Why I’m Glad I Grew Up In Hand-Me-Downs

By | Sunday, February 07, 2016


If you’re ever trapped in an elevator with someone, try asking them about their most embarrassing childhood fashion statements. It will break the ice and get you both laughing. Guaranteed. Everyone loved at least one now-humiliating ensemble, and nothing bonds two people quite like a shared affinity for swishy neon tracksuits or sweatshirts with 3-D elements. And, unfortunately, because the late 80s and early 90s were a painful time for anyone with eyes — if you don’t believe me, try making it through a rerun of Saved by the Bell without burning your retinas — those of us who were growing up in that time frame have especially incriminating childhood photos.

Pathetically, I originally used the elevator trick to derail my friends when clothing became the topic of conversation. The idea was that by regaling whoever was speaking with tales of my canary yellow shirt with fist-sized clown buttons, or explaining that I wore brightly-colored leggings at least twice a week throughout third grade (which was about a decade before they made their comeback), I could sidestep the fashion conversation. My jokes saved me from revealing my dirty little secret: I know nothing about clothing and shopping because I am a child of hand-me-downs.

I grew up dressed almost exclusively in hand-me-downs, and therefore “fit” became a very loose term. For pants, the requirements were that the waist button closed and that the pant legs reached somewhere between the tops of my tennis shoes and the floor. Shirts mostly just needed to cover my stomach when I reached my arms over my head, and then cover enough of my chest when I bent over. Of course, if an article of clothing was cute enough, there was nothing to stop me from slumping my shoulders a bit, or sucking in my gut when my mom came over to inspect it. And while, admittedly, that may not have ensured the most flattering cuts for my rounded frame, it did mean that I got to add a shirt I’d been eyeing for the better part of three years to my closet. When you’re trapped in the emotional bloodbath that is middle school, a slightly-accentuated muffin top is a small price to pay to have a “cool” shirt in your armory.

Obviously, passing clothes from one kid to the next is a great way to save money, and I’m grateful that the cash that could have been spent on expensive mall-bought sweaters (which I’d inevitably spill something on anyway) went to things like groceries and school supplies, instead. But there are aspects of my hand-me-down wardrobe that skewed my perceptions, and it took me a long time to identify those things.

First of all, I spent years convincing myself and everyone else that I had very little interest in my appearance. And it was true to a point. But the more I think about it, the more I wonder if it wasn’t so much that I didn’t have a lot of “trendy” clothes because I didn’t care about them, so much as it was that I didn’t let myself care about them. After all, if I did care, I couldn’t have had them anyway. Especially since a lot of the outfits that would have satisfied the upper echelon of the evil tween world were just not made for my body type (or my family’s budget).

That isn’t to say that my signature baggy t-shirt and saggy jean look wasn’t largely of my own making. After all, thrift stores exist, and I could have prioritized clothes over DVDs when spending Christmas money, but by the time I was old enough to make those decisions for myself, I honestly thought I no longer cared. I hid the Molly-Ringwald-staring-at-the-phone-waiting-on-a-prom-date glances I gave my friends’ clothing, and buried my body in whatever fabrics were comfiest. And sure, part of that was due to body insecurity, which is obviously exacerbated when your clothes don’t fit the way they’re meant to, and part of it was due to a fear of people thinking that I was concerned with something that I’d spent so long dismissing. I now realize that a lot of these reactions had to do with the social pressures that come with admitting to an income disparity between you and the kids you go to school with, even in junior high.

I mean, it never takes a kid long to realize the whys of hand-me-downs, and it doesn’t take their peers much longer to identify when they’re wearing them. This means that the fact that they’re from a family who believes in saving money is a mutually-understood concept by the time the child is 10. And really, that shouldn’t be a big deal. But 13-year-olds are the meanest people alive, and hand-me-downs are the uniform of the have-nots. So, the chances that a hand-me-down child makes it out of middle school without some degree of self-consciousness are slim. And the more their self-consciousness grows, the more desperate they are going to become to fit in, in my experience.

But I’m 25 now, and with age comes perspective (and crippling student loan payments). Now, I understand that the problem was never really with my clothes, it was with all the ideas I’d sewn into them. It was with my confidence.

Middle-school-Lindsey’s brain somehow convinced itself that if she could fit into name brand jeans, she could fit in; my brain equated having “cool” clothes with being a cool person. But that’s bullshit. Sure, having a closetful of items that reveal that your family is not as well off as other is going to increase feelings of inadequacy when you’re young. But that doesn’t mean that the hand-me-down clothes are the things that need to be fixed. It’s the mentality that comes with the hand-me-downs that creates these insecurities. It’s the self-doubt that comes with not having the jeans the ~*popular girls*~ have.

And yes, it’s okay to be a bit confused about those things when your mind is being poisoned by puberty. But I wasn’t the only one who grew up not quite fitting into some else’s clothes, and too often I’ve seen people burdened with the idea that secondhand outfits make them second-class citizens as well. But it doesn’t. It just means that you have a few more snapshots to laugh at when your significant other stumbles onto old photos of you. And it’s about time we all accepted that.

Lindsey Litteken has an English degree, a kickass Netflix queue, and a Tetris addiction. She is on Twitter and video blogs here about her (mostly embarrassing) life. 

Image via Unsplash

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