How cleaning out my closet taught me what’s wrong with the United States

Saturday, I spent the afternoon on the lake with my husband and brother-in-law.  Falling for the old trick of “it’s cloudy, so I don’t need sunscreen,” I got a killer sunburn, especially on my legs.  How does this relate to my closet-cleaning and what I believe to be the biggest flaw of mainstream American culture?  I couldn’t tell you now, or it would spoil this entire post.

As a teacher, I bask in summers off.  I’m all about them!  One of my favorite things about summer is time to do home improvement projects I don’t normally have time for.  Sunday, I tackled my closet, which had become an overflowing disaster zone.  There were clothes falling out as soon as I opened the door, things not in their rightful places, and extra hangers nowhere to be found.  I could feel my anxiety mounting.  I knew the task would require most of the afternoon, so I got to work, taking deep breaths all the while (I’m not being dramatic; my anxiety really did increase just by looking at the hurricane zone that was my closet).

I took my time on the project, individually inspecting each piece of clothing while deciding its fate.  Many of them evoked memories. Some things were really hard to put in the bag, and one shirt was difficult in particular.  A gold, semi-casual/semi-professional tank top with black lining along the v-neckline… an oldie but goodie.  My mom bought it for me as one of my fifteenth birthday presents; shopping was my annual ritual of choice. I remember being so confident wearing the shirt in high school, donning it with a coordinating pair of either black or khaki capris.  I wore it for years, even into my first couple of years at college, but not much since.  It is not that I do not love the shirt; it is figure flattering even after I have gained weight, and for that reason alone, I still adore it.  I haven’t worn it because I have acquired a lot more clothes over the years, collecting the latest trends like they are precious relics of saints.

I held onto the shirt for a little longer than I held onto other things, and I almost put it back on a hanger with the rest of my tank tops.  Then it hit me just how foolish I was being.  I looked up at the mirror on the headboard of my bed and saw myself hugging a shirt from high school.  I looked into my reflection and thought to myself, “Jill, you aren’t in tenth grade anymore.  You have other things that make you feel confident now.  Put the shirt in the bag!”

What a revelation!  I have always been the person to make fun of people who get “stuck” in one phase of life and refuse to move on, but then I caught myself doing the very same thing.  While I can look back on my high school career [mostly] fondly, I would be lying if I said it was the best part of my life.  I am incredibly proud of the woman I’ve become in the five years I’ve been out of school, and I have a completely different world view than I once did.  The girl who wore the gold and black tank top for the first time had a major problem with image and materialism, and that is something I have worked incredibly hard to overcome.  But…

I’m not there yet.

If cleaning out my closet taught me anything, it is that materialism is still a huge character flaw for me, as I’m sure it is for a lot of people in the United States (actually, materialism/acquisition of wealth is supposedly one of the thirteen things Americans value most, which deeply saddens me).  I would not call myself a hoarder regarding most things, but a look at my closet would make most people believe I was foraging for a clothing shortage in the near future.  That makes absolutely no sense.  I came from a stable, comfortably middle class background, and I had no reason to ever hold on to anything (except for maybe sentimentality), because I got an almost entirely new wardrobe each year for school, and I got at least a few things in between each season.  My insane attachment to clothes had to be for another reason.  What was it?

As I begin to go through the rest of my shirts and move on to dresses, skirts, and pants, I began reflecting on the items I decided to discard.  Some I had kept because, like the gold tank, I loved how I once looked in them.  Others I had kept in case I lost weight.  Finally, I had held on to some things that still had tags on them, guilt-tripping myself about getting rid of it, because that would mean I had made a mistake in buying it. And then, there was the reason that hit me like a ton of bricks.

I have and have always had this huge obsession of using my clothes to set myself apart… and not in a good way.  I always have.  In high school, it was to show people that my family could afford to buy name brands.  Thankfully, I moved on from the overly-priced Abercrombie and Hollister clothing that still haunts my high school yearbooks, but I had a similar issue in college.  I wanted to have enough clothes to not repeat outfits throughout the semester, with my faithful sweatpants being the only real exception to this rule.  I did not always succeed in this, but many times, I did, at least involving special events.

Hoping to not repeat outfits?  Ever?  Who does that?  Answer: Someone who cares far too much about what people think, and someone who portrays two contradicting images.  I have always wanted to be a genuine and authentic person, but caring so much about my clothes screams something different.  It screams “superficial” and “insecure,” neither of which I would consider myself.

As easy as it is to be completely critical of myself, I also know that my affection for clothes is not totally my fault, because it is the result of a much bigger problem than my personal flaws.  It is the consequence of a culture that tells us we have to have “the best,” because we have to be “the best.”  It is the same culture that continually publishes media that encourages us to buy outrageously overpriced things that we do not even want, just for the sake of having them.  It is the exact same culture that inadvertently discourages us from giving money or things to those less fortunate because we “might need it” someday.  If God is our ultimate provider, shouldn’t we trust Him to give us everything we need and settle for only some of the things that we want?  When is “enough” going to actually be enough?

The biggest part of me would like to think that I am a 100% different person than girl who once had to wear certain brands and could not repeat outfits too much.  However, somewhere deep in my heart, I know that a small piece of her will always exist, because she is a part of me, and materialism is, unfortunately, a part of my nature.

I realized this unfortunate reality when I was going through my dresses.  Dresses in particular are my favorite articles of clothing, because they are feminine, whimsical, and fun.  I mean, you can twirl in them!  I felt a lump in my stomach as I saw how many dresses were going into the bag.  I could have sworn I was getting rid of almost all of my dresses, and I wanted to stop.  Immediately.

I could have cried from self-deprecation when I counted how many dresses I still had left.  I counted the number in my closet, expecting there to be around fifteen.  And there were fifteen… plus twenty-five.  Forty dresses.  Forty!  I was completely embarrassed by how I reacted to sorting through them, my curiosity sparked about how many dresses I had before I started my little-bit-late spring cleaning.  I thought about counting how many were in the bag, but I decided that I did not want to totally hate myself for acting ridiculous.

The process of going through my clothes became much easier after that point, because I saw it as a way to intentionally continue the progress I have made on myself the past few years.  If I had not worn the something in months, it hit the bag.  I did not stop to look for tags, and even when tags kindly found me, I did not let them influence my decision about whether or not to keep something.  Occasionally, when the bag grew fuller, I began to panic a little, but I made myself remember the kind of woman I wish to be:

The kind who would give you anything she had if you needed it… even if it is the gorgeous Banana Republic pullover I love.

The kind who values experiences over material possessions.

The kind who does not conform to the mainstream, but remains countercultural if it means upholding her true values.

I am far from a minimalist and my wardrobe is not a capsule one, but when I look in my closet, I can see gaps. The gaps make me nervous, because they resemble frustrating mornings with nothing to wear.  But, they mostly look like breathing room and margin in life, which are two things America needs more of.

I’d wager that Americans need breathing room a lot more than we need more things.

Note: Still wondering about the sunburn?  It actually helped me go through stuff, because there were very few things I tried on as I was cleaning.  It was too uncomfortable to keep dressing and undressing.  So, if there was any doubt that something would fit… in the bag it went! At least a sunburn is good for one thing.

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One thought on “How cleaning out my closet taught me what’s wrong with the United States

  1. cathcarter says:

    Can we get a hallelujah? My father-in-law died this spring, and visits both to my spouse’s parents’ place and my own have left us determined to do some serious clearing out, before the hoarding habit really gets its teeth into us. We’re good about it in some ways–one closet and one dresser have handled my clothes pretty comfortably for some years–but there are always these places where things accumulate and get forgotten, and, of course, there’s always our Achilles’ heel: the books. It’s been a sometimes-poignant, but mostly liberating experience to let go of things, and especially to give up on being the repository of all knowledge and all beauty that comes my way.

    In Anthony Bourdain’s first book, he mentions a chef under whom he worked, one who’d come along and give the under-chefs hell for having messy stations and boards, all covered with scraps and bits and pieces and chaos. And why? “Because that’s what the inside of your head looks like right now!” That’s really stuck with me, and one path to clearing the inside of my head is definitely clearing the inside of my closets….and letting go of the college bio books (circa pre-change-of-major) that I’ve schlepped around for, oh, Lord, thirty years without ever opening again. Go you!

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