How A Closet Purge Made Me Reframe My Self-Image

A closet clean can be a lot more powerful than you think.

How A Closet Purge Made Me Reframe My Self-Image

Mariah Freire

I have never been the most adventurous person, but I have always loved the adventure of fashion. Beyond a means of expression, what we wear is how we present ourselves to the world. The last 18 months in particular have established a breeding ground for transformation, altering the way we work, the way we eat, and even the way we groom and get ready for the day.

During the throes of the last year, my daily routine had changed and so had my wardrobe. I was focused on comfort: Running shorts and T-shirts were the only pieces I wanted to wear. As spring turned to summer, I increasingly yearned for cotton basics. If I had to sweat indoors, I would at least suffer in an absorbent fabric. After months of no in-person meetings or events, my personal style was languishing, and so was I along with it.

Almost a year and a half later and I was left to reckon with what remained: My closet. Because I, like Gwyneth Paltrow, got through quarantine by eating bread (and wine, and pasta, and everything else). When it came time to assess my summer wardrobe this year, I came to the harsh realization that nothing fit me as it once did. Shorts I had bought just last year were now far too tight and uncomfortable. My favorite dresses became beacons of constriction. And frankly, if I couldn’t bike around while wearing it, I didn’t quite see the point of keeping it stored in my closet. I was interested in utilitarianism, not aesthetics. It felt odd that I had spent most of my life up until this point obsessed with how I expressed myself through clothing; By 26, I’d somehow amassed a closet full of pieces that did not spark joy.

I strategized how to lose weight quickly enough to fit into all the pieces I felt suited my new ethos. I started working out each morning, measuring myself day after day to see if I had lost any inches on my waist. Instead, I found dimpling on my thighs and stretch marks that hadn’t been there before. The pandemic changed my body, and it also changed me. I wasn’t as focused on my personal style choices because I was concentrating on more important tasks, including just getting through each day. I was focusing more time on my career and passions. And though I’d spent hours cooped up in a tiny room, watching reruns of Gossip Girl to remind me of what I loved the most about fashion—experimentation and making statements—I was wearing overpriced athleisure most days with only my top half visible to anyone who might care.

Then, finally, an event popped up: My cousin’s engagement party. I spent an hour raking through every piece I owned, cursing myself for not having any Spanx, something I had never felt I needed before. Nothing was right. My stomach protruded in the tight A-line dress I’d selected, and the only other one that seemed to fit was far too inappropriate for a family event. I settled on a slip dress that landed somewhere in the middle, but I still felt uncomfortable. There, as I scrutinized my growing curves in the mirror, I started to consider: Maybe we are not meant to fit into clothing, maybe clothing is meant to fit us. I’d fallen for the decades-old marketing tactic that tells women they should be the smallest and sexiest, and that one can't exist without the other. But why not take up the space we so rightfully deserve? 

I’m not the same size I was at 22 or even 24, and that’s okay. Not to mention, Americans have collectively gained almost two pounds a month while under stay-at-home orders. Given the gravity of our current environment, it doesn’t feel out of place to think the trauma we’ve faced has made us more compassionate and empathetic toward one another. Judgment of others, and ourselves, is needless when the value of kindness is so high.

Still, I felt I had reached a low point, thwarted by the fear I couldn’t pull off the looks I once did. Tiny little tops I’d been wearing for years before my chest grew, shorts with miniature inseams, dresses I couldn’t bend over in. I didn’t know how to dress for my body anymore, which left me feeling more out of touch with myself than ever. My distaste was palpable; I always feel the most comfortable when I’m confident in what I’m wearing. Confidence became the key piece in my wardrobe, and now it was nowhere to be found.

My once-favorite pieces no longer served me, and it was time I acknowledged that. I couldn’t hold onto them forever; Waiting for a day when I might return to the same size and person I was when I’d bought them was futile. It would obviously never happen, even if I did drop a few pounds. These pieces no longer represented me or my life, who I’d become over the last 18 months, or the things I’d learned about myself and the world since then. I opened up a 13-gallon garbage bag and began to shove the past in. Instead of dragging myself through tortuous mind games, trying to figure out how much weight I had to lose to get use of anything throughout the season, I decided to stop punishing myself and get rid of everything that didn’t fit or that had languished alongside me. If my wardrobe wasn’t serving me, it could serve someone else. I'm not the only person who has changed, after all. Plus, I figured I’d do something better in the aftermath: Go shopping. If I sold a few high-ticket items, I could buy some new pieces—items that reflect who I am now. 

Without the pressure of my weight gain holding me back, I finally feel free to experiment again. I'm drawn to colors I used to avoid, inspired by prints I once found too busy, and reaching for free-flowing dresses that let me move. I searched for vintage and secondhand items I thought I could give a new life. In a way, it feels like we’ve all been given the same. As I shop and get dressed these days, I think about what I’m trying to say now, what message I want to give to the world. Maybe that I don’t care if my back has a few rolls or that my thighs have noticeable cellulite now. I think about what my clothes are saying and what I would wear to the office followed by a night out.

At a hair appointment a few weeks ago, I asked for just a few inches off and a refresh of my highlights. “I usually cut it pretty short in the summer, but it’s gotten so long, and I kind of like it," I told my stylist. "It reminds me of my childhood.” He smiled as he brushed it out and said, “I love long on you; you look young.” I thought about the magazine collection I’d amassed as a teenager, lusting over the mermaid-haired models and playful styling. I wished I could revisit my old Internet haunts; The style blogs of yesteryear and the early 2010s virtual styling platform Polyvore are now lost to the new digital age, buried into history. But the sensation of a clean slate was exactly what I needed. With an empty closet, I can find inspiration in what I want to express now: A new me.

Article Sources
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  1. Zachary Z, Brianna F, Brianna L, et al. Self-quarantine and weight gain related risk factors during the COVID-19 pandemic. Obes Res Clin Pract. 2020;14(3):210-216.

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