The summer before high school, I stood in a dimly lit Hot Topic and stared up at the store’s iconic wall of band t-shirts. It was August, classes started in just a few weeks, and I was a girl on a mission.
For only the second time in my life, my mother had entrusted me with my portion of our family’s back-to-school shopping budget, meaning I could buy whatever I wanted without anyone else’s input. As soon as we entered the mall, she handed me a fistful of crumpled bills and I left her alone with my three younger brothers, bee-lining for the store that some of my classmates said they were too afraid to even go into. “The goth store,” they called it.
Meanwhile, I reveled in my own audacity, my boldness, my daring to be different by shopping at a store that has over 600 locations nationwide.
This moment in my fourteen year-old-life had been several years coming.
The last two school years, I had been falling deeper and deeper into all the Internet had to offer in the way of so-called “alternative music,” a genre that spanned from hardcore metal to indie folk. It was the late aughts, a strange time when music and Internet culture collided, producing a distinctly goofy and elitist subculture of teenagers who worshipped at the altar of nasal pop punk.
None of us were sure what actually counted as “selling out,” and my parents were absolutely not letting me attend Warped Tour that year, but I was undeterred. I would soon be in high school, and I needed to solidify my standing in the “alternative” crowd — a group of about a dozen students who dressed primarily in black, dyed their hair, and looked down on people who listened to music that played on the radio.
In a way, my attraction to this group of oddballs was a way to stick it to the “cool kids” who I never quite fit in with.
If I couldn’t hang out with the jocks and the cheerleaders, then I would shift my perspective and redefine who was “cool” to me. If I couldn’t be a snob with the kids who wore polo shirts, then I would be a snob with the kids who wrote on their arms with Sharpies, who swore that listening to screamo actually helped them relax.
My reinvention was to be all-encompassing. If it didn’t look like something that would fit into a sharply angled Myspace photo, I wasn’t interested.
Band t-shirts, skinny jeans, flat-soled sneakers were in; frilly tops, flared pants, and ergonomic footwear were out. The month before school started, I loaded up on thin, black rubber bracelets and bought my first pair of Chuck Taylors: high tops with a pair of dice imprinted the ankles. The week before school started, I burned a CD to listen to on the first day and unironically labeled it “Angst.” When the first day of school finally arrived, I woke up a half hour early to heat up my hair straightener, make a pot of coffee, and hit “play” on my boombox, letting the soothing tones of My Chemical Romance’s Welcome to The Black Parade wash over my newly christened persona.
I wasn’t alone in my transformation.
Several of my closest friends had also exclusively done their shopping at the same stores. Two of us rolled in with matching rainbow studded belts. A few scraggly-haired boys donned the same boldly striped zip-up hoodie. We all straightened our hair. We all nervously flipped our angled bangs to one side.
We didn’t mind our uniformity, though. On our quest to separate ourselves from the majority, we accepted that dressing identically to each other was the price to pay for our brand of ~originality.~
Fitting in as a high schooler is a finicky beast, and the first rule of being cool is not acknowledging that you are cool; that would be painfully mainstream, much more Claire Standish than John Bender, and therefore, strictly off limits. So while we all vied for the attention of those older alt kids who we relentlessly and flagrantly mimicked, we never spoke in terms of popularity or attention. We simply observed, digested, and did our best to reflect the interests and styles of those we aspired to hang out with. The goal, broadly, was to eventually become the kind of upperclassmen we admired, who shrugged off the younger kids fawning over them while also being cooly aware of their own influence.
In the end — yes, mom — it was just a phase, but not without its merits.
Choosing to be different, to embrace your oddball interests — especially in hormone-infested high school — is not a decision any teenager takes lightly. Certainly, our styles were sold to us by corporate stores that painted themselves as impossibly “off the beaten path.” Yeah, I suppose we got exactly the type of attention we were thirsty for. But I remain proud of my fourteen year-old self.
We were dissatisfied with the social structure we’d grown up in. Instead of trying to be something we weren’t, we embraced our interests (which, at the time, were PureVolume.com and Myspace) and we made the most of it.
In hindsight, we looked pretty silly.
I have no less than three private Facebook albums documenting this strangely black and neon phase of my life, but on some level, I think reinventing yourself takes a lot of guts.
People are going to judge you, whether your new look means black fingernail polish or designer handbags. But this phase taught me that self-expression is invaluable. When you embrace your freedom to wear whatever makes you comfortable in your own skin, you breathe a little easier. That first day back at school was scary, but I learned that people eventually stop staring. They get over it, and in the end, their looks of confusion often turn into looks of admiration.
Besides, you’re not married to your style, and that’s the beauty of it. It can change just as often as you do.