In the spring of 8th grade, I made a secret purchase. From the front it was nothing special: a cropped heather grey cotton tee shirt. The back was where the drama was. It was totally open, exposing the whole torso, tied with a silk ribbon at the bottom. It was from Urban Outfitters, made of cheap jersey, and wasn’t particularly flattering or elegant. But to my 13 year-old mind, it was…thrilling.
On the weekends, when I got dressed to go see a movie or have dinner with friends, I’d try it on. Always, a rush of anticipation would swell in me and then dull as soon as I saw my reflection; the magic of the secret shirt was more effective in theory than in practice.
I never ended up wearing it out of my room, but that didn’t keep me from expecting that, one day soon, I’d find a suitable occasion. Something about the shirt, the fact that it was the most revealing article of clothing I owned, or that I’d bought it covertly–carried the promise of adulthood: a whiff of cigarette smoke; proximity to males; other small, youthful risks.
The person I am today is certainly relieved that tween me didn’t end up wearing that shirt out. Though I mostly shied away from the risqué in high school, I certainly fell prey on occasion to the temptation of wearing less to gain access to more. While there are perks to this equation, the tradeoff is often that the less you wear, the harder it can be to showcase an identity that is separate from, just, your body. I never interrogated the paradox of being a teenage woman while I was one: at a time when the need to hone and express an identity feels urgent, the allure of bodies and the pressure to expose them is at a fever pitch. In high school, the practice of self-display can leave you without a canvas upon which to cultivate a self: a sense of personal style often pales in comparison to a bare midriff.
Over the years, the secret shirt ceded ground in my closet to cleverer garments: suede fringed tops from second-hand stores and my mother’s tartan trousers from the ‘80s. My taste in clothing became more about the presence than the absence of fabric. But even so, I can’t help but think of that top with a giddy tingle in my gut, tied to the feeling of being caught between adolescence and adulthood: the headlights of a newly-minted driver rearing up your driveway, rumors of a party, and 11:00 pm curfews.