Controlling the Image: Obsessive Compulsion and the Closet

Purple silk button down
Orange tank
White jeans
Gold gladiators

When I was in high school, I had a secret routine — every morning I would record on a handmade calendar each item of clothing I was wearing that day, down to the shoes. The calendars were carefully drawn grids, blue ink on white looseleaf, each square exactly three lines wide, with the same blue pen used to scribe every single word. The recording of each day’s outfit came only after an intensive calculation. Had I worn these pants in the past two weeks? Had I worn this shirt/sweater/dress in the past two months? I scoured each square of the calendar, and if the answer to either question was yes, I would not leave the house until I had found something that aligned with my rules.

but make it fashion divider - periwinkle squiggle

Brown flower button down
Green cargo shorts
Gold belt
Gold flip flops

I began keeping track of what I wore at some point early in high school. The record of handmade calendars exists for at least three years — sophomore, junior, and senior — but I was likely compiling the information in my head before I started writing it down. I don’t remember the exact moment when I decided I needed to keep the written record. Instead, what I do remember are brief interactions with classmates, moments of fashion-related confusion, those long years of middle school trying to understand what femininity looked like in my weird suburban town, and what it was demanding of me. I never did understand it (fashion or femininity), never felt like there was a comfortable place for me inside, where everyone else seemed to fit without thinking about it. I needed to think about it. And think. And think.

but make it fashion divider - periwinkle squiggle

Black rose tee
White high waisted shorts
Gold flip flops

In the spring of my freshman year of high school, right around my 15th birthday, I fell in love with a girl for the first time. I say “fell in love” but those words are placeholders for some emotion we have no idiom for. She was a complete stranger, a girl one year older than me who I knew only in passing, only by the crystalline shout of her blue eyes. It was outrageous, and engrossing, and all-encompassing, this love-not-love. The point was never her, of course, since I knew her only as I constructed her in my mind. The point was that she was a girl and I had never loved a girl and I had never seen anyone like me love a girl so how — how could I? During the long months of spring when I loved her, and the welcome summer when I did everything in my power to forget, I retreated into myself. Inside, it was just me, the ghost of this girl, and the god I was on the verge of disbelieving, who I pleaded to for answers that I never received. By the end of the summer, I had swallowed my queerness, pushed it down into some deep recess, where it stayed until my senior year.

but make it fashion divider - periwinkle squiggle

Tan bamboo dress
Brown boots

That my compulsive record-keeping of the clothes I wore and my deep ignoring and burying of my sexuality presented themselves around the same time should come as no real surprise to me, and yet connecting the two feels uncanny, almost unbelievable. But then I see myself, 15 and gangly and terrified, needing to have control over something, needing to stay in charge of a body that — for all I knew, for all I was taught — was betraying me. I had built my image of myself on certain foundational givens, but now the entire structure was tremoring, threatening collapse. This system of controlling my clothing became the way I grounded myself through the storm. If I could control what I looked like every day at school, then maybe I could control what others saw when they looked at me — someone normal, someone who followed all of the rules, someone who did not stand out or make a scene or make a fool of herself.

scan from authors notebook — a grid of outfits planned for the month of november and december

Teal FP tee
Gray textured zip-up
Navy circle scarf
Morgan skinny
Black boots

To follow the logic of obsessive compulsion is to admit there is logic at all. Wearing the same shirt twice in a month would not harm me, and it definitely would not out me, and yet I could not stop myself from imagining the worst. By the time the habit was fully formed, “the worst” wasn’t even definable anymore — it was just an unending sense of dread. A massive shadow looming, leaving me shivering in the dark. To hold that kind of dread inside me was exhausting, but at least I felt I could do something about it, give myself the small release that came with constant vigilance. When I asked my friends from high school if they remembered me ever mentioning my records, most of them had no idea. Just as most of them had no inkling of my queerness before I finally came out. Ever alert, ever composed: I maintained the image of normalcy in the wider community by maintaining it even in my closest relationships. I craved closeness, and I think that at the time I even thought I had it. It’s only looking back that I can see how guarded I was. Had I breathed at all, those long four years?

but make it fashion divider - periwinkle squiggle

Flowered cross-back dress
Black boots

This is perhaps my root: I am in middle school, and a boy in my science class asks me why I am wearing the same shirt I had worn the week before. He wrinkles his face up as if I smell, and asks if I don’t wash my clothes. I am baffled by the questions — of course I had washed it, it’s my favorite shirt (white with a pattern of rainbow hearts) and I love wearing it, so why wouldn’t I? But he asks me this question as we sit at our desks, surrounded by a jury of my classmates (middle school students: perhaps the harshest jury there is), and are they laughing along with him or am I just imagining it — no one can say, not anymore. It was this small moment on to which my brain latched, obsessive as it is, and prone to latching. Informed by every other small comment I heard or overheard in those years and in the years after, I began compiling a list of rules in my head: the universal set of regulations that everyone must know, but no one had bothered to tell me. I would find all of the rules, and I would follow them.

but make it fashion divider - periwinkle squiggle

Blue bamboo dress
Gray/white cardigan
Navy circle scarf
Gold belt
Black boots

This is perhaps my root: my best friend and I are six years old, and love Spongebob, Kraft macaroni and cheese, and poop jokes. Her mom gives us baths together and we have sleepovers once a week. In her basement, away from her fluffy cat who makes me sneeze, we shut ourselves in the toy closet and make up strange games that only six year olds who watch Spongebob could come up with. In one of them, I am the chicken, and she is the chef who cooks me — or perhaps it is the other way around — either way, one of us is skinned naked, and the other one pretends to eat her. Behind the closed door of the toy closet, there is warm breath on a bowed back, the mimed movements of lips taking in roasted meat, and the knowledge of our private nakedness buzzing hotly in me, as if the closet actually is an oven. The game was really more morbid than lewd, more odd than anything else. Bodies were strange and amusing to us; and we knew each other’s well. And yet a few years later, when my friend and I remembered our game, we agreed — with a desperate urgency — to never tell anyone about it. Puberty was looming over us, and the idea of mouths and skin in close proximity had different connotations than our cartoonish play at cannibalism had intended. Intimacy in general was scary, but queer intimacy specifically was unprecedented and unspeakable.

but make it fashion divider - periwinkle squiggle

L. green cape may thermal
Ireland scarf
Back button

Luckily, and perhaps unsurprisingly, my compulsive control over the clothes I wore wasn’t influenced by any sense of fashion. That would’ve made my job a lot harder. I had some idea of what kind of clothes I was supposed to wear, based on what everyone else was wearing, but I had no internal sense of what I liked or what made me feel good. The control was always about the logistics of fashion, not about the content. The fulfillment of my rules was dependent on quantity, so I needed to stockpile. I scrounged for hand-me-downs, even the questionable ones, borrowed clothes from my mom and siblings, bought new shirts whenever I could manage. I never thought twice about how much I was hoarding. The longer the rules were, the safer I felt. I didn’t have to feel good as long as I felt safe. Safe was the best I could do.

but make it fashion divider - periwinkle squiggle

Gray arrow dolman
Red scarf
Dark flare

That sense of safety was essential to me while another part of my brain was fighting against emotions it couldn’t understand. I had always been the kind of child who felt things very deeply, and was encouraged in those feelings by my parents and my teachers, who saw the value in my sensitivity. But now I had come up against feelings that were so strong, and so real, and yet didn’t compute with the world I had been shown. I had no access to images of queer happiness. No example of what it looked like to like girls and survive to tell the tale. There were no tales. The people around me moved through the world as if it made sense, as if it could go unquestioned. Everyone — all the stories, all the people, all the possibilities — were straight. And by the time I did come in contact with queerness, the connections had not been formed in my brain. Queerness was something I was exposed to so infrequently that it remained untranslatable. A word I could look up in the dictionary, maybe, except I’d forgotten how to form it in my mouth as soon as I’d uttered it.

but make it fashion divider - periwinkle squiggle

Flowered dress
Pink tights
Yellow scarf
Brown boots

I kept diligent records of what I wore through the entirety of my sophomore and junior years of high school, and into my senior year. But my senior year was also when I fell in love for the second time, and unlike the first time, I was somehow able to find a way to push the information out of myself, so I didn’t have to hold it alone. Being able to come out, to externalize the anxiety that had festered inside me as obsessive compulsion, allowed me to shift my focus to the real fear. My classmates may not have really cared about what I was wearing and how often I was wearing it, but there was justifiable fear for me in what they — and more urgently, my friends and my family — would think about who I loved and how I acted on that love. That turbulent year, in which I came out to the people closest to me in fits and starts and bouts of terror, I had the sense that I was introducing myself to them anew, but now skinned naked and raw.

In the chaos and crisis of letting myself be seen, truly, for the first time, my calendars lost precedence, the length of the rules slipped, and the recording persisted less out of compulsion and more out of an obligation to the routine of it. I couldn’t hide myself anymore, not behind a straight-performing facade, and not behind my fortress of rules. Maybe I wasn’t as safe, but maybe I was never safe in the first place. Instead, in some future I was just beginning to glimpse, maybe I was allowed to love, and to give in to the goodness of love — to exhale, at long last, and to let myself be seen. bmif tombstone

Sionnain Buckley is a writer and visual artist based in Boston. Her fiction and other writing have appeared in or are forthcoming from Wigleaf, Strange Horizons, Foglifter, New South, and others. She serves as a prose editor for 3Elements Review. When she isn't making up strange stories, she is consuming queer media and popcorn in equal measure.

Sionnain has written 1 article for us.


  1. For me it was 6th grade, the year I started middle school and was confronted with new places and *so many* more people. When I was first bullied and harassed for being queer. I was so confused about what people sensed about me – as well as by my own identity (not to mention starting the wrong puberty).

    In retrospect, my OCD had been ramping up for a couple years at that point – but ages 11-12 was when it all exploded. Counting, contamination fears, bodily rituals – all attempts at control when everything else seemed to unravel. For the first time in years I’m recalling how I would often spend an hour+ dressing/re-dressing in just the right order to feel safe and at peace after arriving home from school. Returning to security in my sweatshirts/pants after shedding the uncomfortable clothing styles of my newly image-conscious peers.

    Thank you for writing and sharing this, Sionnain. I felt seen in such a specific way as I read about your experiences. Even all these years later, I feel some comfort for my younger self in knowing that I wasn’t alone in navigating these things ❤️

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