While shopping for the kids’ Halloween costumes this year, I thought about the costumes of my adult life and how there’s often a negative feel to this idea of adults trying on different “costumes.”
And yes, during this time of year it’s especially hard to think of the words adult and costume without getting an image of the overly-sexualized Halloween ensembles for grownups (mostly women) that have become a profitable part of the holiday’s industry. What also comes to mind are the conventions where adults dress up as their favorite characters from video games and movies. I’m not discussing either of those types of getups right now. I’m referring more to the various roles, hobbies, and even slight changes in my persona that I’ve tried over the years.
I also want to clarify that I’m not referring to a “disguise.” A disguise hides an identity. A mask, too, implies phoniness. In the various roles and personas I’m remembering, I feel that I have always been myself even if in some cases I’m reaching to be better and do better. Costumes, even aspirational ones, are not necessarily a false path to reaching a new goal or milestone.
In my days as an English teacher during my mid-20s, for example, I wore pencil skirts, blouses, and heels. Some of my colleagues in the English department wore jeans, but I wanted to appear serious and confident despite worrying that I was only one page ahead of the students most of the time. For my first year as a licensed teacher, I was assigned to seventh and eighth grade classes in the morning and ninth grade classes in the afternoon. Every day I needed three sets of lesson plans and I had to arrive at two buildings on time (the first one at 7AM). Most of the time I felt like a disorganized, underprepared disaster. But in my teacher getup, I made it through the year at least looking professional. I did a decent job and earned a position teaching full time at the high school for the next year. I still never wore jeans.
I only taught for three years before I had a baby and took on the role of stay-at-home mom. I won’t go into all the clichés of mom clothes, but I can say that the pencil skirts were no longer part of my wardrobe. When I decided to start writing after having my second child, I didn’t need a “costume change” per se, but I did want the accessories that went along with my new self-appointed and experimental hobby. A laptop, a new notebook, and a few special pens helped me ease into the writer persona long before I would publicly call myself a writer and even consider writing a realistic career path. I had to convince myself first.
Once I was writing often enough to get articles published, I did develop a certain mode of dress for the days I’d be writing in coffee shops. My writing uniform now includes scarves, sweaters, and a vest no matter the time of year because the air conditioning is as miserable in the summer as the cold air from the door is in the winter. Some accessories and outfits help us ease into a new role while others develop out of practicality. When I’m dressed to write and my laptop is charged with my notebook beside me, I know it’s time to fill up that blank screen. The outfit reminds me what I’m there to do.
I also have my religious outfits, which require a different length of skirt and sleeve depending on the synagogue I’m attending. Then there are my exercise ensembles. About a year and a half ago, I really got into exercise for the first time in my life. I remember acknowledging at one point during that particular transition that I was finally putting the yoga in my long-loved yoga pants.
This “trying on” of roles is more than all right. In fact, I think it’s good, and I’m not sure why so many of us find ourselves initially suspicious of others who dive into a new role, hobby, persona or whatever we want to call these moments of change. We mock the friend who gets so into meditation that after a month she’s converting a corner of her house into a quiet, scared space and signing up for a retreat in Santa Fe. Who does she think she is, we ask ourselves.
But why are we uncomfortable with others’ attempts to change and even resentful, yet so hopeful for friends’ and family members’ support when we want to try something new? Perhaps we see others’ attempts to take on a new persona as too contrived. Yet I’d like to argue that we can’t know what we like and what will enrich our lives until we give a new activity, job, or relationship a real shot. And sometimes a real shot requires a full costume change to convince our minds that we’re ready to tackle whatever challenges lay ahead.
Illustration by Christine Juneau
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