By Amanda Richards
Say the phrase “shopping for clothes with Mom,” and you’ll get wildly mixed reactions. Some will groan, roll their eyes, and say it’s not worth it — after all, they never agree on anything. Others recount the experience as painful. Consciously or not, many mothers set the foundation for a lifetime of body image issues for their daughters. For those people, a simple shopping trip often turned into a referendum on all of their life choices. Some say that mom always paid; others recall the time that mom wouldn’t even chip in for their homecoming dress. Some love it, some hate it, and some would literally pay money to never be within a 10-foot radius of their mother and a dressing room ever again.
Needless to say, shopping for clothing with your mom isn’t a collective experience.
For my mother and I, shopping has been an evolution. My mom never much cared about fashion. She grew up in the Rust Belt, the oldest of six siblings; being precious about her clothing wasn’t really an option. When she got to be a teenager, she was really into science; so much so, in fact, that she wore a white lab coat around school, just because. And when she hit her early twenties, and became a mom to yours truly (and then to a son, then a daughter, then later, another son), she simply didn’t have a lot of time or energy to shop. In my memories, she wore mostly tank tops and T-shirts, high-waisted pleated shorts, and Keds. It was a vibe, but a low-key one. She was always a low maintenance sort.
So imagine her surprise and confusion when, from out of nowhere, came her daughter: five years old, extremely into frilly dresses, tights, and patent leather shoes, refusing to wear pants and demanding as much wardrobe variety as possible. I didn’t just love my Barbies — I actually wanted to be one.
For most little girls, finding colored tights and sparkly sweatshirts isn’t much of a challenge. But for her little girl, there was a catch. By five, I was already two feet taller and 20 pounds heavier than everyone in my class — and I grew rapidly from there. My mom couldn’t shop for me at Kids R Us, or Limited Too, or order clothing from Delia’s; none of it fit me. I’m not sure if my mother knew this, but I have a vivid memory of making a wishlist out of one of those catalogues, and realizing that based on the measurement chart, I’d be able to wear exactly one T-shirt from my 30-item list (and even then, it would have been tight).
When presented with this challenge, there are several different directions a mother can go. I know this, because I have friends whose mothers chose the roads mine didn’t. One put her daughter on a diet, and made her take an exercise class every day after school. Another shrugged her shoulders and put her daughter in her brother’s oversized hand-me-down clothing, despite the fact that she was an even more dedicated girly-girl than I was.
But my mom? She leaned in.
I don’t have memories of this (most likely because she didn’t want to let me know how hard she had to work to find things that fit me), but she told me later that she used to scour women’s sections in department stores, looking for clothing that was youthful enough to prevent me from looking like a tiny paralegal. It didn’t always land; I remember one picture day when I had to wear a stirrup pantsuit (I was eight). There was also a particularly heinous shit-brown polka dot dress, almost certainly made with an 80-year-old woman in mind. For the most part, though, she somehow managed to find clothing that channeled the adorable, ultra-girly, ever-so-slightly bratty Barbie I felt like in my mind. Once she got the hang of where to shop to find things that fit me, she brought me along. Not once did she shame me for my weight, or look disappointed when the khakis in the size I wore six months previous no longer fit me. She just took them out of my hands, put them on the hanger, and found another size.
Despite her tireless efforts and support, I had my fair share of dressing room meltdowns. You simply cannot escape the experience of being a fat kid in a clothing store without allowing yourself to fracture into a million tiny devastated pieces every once in awhile. I’m sure that sometimes, I even cussed my mom out, or blamed her for bringing me there in the first place. And I’m also sure that must have cut her deep. As hard as it was for me, it must have been even harder for her, standing in the presence of her child’s pain after she used all of her emotional, financial, and tactical resources to prevent it.
Of course, it wasn’t her failure. This was in the mid-nineties, and size ranges barely accommodated a vast majority of adult women, let alone a 10-year-old with the body of a college freshman. My mom did what she had to do in a time when she had very little options to work with — and she did it for me, not even for herself.
Back in January, I had the opportunity to invite her into the Universal Standard 1:1 space in New York City and treat her to a shopping trip. Her own weight has fluctuated over the years and she typically feels uncertain and sheepish about her style. She complained of not liking any of her clothes, and how none of them felt good to wear. I wanted to show her what shopping can feel like when there are options you love, no matter what size you are. I also wanted to show her what it feels like to be the center of attention after a lifetime of putting everyone else first.
In addition to being a wild success (she got so many pieces, my dad had a full-blown panic attack about what might become of his closet space), it felt like a full circle moment. Shopping with mom — once a delicate balance of limited choices, high-level emotions, financial and time restraints — felt like a totally positive, mutually beneficial experience. She got to look in the mirror and feel the highly specific joy that comes when you love what you’re wearing. And me? I finally got to know what she must have felt like when she did exact that for her little girl, all those years ago.