anything different. Most of my friends said, “You look the same” or “I thought you were just having a rough day.” I wondered if maybe I was the problem because I expected people to notice.
I couldn’t interview every person on my campus who saw me that week and asked what they thought. However, I got the feeling that I grossly overestimated how much people care and the shallowness of my university.
The biggest result from all of this? I finally felt comfortable enough to not wear makeup and abandoned the need to apologize for it. That said, I did get really excited to go all out that weekend and wear winged eyeliner.
I ended the week by posting a photo of myself from my trip to Togo, Africa—when I hadn’t showered or shaved in days, wore no makeup and my clothing choices were dictated by the unfamiliar terrain.
Even though I looked tired and messy, I was smiling at my sister behind the camera. I remember hating almost all the pictures from my trip because I felt so ashamed of my appearance. My social media-conscious brain wanted me to look like a model in a wilderness photoshoot with shiny hair and a big flowing dress. But I know now that isn’t the real world. I laughed at myself for being so shallow, posted the picture and felt really proud.