What I learned about clothes from having bed bugs

A year ago, my husband and I had the misfortune of getting bed bugs. I have no idea where they came from or how they hitchhiked to our apartment—all I know is that one morning I woke up with three bites and a week later I had twenty.

Thus began our epic battle against the tiny vampires. The exterminator came three times, we threw out our bedframe and side tables and sanity while our clothes and fabrics and curtains lived in trash bags for a quarter of a year. We dealt with a lack of sleep, hallucinations of creepy crawlies, and a general sense that we were going crazy.

Then, one day, it was over. We had won. We were the conquerors. And the time had come to contemplate the experience. Of the many things I realized in retrospect, including truths about relationships, friendships, and the things we keep just to keep them, what I learned the most about was clothes. Or, more specifically, my feelings about clothes.

But I fear I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me first tell you the three main lessons I learned and then I can tell you where I now stand with my closet.

Less is so much easier.

Here’s the shorthand version of what happens when you have bed bugs (and I hope you never do). All your fabrics must be washed in hot water or put in a hot dryer. Then they must be quarantined in trash bags until you can be sure the bed bugs are gone. In the interim, you must keep a skeleton closet so you can dress for work, exercise, sleep, and just, you know, being a human.

At first, having such a small selection of clothing was hard. Every morning I’d look at my ransacked hangers and think, “Wow, I can’t believe I have to wear this sweater again,” or, on more sleep-deprived mornings, “If I have to button this blazer one more time, I’m going to throw it out the window!”

Slowly, however, it became second nature to go into my closet and recognize that I had few options. And so, I’d just get dressed. That might sound obvious, but the notion of “just getting dressed” was different. While I was never the type to take a decade to get ready, I had experienced my fair share of mornings that included multiple outfit changes and the cringe-worthy phrase, “I have nothing to wear.” Without choices, though, there was nothing to fuss over, no more hemming and hawing over what shirt to go with what skirt. Instead, it was just: go into closet and pick out clothes. My mornings became less stressful. I had more time for coffee, chatting with my husband, and even, shockingly, running. Over the next three months, I grew accustomed to this way of beginning my day. I stopped pining for options and started liking what I had.

Then, boom. We were in the clear and I could unpack the bags of quarantined clothes. Out came Halloween costumes, different shades of the same sweater, fancy dresses, statement pieces, long flowing scarves, sentimental t-shirts from high school, bathing suit after bathing suit after bathing suit. . . Now, lest you get the wrong impression and think that I was some sort of style-forward badass and these bags were chalk full of awesome items of apparel, let me state that I’m barely a clothes horse. I don’t think any of my friends would describe me as particularly stylish or fashionable. So I’m just going to go out on a limb and say that I had collected the average amount of clothes. And as I sat surrounded by the dresses, coats, vests, skirts, scarves, and pants that I had originally been so desperate to be reunited with, I realized that the “average amount of clothes” was way, way, way too many.

That was the turning point. I watched Graham Hill’s TED Talk on living with less stuff and learned the mantra, “edit ruthlessly.” My OCD tendencies then kicked in and I became quasi-obsessed with ridding myself of all the clothes I was not going to wear on a regular basis. I said good-bye to those “one-day-I’ll-wear-this” sweaters, to those “when-there’s-the-right-occasion” shoes, to those “oh-but-this-was-a-gift” tops. By the time I was done, I had given away up to 75% of my clothes and was left with a closet that only contained things I wanted to wear. I was able to continue my easy mornings because every item of clothing was one I could slip on and know I liked.

Clothes actually don’t make the (wo)man.

During my “edit ruthtlessly” period, I noticed a lot of clothes that carried with them a hope of being a certain type of person. I had pencil skirts from when I had started my first job and wanted to be a “professional woman.” I had several berets from living in Europe and wanting to look Parisian. I had an insane amount of sweater dresses from when I decided that would be my “go-to winter look.”

These clothes were a projection of who I wanted to be at moments in my life. As if owning the right skirt or the perfect top could make you anything: more qualified, more cultured, more feminine. It didn’t occur to me that I was a professional woman because I had a professional job. Instead I felt the need to mark the occasion by dressing for the role. (Let me caveat this and say that, yes, certain professions require a dress code. But I work in a creative field, so it wasn’t a matter of needing a pants suit.)

As I tore through the trash bags, I realized that the majority of what I owned was not a fit to who I am. At the end of the day, I’m happiest in jeans and a t-shirt. It makes sense for what my day is like. I spend my working hours writing and my free time at the barn, in a forest, or on the couch reading. There aren’t many occasions for me to wear chiffon skirts and deep v-line dresses—and yet, I owned many of these kinds of pieces. Pieces that, let me just say, actually made me uncomfortable when I wore them, too aware of my body to forget about myself. There’s something so unsettling to me now that I thought I could find a hidden source of confidence in clothing that made me feel exposed.

The moment I accepted that I was just going to wear clothes that felt like Alexa, not Alexa as Professional Woman, Alexa as Stylish Friend, Alexa as Brunch-Seeking Bohemian, but just Alexa, the happier I have been with myself. I no longer have moments when I feel stuck inside fabric or days when I scold myself for wearing something that puts me on display. Now I wear clothes that suit me, that suit my life, and make me feel beautiful because I feel like a real person—and not a projection—in them.

No one really cares what you wear.

During the first round of bed bugs, I wasn’t organized, and after the laundry was done, I hadn’t properly decided what would stay out. As a result, on that first morning, I grabbed clothes from the top of the trash bag and went to work in Halloween-inspired bell bottoms and a bright red sweater. (It was the middle of the summer.)

I spent the first hour of the day providing a running commentary on my outfit, “Everything’s in the wash,” “Laundry day!” and other equally awkward statements. After receiving understanding nods and polite smiles, it occurred to me that no one noticed that I was dressed like a time traveler from a different season. Everyone was going about their days, too concerned about their own lives to notice mine. This became more apparent as time went by and I cycled through my limited outfits. I would be wearing the exact same thing that I had worn the week before and someone would pay me a compliment. I once had a colleague ask me if a well-worn shirt was new. And when I finally told a group of trusted friends that I was dealing with bed bugs, they all looked genuinely shocked to hear that I had been wearing the same cardigan for three days in a row.

How do I even begin to describe what this revelation felt like? How can I explain what freedom it created in my mind? The thing is, we are all (but women particularly) marketed clothing in a way that has everything to do with how people see us. This is the reason why many brands promote clothing in social photographs. Look at this woman in her scarf, her hand brushing against her husband’s shoulder. Look at this classy woman drinking wine with her gaggle of girlfriends in a smart pants suit. (On another note, am I obsessed with pants suits?) It’s the reason you rarely see advertisements of women just sitting alone reading a book in fancy shoes. Women’s clothing must have a witness to them. It’s like the tree in the forest—if people don’t see you rocking that handbag, did you ever rock that handbag?

Now, it’s nothing new that we’re all sold things in a way that taps into how we want to be seen. However, what makes clothing so tricky for women is that we have advertisements plus an entire lifetime of inculcation to the social aspect of clothing. When we’re young, we’re encouraged to play by dressing up, transforming ourselves, our friends, and even our dolls with the flick of a costume change. When we’re in high school, we go to the mall together to pick out outfits for football games, dances, and proms. When we’re older, we ask friends and friends ask us, “What are you going to wear on your date?” or “What are you going to wear to your job interview?” Clothing is part of a female social life, part of how we communicate. It can even feel like it’s one of the main ways our friends see us and we see them.

But to learn that my friends don’t really care about my outfit. . . I mean, that’s liberating. That shows that women comment about clothes (“Cute top!” “Is that new?”) because we’ve been taught to do so—maybe we don’t care anywhere near as much as we act like we do. For me, this revelation lessens a lifetime of being inundated with the sense that style is an inextricable part of being a woman. As I’ve now learned, you can show up wearing the same thing over and over again and your friends will still love you, your partner will still laugh with you, you will still earn the same salary, you will still have the same life.

Where does all this leave me now? Well, I just read Amy Poehler’s Yes, Please (as everyone should) and she has a wonderful philosophy about how women should treat one another: “Good for you, not for me.” And that’s how I now feel about having an extensive closet and using up energy on outfit choices. Fashion is great for women who own it, have a real love of style and find true enjoyment, creativity, and satisfaction out of it. I have many friends like this and, good lord, they know how to kill it. Good for them. But if you’re like me, you might be on the second half of Poehler’s mantra. Not for me. For a long time, I didn’t think I had a choice to care about clothes. I thought that in the never-ending quest to be an awesome woman, I had to have a fondness for fashion. It was part of being a Woman with a capital W.

Having bed bugs is like a really drawn out fire drill. You have to ask yourself, “What do you want to save?” At first I thought I wanted to save all my clothes—after all, these were my clothes. They were my style. They were a representation of me being feminine, beautiful, and strong. They were how other people saw me as feminine, beautiful, and strong.

Now I know that’s not true.

I’m happy just to wake up and get going with my day. Yes, I want to look like a presentable human. And it turns out that I do in jeans and a t-shirt. I am feminine, beautiful, and strong because I am. Me. Just me. Nothing else.

Alexa Dooseman is a writer living in beautiful and weird Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Rumpus, Defenestration, and more. She loves reading, exploring the outdoors and discussing the merits of TV shows with her husband. Find out what she’s up to on her website (www.alexadooseman.com) and on Twitter (@alexadooseman).

(Image via, for purchase here.)