I Can't Stop Watching TikToks Of People Getting Dressed Up

I miss putting on clothes and feeling like a person. But at least I can still watch other people do it.

I haven’t actually downloaded the TikTok app. There’s a part of me that feels a little too “How do you do, fellow kids?” about being a millennial infiltrating a space popularized by teens, even though I know people of all ages are using it in all kinds of ways now. Mostly I’m just lazy. I like to passively let certain elements of it filter up to me through the social media spheres I’m more comfortable with, like Twitter and Instagram — two apps that already take up way, way too much of my time and brain space. I’m grateful to the friends and strangers I follow who curate the best of TikTok, thus staving off my growing desire to go full throttle myself, because I have this creeping suspicion that if I actually got the app myself I would lose what little control I have left over my life.

Sometimes when I’m lying in bed, or on the couch, or on the floor, either scrolling endlessly through my phone or just staring into space, I’ll think: I’m not doing great. It’s one of a number of phrases that will just pop up, unsolicited, into my consciousness at any given time of day. I keep marveling at how extraordinary it is that we’re all experiencing the same global disaster in our own uniquely terrible ways. Whenever I’m able to lean into the solidarity of it all and remember that we do, in fact, live in a society and we’re all in this together — marching at protests, seeing mutual aid funds at work, randomly connecting with old friends I haven’t spoken to for years over surprisingly emotional Instagram DMs, crying with laughter over a real gem of a TikTok somebody else found for the group chat — is when I feel the most grounded, even (somehow) hopeful for the future. And it’s when I start indulging in my own hyper-specific troubles, from the petty and unserious to the major and life-defining, that I feel my mental health starting to take an impressive nosedive.

One of the less important but annoyingly persistent things I Feel Bad About right now is my body in quarantine. I miss the gym. I miss taking myself from Point A to Point B where those points are not my bed, couch, or floor. And I miss getting dressed up. Not so much as I miss being able to hug my grandma or the now-dashed hopes of voting for a president who’d guarantee struggling Americans universal healthcare — my depression runs vast and deep! — but in all the various big-little moments we’re now grieving in this new reality, getting dressed is up there for me.

Putting on clothes makes me feel like a person. Wearing a hand-sewn shirt in a funky print, or a ridiculously voluminous dress, or a just-loud-enough pair of violently orange vintage slingbacks is — was — an attempt to carry art around with me, while going to work or running errands or when meeting up friends. To be art, even. For all the fashion industry’s (many) problems regarding sustainability and labor ethics and sizeism, I love clothes — even more so now that I’ve (mostly) broken up with fast fashion in favor of investing in independent designers and secondhand or upcycled pieces. They’re a large part of how I’ve communicated with the world around me, in both a queer way and a more general, universal way. Is there any better bright spot in an otherwise dreary day than when a stranger compliments you on your outfit in the supermarket? Or your friend gasps upon your entrance into the bar?

I search out people who are fat and queer and tattooed and of color — bodies that aren’t often deemed beautiful within the confines of white supremacist capitalism.

Though I’ve had a handful of occasions to change out of my sweat shorts over the past five months, they’ve been few and far between. To fill this small but somewhat significant sense of lack in my life, I’ve turned to fashion TikToks. (And by “turned,” I mean, I click on them when they come up in my Instagram explore feed.) Sometimes this backfires. As is the case with most of social media, one minute you can be feeling this warm, fuzzy feeling of camaraderie — say, after you’ve watched a pitch-perfect POV video about mental illness, or when you’ve come across a delightfully stupid meme about lesbian Capricorns — and the next you’ve accidentally gone down a hole of Kardashian-face influencers whose bodies, surgically enhanced and artfully edited as they might be, make you feel as though you might as well roll your own soft, squishy, splotchy self off a cliff.

But I do my best to curate my feed in a way that deprioritizes content that makes me feel bad; for the most part, I search out people who are fat and queer and tattooed and of color — bodies that aren’t often deemed beautiful within the confines of white supremacist capitalism. This is where I hunt for my fashion kicks now that I can’t really get them out in the wilds of real life.

One particular trend of TikTok turned Instagram I’m into lately is when two women of different sizes show themselves cycling through the same outfits. Denise Mercedes, a fashion influencer with nearly a million followers on Instagram, popularized the trend with her friend Maria Castellanos, another blogger, when they founded the hashtag #StyleNotSize. In their videos, the friends show how two identical looks appear on their different body types; Mercedes is plus-size to Castellanos’ straight size.

At first, I wasn’t sure how to feel about the general concept; I find myself suspicious of a lot of seemingly feel-good size-inclusivity campaigns. This one, like a lot of viral plus-size content on Instagram and TikTok, features almost exclusively sponsored fast fashion — Fashion Nova, H&M, ASOS — which is a bummer, because fast fashion is horrifically bad for workers and for the planet. But when so many independent brands and vintage curators (hailed as “fashion disruptors”) are still failing at size inclusivity, it’s not as easy to condemn plus-size women for resorting to what fits them and what they can afford.

When I’m able to turn my dumb brain off for a second, I find these videos incredibly soothing. There’s something about seeing the exact same look replicated on different bodies that helps me chip away at all the shame and self-hatred that sometimes accompanies existing in a larger frame. Because both women look gorgeous! (To turn my brain back on for a second: Mercedes, like other influences who do a lot of these videos, has a more “acceptable” plus-size body, since she’s got an hourglass figure; her gorgeousness isn’t really that contestable to begin with.)

I feel like I’m getting the same little dopamine rush I got whenever I shoved perfectly formed plastic clothes onto my Polly Pockets as a kid. 

Whenever I watch any TikTok video where people magically jump or dance their way into new outfits, whether for #StyleNotSize, or any number of viral challenges, or just to show three different ways to style the same item, I feel like I’m getting the same little dopamine rush I got whenever I shoved perfectly formed plastic clothes onto my Polly Pockets as a kid. While the reality of getting dressed is often somewhat of a mini nightmare — you stick your arm where your head’s supposed to be, something no longer fits, all of a sudden you’re sweating a lot — videos that seamlessly cut out all the awkward moments make dressing up seem so fun and easy! And that beautiful ease is all the more appealing to me now, when the work of wrestling my way into a fashionable outfit doesn’t seem worth the relatively low payoff of like, four people seeing me on my way to and from the bodega.

I’m grateful that other people are still putting in the work so the rest of us all around the world can enjoy the fruits of their labor. I’ve flirted with my own little bit of fashion blogging before, and maybe when I’m less debilitatingly depressed I’ll try my hand at it again. Because it does seem as though getting dressed for the internet might be the best, if not only, way for us all to communicate with each other through our clothes for quite some time. For now, though, I’ll be here, sprawled on the carpet, watching other people do it. Such a small, small thing. But sometimes it really does help. ●

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