You know how some people cut their hair, buy new makeup, get tattoos, or spend weeks tossing Whitman’s Sampler chocolates at the TV screen (which is playing Bridget Jones) post-breakup?
Well, if you'd met sophomore-in-college me, you did. That's when my passionate, dysfunctional, all-consuming 2-year long-distance relationship with ... let's call him Mike ... ended via Skype.
The week following that harsh, pixely conversation felt like a year. I was a wreck. I watched the entire canon of Greek (four seasons, 74 episodes) on Netflix. I purged every photo, knickknack, stuffed animal, and sweatshirt that reminded me of him in a sad rage. I ate an entire pizza, followed closely by an entire strawberry-flavored “Boys Suck”-frosted cake made by my sorority sister. And when it got to the point in this doom-and-gloom routine at which I started throwing Skittles and cookie bits at the happy Greek couples on the TV, my housemates decided I needed to get out—of my room and my head.
The problem was that I had no idea who I was anymore. Once I got rid of all the old memories of my ex in my life (and my closet) I started to realize just how much control he had over me. He was ultra-religious, so I became ultra-religious. He liked my hair curly, so I never straightened it. He played hockey, so I became No. 1 stadium fan girl. I even spent an entire spring break in middle-of-nowhere, Iowa, to watch Mike, who was on his college varsity hockey team, play an away game series. Anywhere and anything else on Earth would have been more exciting, but when he said jump, I asked how high; I was that dependent on his affection. He wanted super-sweet girl-next-door who wouldn’t swear or hurt a fly, so I became his shadow. I wore the clothes he bought me and lived in shirts and sweatshirts emblazoned with his team’s name. I didn’t go out with my sorority sisters to our events because there were always frat boys there, and that made him jealous. I dressed modestly most of the time so I wouldn’t draw too much attention, unless he was around.
I also genuinely loved him, or at least I thought I did. He was kind and loyal and made me feel wanted. I would walk into poles around campus because I stared at my phone all day long, hoping that we might, just maybe, get the chance to talk if our schedules miraculously aligned. In short, he consumed me.
And so once he was gone, it felt like I was too. Who was I, if not a projection of everything he wanted?
It was with extreme reluctance that I dragged myself out of bed upon my sorority sisters' insistence, put on makeup again, and actually washed my hair (and only because I ran out of dry shampoo). But I was surprised by how powerful these physical rituals were and how quickly they weilded their magic. And slowly—first with a long, hot shower; then with a new eyeliner tutorial; then by digging up a sexy shirt I always loved that used to sit underneath a pile of Mike's sweatshirts—I started to look different to myself in the mirror.
Changing the way you present yourself to the world post-breakup is like shedding an old layer of skin and slipping into a new one. It can make you feel awake again. And, in my case, it made me feel more like myself. It wasn't so much reinventing as recovering my old self.
I started to find pieces of clothing that embodied how vibrant I used to be—before I was Mike's. And at my sorority's annual semi-formal dance just a week after the breakup, I decided the old me was ready for a return. The old me manifested itself in the form of a sparkly, green sequin party dress that had been gathering dust in my closet at home.
It was short, landing midway down my thighs, and it featured cutouts on the side and underneath the neckline. It was the dress I wore to one of my last dances in high school, and I loved it more than any other item of clothing I owned. More importantly: It was totally, undeniably, unequivocally me. I felt alive when I wore it, and everyone around me knew it. It was my sparkly green dress of confidence. The one I shined brighter in than anything else I’d worn. It made me feel powerful.
And when I wore it for my grand reappearance, I had a fucking blast.
I had finally slipped out of Mike's grip and back into my body. I was the life of the party (who started a Frozen-inspired "Let It Go" sing-along on the bus ride over to the venue). I was unstoppable, and it felt amazing. I could do anything, be anything, and wear whatever the hell I wanted. I had no idea that for so long I had been suffocating myself, molding myself to Mike's liking. I still think of zipping up that dress as my turning point from shadow to Shalayne.
Now, the dress hangs in my closet, starting to collect dust again. I don't know when or if I'll wear it again. I've bought new dresses I've loved since and my life now consists more of wine nights and movies with close friends than Greek-like ragers, but the sparkly green dress will remain where it is. Looking at it reminds me of the moment I chose to take my life back. I just can’t bring myself to purge those sequins and I don't know if I ever will. Because finding a dress that gives you that kind of majestic power is a rare and wonderful gift.
Sometimes you need some sequins to get back into your groove. Sometimes the wildest thing you own (or are about to own?) is the anecdote to a rough case of post-breakup existentialism, or really any rough, confidence-testing situation. When you find a piece of clothing that gives you the self-assurance of Elle Woods on graduation day, you hold onto it no matter how many times you Marie Kondo your closet.