How Do I Look?

"Yeah, but don't you want to look good?"

"Yeah, but don't you want to look good?"

Like all self-respecting, self-righteous college student activists, I never cared much how I dressed. My few drawers of clothes were full of mismatched athletic socks, grease-stained jeans, cords with holes in them, and a yellow Guayabera shirt I wore about three times a week. If the socks, pants, and shirt I put on every morning happened to match, that was great, but I wouldn’t realize it. I was too busy fighting the Man.

About ten of us went to Nicaragua for a service trip over Christmas break my sophomore year. I had three T-shirts, three pairs of underwear, that same pair of cords, and the sweatshirt and jeans I wore onto the plane. I also had my journal, a copy of Theology of Liberation, and the collected writings of St. Ignatius. I picked up a Spanish-language Bible while I was down there too. Add to that a few photos and toiletries, and it still all fit into one backpack.

I went to Nicaragua for the same reasons why I protest the death penalty and the war: I’m a Catholic. We believe (or are supposed to believe) in a “preferential option for the poor,” a commitment to make the world a place of justice and peace, always giving special attention to the most vulnerable. I brought a necklace with a large, ugly wooden cross with me to Nicaragua and I wore it every day while I was there, keeping it on when I returned as a reminder I had changed. I received a less obnoxious cross as a gift a few months later, and I wore that one under my shirt. It just looked better that way.

I moved to the Bronx after I graduated, and that’s where I threw away the cords.  My supervisor at a social services agency stared at the massive ink stain over my right pocket for about five minutes while we were in weekly supervision. I can’t remember what we were talking about, but it was probably about how I don’t act like an adult. We talked about that a lot. We also talked a lot about how she does act like an adult, which I took seriously because she was older than me, and a nun, and my boss. She told me I had to buy new clothes, because I just didn’t look professional and it showed a lack of respect to our clients. I had never thought of clothes as showing respect. I had thought of clothes as wasting money. I had thought of telling her that people don’t need to buy new clothes as a show of respect, but then, I was neither older, nor a nun, nor my boss. Who was I to say?

I moved to Brooklyn next, and that’s where I threw away the pants with ripped bottoms. I still worked with nuns, but different nuns, and nicer. These were the teachers at an all-girls, inner-city high school, and what our students lacked in SAT scores they made up for in fashion advice. Like my former boss, they tried to suggest fashion changes as sympathetically as possible:

“Mr. G., you look terrible. You don’t match at all.”

“Mr. G., why did you wear those clothes? Is it dark at your house?”

“Mr. G., are you colorblind?”

“Mr. G., those shoes are dirty. You shouldn’t wear dirty shoes.”

“Mr. G., this school doesn’t pay a lot of money does it?”

One class period, I asked my class where I should buy clothes for an upcoming formal event I had to attend. (I had nothing formal in my house, except a sweat-stained tuxedo shirt and black pants with a grease stain.) They gave me a long list of cool stores, and I was a bit appalled by their comfort with rampant consumerism.  I felt as though I were discovering, for the first time, that teenagers are obsessed with material things and would really rather shop than talk about Steinbeck.

To be fair, they like the violent parts of Steinbeck, and the virgin-whore dichotomy unit, but mostly because they get to say whore in class. But even more fun than talking about whores is talking about fashion, and so I learned all about H&M, Express, and Urban Outfitters.

Then it got personal. They were so thrilled that I was asking about clothes that it felt as though I had asked how to make Macy’s my personal Lord and Savior. I lashed out: People don’t need these fancy clothes. People don’t need to sculpt or starve their bodies. People don’t need any of this stuff — what they really need is growth, and that can only come through art or service or love, not through where you shop or how you look.

They fidgeted, whispering angrily to each other, until one of them finally blurted, “Yeah, but don’t you want to look good?”

I do want to look good. And while I’m not sure if I look good now, I look a lot better than I did then. I shop at H&M, Urban Outfitters, and all those (mostly) white people stores, and I go to a lot of my students’ favorite stores too: V.I.M.’s, Jimmy Jazz, and some other “urban” place in my African-American neighborhood. I match every day, and I notice every clothing store I walk past, often walking in to make up for some deficiency in my wardrobe. My closet is a mixture of the pricey (Express) and the faux-pricey (H&M), but it all looks good, it all has at least the potential of matching, and none of it is ripped, stained, or from the Gap. Like the good-hearted stockbroker who couldn’t leave the game, my corruption has been nearly complete. The innocent oblivion is gone, replaced by a snide self-awareness as I get on the subway, full of self-righteous judgments and competition: What’s up with those jeans? Is she seriously wearing Doc Martens? Good God man, didn’t anyone tell you not to wear white tennis shoes with flannel?

I still can’t shake the feeling that it’s arbitrary, a game with rules set up by either the Man, or a nun, or a bunch of teenagers who read magazines by the Man and who want to make the nuns mad. So I match this color with that color. So this shirt is a tight fit and this one isn’t. Who cares? I know there is a difference between fashion and style: While the first depends only on the caprice of international corporations with quarterly reports, the second tries to connect to something bigger, even something beautiful. There is something good in looking good, in an essay, in a painting, or even in a pair of pants.

Wearing the new clothes I’ve been buying lately makes me feel more confident, just like wearing the cross did in Nicaragua, just like having something to rail against made me feel more comfortable than having nothing to say. My self-righteousness is just as expensive a costume as the suit, and just as removable. We’re all naked before God. We’re all capable of lives free of intimidation, worry about what we should wear, or fear of what we would be if we lost it all. If I can choose fashion, I can also choose peace. Maybe I’m just afraid of what I’d look like in that mirror. After all, I haven’t worked out in a while.

Jeff Guhin is an Associate Editor at and teaches English at St. Joseph High School in Brooklyn, New York. He blames all of his problems in life on the combination of Catholicism and never having owned a dog.