Around the age of ten, I gained a significant amount of weight, the kind that family members stop calling “cute” and start referring to with a heavy sigh. There was, in reality, nothing wrong with me, but I was too young and too insecure to know that. Nothing I owned fit anymore, and I didn’t trust that buying the right clothes could make me feel better about the way my hips had widened or my arms had softened or my neck now had ridges running across it as if I were an old tree and these were my rings. Shopping was my mother’s game, and soon I was wearing B. U. M. Equipment sweatpants and long-sleeved heat-locking tops—both items were perhaps utilitarian in winter, but tended to turn my person into a walking, sweating radiator by June. I was just happy to hide my puberty-stricken body.
At the time, I claimed my style was some kind of feminist protest: “I don’t need to look like every other girl. Why should I have to dress up when guys can wear whatever they want?” But in truth, I just didn’t know if I was allowed to look “cute” if my body was bigger than the other girls I knew. I hid in muted drapery hoping that no one would notice or, better yet, that they would assume I was a very tough, genderless sphere.
This facade crumbled by the time I was eleven: a well-meaning woman at my mother’s Jenny Craig meeting told her what a precious son she had. I was wearing a baseball cap with the Coca-Cola logo emblazoned on the front, a red puffy vest, and grey sweatpants. It was July. I was mortified to be mistaken for a boy. Not a girl with masculine tendencies, not a girl rejecting traditional gender roles, but a boy. I was being defined by my clothing instead of transformed by it.
This was the same year I discovered Lord of the Rings weenie Orlando Bloom and developed a crush that would last twenty-four months and spawn more than one fan club. (My brother was the only other member, and only by force.) I suddenly realized that boys don’t like girls in promotional hats, and I wanted boys to like me. I started growing my hair out and asked my mom to take me shopping. I wanted to dress like a girl, and not just a pretty girl but a hot girl—whatever makes a woman worth looking at, worth touching (at least from a teenage boy’s perspective). Clothes, the right clothes, could make me—even me!—sexy.
Unfortunately, my tastes differed drastically from my mother’s. I tended toward T-shirts with hilarious and racy sayings. I wanted to try on belly tops and white belts with big silver bolts! My mom suggested stretchy pants paired with a long-sleeved shirt featuring watercolour wolves standing near the reflection of the moon in a calm river. Then there were the flowing Indian tunics that I could tell were clearly not “English” clothes, as we called them—ones in jewel tones and gold stitching that screamed “MY MOTHER IS AN IMMIGRANT—WE ONLY EAT OFF METAL PLATES.” She’d hold them up and say, “They look so nice!” and I’d say, “They’re itchy!” and she’d say, “How?” and I’d furiously rub the sequins against my skin until I flashed red bumps and then say, “SEE?”
One particular fight between my mother and me broke out in the girls’ aisle at Walmart the summer before I started middle school, when I found a royal-blue shirt with “IF IT WEREN’T FOR BOYS, I WOULDN’T EVEN GO TO SCHOOL” scrawled across the front in harsh yellow. This was an out-of-character statement for me: I was the type of person who wrote extra-credit English essays, joined the school paper, and wept for days when my yearbook failed to print my “Future Goals” next to my photo, worried that everyone would think I was a purposeless hack. I was also afraid of the boys who went to my school, none of whom liked me and all of whom were prone to calling me a faggot. But I felt that if I got the Walmart item, I could transform myself in my new environment.
I had the whole scene planned out: I would walk into school wearing that shirt, along with a set of earrings from Claire’s, the ones shaped like lightning bolts, to really bring out the yellow in the top. I’d pair it with my floor-length patchwork denim skirt with a little Union Jack on the pocket. I would encircle my eyes with thick black liner, all the way around, elevating myself from mousy girl to sex-raccoon. Graham*, the boy I had the hots for, would really see me for the first time. Not as the girl he once tackled in flag football, but as the woman he once tackled in flag football. I would pull my glasses off and the transformation would be complete. “Who is that?” everyone would ask. “It’s me,” I’d say. The crowd would gasp in amazement and I would have a million friends and be very thin and rich and filled with an embarrassment of sexual energy for a thirteen-year-old.
While I was concocting this elaborate fantasy in Walmart, my mom was explaining why she wouldn’t be buying the shirt. “That’s inappropriate,” she whispered, as if even the words were sinful. My mother had a tendency to slip into outrage and shock as a first reaction to anything, and the lower her voice dropped, the more disappointed she was. I could barely hear her. “It’s not even long enough to cover your tummy!” she said, pulling me toward a row of long-sleeved T-shirts that said “Glam!” in different colours.
We settled on a short-sleeved number with glittery navy vinyl lettering that proclaimed “I’m not perfect, but I’m so close it scares me!” Even though I loved the shirt (so clever, so smart, so, dare I say, elegantly subversive), I raged at my mom for weeks. She claimed that shirts like the royal-blue one were intended for women like my twenty-year-old cousin and not for pudgy middle-schoolers. But what twenty-year-old is shopping in the girls’ section at Walmart, Mother? It got worse a few days after classes started, when my arch-nemesis, Stephanie, wore the shirt I’d wanted and got an obscene amount of negative male attention. I stomped all the way home that afternoon. That was supposed to be my negative male attention.
This thinking—that an item of clothing will revolutionize my very existence—has repeated throughout my life. Even now at twenty-six. There was the pair of faux-leather red peep-toe pumps in 2006, the black-sequined bolero of 2009, and the skin-tight cerise knock-off Hervé Léger “this New Year’s Eve is going to be amazing” bandage dress of 2011 that I still own and pull out from my closet now and then to remind myself of what I cannot be.
I still remember my favourite outfit from the tenth grade, one of many “perfect outfits” that never lived up to their potential: a mint-green V-neck lace top, dark-wash boot-cut jeans, and black-and-teal-butterfly Mary Jane kitten heels. I wore it for every major occasion: when I wanted Drew to ask me out (he did not), when I wanted to ace a math exam (I did not), when I wanted to be noticed by an attractive guest speaker (I was not). Despite this piss-poor batting average, I felt a renewed sense of potential every time I put it on. “Today, something good has to happen.”
Nearly a decade after that outfit stopped being a staple in my wardrobe, I yet again fell into the trap of believing cloth could be revolutionary. Walking through Toronto’s financial district, I passed a clothing chain known for simple skirts, blouses, blazers, and a roll-on perfume, which burned my neck. It was also the second (and last) retail job I ever had, when I was nineteen and living in my cousin’s basement beside her husband’s table saw, which he used to make her hand-carved wizard wands. I was at least twenty years younger than the clientele that came into the store, I hardly made enough money to buy the $90 cocktail-casual dresses on the racks, and I managed to be twenty minutes late for every shift. I wasn’t fired, per se, but when I left my section to reapply my $4.50 lipstick and a drunk man managed to swipe $800 of merchandise without being detected, I nobly offered not to return.
But that was years ago, and I felt a twinge of self-satisfaction in going back as a customer. So much of my life had changed since I had worked there: I wasn’t a teenager anymore, I had my own apartment, I had paid my taxes at least once, I bought shoes instead of waiting for my older cousins to tire of theirs. The store was little more than a reminder of how far I had progressed in a few short years. “Help me with these buttons, shopgirl,” I imagined saying, “for I am an important woman. I own a microwave.”
That said, the real reason I entered the store was far more practical than ego. It was the dead of summer, some thirty-five degrees Celsius, and I become soggy even in the most forgiving conditions. Standing outside, I was already sweating from new and interesting parts of my body, and if I didn’t find a building colder than the surface of the moon, my makeup would start bleeding and I’d look like a wax figurine inside a clay oven.
I walked in, relishing the blast of cool air, and immediately saw Aaliyah. She had trained me when I worked there but was now the store manager. She was still as tall, stately, and glamorous as I remembered her being when I was nineteen. Best of all: she didn’t seem to recognize me.
I rummaged through sales rack after sales rack, tossing aside shirts that I knew would cling in the wrong places, colours that brought out the sallow tint of my complexion, and the one-piece jumpers that, inexplicably, droves of adult women were wearing, and I never figured out how they managed to pee while wearing them. I was older, more mature; I had learned some important lessons.
But as happened on most of my shopping trips, I grew frustrated quickly. There was little in my size, and the few things that were listed as an 8 or a 10 were really cut for someone who was a 4 or a 6. Forcing my wide hips through the trousers or my boulder shoulders through a T-shirt felt like it would be more pain than it was worth.
Then, on my way out, I found it: the thing. A black-and-white fall skirt that I knew would look perfect on me. It was soft wool, but in a slimming cut, and hit just below the knee. It would be ideal for work, or for going out afterwards, or maybe I would wear it with a big floppy hat and a trench coat at Parisian cafés, waiting for a parcel from a mysterious stranger. (I am Carmen Sandiego in this fantasy, as I am in most of my non-sexual, non-food-related fantasies.) I held my breath, turning it over to see the price and the size: it was on sale, and it was a size 8.
It’s happening, I thought. The item, the big item that changes the way I dress and thereby changes who I am as a person. It’s not just a skirt; it’s the entry fee for a better existence. It would smooth out the wrinkles in my body; it would hide all the ways I have disappointed and failed people in the past. When I wore it, women would approach me and beg me to tell them where I’d gotten it. I would act coy and wink to the camera (in this version of the fantasy, I am perpetually in a commercial; don’t worry about it) and say something like “I’ll never tell” or “Oh, just something I picked up.” People would see me on the street, shoving fistfuls of Teddy Grahams into my mouth on the way to the podiatrist, and they would think, “Boy, that lady sure does have her life together.”
That’s a lot of pressure for something on sale for $24.99.
Aaliyah led me to a changing room, complimenting me on my choice. I locked the door and looked at myself in the mirror, taking a deep breath. I peeled the shorts off my sweating skin and stepped into the skirt. It slid up my body and rested on my waist, and I pulled the zipper up toward the Lord. It didn’t just fit. No, it melded to my body, beautifully, as if it had been cut specifically for me, to mask and smooth and elevate. The dream was happening! My reflection now showed an all-knowing smile; my hair was suddenly more luxurious. I felt thinner, more acceptable. I was a better woman. Girls who had been mean to me in high school would see me in this skirt and think, “Is that Scaachi?” and I’d say, “YOU BET IT IS, YOU DUMB BITCH” and then punch all their boyfriends in the teeth. (I have not thought this fantasy through; just let me have this.)
Inflated imaginings aside, I did look pretty good. I walked out of the changing room to vamp in front of people paid to tell me I looked great. The skirt was a little warm for the summer, but who cares—I’d wear it when fall came. I did one more spin in front of Aaliyah and her co-workers before feeling a thick droplet of sweat fall from my brow onto my eyelash. I was overheating in my perfect skirt, so I headed back into the changing room.
My hands were sweating too much to grasp the zipper in the back. I wrapped a T-shirt around my fingers to get a grip, but it wouldn’t budge. I sucked in, gathering the fabric, and tried to tug the zipper down. No luck. I struggled like this for a good fifteen minutes, the changing room lights feeling more like an interrogation lamp, sweat pooling in the dimples above my ass, my hair matted to my face.
I was reaching peak anxiety. I tried pulling the skirt over my head (alas, my waist is smaller than my shoulders, a problem I did not consider until I almost got my arms stuck as well), then considered tearing the zipper and telling Aaliyah that it had broken while I was trying to disrobe.
But I didn’t want to ruin such a good item. Maybe it was salvageable. Maybe I could still be the woman I felt I could be. My only options were to ask Aaliyah for help or to wear it out of the store, making me the only idiot sweating in a wool skirt who wasn’t also handing out pamphlets that read “Have You Made Peace with Your God?” I remembered hearing that sometimes zippers move when you rub a candle on them. I could run outside and yell, “DOES ANYONE HAVE A CANDLE? IT’S AN EMERGENCY.” That would be fine. I considered a secret third option, one where I would type out a quick suicide note on my phone and then use a fabric belt to fashion a trendy noose.
Whatever the decision, I needed to make it fast, since soon my whole body would be covered in my salty, sticky shame-sweat.
I left the changing room and tapped Aaliyah on the shoulder, hoping she wouldn’t notice that my entire face was glistening.
“That really does look great on you,” she said, giving me that wide smile I had seen her give to so many customers before.
“I’m stuck,” I said.
I turned around, my rear facing her, and she tried the zipper herself. She tried bunching the fabric to get a better grip. “Suck in,” she said, pulling more and more of the skirt toward her. Aaliyah called her co-worker over to help. She couldn’t manage either. “It’s so weird,” she said. “It’s like the skirt is caught on nothing.” No, nothing except my own ego and humiliation.
A third employee came over and tried to use a pin to pull the zipper’s teeth apart. She then spent a full minute just shaking my hips, as if she were trying to will me into a smaller size so the skirt would slide off. (Admittedly, a minute may not sound like a long time, but ask a loved one to shake the lower half of your body and then ponder how long those sixty seconds feel.)
The employees turned to one other and discussed what to do next. “We could rip out the zipper and then sew it back on?” “Do you think she can pull it over her head, or, no, no, her shoulders are too wide.” “What if we just cut her out?”
That last one was the ultimate nightmare. If you are a woman reading this, you know this to be true: getting stuck in a garment at a store where the employees have to cut you out is the beginning of the end of your life—it’s the saddest version of a C-section, where the baby is just a half-naked lady with no dignity.
“Yeah,” Aaliyah said to her cohorts. “Grab the scissors. We have to cut her out.” It was like listening to three surgeons decide you needed to be sliced in half, thinking you’re unconscious and can’t hear them.
Two women held the skirt to my hips, pressing me into the wall of the changing-room hallway. I could see my reflection in the mirror, and my face was now drenched with sweat. From the outside, I looked as if I were being hazed by a group of women far too old to be welcoming new pledges. All I was focused on, however, was not exposing my entire lower half to whoever may have walked into the store during this ordeal. I said a silent goodbye to my beloved skirt, the garment that was supposed to change me but had instead reminded me that, no, you are what you are, even if you remember to iron your clothes.
“Okay, hold still,” Aaliyah said. This was an intimate moment for us. Her face was closer to my butt than anyone’s had been in, oh, hours. We were like sisters now.
While the other two women flanked me and held the skirt up, Aaliyah pulled the fabric away from my body and started making small snips. “I don’t want to cut you,” she said, but at that point, I would have welcomed any distraction from the sweat gathering on my back—tiny, resplendent pools of my greatest fear come to life.
The sound that’s made when one cuts a perfectly useful item of clothing is almost painful, especially when the item is one that you have fallen in love with. All those hems and seams and stitches destroyed so easily. It’s the same feeling, I imagine, that would come if you baked and iced a cake, only to drop it on the way to a birthday.
But the sound that’s made when someone, say, cuts an item of clothing they weren’t supposed to cut is criminal. It’s the dying scream of someone you love. It is the final whisper of your pride. It is the quietest slap in the face you will ever feel.
After she had made her final cut, I turned to Aaliyah. All the colour had drained from her face. She had sliced right through my underwear, leaving me exposed like either a confused surgery patient or a very physically confident crazy person.
It was an honest mistake on her part. I hope. I was wearing one of those 1999-esque whale tails that were popular among high-school girls trying to attract boys with the forbidden fruit of tiny underwear. It wasn’t so much clothing as it was thickly woven black floss, hanging out inside the crevices of my garbage body.
Aaliyah wordlessly ushered me back into the changing room, then gave me the scissors, saying I could cut myself out further if I needed to. I tore the skirt right in half, looking in the mirror to see what was hanging off me. One hip was wrapped in an elastic band like a still-raw roulade, and the other was naked except for a thick thread swinging, purposelessly, by my side. I started to get dressed, trying to see if I could tie my underwear back together or maybe cinch it with the hair elastic I had around my wrist. Instead, I opted to just stuff myself back into my denim shorts.
I handed Aaliyah the scissors and the remains of the skirt, apologizing for destroying a perfectly good item of clothing. “Oh, it’s okay,” she said. “It happens.” Though she didn’t clarify who else it had ever happened to. I bought that trendy noose belt to compensate. And then, of course, as I shuffled out of the store, I heard Aaliyah proclaim with great zeal, “Oh my God, I just remembered where I know her from!”
The nightmare was over, but I still had to sulk home in a heat wave, my clothes soaked with sweat, my underwear hanging on by a single thread. If you have never experienced the sensation of your naked labia rubbing up against freshly washed denim as you manoeuvre through a subway car with broken air conditioning, you have had more than your fair share of luck in life.
I returned home the way I always do, without a renewed outlook on life and without a magic garment to change the way I am. I hung my new belt (still never worn) in my closet among all the other clothes that I had, at one point, bought in order to improve myself. All of them had failed because clothes can’t make you feel better about yourself for more than a few minutes, and they can’t make you a better person. Clothes are just things you buy at the mall that you then ruin with pizza-sauce stains and later wear to bed or use to polish jewellery.
I still shop to save my soul instead of just to cover my ass, and it typically ends the same way. That maxi dress from nine months ago didn’t heal me of hating the width of my hips. The earrings from two years ago don’t distract me from how I feel about my uneven hairline. And the skirt Aaliyah cut me out of would not have made me feel any better about how quickly sweat can puddle at the nape of my neck. I wonder, sometimes, if I would have been saved all this nitpicking I do to my own body had my mom just bought me that shirt from Walmart. Maybe I would be kinder to my arms and my neck; maybe I wouldn’t worry about what people might be saying about my baby hair.
But probably not. There will be something else to make me feel bad, inching up toward all the things I currently feel bad about, and no crop top made by small, underpaid, foreign hands can cure me—or you. Clothes are ephemeral: they fall apart in the wash, you lose them at a friend’s house, they rip and crumble and go out of style. You’ll forget about them and buy new ones and then start the cycle again. But your insecurities—the ones that force you to go hunting for something that will give you a renewed sense of self—don’t you even worry. Those will last you a lifetime.
*Names have been changed.
This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue under the headline “Get the Scissors.”
Excerpted from One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul. Copyright © 2017 Scaachi Koul. Published by Doubleday Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.