In 1984, I was in sixth grade, at the beginning of the worst of the junior high years. At school, cliques were beginning to form, acts of rebellion were starting to hold cachet, and self-consciousness was spreading like a bad virus. I tried to get my bearings as the ground shifted beneath my feet. Just the year before, I’d been a popular fifth grader, with a co-ed group of friends. But we’d all scattered to different schools, so I found myself adrift, eating lunch with just one or two girls with whom I felt comfortable.

Dress You Up in My LoveOne day I came home from school in tears. I didn’t like my clothes. I was still wearing the bright-hued dresses and matching tops and bottoms of a little girl. Now that I was a tween (having hit the ripe old age of 11), I yearned for the attire I saw the other kids wearing: stone-washed jeans and T-shirts, slouchy socks, Keds with no laces.

I tearfully confided in my mom. We were a thrifty and practical family, so she surprised me when, after hugging and consoling me, she instructed me to get in the car and took me downtown to the department store that very afternoon. Getting out of the routine of doing homework immediately and having an outing on a school day was a special treat, and so were the two or three new outfits I came home with.

I went to school the next day feeling very cool and grown up, wearing jeans, an oversized shirt, and the jelly bracelets and lace headband Madonna had recently made popular. Unfortunately, rather than winning approval from my peers, my new look inspired my only friend to ditch me at lunch and leave a note in my locker that said, “You’ve changed—I don’t know who you are anymore.”

It was heartbreaking, but the details of how that friendship fell apart and what exactly transpired at school in the days and weeks after my fashion makeover have not stayed with me. What I have are these memories: my mother’s White Linen–scented hug as I cried in her arms that afternoon, her hands on the steering wheel of the brown Volvo as the song from my choice of radio station blared (“Like a Virgin,” naturally), her encouraging smile as I tried on some Jordache ankle-zip jeans, making me feel beautiful in just the way I wanted to at that moment.

The day my mom helped me transform my outside to reflect who I felt I was becoming inside is something I’ve never forgotten. She empowered me to be who I wanted to be, and also made it crystal-clear that even though I was growing up, she was fully present and listening. These were precious gifts that I carried with me as I marched forward into the maw of social hell that would mark the next three years of my life.

My daughter is only four, so her painful preteen years are still over the horizon. Still, I hope when they come, I too can offer her the protection and warmth that stylish clothing alone could never provide.

Read about Wendy Herlich.

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