When I was aged 7 or 8, I fell in love with a hideous sundress.
It was in this store my mother dragged us around on a weekly basis – an outlet for cheaply-priced factory seconds and unsold stock from larger highstreet chains. We didn’t have a lot of money and my Mum had 3 kids, so this was one of the few places she could afford a weekly shopping fix to self-medicate her unmet mental health needs. No judgement from me on that.
The dress, or The Dress, as I probably ought to call it, had an abstract floral print in pink, green and yellow. In hindsight these colours did, perhaps, make it somewhat garish – but it wasn’t the print I loved. It was the grown-up feeling it gave me – the fluttery sensation in my chest when I looked at it. One of my friends from school already had it, and to my 8-year-old mind, it was the nicest dress in England.
My mother and sister immediately pronounced it as ‘hideous‘. My mother thinking only of her own tastes, I suppose, and my sister devoutly dedicated to undermining me, the usurping second child, at any given opportunity. All the way home along grey pavements, to the background buzz of traffic, they teased me about my liking that dress. It was ‘hideous’. ‘Wicked’. Proof of my awful taste.
But, I didn’t care. Eight-year-old me knew – intrinsically knew – what she liked in life. So much so that not even the subsequent weeks of idle mocking from them could put a dent in my love for that frock. They could say I had horrible taste as much as they liked, but my taste was still firmly fixed, and it was fixed on that dress.
Two of, I suppose, the most influential people in my tiny world were telling me outright that I was wrong, and yet my conviction didn’t waver an inch.
A few weeks later, on another bored afternoon counting the size cubes while my mum browsed the same small racks of stock, I discovered that The Dress was on sale. And, my sister being absent on this occasion, and my mum being unable to ever resist anything branded a ‘bargain’, The Dress was purchased and taken home, me swinging the carrier bag happily all the way.
Truth be told, it probably was quite hideous, looking back – this being a dress that even the ‘factory seconds’ shop had to put into the sale to clear their stock of! But its stiff cotton, its flarey skirt and lack of little-girl sleeves all seemed so adult and elegant to me – funnily enough, I’m still a sucker for that exact combination in every dress that I buy.
I recall having such a clear notion of who wearing that dress would allow me to be. It would be a beacon-call to the people who weren’t like my family: the people who would see and appreciate the real me. In this dress I could meet the friends that I read about in books, talk to adults who didn’t make me feel silly and small.
Of course, this being chilly Britain, and my mother insisting on choosing my daily outfits until the age of 14, I only ever had a handful of opportunities to actually wear it outside. I remember on one of those occasions – spinning on sunbaked pavements, watching my skirt float around me – my sister telling me I was walking stupidly in it. Differently, like I thought I was somebody else.
And I remember that I did. She was right about that – I was escaping in my head, becoming a happier version of myself. The kind of girl who wore dresses like that all the time.
I think back on all this now with a real sense of wonder. By my teens this sense of self-belief had entirely abandoned me in favour of pandering blindly in the hopes of being liked. I sacrificed my conviction and intuition for connection and community, and for a while it really seemed like a worthwhile trade. I was pretty convincing, a lot of the time. And wasn’t I making people happy, by trying to guess what they would want?
By the time I met my husband, I was a pro at it – quietly keeping my convictions to myself, turning right when he told me to at an intersection, despite being secretly certain we needed to go left. I have a much better sense of direction than my husband, and we did invariably need to double back in the end and go left, but it would take having Orla, growing my business and a fair amount of therapy and coaching before I reached that 8-year-old place again where I could calmly and fearlessly speak up and say, “ok, but I think differently.”
It takes tremendous courage to be yourself in a world that has proven itself to be critical, judgemental and cruel. Eight-year-old me was still learning about that. Gradually, those lessons sunk in, and my intuition became a quiet voice I shoved to the back of my brain and covered over with platitudes and Pinterest trends. Until when she spoke – about a hideous sundress, about a hobby, opinion, objection or idea – I barely even knew she was there.
Perhaps you are already past all of this and are embracing your true self and letting her speak. In which case, hurrah! I’d love to hear how you got there, and what you learned along the way.
But maybe you’re reading this and finding it horribly familiar; thinking that you too have buried so much of what you really think under a mountain of kindness and fitting-in and trying hard to not be horribly rejected. In which case, I have a small mission for you:
Go buy your hideous sundress, or whatever that means to you. Go share your actual opinion in a conversation, and start the hobby that you, personally, like. See what happens. Test it out.
Find your inner 8-year-old girl who gives zero fucks what the rest of the world thinks, because she knows the right dress, the right moment, the right chance, bravely taken, might just be the one that starts to change your life.
And then keep doing it, until your life starts to change.
What’s your equivalent to my hideous sundress? I’d love to hear your experiences of this.
PS – the pictures in this post are of Orla in her Frozen tutu – not my style, not what I’d choose for her at all. She loves it and it makes her gleefully happy. Long live all the dresses our mothers disapprove of.