Healing Trauma Through, Well, Clothes

Sometimes you’ve known something all along but just didn’t understand it. I’ve always told myself I hate clothes. I dress from a place of frustration and even resentment. I hate shopping for clothes. I hate trying on clothes. I hate buying clothes. I hate wearing clothes. And because my body has so often felt unsafe to inhabit, I experience discomfort as normal. So I don’t expect clothes to feel good. I simply tolerate them.

But taking Tan France’s MasterClass Style for Everyone, I heard him say “Know yourself.” He talked again and again about feeling good, with such insistence that it finally got through. After his second lesson, I brought up a fresh document file and typed a list of everything I hate wearing. And it’s a really long list. It’s most clothes. Turtlenecks to jeans to shorts to dresses to swimsuits to skirts to button-up shirts. 

And then I made a list of what I feel good wearing. And suddenly I understood. I have felt happiest and safest and most free in dance studios, on jogging trails, and on bicycles and motorcycles. And the clothes that make me feel good? They feel like dancewear or motorcycle gear. Big leather jackets. Heavy-duty boots with thick soles. Leggings. Sleeveless shirts like leotards. Sneakers. Straight leg pants that give me room to breathe. Big sweaters or hoodies or wraparound shirts like I’d wear after dance class.

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

It was an ah-ha moment that not only changed my relationship to clothes but to my body as well. It had been telling me the truth for decades. I had just misunderstood what it was saying. I don’t hate clothes. I just hate the types of clothes that remind me of the assaults I’ve survived.

This is something that I’ve never heard discussed. Anywhere. I’ve read so many books on trauma, listened to so many TED talks, seen two therapists, talked with friends. And everybody knows that you might associate a certain odor with your rapist or a certain tone of voice with your abusive father. Most people even know your relationship to your own body might change after abuse and assaults.

We all understand that the brain associates certain stimuli with trauma. A soldier may associate explosions with combat. A firefighter may associate sirens with the death of a fellow firefighter. A rape victim may associate garlic or cologne with their rapist. We get that.

But what about the clothes we were wearing when it happened?

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

For women and nonbinary survivors, our relationship with clothes is further complicated by the cultural assumption that men aren’t responsible for their violence; our clothes are. The question But what were you wearing? comes second only to Had you been drinking? Clothes, we are taught from a young age, have the power to endanger our lives. The power they have is too often misappropriated by misogynists to let violent men off the hook. Is it any wonder I resent them?

During one of the most horrendous moments of abuse, which I have chosen not to share on social media, I was wearing pink corduroy pants. I was six years old. Ever since, I have been disgusted by anything pink and anything corduroy. In the aftermath at school the next day, I was wearing a blue princess dress. I forever after hated dresses with skirts that hit at the knee. And so it went.

I have been assaulted while wearing:

  • skinny jeans
  • a peasant skirt
  • bootcut jeans
  • men’s cargo shorts
  • a one-piece swimsuit
  • a T-shirt
  • a button-up blouse
  • a turtleneck sweater
Photo by Godisable Jacob from Pexels

The list goes on. The problem is, I feel claustrophobic when I put on clothes like these. I don’t like the way their cut sits against my skin. I don’t like the weight of the fabric on my body. But I’m also not a nudist. I don’t want to go around naked. I don’t find that more comfortable. So I’m constantly uneasy in my body, constantly frustrated in most outfits I own. Another problem is I hadn’t realized that. Clothes themselves can be triggering for trauma survivors.

And sure, there’s exposure therapy. But as I’ve written before, you have to pick and choose. If you’ve had a lot of trauma in your life, or even one trauma that left you with a ton of fears that took parts of yourself from you, then you’re probably going to have to prioritize. There are the fears that limit your life and you’re ready to be done with, and there are the fears that are more annoying than anything. These, I like to set on a dresser, eye from time to time, and live with. Even better would be to throw them out, Marie Kondo-style, but so far that’s proven to be loads of work. So, my rage and panic in skirts, dresses, heels, and jeans? Not a priority. There are other things I can wear.

Of course the world will judge. I’m a woman. They think that’s their prerogative. One older white man spat on my shoes when I was wearing straight-leg pants, a T-shirt, and Converse sneakers with my buzzcut. Another white man shouted at me to “stop dressing like a man” when I wore a sleeveless striped shirt and a fedora. So if I wear the clothes I dislike but that are considered appropriately feminine, I hate them and myself. And my 40 years on this planet show they don’t protect me from assaults. And if I wear the clothes that make me feel comfortable and confident? I still get harassed.

If I’m going to get yelled at or assaulted either way, I’d rather feel comfortable and confident, thanks.

Clothes can be sacred, too. I think we all have experienced dressing our bodies as a form of sacrament. Whether it’s folding a Tae Kwon Do dobok around our ribs before a tournament or zipping into motorcycle gear and checking that the body armor is secure, putting on clothes can be central to our safety and our rituals. From weddings to religious services to funerals, clothes not only convey our personal sense of style and self but communicate our role in a larger community, our connections to each other.

So it makes sense that clothes can be healing. It makes sense that if trauma has shattered those connections to our communities and our bodies, clothes might be able to bridge that gap. After all, that’s what clothes are for. Survival. Self-expression. Belonging. Identity. Joy.

Clothes for most of us are inescapable. But it took a gay British-Pakistani-American man to teach me that inevitability doesn’t have to feel like a prison. Clothes, like most things in life, are what you make them. And, well, I’ve decided. Tan France’s advice to play is some of the best advice I’ve been given.

Clothes can help me bring my body home.

***

Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

Featured Photo by Mike from Pexels

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