Sweating the Sweater by Jim Gray

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inside a thrift store racks of clothesMost Memorable: August 2013

My pocket vibrates and the text appears: “DAD COME CHECK THIS OUT!!!!!!!!” I turn toward the area where my daughter should be standing but I can’t see her. We’re in Unique Thrift, the Costco of thrift stores, and more than a dozen aisles of harshly lit clothes and housewares separate us.

Her excitement usually infects me. Right now though I feel a slight unease, a new feeling when it comes to clothes shopping with her. My daughter is now 11, in middle school, and somehow the game has changed.

I stop flipping through the record bins and plot my course to the girl’s section. Has she really found something she likes, I wonder, or is she playing one of our jokes—like her modeling rubber waders and pretending to marvel at their beauty, or me sporting a terry cloth jogging suit in hopes of provoking an eye roll. It never gets old.

We’ve been coming to Unique Thrift for years now. Her growth between seasons creates gaps in her closet—gaps easily and economically filled from the countless, overstuffed racks of donated clothes—and we always leave with more than we came for. It’s as if they gathered the contents from 10,000 yard sales, organized it, priced it with multi-colored tags and marinated everything in that hard-to-define but universal thrift store scent. I imagine it’s what my stepfather’s pocket comb smelled like.

I finally spot her at the end of a long aisle, sandwiched between bloated rows of outerwear and cockeyed hangers. She’s still a good 50 feet away but the sweater she’s wearing can be seen through walls. Is this a joke? I honestly don’t know though I’m hoping the answer is yes.

“Awesome, huh!” she says. She holds out her arms and scans her sleeves, smiling. She’s a transparent liar and it’s now clear that she likes what she has on—a zip-up, cotton-knit hoodie with furry white cuffs and indiscriminate palette of broad, day-glow stripes.

“What else did you find?” I ask. I turn toward the racks and wedge my forearms between two coats, forcing them apart to make room for quick browsing. Surely she’s overlooked something.

“I’m still looking, but I definitely want this,” she answers.

I’ve never been one to interfere with how my daughter dresses. As soon as she became old enough to dress herself I stepped back, fine with whatever she put on. Delighted even. It empowered her, and the seemingly haphazard choices she made were often the result of careful thought. To her, individual pieces of clothing were just that, and she made the decisions of what shirt and pants or dress and tights to wear independently. Even her left and right socks were separate choices.

“Tell me you didn’t take her out in that,” my ex-wife would say.

“Why, who cares?” I’d answer. I knew what was appropriate for a birthday party and was capable of assembling a matching outfit for her, but a ruffled lavender skirt over polka dot pajama bottoms just isn’t a crime at Safeway. Besides, it made my daughter happy.

Before the years that she dressed herself or expressed an interest for what filled her closet, it was our job as parents to choose her clothes. Personally, I enjoyed it. Little girl clothes are often adorable and I bought plenty of flower-print tights and cute, animal-faced tops. But during that time I also steeled myself against the onslaught of all things pink and frilly.

It’s not that pink is inherently bad. I just see pink as the marijuana of colors, the gateway hue to the harder addictions of princess obsession and vanity. Aside from indulging my daughter in the occasional and blessedly short-lived games of dress up, I wanted to shield her from the beauty and appearance issues forced upon girls.

“Oh, now don’t you look pretty!” strangers would sometimes say, the verbal handshake offered by adults to little girls. It seems innocuous enough. And though I’d agree with parental pride, the compliment always felt tainted. Fortunately, it never seemed to register with her. She never preened. She’d smile perhaps, and in an instant she’d be focused on a nearby dog or candy wrapper on the ground.

This isn’t to say my daughter had no interest in clothes. Far from it. Once old enough to dress herself she’d change outfits three or four times on any given Saturday. It was never for show, however. It was something more personal, more private.

But then, for most kids just entering school, dressing to impress or for social acceptance are only budding concerns. The “but-everyone-is-wearing-X” pleas have yet to be voiced. Further away still are kids’ longing to define themselves with the clothes they choose or look they project. Just look at a classroom of third-graders—it takes a keen eye to identify the future Goths. They wear what’s bought for them. When it comes to these early years, a child’s wardrobe can say more about the parent than the child.

I recall a fourth-grade recital at my daughter’s school when a mother and daughter entered wearing matching Lilly Pulitzer outfits, the little girl looking like her mom’s accessory. I was quick to break out my judgment stick and point it at the mother: “You’re using your child as a vain extension of yourself. I’m not like you,” I thought. I was quick to judge and think her pretentious for her exaggerated role in clothing her daughter.

But then, I thought, what message was I broadcasting to the world through my daughter’s clothes, by letting her pick out whatever she liked and dress herself haphazardly? That I’m not looking to impress or even fit in? That I’m not pretentious?

But maybe I am. Maybe I’m that hypocritical variant: the pretentiously unpretentious.

Do I really not care what others think, or is this the statement I feel the need to make? As much as I want to think otherwise, I am guilty of wanting to be seen a certain way: the dad who isn’t concerned about the impression made by his daughter’s clothes.

At this particular moment though, staring at my neon daughter, I’m concerned about one specific thing: What is my problem with this damn sweater?

I picture her at school, surrounded by the catty eyes of coming-of-age girls. I imagine a sarcastic comment made about this sweater and the reinforcing giggle from others. I see my daughter’s face, hiding the horrible sting that comes the moment when someone else’s opinion dominates her own, the excitement she’d felt for this sweater replaced with self-conscious insecurity. I see a little part of my daughter die off. I see the sweater abandoned to her locker and, eventually, donated back to Unique Thrift.

But when has she seemed to care about what others think of her clothes? There’s no precedent I’m reacting to, so why the concern?

I stop searching the racks and look at her, now hugging herself as if to absorb the thing. I feel a pang of embarrassment, realizing that I’m succumbing to peer pressure—her peers. I’m the one afraid of her drawing too much attention in this sweater, of focusing the spot amid the already critical light of middle school conformity. I’m trying to protect her.

But she doesn’t need this protection. By second-guessing the reactions of her classmates, I’m needlessly interfering with her becoming the person I want her to be—bold, self-confident and true to herself, especially in the face of public opinion. In essence, a more genuine version of her dad.

And for God’s sake, it’s just a sweater.

“Can I get it?” she asks again. I can tell she’s picked up on my apprehension. “Pretty please, Dad?”

Her expression sparks a new vision. It’s Monday morning and we’re at her Kiss-n-Ride drop off. Young girls cluster on the sidewalk outside the school, like small groves of skinny-jean trees, roots sunk deep into UGGs with canopies of North Face jackets. It’s a display both familiar and freakish. My daughter bounds from the car and into the scenery but there’s no losing sight of her—she stands out like a fluorescent-vested hunter in the woods. She’s happy.

“Sure,” I tell her. “You can get it.”


jim gray with barbie doll on his chestJim Gray lives in Kensington, Md., where he runs a one-man graphic design business from home, and enjoys both his 10-foot commute and the freedom to work 15 hours a day. He spends his spare time over-thinking his life and is translating this indulgence into the written word. Jim¹s other essays can be found here at Hippocampus, The Good Men Project website and on the bottom tray of his Canon desktop printer.

  10 comments for “Sweating the Sweater by Jim Gray

  1. “…that hard-to-define but universal thrift store scent. I imagine it’s what my stepfather’s pocket comb smelled like.” That there is brilliance.

  2. Really terrific piece! I’ve walked in your shoes on this one. You nailed it– the over-thinking, the wanting to protect, the muddled emotions. Great work!

  3. I seldom (never?) post a response, but loved this essay–the voice, the dilemma, even the bio.
    Lovely, and yes, so familiar.

  4. As the mother of two feisty, spunky girls, this rings so true for me. I have this same debate in my muddled head, trying to protect them from the peer pressure I imagine — or the peer pressure sunk in my own past. I love how you describe every nook and cranny of this dilemma with a resounding “yes” at the end. Thank you.

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