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Fashion Un-Conscious
Nadishia Forbes

Back home in Jamaica, I never really worried about whether my clothes matched. At school, the only thing that used to matter was how clean my uniform was and whether it was ironed. When I went to visit my friends, I would just put on a couple of freshly washed pieces of clothing without even thinking about how they looked.

We were kids—our friendships were not based on appearance. We just liked to run around and have fun. It didn’t matter if our braided hair was pointing in all directions and our blouses and skirts had some buttons missing, or if we were barefoot and covered in red dirt.

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I never experienced being judged because of the way I dressed—until I came to the U.S. The first time it happened was on my first day of junior high school, which was also my first day in an American school.

I was a little scared that day, mainly because of the new environment. Walking down the hallway, I felt very self-conscious, so I turned around to get a better look at my classmates.

Two girls were staring at me, whispering and giggling. I stopped and waited for them to pass, but they said to go ahead, so I did. They continued looking at me, but I didn’t say anything because I didn’t know how to respond.

Even though I couldn’t hear their conversation, I figured out it had something to do with the way I was dressed.

They were wearing expensive blue jeans and blouses, the latest name brand sneakers, and their outfits matched. Plus, they had their hair permed.

I was wearing a pink and black plaid jumper with two straps in front, a blue, red and white striped long-sleeved blouse, thick black stockings and brown shoes. And I just had big braids in my hair, because my grandmother didn’t want me to perm it and that was fine with me.

When I got to my first period class, a couple or more of my classmates pointed out my shoes or clothes to their friends and laughed. Some of them even started throwing papers in my direction.

I looked different from everyone else and that was a big problem. When you start junior high, the pressure to fit in and gain respect is intense. The kids who made fun of me were popular—partly because their designer clothes made them seem cool. My clothes made me stand out and gave the others an excuse to pick on me.

I was the perfect target and it wasn’t just because of the way I dressed. I was in a new environment and that made me feel scared and insecure. I was like a fish outside its water bowl. My classmates saw that I was in a position of weakness and wouldn’t stand up for myself. They took advantage of that.

Almost every day, I would be greeted with giggles, pointing, and other demonstrations of their disapproval. For a long time, I didn’t have any friends to back me up and the teacher did nothing to control the students. I felt like everyone was against me, like no one was on my side. Two girls named Luvia and Nefertiti were the main sources of my torment. They would put “kick me” signs on my back, throw papers at me, and make fun of my clothes.

For the first time in my life, I didn’t want to go to school. When I got home each day, I would cry and complain to my grandmother about what was happening, but she was too busy to do anything about it.

Sometimes she would say “Ignore them,” or tell me to tell their mothers. Then she would force me to go back to school. She never really understood how hurt and depressed I was.

I would go to school each day with my heart pounding. I hardly paid attention and I never really learned anything. It was hard to concentrate on my schoolwork. The other students were very disruptive. Because I was quiet, the teacher always pointed me out as an example to the rest of the class. That made things worse for me because I was now considered the teacher’s pet.

To take my mind off the fact that I might end up in a fight any minute, I’d bring a thick romance novel to school and just sit in class and read all day. Instead of focusing on learning like I should have, I focused on surviving by losing myself in books.

I did make one friend that year. Her name was Tina. She was really friendly and we had a couple of things in common.

We were both from Jamaica, but Tina had been here for five years. We both had strict families. Tina wore the latest styles of name brand clothing, just like Luvia and Nefertiti, but unlike them, she never judged me because of the way I dressed.

image by Shaun Shishido

Tina would defend me when the others were picking on me. She would tell them to leave me alone and always tried to help me out. One time, Luvia tried to spite Tina by saying that Tina and I were sisters. Later that day, I wrote a poem to Tina, titled, “You’re Like a Sister,” and she liked it.

Having Tina as a friend made the days more bearable because I was not entirely alone. But it didn’t make much of a difference in terms of how I was treated by the other kids. In fact, it didn’t make any difference at all.

Around the middle of the school term, I started to think that maybe if I dressed like the rest of them, they wouldn’t bother me so much. I hadn’t made any effort to fit in sooner because I was stubborn. But I was tired of having people treat me like I was beneath them.

One day, I went to school wearing yellow socks and a yellow blouse with a black skirt. Right at the beginning of class, Nefertiti showed Luvia my socks and said, “What are you doing?” with a smirk. It was as if she was saying, “No matter what you do, you won’t look as good as us.” Not knowing what to say, I turned my back, feeling a little defeated. I went back to wearing my usual outfits.

A month or two later, my uncle’s girlfriend gave me a pair of name brand sneakers. I wore them to school and I have to admit they gave me a little confidence. I thought I would get acceptance with my new shoes.

When I got to school, one kid actually announced to the class that I had on a name brand sneaker and everyone looked. But I didn’t feel any more accepted by my peers than I had before.

No matter what I did, they wouldn’t let up. Luvia, in particular, was always throwing things at me or hitting me. I never started anything with her. She was always coming after me. Then the kids she hung around with would tell her how bad she was.

One day in the spring she was in the hallway, surrounded by her friends, when I passed by. When she saw me, she hit me. I didn’t want to fight, so I started to walk by as I usually did. But, for some reason that day, I couldn’t take it anymore. I decided it had to stop.

So when I saw Luvia in the cafeteria, I went up to her and slapped her face. The next thing I knew, I was on the floor. Luvia was much bigger than me, so it wasn’t much of a surprise when I lost the fight.

Later that day, Luvia and her friends came up to me. She was very upset and kept staring at me, but she didn’t say anything. I went home early.

That night, I told my father how these two girls had been giving me a hard time. He decided to take a day off from work and come to school with me and make a complaint. We went to the counselor’s office. She called in Luvia, sat the two of us down, and asked about what was going on between us. Then she talked to us for a while.

I didn’t really hear what the counselor was saying. I was too busy staring at Luvia and wondering what she thought about all this and what the other kids would think when they heard about it. After my father left, I went back to class. Everyone was looking at me.

After that, Luvia didn’t bother me or throw things at me anymore, but she and her friends still gave me dirty looks.

When I finally finished 7th grade, I had the greatest summer of my life—simply because I had survived. I would stay home most of the time watching television, without anyone tormenting me.

In 8th grade, things got better. Everyone started to settle in and feel more comfortable. They let down some of their guard, which made for a less hostile environment.

My classmates stopped making fun of my clothes. I didn’t really change the way I dressed, but I stopped wearing certain things—like skirts and dresses that made me look like I was going to church.

I got the chance to make new friends because everyone was friendlier. When I really got the chance to know my classmates, I found out they weren’t really bad people. And Luvia and Nefertiti weren’t in any of my classes anymore, which made everything much easier for me. I didn’t dread going to school.

That experience taught me never to judge people by appearance. I never tease anyone because of what they wear or how they look. I’ve also got the best of friends because I didn’t pick them based on how they look, but by getting to know them as individuals.

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