I just bought myself a winter coat. A parka. Nothing fancy - it’s light grey and has a zip-out hood, but it’s well made. I got it at one of those local discount stores that offer nice items at reduced prices. This morning I wore it for the first time when I walked the dog – it was about forty degrees outside, chilly for Southern California.
But what I felt wearing it surprised me, and I don’t mean just the toasty, lightweight warmth of my new coat. I felt nurtured. Taken care of. Something I had done for myself that felt good beyond the mere comfort of a weather appropriate coat.
When I was a kid, we did not have much money and my often second-hand clothing reflected that. I normally wore the same items, be it pants or a sweater, for days and weeks on end. Once I found my way into the monied world of horses, where I was surrounded by wealthy little girls with a different fancy set of clothes for every occasion and event, I became keenly aware of my less than fashionable clothing. On a typical horse show day, I would work twelve hours bathing and grooming the horses for the rich girls and polishing their boots after I boosted them on board their steed for their brief moment in the show ring. After their brief turn, I would lead the horse back to the stable, undress and bathe it, clean its stall and change the bedding, then move on to the next kids’ horse. The days were long and dirty but I was happy just to be in the presence of horses – their smell, their sounds – I was drunk on them and remain so to this day.
After a 12 hour day working in the stable, the plan would often be for all the customers to go out to dinner, and they often included and paid for me. I distinctly remember not having a change of clothes at one show, so after my long day toiling in the stable, I went to the borrowed hotel room, showered, and changed back into the exact same clothes I had worn all day. They were smelly, sweaty, soiled, but I had no choice. I did not have a single other item to wear. I still remember the downcast eyes of the rich girls as they tried not to inhale near me or look directly at me around the dinner table. But it was clear that they pitied me and I was deeply ashamed.
That feeling, the correlation between having very little and how I dress and present myself to the world, has stuck with me ever since. That feeling of insecurity around clothing and my self-presentation in branded into me and I remain easily wounded when people respond at all negatively to my appearance.
Which is perhaps why my new winter coat struck such a nerve.
I have done enough therapy over the years to understand why I have deep seated feelings around clothing and how connected it is to the various kinds of deprivation I felt in my childhood. But my recognition of that connection doesn’t mean that that the same button doesn’t get easily pushed. It does.
No matter that I am well beyond a grown-up, that I have for decades been able to buy myself a new pair of pants or coat as needed. There have been plenty of times that I have shopped for clothing that I neither required nor loved, probably not unlike many American consumers. But this felt different.
Being able to take care of myself in the most basic way - to buy a garment that would protect me from the elements - felt huge. As though my grown-up self is now nurturing that poor, filthy little girl who had no clean clothes.
The fact that many decades have passed between the time I was that little girl and now is irrelevant in my heart and mind - the surprise I felt in my new coat - a mixture of pride and maturity, of awareness and glee - was a kind of thrill. And a reminder that it is never too late to do the things we need to nurture ourselves, especially those things that we, as children, likely had neither the monetary resources nor the emotional insight to do for ourselves when we were young.