Fitting In – How a shirt taught me a valuable life lesson.

I have a child under age 10.
As a result, we have been through countless insulated water bottles for kids, all of which have a design flaw: their open/close spout mechanism is the first thing to fail. Whether it’s from overuse (needing to drink water every day) or a drop on a carpeted floor (true story), in our home, inevitably, the spout will break and I’m out another $15.

Late on Wednesday evening, another one bit the dust:

The wasteland of broken water bottles. The purple one on the left was the latest to go.

Scrambling to find a vessel in time for the next day’s activities, I perused all of the major stores online to locate a new bottle, with her looking over my shoulder the entire time, desperate to place her little finger on my phone’s screen for the screen time…but anyway, that’s a whole other situation.

Throughout the search for the least-expensive option, she was insistent that I purchase a specific style of water bottle ($18) because that’s what the other girls on her team have and she wants one too.

This put me in the middle of a very difficult decision; one that comes down to parenting morals, and lays the groundwork for a lifetime of critical thinking and confidence:

Do I buy her the bottle that “everyone else has”, encouraging her to follow trends to fit in?
Do I encourage her to think for herself about what she likes, but more importantly, to be OK “without”, to find her own style and live within her means (of what she/we can afford and access)?

It took me back to one of the most important lessons that I’ve learned in my life.

In Grade 7, my parents sent me to a private school where I knew absolutely no one.
A silly move on their part – the transition at that age and stage of development was horrific for me, and my then-undiagnosed ADHD (and other issues), made it even worse.

I wanted so desperately to fit in. To be the cool new kid, not the doormat that was ignored or ridiculed once people got to know me.

This was the late 80’s, and all of the preppy private school kids wore their white uniform shirts, proudly boasting that small horse and rider embroidered on the left breast: the classic Polo by Ralph Lauren white button down.

Oh, I begged and begged and begged my parents for one.
“Everyone else has one.”
“If I have this shirt, they’ll be my friend.”
“Life will be so much better for me when I’m cool.”

Finally they agreed to purchase these shirts – back then, they were about $55 each – for their desperate 12 year-old, and off to the Sherway Gardens Ralph Lauren store my mom and I went.

She bought me three shirts, and I kept all of the branded bags, tissue paper and stickers that came with my purchase, hoping to utilize them to show off my coolness.

As I type this, I can still remember the smell in that store and how I’d catch a whiff of the bag when walking by it in my room. To me, that was the fragrant smell of acceptance.

*Flash forward to the end of the school year*

Yes, I wore those shirts every day. I made sure that my hair was up so that the horse and rider were clearly visible to anyone that doubted my prestige. I was often reluctant to wear my blazer so that the emblem could blaze brightly from my flat chest, validating my credibility and coolness.

But nothing changed.

Those shirts didn’t have any magical powers; they didn’t grant me acceptance into the group, in fact, it became worse. This was a time when the word “poser” was haphazardly tossed about and mean-ness among my classmates about tiny, stupid things was exacerbated due to puberty’s hormonal changes.

The false sense of security and bravado when wearing what I thought would be an impenetrable suit of armor (in the form of a white cotton shirt), came crashing down so hard on me. The expectation that the shirts would make me “better” was imagined, and I became demoralized, thinking that there was nothing that would help me and that I’d be socially isolated for the remainder of my time at that school.

I know, it sounds dramatic, but that’s actually what did happen.
Ignored by students and staff, the bullying and physical violence saw me leave the school mid-year in Grade 8, and I have never forgotten that awful experience.

Although upsetting, it has allowed me to gain a valuable life lesson that I held with me from then onward:

Be yourself.
No amount of money, clothing, cars, jewelry, homes, electronics or water bottles will make people like you. They may engage you because of your superficial presentation, but so many people are superficial, and their interactions are contingent upon what you have rather than who you are.

And this extends beyond grade-schoolers as I’ve witnessed it in my 40’s, and with people much older than me.

Since Polo Shirt-gate, I have always seen myself as an individual; someone whose personal style is unique and confident, someone who buys what she likes, and not what a magazine, an Insta post or a Kardashian tells her to buy; someone who makes her own rules about self-expression and about friendship; someone who shops within her means – buying 99% of the time from second-hand stores (because that’s where I find the one-of-a-kind items that allow me to craft my outward expression at a very, very reasonable price); someone who doesn’t give a shit whether anyone likes what she’s wearing, what she’s driving or how she’s chosen to wear two different colours of lipstick at once.

It has alleviated the anxiety, frustration, depression and anger that I experienced from the students and staff at that terrible school, and allowed me to take on a self-assured, bold whimsy in expressing myself as an individual, which has worked out well for me, both, personally and professionally.

People remember those who stand out because, with all of the analogous followers supplying the backdrop, doing/wearing/saying the same thing, it’s easy to notice of the one thing that’s not like the others.
I take full advantage of that and use it to move myself forward. I stand out.

I ordered that $18 water bottle for my kid.
I looked at all factors (I take pride in my over-analyses), and determined that this wasn’t some trendy pair of shoes or an overpriced lip kit, but a necessary item that would also allow my child to feel a sense of camaraderie with her much-older teammates.

We talked about the importance of being an independent thinker; about making good choices and not just following along. How sometimes that will be really difficult, and other times, it’ll totally pay off.

Ordering from Amazon, it arrived on Thursday morning at 8am (amazing!), and all she talked about, all day, was how excited she was to show her coach and teammates her matching water bottle!

Unfortunately, most teammates weren’t at practice due to exams, but I’m sure her efforts and genuine admiration will not go unnoticed once they return next week.

The new water bottle (without breakable spout parts).














Featured image courtesy of
Enrico Roviaro, Pixabay.

Leanne M