Excerpts from Experts

Excerpts from Experts: “Dressed for Success” by Dr. Anna Claire Hodge

The following personal essay was written by Dr. Anna Claire Hodge.

“I was scouring the closet, looking for a wool beanie for a trip when the old journal caught my eye. Its cover was turquoise with a red fairy crouching on a toadstool. I flipped to the first page and was puzzled to find my 14 year-old self scribbling about “what kind of girl to be.” It was cute, at first, to remember waxing poetic about the possibilities. But I soon realized that I’d been having that same conversation with myself for many years. It was an identity crisis laid bare, the urge to choose a personality and aesthetic then adhere to it in order to feel whole. 

Freshman year of college is notorious for forcing students out of their comfort zones and my experience was no different. Rather than stay in Florida and attend school with my close friends, I chose a small private university in Charleston, South Carolina. What could go wrong? 

Upon arrival, I felt so out of place. My ripped jeans and ironic tees didn’t match what I saw around me: North Face jackets, Rainbow brand flip-flops, J. Crew sheath dresses. Suddenly, my personal style seemed like an expression of my wrongness. It wasn’t just the clothes, though. I had trouble relating to the other students and found myself mimicking the behaviors, and yes, clothes, of my suite mates.  

I understand that my experience wasn’t unlike many freshmen, but I internalized it, never shared the feeling with anyone, and turned into myself. Instead of writing it off as a tough first year of school, I let it define me. As a sullen adolescent, I would have turned that anger outwards, blamed “fake” people, the world who didn’t “get” me. But now, the voice that declared there was something deeply wrong with me grew louder each year. Rather than honor the things that made me special, I figured they were the things that made me different, and different was wrong.  

My junior year, I caught a break, and found the folks in creative writing classes to be my people. They were brilliant weirdos, and I’m lucky to still call some of them close friends. I submitted poems to the school’s literary journal and won its annual contest. Nothing had ever felt that good. And with that, I became addicted to achievement. Securing a job writing a column about my life for an arts and entertainment rag meant I was recognized in public.  

“Aren’t you the girl that writes that thing?” folks asked. 

My self-esteem became tied to people knowing that I was achieving. Every time my name appeared in print was an ego boost. As long as the boosts kept coming, I’d be fine, right? As I slowly began to rack up publications, each acceptance put me in a pink cloud. The problem, though, was that it didn’t last. The burst of pride was shorter and shorter with each new win. Much like a drug tolerance, it took more and for me to feel worthy, to feel chosen.  

Unless I was being recognized for my work, I felt worthless. Attending a high-pressure PhD program at which students battle for extra scholarships and awards while racking up publications and job offers didn’t help. I needed to stand out. I needed to prove that I was worth a damn.  

I began to use Instagram as another creative outlet, posting photos of outfits I’d put together and making connections with other creators. I racked up followers and loved the attention, but it could only go so far. In 2019, after a jarring change in my personal life, I realized that my self-worth was in the gutter and my followers weren’t the folks to fix that. It was time to seek help. 

My brand-new therapist asked, “When do you feel good about yourself?” I answered that seeing my writing honored or the dopamine hit of Instagram likes were a sure bet. “But what about when recognition doesn’t come?” Then, she explained internal self-esteem, which broke my brain in two. If I relied on awards, honors, and invitations to feel worthy, I would always be seeking more to fill the hole inside me. I would never feel all right just existing. It had not occurred to me that I could love who I was without any trappings of triumph. What would there be to love without success? Just me? Ew. 

Soon, when Covid-19 quarantine began, I found my world quieted down to the essentials. Little tasks began to mean much more to me: a long walk with my dog, an evening of knitting, finishing an art house film. When I wasn’t able to go out and “make my mark,” I had to confront myself. Rather than choose outfits based on what would look good online, I chose what felt comforting. I returned more deeply to books, respected the rules of small gatherings, and took online dance classes in my kitchen. Without the barrage of social media posts about who was hustling, winning, and performing, I was able to just be. For the first time, it felt like enough. 

Sadly, this isn’t a story of a woman who figured it all out. I still struggle with turning down extra work and opportunities to perform. I have to check myself to make sure I’m choosing opportunities for the right reasons. But, my foundation seems more solid, my self-esteem more balanced, which is, yes, still a kind of victory.”

Dr. Anna Claire Hodge is a Visiting Instructor of writing at the University of North Florida. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including Mid-American Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Charleston Magazine, and Four Way Review. Her poems have been anthologized in Best New Poets 2013, And Ya Don’t Stop: Writing About Hip-Hop, and others. She still posts the occasional outfit photo, but is also in a long-term relationship with sweatpants.

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