The age of 15 was a tender time for me. A sophomore in high school, I was knee deep in a social environment of peer pressure, friendship-making, and academic efforts - all while I was still sorting out just who I was. Conformity was my safety net, and I knew at that time that if I opted to risk jumping without it under me, I wouldn't likely find a helping hand if I fell.
This mindset was especially overt in my attire. My daily uniform consisted of baggy sweatpants, a dark t-shirt, and an Adidas windbreaker (when it started to get chilly). I was certainly comfortable. But in that mode, in that mindset, in that stage of being a teenager - I have no recollection of liking the way I looked. As an added stress, my (worsening) Crohn's disease often left my face pale and hollowed, and with dark circles under my eyes, no matter how much I slept. The defining duo of clothing and complexion often left me retreating into more recluse parts of my mind. It wasn't until the December of that school year that I began to learn: That "defining duo" didn't have to define me at all.
In a whirlwind of a month and a half, I went from winning a boxing match by KO in November, to being hardly able to move my joints that New Year's Eve. The polar opposites of events bred a mindset and way of living that I still carry to this day - the belief and cognitive recognition that I was in control of me, and that I wasn't going to live and look the way people wanted me to. Don't get me wrong. For years after, and even to this day, I get self-conscious for the way I look and spend too much time focusing on whether I'm good enough or if I look bad. But even in those times of self-doubt, I know that I am in control of what I say and what I look like.
That Christmas, I requested one thing and one thing only: better clothes. I wanted to dress the way I wanted to dress, and took a fondness to clothing that was smart and more dressed up. Dress shirts, creased pants, leather shoes - that was how I wanted to dress, and the potential ridicule I would get at school for it never crossed my mind once I was set on it.
I got back to school in a new vibe. I was getting much more ill as a result of a bout with my Crohn's disease, but my chin was up and there was a click in my step. My new morning routine came with ironing a shirt and tying a tie. To my surprise, I never caught half the ridicule I thought I might. I found respect, and appreciation from those who were ostracized at school. If people were talking, I didn't tune in, and didn't care, because I knew there were people in those hallways who saw that it was okay to be yourself. By March, I knew I wanted to step out of the norm even further, both for how I wanted to look, and the statement I wanted to make.
I bought my first suit.
Well, to be honest, my parents bought it for me. I begged and begged for one, the way most teenagers would for a car, or concert tickets. Luckily it was tax return season, and my parents scraped the money together. Thank you, Mom and Dad.
The search process was thorough and insightful. At the time, I had no idea of the importance of fabric quality or cut or anything like that. But I knew I wanted to wear a suit. The search left me falling in love with a 2-piece, 2-button, charcoal suit with pinstripes. The minute I came face-to-face with the mirror, I was hooked. I liked the way I looked, and I would be damned before I would let anyone put me down for that.
With my coat of fabric armor, I saw myself making decisions that would otherwise be uncomfortable for me. I opted to go out more. I initiated conversations. Soon enough, class presentations and sharing my deeper thoughts became light work. I knew I belonged. But not because I was wearing clothing that has long represented power and status, but because I was wearing that clothing because I wanted to, and the connections I was making were genuine and real. It wasn't long before I expanded my love for clothing. I subscribed to GQ Magazine, I rented books on menswear, and I learned how to tailor. In no time, I could recite everything there was to know about dressing up, and I was happy with that. I still am.
Every suit purchase to this day is reminiscent of that charcoal, 2-piece suit. With each new suit (of armor), I grin, complacent in what I know is a niche of mine. The best part of it all? I learned that I wear the clothes, the clothes don't wear me.
Thank you, suits, for helping me realize that I'm fine the way I am.