My birth story is one of my favorite stories to tell, as it’s been told to me. That’s where it all began — with a dramatic, unconventional entrance into the world.
I was born to Amish parents in a plain white farmhouse in upstate New York.
My mom was only 18-years-old when she gave birth to me. She tells me that she went into labor as she was milking a cow in their barn. The pain of labor terrified her, yet there was no pain medication available to her. She tells me that she went running down the road at one point, just to try to get away from the pain. Her pain persisted though, and it brought me into the world. After an intense day of labor pains, I slid into the arms of her Native American Indian midwife, a diverse midwife choice for an Amish family.
Cameras and photos weren’t allowed in the Amish setting when I was born, but my parents were rebels so they used a cheap film camera to photograph each other. I really treasure these photos!
Over the next thirty years, I would move over 20 times between New York and Tokyo. My personal style has evolved through my life changes, resulting in a colorful transformation.
It Started With a Longing to Have More Color in My Life
My earliest style memory comes to me from the time when I was trying to decide what to wear. I must have been about five years old.
My mom had told me to get dressed. I found myself standing on my tiptoes, pulling at a dress hem. I remember feeling so bored as I pawed through shades of brown, gray, and blue. I had never worn a print or a bright color, but at that moment, I distinctly remember wishing that I had other colors of dresses to choose from.
My brother Michael and I (3 years old)
The Yearning to Belong
They chose to homeschool us, so I didn’t go to school with the other girls in the community. My earliest friendship memory instilled a deeply held belief that no one wanted to be my friend.
Sometimes the families in our community would get together for a potluck. I remember multiple instances of all the girls running away from me. I couldn’t find them anywhere. I remember sitting on the stairs in that big house all by myself more than once.
I had a deep longing to have friends and belong to something. I wanted friends so badly that I physically ached for that connection. I wept into my pillow at night. I felt sick. When I cried to my mom about it, she was empathetic, but she didn’t know how to help me.
That feeling of lonely rejection grew and became an expanded identity throughout my life until I really learned to accept myself, but now I’m getting ahead of the story.
If You Don’t Like What I Wear, You Don’t Like Me
When I was about eight years old, my mom made me a gray jumper, (a sleeveless dress worn with a shirt beneath it) with a micro salt and pepper print.
I was so excited to show Regina, my cousin and best friend, my new outfit. I remember the distinct crushing feeling that I felt when she turned away unimpressed. She didn’t like it. She didn’t like me, I thought. I didn’t know it then, but she was actually just sad and jealous because she wasn’t allowed to wear jumpers at that time. (You can read more of her story here.)
Then I found the perfect shoes. They were white with a light pink bow on them. One day a girl from church commented on how pretty they looked. My little heart flew straight up to float on cloud nine. I felt accepted. From then on, those shoes were my lucky shoes. I wore them until my feet grew out of them and then I kept wearing them, even though I got blisters on my feet.
My family moved from place to place. It constantly kept me searching for new friends as my family kept starting over. Somewhere along the way, I began to understand that my style had something to do with being accepted by those around me.
Fitting in at Mennonite Bible School
When I was 16, my parents sent me off to a Mennonite youth bible school in Loveland, Colorado. I tried so hard to fit in at bible school, just like I tried to fit into everything else. The night before the first day of Bible school I didn’t sleep because I was trying to figure out what I should wear the next day.I just wanted to belong.Click To Tweet
I had a unibrow, and I was never one of the cool kids. I felt awkward and out of place, no matter what I did.
Talking to any boy was so painful, especially to the one that I had a crush on. As young girls, we were taught that the responsibility for men’s purity rested on our shoulders, and I was terrified of making a man have the wrong thoughts about me.
Our strict dress codes were thought to bring freedom from the enslavement of objectification, but instead, I experienced the opposite.
A Plucked Unibrow
I never got to experience rumspringa, but I did learn how to pluck my eyebrows and curl my eyelashes when I was 17.
It didn’t take my dad very long to notice the change. His daughter’s unibrow was gone. He took me aside and told me that I looked like a whore with my thinner eyebrows. I stubbornly informed him that my eyebrow hair was permanently gone and would never grow back in.
I religiously made sure to pluck my brows daily after that so I wouldn’t be caught in my falsehood. That was one act of rebellion that I occasionally felt guilty for.
Newlywed, Excommunicated and Culture Shocked
I entered a traditional, conservative courtship at the age of 18 and was married a short five months later. We were married for just over one year when my ex-husband and I got excommunicated from our Mennonite church. I was cut off from everything I had ever known.
Mainstream American culture was a huge culture shock for me. I bought my first pair of jeans and got my first haircut at the age of 21.
It took me many years to find my way. I had no idea where I fit in. I had no idea who I was. I had no understanding of what it meant to value myself.
THE EMBARRASSING STYLE PHASES
We all have those embarrassing style phases that we look back on and laugh at. I have had a lot of those phases. I had no idea how to dress in this season of newly found freedom after I was excommunicated. On the day that I bought my first tank top, my life changed. I went to JCPenny with my new friends and picked out a peach-colored halter tank top with a printed Hawaiian graphic on the front of it. I wore that tank top until the print began to peel off.
I started wearing tank tops all the time. I call this the tank top phase: let those shoulders free! I loved that there were no longer any restrictive necklines and they helped me feel like I had a bigger chest. I loved how my shoulders looked in them. I was so happy that I could buy a tank top for five dollars at Walmart. I wore tank tops everywhere. I didn’t realize tank tops aren’t the most appropriate choice for every occasion.
Looking back, I see this as the least classy phase of my embarrassing style phases but probably also the most fun.
An Ex-Amish Girl Goes to Tokyo, Japan
A couple of years went by and life happened in such a way that I found myself moving to the other side of the world. I moved to Japan for almost 3 years with my one-year-old daughter. Prior to moving to Japan, I had never been interested in Asian culture. When I thought about Japan, I had an image in my mind of women going about their daily lives in Kimonos while the men worked in rice fields. I had no idea how wrong I was.
The Cultural Customs of Japan Made Me Feel at Home
When I landed in Japan, it was less of a culture shock than mainstream American culture had been for me. I found myself understanding it quickly. Japanese culture felt similar to the conservative circles I had grown up in, and I embraced the mannerisms that were expected of me there.
Fascinated with Japanese Fashion Trends
I was fascinated with everything about Japanese fashion trends. Oh my. What a world of wonder! What delightful fun it was to watch the people there! I spent hours observing people as I rode the trains and taught English classes around Tokyo. People expressed themselves in ways I had never witnessed before.
As I leaned into the new sights and sounds of living in a new country, I developed a bravery to try new things. I dared to express my own tastes.
The #StyleChallenge Project
While I was living in Japan, I discovered stylists like Andrea from Fox in Flats and Hilary Rushford from Dean Street Society on Instagram. I started spending a lot of time reading all of their style tips. When that December rolled around, I took part in Andrea’s Fox in Flats style challenge for Dress December.
She featured one of my photos in her profile on Instagram. I was hooked. I had found a new thing to belong to with women from all over the world.I tried anything and everything as I experimented with my style.Click To Tweet
Sometimes I looked like the aftermath of a rainbow that had vomited all over Tokyo, Japan, but I was the happiest rainbow vomit you have ever seen.
I loved style challenges so much that I created one for a women’s group in Tokyo. I knew nothing about fashion, but I enthusiastically introduced the idea of doing our own style challenge. The women loved it! I made social media graphics for the challenge and created a style hashtag for each day of the challenge for the following month. Most of the women took part in it, and I had the time of my life!Discovering my personal style connected me to women from all walks of life all over the world.Click To Tweet
From Head Coverings to Hats
Growing up, wearing something on my head at all times was the custom. In the Anabaptist denominations, a cloth head covering is thought to be a covering of protection for women and a symbol of their submission to men and God. I believed that God could not hear my prayers if I wasn’t wearing a head covering.
Sometimes I slept with my head covering on because I wanted to make sure I would be ready to go to heaven should Jesus’ second coming occur while I was sleeping. I would wake up with a headache from the bobby pins poking into my scalp and no more spiritual than I had been the night before.
Years later, after I was excommunicated and no longer wearing any head covering, I began wearing hats for the fun of it.
I was a little obsessed with hat wearing.
I’m STILL obsessed with hats.
My Black Amish Hat
Earlier this year, when we went to New York Fashion Week to accessorize several runway shows with our leather bags, I wore an Amish hat to all the shows.
To some, it could be seen as offensive to wear something like a man’s Amish hat. I no longer worry about offending anyone by what I wear, but I probably wouldn’t wear this hat home to my Amish grandma’s house out of respect for her.
To me, wearing this hat is simply a creative way to embrace my heritage and express the joy and liberation I have found.
WALKING ON THE RUNWAY AT NEW YORK FASHION WEEK
Me, a model? Oh, goodness no. But secretly, I always dreamt about what it would be like to be a model.
This year, my secret dream of being a model came true.
When we were part of New York Fashion Week, one of the designers put me in one of the shows that Urban Southern was accessorizing. It happened completely unexpectedly on the evening of that show. I could only ever have imagined an opportunity like this in my wildest dreams! I didn’t have the proper training to walk on the catwalk, but I jumped into those six-inch heels and gave it my best shot, praying that I wouldn’t fall down.
The next day, I saw myself in photos from the show on Getty Images. I pinched myself to make sure that this had really happened.
New York Fashion Week, Spring 2017
Since that walk down the runway, I’ve had other modeling opportunities. Modeling is not something I pursue and it’s not something I’m professionally trained in, but every time I’m asked to model I hear myself answering YES! I dare to love being in front of a camera.
Modeling for Urban Southern’s new product launch, February 2017.
Modeling for Urban Southern again. *insert wink* Photography by Nancy Center.
AN EVER EVOLVING PERSONAL STYLE
The first time I cracked open a clean, simple Urban Southern box I fell in love with leather. The simplicity of my very first bag began to refine my style. I found myself simplifying what I wore. I wanted everything in my closet to match with my leather bag!
I started to look for more timeless pieces for my wardrobe. I already followed several stylists on Instagram, so I started paying closer attention to how they put outfits together. I fell asleep pinning outfit goals to my Pinterest boards. I learned about statement pieces and experimented with different style formulas.
Slowly my style has evolved into what it is today. I expect that it will keep on evolving as I go through life and embrace the changes that I experience.
Finding My Style Helped Me Accept that I am Worthy of Love and Belonging
I never expected to end up here. I’ve been excommunicated. I’m divorced. (Double shocker.) I’ve lived abroad. I’m an artist. I’m a writer. I’m a single mom. I’ve struggled to find who I am and what my purpose is, but I’ve never stopped searching. Discovering my personal style has helped me to find and express myself.
My unusual journey no longer isolates me from others. I have embraced my upbringing and my journey without shame. This has given me so much confidence and freedom to be myself. Today I know who I am and that doesn’t change, whether I wear a long solid colored dress or a tank top and shorts!
I no longer dress to gain the approval or acceptance of others. I’m learning not to attach my identity to the friends I have or the life situations that I find myself in. I am so much more than that, and so are you.
Photos of my daughter and I by Dorothy Jobira, Fall 2014
As Brene Brown says, “I know I am worthy of love and belonging.” I am owning my story. I’m as colorful as I want to be. I’m not afraid to laugh and let my voice be heard.
How about you? What has influenced or changed your style journey? I’d love to hear from you!
If you have an unusual story like Regina and I do, we encourage you not to be ashamed of it. Embrace your history!