After graduating from college, I didn’t own much, but two things come to mind: store credit cards and cotton candy fantasies of trotting around in sensible heels and pencil skirts and typing things like, “third quarter” and “circle back.” One facilitated the other. I told myself I needed to ‘dress for the job I wanted’ and that I had to ‘spend money to make money,’ which translated to, ‘spend money you don’t have on clothes you’ll never wear.’ So that’s what I did.
In the summer of 2008, I moved into my first apartment but struggled to find full-time employment for a few months. I worked at a hair salon, a secondhand store, and a political web startup, among other things. On my mornings off, I’d lay in bed writing and smoking cigarettes and drinking Café Bustelo and being so omigod post-grad tortured, or I’d show up to yet another job that I’d fashioned all on my own—selling my not-yet-paid-for clothes back to a thrift store.
I sold a lot of clothes. Clothes I wore. Clothes I liked. Clothes that still fit. I’d hold a brand new Free People blouse in my hands and think, “You. I like you. But so do the gatekeepers at Beacon’s Closet, and I want to drink today, so off you go.” I’d pack up one of those discount-store shopping carts until it was teeming over with rogue sleeves and belts and I’d wheel that sucker for blocks until I arrived at one of two neighborhood thrift stores.
The first thing I think when I see the line of people who crowd the ‘Sell’ register at my local thrift store is that they’re, appropriately, thrifty. They’re either broke or they’re taking preventative measures. I’ve seen women walk in with garbage bags full of stretched-out, faded rags that never stood a chance at having a colored ticket clothespinned to their unraveling seams; I’ve seen young, stylish women throw their designer suitcases open, pulling out silk and lace and things that I couldn’t afford to buy secondhand, a bottomless show of wealth exploding onto the counter. I once saw a man try to sell the watch off of his wrist. Why are you here, I’d think, why are any of us here.
Let’s just face it: a thrift store is a judgment zone. We stand on line observing each other’s discarded fabric, wondering how someone manages to have 45-minutes worth of clothing to slough through, questioning the girl with the never-worn $700 heels. Thinking, “I can’t compete with this.”
It’s bad enough to know your fellow sellers are judging you, but then your wares face the buyers. You smile at them and ask about their weekend, you tell them you were sick and this is your first time out of the house in days, cough cough, won’t you please feel sorry for me and buy everything I present you with?
Sometimes, you understand when they pass up an article of clothing—it’s out of season or ‘we just have way too many skirts right now,’ and you nod and understand, you’re a really understanding person—wait, you’re not taking that sweater? I bought that sweater here… why is it not good enough anymore? Am I not good enough?
You could honestly not give a five-dollar fuck about style. You’d go nude if you could, if that were okay. But the second a buyer passes up something you deem acceptable, something worthy of being bought; your whole identity is thrown into question. Am I unstylish? If I bring this article of clothing home with me after its rejection, can I wear it again with a clear conscience? How many unworthy items like this are hanging in my closet right now? Was I not nice enough to the buyer, or did she decide to hate me the moment I walked in? I should’ve brushed my hair today; I just… I should’ve brushed my hair.
There are other ways to experience this feeling of inadequacy—the dress you’ve outgrown constantly getting passed over at a friend’s clothing swap, getting kicked around a pilled carpet while people snatch up the more desirable items. Offering to let a roommate borrow something only for them to ‘Never mind, I’m good’ you. Your shopping buddy telling you, honestly, that doesn’t look good. Don’t buy it. And while the indifferent clothing consumer carries on ~364 days a year not caring, the bursts of sartorial judgment that make up Day 365 feel defining. In that moment, you’re not good enough at something you didn’t think you cared to be good at.
As you trade clothing that once retailed for $600 in exchange for $60 in cash, as you walk by racks of apparel you wouldn’t keep to line a dog crate and wonder how they made the cut, as you carry a bag of rejected clothing that feels heavier than it did when you arrived, you scold yourself for not being a Housing Works person. A Salvation Army person. A person who could rid herself of excess without subjecting herself to the psychological torture of being rejected over something subjectively superficial. A person to whom $60 just doesn’t mean all that much.
But you’re not that person. You’re the person in the ‘Sell’ line thinking, “I hope I’m good enough.”