Controlling the Image: Obsessive Compulsion and the Closet

9/7/11
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

9/15/11
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

9/26/11
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

10/11/11
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

10/26/11
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

11/9/11
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

11/18/11
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

12/1/11
L. green cape may thermal
Ireland scarf
Back button
Uggs

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

12/13/11
Gray arrow dolman
Red scarf
Dark flare
Uggs

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

1/2/12
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 articles for us.

31 Comments

  1. I’m not sure what I was expecting out of this fashion series, but this very first post has blown me away. I don’t know if I’ve ever identified so much with anyting I’ve read here.

    My OCD had different focus and expressions, and I didn’t come out to myself until many years after I had gotten it mostly under control, but there’s no question that some of the many daily rituals I had to do to feel safe included suppressing any hint of non-straightness. I think deep down I knew there was something different about the way I interacted with girls, but I was already so weird and socially awkward and outcast that I couldn’t bear to allow yet another layer to that.

    Thank you so much for sharing this.

  2. This hit me in such a deep, personal place. My queerness and OCD were absolutely tangled up in each other for so long. I’ve been out for almost 10 years and I still have a hard time releasing that tight grip on how I present myself. My “root” is a lot like your story about a boy commenting on your shirt – I’m Indian-American, so it only took one comment about smelling like curry to make me obsessive about how I smell. Even now, my friends tease me for constantly asking if I smell okay, for being so fastidious about my clothing. Psychic wounds! Do they ever really heal?

    Thank you for sharing this, hope to read more from you!

  3. “…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.” Sigh. I don’t want to admit knowing that feeling precisely…

  4. Wowow if this is what But Make It Fashion is going to be like I am even more stoked than ever. This was so beautifully written I wanted to stay in it forever. Thank you Sionnain for sharing, and as always Autostraddle for highlighting voices like these.

  5. “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.” Oooh I love tying coming out to the turkey game you played with your friend-at least I think that’s what you were doing?
    This was really great! Thanks for sharing!

  6. WOW. I felt this so deeply, like it cut right to my heart.

    It’s incredible how the things that cruel children say in passing affect us for years, isn’t it? Especially those of us who are queer/not normal/have mental illness, and *especially* those of us who are somehow all 3. So much of my energy for so many years went towards seeming straight, confident, normal, or at least weird in the cute/quirky way. It still makes my cheeks burn to think of the times that I failed, that friends or acquaintances in middle school and high school called me out for caring about something too much, or caring about the wrong thing at all. But it also makes me so mad that any of us were ever beholden to that shit! And also, mostly, so so relieved that we’re looking back on it from where we are now.

    I hope you write many more things for this site.

    • Thank you for reading. <3 I hope we continue to care too much / just enough about all the things that bring us joy, and learn (eventually) to let go of caring about the things that do not serve us. I'm glad we're here on the other side.

  7. Sionnain! Thank you for this incredible article. Thank you for sharing your experiences and your story. The formatting of it makes it so much more vivid to me, with the date and outfit for each part of the story.

    “That sense of safety was essential to me while another part of my brain was fighting against emotions it couldn’t understand.”
    I truly understand this more than I think I could ever explain.

    <3

  8. This is so excellent, Sionnain! Thank you for writing so thoughtfully and vulnerably! Loved the phrase “this is perhaps my root..”

    Also, can confirm that she consumes popcorn and queer media in equal measure, as I am lucky enough to know her.. *thumbs up emoji* *heart eyes emoji*

  9. I’ve believed I have OCD for years, but have never dared to go to a psychologist who might give me an actual diagnosis. I feel safer in this unknowing, in the possibility that all of my rules, patterns, boundaries, things I let myself do and don’t might be because of an illness, because if it turned out I don’t have OCD and this all comes from something else, I think I’d truly lose it.
    Lately I’ve been going through a very stressful period of my life and there has been one phrase repeating itslef over and over and over and over in my internal monologue: what matters is that you feel safe.
    So when I read this: “I didn’t have to feel good as long as I felt safe. Safe was the best I could do.”, I felt in in my entire heart. I feel these words and understood them on such a deep level. For me my rules are what ground me as well, what tie me to this reality and allow me to exist and feel safe in everything surrounding me.
    My rules don’t involve my clothes but I do have rules for my underwear, and my jewelry, and my perfume, and my lip balm. I have 15 different deodorants that I wear because not all of them are right for any given day. I have 18 different lip balms that I use because not all of them are right for any given day. I have 8 different perfumes that I wear regularly because not all of them are right for any given day. So, reading this essay, I related so much to the hoarding of things you don’t need so many of and to keeping track of what you do every day and having rules on when to do what. I never keep written record of any of this (maybe because it’ll be too real if I do and I’m not ready, I like hiding behind my rules) but I have an amazing memory and I compile it all in my mind.
    Reading this essay made my heart beat faster because I relate to it so much and can feel it so deep in my bones and I understand it so much. Thank you so much for writing it and sharing this (something so deep and personal) with us❤️

    • This means so much to me—and really you’ve spoken to some of my own fears, about having OCD “enough” to even write this essay in the first place. Both of our experiences are valid, with or without diagnosis, with or without even speaking them. But thank you for speaking yours here with me.

      We both deserve to feel both safe and good, and I hope we both can. <3

  10. This piece is AMAZING and I think truly cuts to the core for so many of us.

    I was in ninth grade. I was wearing one of my older sister’s very large tshirts because that was IN in the 90s. And then that boy called me a DYKE. And I knew that he was right but HOW DID HE KNOW WHAT DID HE SEE.

    So I obsessively checked my clothes every day for the next 4 years to make sure I “didn’t look gay.”

    • And I buried that down with my other mentally ill tendencies to obsess and categorize and COUNT ALL THE THINGS until I finally told a doctor when I was 30. And then I told people that I was queer even tho I had quietly been with other women in college.

      The more people I have talked to, and the more things I have read, I too wonder how many of us had the same experience.

  11. My soul is falling right out my body and on to the floor…

    There was this book my mom was given on ASD and school problems,there were chapters on girls and it encouraged something way too close this(that? IDK what tense to use) but with like a peer mentor to HELP her fit in.

  12. “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.”

    Wow. All the feels. Thank you for this piece, for putting down words that cut me to the quick and ring so true to my experiences in ways I hadn’t put to words. Beautiful job and way to kick off this issue

  13. “I say “fell in love” but those words are placeholders for some emotion we have no idiom for.” HELLO YES IVE NEEDED THIS SENTENCE FOR YEARS THANK YOU FOR GIVING ME SOMETHING TO HOLD ON TO

    “this love-not-love” can I add this to my heart’s vocabulary

    Actually all of 9/26/11 (im reacting as I read so just letting you know/explanation for disjointed thoughts)!!! How long have I needed this thank you

    “now the entire structure was tremoring, threatening collapse” homie that use of tremoring has me UP THE WALL I actually keep thinking I’ve hit my favorite part but then I read the next sentence and I’m excited and thankful to say it’s all my favorite thank you for sharing.

    “To follow the logic of obsession compulsion is to admit there’s logic at all.” wow read me

    “Had I breathed at all, those long four years?” Jesus.

    “or am I just imagining it–no one can say, not anymore.” mmmm

    “I would find all the rules, and I would follow them.” can I tell you this essay really makes me wish I could sit across the table from you and hold your hand or just be present with you or something that might be of comfort, because I feel this and my goodness my goodness my goodness.

    “Intimacy in general was scary, but queer intimacy specifically was unprecedented and unspeakable.” !!!!!!!

    “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.” THIS ONE THIS ONE THIS ONE im so sorry you felt this

    “so I didn’t have to hold it alone.” Thank God. like it makes me think of that line “We are all just walking each other home” and this is so important and I’m so thankful you got this.

    “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” YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  14. 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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