"You're not going to wear THAT, are you?!" an ex from long ago asked me, her bright hazel eyes dimming in disgust.
"What are you talking about?" I asked, self-consciously tugging at the hem of my favorite outfit. It was only our third date, and I had been saving this outfit specifically for the occasion.
"It just looks ridiculous," she retorted, laser beams of disgust shooting out of her eyeballs as she spoke. "You're such a beautiful girl. Why would you ever wear that?"
The outfit in question was a soft yellow skirt with bright pink retro flowers, paired with a crop top made up of the same pattern. I had recently seen it front and center on my favorite style website Dollskill, and had instantly fallen in love with it. I fiercely adored the way the delicate flowers wildly juxtaposed against the sexy, netted top. I had paired it with awesome, magenta, dripping Chanel statement earrings I'd picked up at the Williamsburg flea market the weekend before.
After my ex's comment, I felt like I had been suddenly socked in the stomach. It was like her disapproval of my outfit was connected to her disapproval of my identity.
"I love this outfit," I defeatedly answered, averting my eyes out the dirty car window, trying to numb the hurt by focusing on the seemingly endless stream of toxic traffic.
"You like that outfit because you're trying to get attention. You know something? You would be so much prettier in something simple. You don't need to get all that attention anymore," she lectured. And something about the low tone tone, her flattened voice and over-articulation of every word made it sound like she was speaking to a small child.
And in that moment, I was a small child. In fact, I felt like a pimply, 11-year-old girl who had somehow been tossed back into the insecure throes of adolescence.
See, I've always had a fully-realized sense of style, even when I was a kid. Fashion and style is innate within me. It's been this self-expressive constant in my haphazard life, something that roots me into the core of who I am. It's one of my deepest passions. It's not even something I think about. I just have this irrepressible urge to style everything in plain sight, and stringing outfits together is something that's so natural to me, it's almost meditative.
But in that moment, sitting in her car and looking into the dismal gray sky, for the first time since probably the sixth grade, I found myself questioning my style. It's embarrassing to even write the words, but I suddenly began to wonder if maybe she was right. Maybe I was too old to be putting together such brightly-colored outfits. Maybe I was hiding behind my slew of accessories. Maybe I would look prettier in something simple. Maybe I would be a better person if I was a simple person.
For the rest of our relationship, this woman critiqued everything I wore that was inherently "Zara." I'll never forget wearing a long, black, sheer dress (one of my favorite dresses of all time) on a Saturday night. It's a dress I've worn for many years, it has molded to the shape of my body.
"You can't wear that."
Finally, I spoke up. My finger trembled as the words came out, and I've never been a shaky person.
"But this is who I am! Maybe I'm just too much for you."
"Yeah, maybe," she answered, her voice devoid of feeling.
I started crying. I cried because I suddenly didn't know who the hell I was anymore. Everyone I had ever dated in my life, up until that point, had appreciated my personal style, my wild aesthetic, my love for fashion.
It's just part of the Zara package, it's one of those things that makes me, well, me. But ever since I started dating this person, suddenly everything I wore was deemed bad and wrong. Even my makeup wasn't right. I was in a phase of my life where I was into drawing a constellation of freckles across my cheekbones as an homage to the 70s fashion icons I worshipped, who did the same thing.
I had a freckle pencil I bought in London at Topshop, and drawing those freckles down the bridge of my nose gave me so much fucking joy. Yeah, maybe it was a little quirky, but it was my thing and I was known for it. But this girl hated the freckles. She hated the bright lipstick. She hated when I dressed sexy. She hated when I dressed cute. She only bestowed me with a compliment when I was wearing something that was inherently not me, like a simple sheath dress in a neutral color.
So, you know what I did? Rather than strapping my mega platforms to my feet, adorning my precious pout in the reddest fucking lipstick to ever grace the earth and strutting the fuck out of her apartment, leaving her choking in a cloud of the heavy Tom Ford fragrance she hated, like I should have... I watered it all down for her.
It started with the bangles. I stopped wearing my beloved bangles because the clanking sound was too much for her. Then I stopped wearing my bow headbands because she thought I was dressing too immaturely. And pretty soon, I was wearing nude lipstick because I totally lost my identity.
Because that's what happens. When you start to change your style to please your partner, you're playing with fire. I didn't even realize it, but as I watered down my style, I watered down my wicked humor, my unabashed sexuality, the risks I took in my writing and the intensity I channel into my friendships.
Eventually, shit hit the fan and I walked away. And leaving that relationship felt almost like coming out of a drugged-up haze. It felt like I was getting sober. I had been intoxicated by a person, and I had lost myself in the process.
But I learned a pivotal life lesson through this experience, one that's now so ingrained into my soul I will never let it happen again. These red lips are here to stay, baby. And if you don't like them, that's not my problem.
My makeup and fashion are an outer expression of who I am inside, and if the dark colors, sheer lace fabrics, sky-high shoes or spider lashes so long they grace the tops of eyebrows are too much for you, I'm too much for you. And if you can't handle a girl like me, you don't deserve a girl like me.
When I came out of my relationship, I felt crazy for a long time. It had been awhile since I had connected to my friends. I had kept so many secrets about the truth of my relationship from them, and when we're keeping secrets from our friends, it's not possible to be authentically close to them.
"Hey, do you think my style is too much?" I asked my roommate, one hungover morning.
"Are you kidding me? Your style is exactly what makes you, you, Zara. And I've missed you," she said, taking her forever-long hair out of massive rollers. I watched her gorgeous sea of glimmering brunette waves fan around her shoulders. I tried to imagine anyone telling her to cut off her hair. Her hair was such a part of who she was. And fashion is such a part of who I am. When I lost my style, I lost my sense of self.
So, kittens, if anyone ever tells you to dress up more, dress down more, cut your hair, grow your hair, cool it on the lipstick, whatever, kindly pack up your shit and get the hell out of there. I don't care if you dress glam or grunge, plain or preppy, your style is your own. That's why we call it "personal style." Because it's something that belongs strictly to you.
If someone is asking you to alter or compromise your style, they're threatened by your sense of self and are trying to rob you of your individuality. Either that, or they don't get you and are trying to mold you into something they understand. It is the ultimate relationship red flag.
And we don't ever want to be in relationships where our individuality and authenticity are not respected or understood. Strong relationships are built on a foundation of acceptance. We want to be with the person who loves all of us, the obnoxious red lipstick, the wild hair, the self-expressive bangles, the short hair, the long hair, all of it.