My first day working at hippie farm camp, we were all pulling weeds when someone complimented me on my shoes. I began to thank the person when another counselor, this one a seasoned veteran sporting a tattered tunic and dirty fingernails, interjected.
“You’re not supposed to use ‘body talk’ here,” she said, leaning down to sink her pitchfork farther into the soil.
“Body talk,” it turned out, is any talk concerning physical appearance, from hair color to skirt shape. Positive comments, such as “I like your shoes,” are just as prohibited as the more obviously damaging “You’re fat.” The goal, of course, was for campers, inundated with messages about the importance of appearance, to take a much-needed break from the harsh realities of the outside world, where clothes and appearance rule teenaged worlds. I got it. I really did. I didn’t think abstaining from “body talk” would be easy, but I didn’t think I’d have any real difficulty. So I couldn’t talk about clothes: no big deal.
But I didn’t know I cared about fashion until I was banned from talking about it.
Let’s start at the beginning. Clothes have always held a special, if anguished, place in my heart. When I think of kindergarten, I think of two things, and two things only: a red sweater and a pair of fuzzy black pants. I wore these items exclusively throughout the year. Rain or shine, 80 degrees or 20, I wore my red sweater and black fuzzies (as they were affectionately known) without fail. I owned two copies of each thing and wore them religiously: weekend or weekday, birthday party or funeral would find me in my red sweater and black fuzzies. The system was foolproof. I remember thinking that I might go through my whole life in my red sweatshirt and black fuzzies. It was a comforting thought, to be 12 and then 27 and then 49 in a different style of red sweater and black fuzzies to suit wherever I might be in life: business-casual fuzzies, wedding-dress red sweater.
In fifth grade I began to go to a school with a uniform, and I promptly forgot about clothing until I graduated from high school. At that point, I decided that I wanted to live in 1962 (fashion-wise, at least, it’s my favorite year) and went on the prowl for some vintage clothes. I didn’t become a total fashionista, but I discovered a newfound appreciation for the finer fabrics in life, and I began to develop a sense of personal style. To graduation, I wore a 1930s-style lace dress that my mom and I found for a real steal (it was a headache to procure a matching slip underneath, but with a dress like that, who cared?).
And then I went to work at the hippie farm camp, where we were to discuss our souls, not our haircuts. We were informed that the immaterial was infinitely more interesting than the material, and for the most part, I wholeheartedly agreed—except for one thing: what, exactly, did we mean by “material”?
Style governs our lives. It’s not clothes, really, though clothes are a part of it: what we surround ourselves with is, to some extent, who we are. Style is a funny thing. Here at the University, we take it very seriously. Some of us are discerning about what we wear; others throw on whatever is clean (or, as is more often the case, dirty). But it’s not only what we wear. It’s how we choose to represent ourselves, to perform being us. We are constantly making choices about our personal styles through the books we like, the movies we watch, the songs we listen to, the people with whom we associate.
“Body talk,” then, gets a lot broader. How many layers can we distill? How much can we strip away before we’re left with the quivering mass that is somehow “us”? Are our souls actually separate from all the fringe that surrounds them? I’m unconvinced. How we dress is not so different from, say, our music preferences. Talking about clothes is not more materialistic than talking about where we’re from or where we ate dinner on Saturday night. The making of a person is the sum of its parts. And clothes are just parts.
Personal style isn’t limited to the fabrics we put on our bodies: it’s the fabric of our lives. The stuff that surrounds us identifies us whether we comment on people’s clothes or not. When we talk about fashion, we’re sometimes participating in the destructive cultural obsession with image and appearance. We are. But when are we not? When can we ever separate image from truth? Does truth exist? Do we have souls that are separate from all the layers of gunk that we’ve accumulated throughout the years? Do we exist at all? Does life?
What I’m getting at here is that we all participate in “body talk,” in thousands of different ways. When we talk to one another, we are talking to bodies—bodies with stuff, with accessories, with clothes. Sure, we can try to access the depths, but we can never really know another person’s “soul,” if such a thing exists. “Body talk” can help us get to know one another on the plane of human connection that we’re used to navigating.
Davis is a member of the class of 2017.