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I’ll never forget my first pair of skintight, low-rise jeans. They were light-wash flares without back pockets (cute, I know) with pink and blue stitching up and down the legs. These were the jeans that caused the very first angst-ridden preteen fight between my mom and me. These were also the jeans that eventually landed me in a therapist’s office.

Yes, that’s right, my mom put me in therapy because of a pair of jeans.

“They’re just too tight, Lilly,” my mom pleaded in the leather chair next to me. The therapist looked over at me, feigning concern to hide his discomfort. He had probably heard every issue in the book, but low-rise jeans? I sat resolutely, arms firmly crossed, and my face like stone; I was going to win this. She couldn’t make me return my jeans.

These weren’t just jeans to me. They were my entrance into womanhood. My mom, ever a savvy woman, also knew that it wasn’t just about the pants but rather the way I was attempting to “grow up.” It was the way they hugged every (barely there) curve of my adolescent legs, the mature flare of the pant, the low rise that showed off a sliver of bare abdomen. When I wore them, I suddenly wasn’t an awkward kid in ill-fitting hand-me-downs. These jeans made me sexy; they made me look like a woman.

This is hardly where Lilly vs. fashion began. At a very young age, I equated womanhood with sexiness. Why? Well, I won’t deflect and blame “society” for my problems, but I will say that Britney Spears’ “Slave 4 U” music video made a huge impression on me as a kid (hence the skintight, low-rise jeans).

As I grew into my early teen years, my mom got tired of fighting with me about the tight jeans, short shorts, spaghetti straps, and so on. Maybe she simply gave up on my rotten attitude, or maybe she knew (or at least desperately hoped) that I would see the error of my ways all on my own. By the age of 16, I had succeeded in looking much older than my age, and, yes, I even looked sexy at times. Any time I would walk past a man and feel his lingering stare, I somehow felt affirmed in my maturity—my womanliness. It was like an imaginary pat on the back. “Good job! You’re succeeding at being a woman!” the stares seemed to imply.

It wasn’t until I became an aunt to my first niece that I understood what drove my mother to take me to the therapist’s office. Would I encourage my niece to wear revealing clothes to prove her womanhood? Would I tell her that her worth as a human being came from sex appeal? Of course not. But those were the same things I was telling myself.

This revelation came with a twofold blessing because this was when I found the true purpose of fashion. Now, I see fashion as the physical manifestation of the wearer’s internal workings. Fashion has the power to express the best and worst parts of ourselves—our insecurities or our strengths. Unfortunately, my fashion choices were heavily weighted toward expressing my insecurities and broken perspective of womanhood.

When I started to see my own worth through my nieces’ worth, my relationship with clothes changed. I began learning the history of the famous fashion houses, pored over editorials in Vogue and W, and stayed up until the wee hours of the morning waiting for fashion week runway coverage. The purpose of fashion was flipped on its head for me, and instead of forcing an ideal of womanhood onto myself, I was eager to express the inherent and naturally beautiful womanliness I was born with.

See, our manner of dress can be used for all the wrong reasons to try and topically cure whatever internal problem you have. I used skimpy clothes to elicit male affirmation to bolster my self-worth. Sure, it felt good to be noticed for how I looked, but I also realized that feeling was fleeting. I now realize that fashion can’t be used to artificially force internal growth. Fashion must express natural internal growth. No matter how many men gave me a lingering stare, it would never fulfill the affirmation I was seeking.

As I grew to understand my true self-worth and inherent dignity as a woman and human being, the way I dressed had nothing to do with being sexy or needing affirmation. Now when I dress in the morning, my process of putting together an outfit relies solely on finding the most innovative and dignifying outfit to express who I am as a person. Maybe I’m wearing a midi skirt with combat boots, a brocade jacket with mom jeans, or an oversize menswear blazer and pencil skirt. Whichever outfit I choose, my intention behind dressing has transformed.

I won’t stand here on my soapbox and pretend that I have everything figured out. I still don’t know exactly who I am as a woman. I’m not always perfect in my intentions when I dress, and sometimes I still feel like that kid who was seeking affirmation with a pair of skintight, low-rise jeans—even if I’m wearing something far more demure. See, the problem wasn’t the low-rise jeans per se, it was in the way I sought my identity as a woman through male affirmation. I now realize that the intention behind wearing any item of clothing, whether it be a pair of low-rise jeans or a maxi dress, is more important than the item itself. The biggest lesson I’ve learned from my ups and downs with fashion is that no matter what we wear, we should ask ourselves why we are truly wearing it.

Finally, I see the purpose of fashion, which is to express the fullness of my character and my dignity as a woman and to explore my creativity. In asking ourselves why we wear what we wear, we can gain internal insight and then learn how to truly use fashion to uniquely express our individual worth and beauty.

Photo Credit: Manchik Photography