Nothing else seems to matter

I could almost smell the Sun-In and Doritos.

The sweetly noxious scent of my ‘tween years poured from my car radio as Janet Jackson’s “When I Think of You” played. Buddy Holly has the same effect on my dad, though he tends to recall grass clippings and gunpowder. I envy that in a way; he can revel in the scent of adventure at the sounds of a  rock n’ roll pioneer whereas I’m forced to inhale naïve desperation every time a ridiculous synth-pop song plays.

Damn the 80s, and XM radio for forcing me to remember them. Tthere is very little about that decade that could ever be so refreshing to remember, least of all my youth.

I spent the summer of ’86 slathered in Coppertone oil, my nacho cheese-stained fingers eagerly flipping through Seventeen magazine. That’s where I got the idea to start using Sun-In, and at the time it seemed a good one. Rarely did I leave the house without multiple spritzes singeing my scalp and it wasn’t long before Yahoo Serious decided to capitalize on my look. I guess it didn’t help that I also took a crimping iron to my hair on most days.

It could have been worse, I suppose. I could have given in to the temptation to get a perm, or I could have cut my own bangs. My friend Renee did both that summer, and the result was unfortunate. We spent an entire afternoon at the drug store near my house searching for a barrette, a bow, a headband – anything to wrangle that nightmare into place. I talked her into buying a bottle of Sun-In as well. Needless to say, we’re no longer in touch.

My efforts might have been somewhat misguided, but you can’t say I didn’t try. I layered neons, cuffed my Esprit pants, flipped my pink Izod collar and I somehow still came out looking as though I’d been run over by a street sweeper.

It forced me to dread my family’s annual 4th of July trek, not because I didn’t want to go, but because I had a litany of fashion-related fears. My family was about to pack up the car with burger-making supplies, brownies, pies, blankets, bathing suits, explosives, and liquor to head to a place I knew only as “the country,” and all I could do was panic.

Seventeen never really explained how to actually live in your clothing – white pants were definitely not made for bike riding; there was no way my hair was getting near lake water, no matter how rapidly it dehydrated; and I seriously doubted my teal mascara would hold up under regular misting of mosquito repellant.

Not that I had anyone to impress, of course. “The country” was several acres of nature-ridden land my grandfather owned somewhere south of Chicago. He built a four-bedroom house off the lake, fashioned a beach, and opened it to the extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins for regular gatherings.

We’d all grill and hike and go for rides on the back of my grandfather’s giant lawnmower, and at night my cousins and I would sneak wine coolers out of the icebox while my dad blew things up. I had no idea how I was going to do any of that under the weight of what I considered my fashion responsibility. My mother likely regretted ever buying me that first copy of Seventeen as she tried desperately to get me to put on a pair old shorts before we left that morning.

I was a ‘tween. I didn’t have words for the confusion, the wild urge to be “cool” or the conflicting impulse to be a kid. All I had was a page ripped from my current fashion bible with a picture of the girl I longed to be. Even if it meant wearing leggings, a denim skirt, oversize button-front shirt and ropes of fake pearls into the woods on a 100-degree day.

My mother relented to my pleas, but only with my agreement to a compromise: That I pack a bag with shorts and a t-shirt “just in case.”

Fair enough. I added my Walkman, a couple magazines and a bottle of Love’s Baby Soft perfume and was on my way.

My cousins were already running wild when we arrived. Their eyes widened as I gingerly navigated my way across the gravel driveway to the house. It was the farthest thing from a runway as I could get, but I maintained what shaky composure I had until I made it to our bedroom, where I threw my bag on the bed in frustration.

This “cool” thing was not easy. The entire family was outside readying gear to go fishing, leaving me to roam the house alone. Seventeen could cure my pimples and instruct me on eye shadow application, but it offered nothing to cure my loneliness.

I wandered into one of the bedrooms in back. We never really used the house during the winter months, and over the years it began to serve as depot for the entire family’s excess stuff. That particular room was overrun with boxes and with nothing better to do, I started rummaging.

Most of it was junk – stuffed animals, old clothing, the usual surplus from growing families. One box on the dresser caught my eye. Piles of magazines spilled out, their glossy covers beckoning to be opened. I brightened a bit; there was nothing like the thrill of discovering a new magazine to make my day.

I grabbed a stack and stretched out on the bed with a bag of Doritos at my side. They were the Snack Food of the Gods as far as I was concerned, and I never read anything without them. Something about the combination of a magazine and the salty tang of cheese and crunchy corn equaled bliss in my little ‘tween world, and for the first time all morning, I had hope that the day might improve.

A few pages past the cover and I knew instantly that this was not the typical fashion magazine. My biggest clue, of course, was that none of the women were wearing clothing. Fate had indeed smiled on me that morning, because I had inadvertently stumbled across an expansive collection of Playboy magazines from the ’60s and ’70s.

What shocked me most about the magazines was not the lack of clothing – I’d been watching grade B horror movies for years before then, and topless women were nothing new – it was how relaxed, comfortable and happy the women all looked.

Each page held something different to marvel at. Look! There’s a woman on a bicycle – and she’s wearing shorts! Look! There’s a woman fixing a car – she’s getting dirty and she’s happy about it!

Obviously, the concept of erotica was lost on me.

I only saw gorgeous women doing everyday things without any fashion hindrances. No labels, no hang ups, just fun. And in one unforgettable instant, Playboy magazine taught me the most important lesson of my burgeoning life: That less is most definitely more.

Cheers from outside interrupted my page-turning. My cousin had just caught a fish and was holding it up with pride. Suddenly, that bag my mom had made me pack seemed less distasteful. If the women in Playboy could run around outside without the layers of clothing and still look beautiful, so could I.

With my makeup washed off, hair in a ponytail, and last year’s gym uniform on, I ran outside to join my family. They never knew what inspired the dramatic change, but on that particular day, there were no complaints.

It’s funny now how much impact that day had. Eventually I gave up my bottle of Sun-In, learned to temper fashion with reality, and to this day I still forgo most makeup.

Admittedly, I do still love Doritos and a good magazine, and may now have an uncontrollable (though not inexplicable) lust for lingerie, but of all the challenges the 80s threw at me, I guess that’s not such a bad fate after all.

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