A month after Halloween, my friend S texted me a photo of the wig I left in his car.
“What should I do with it?”
It looked wounded. And yet preternaturally shiny, like the matted pelt of some pitiful alien creature.
“Burn it,” I said.
It was too easy for me to imagine it hiding out there for years, scuttling over the linty carpet, growing long and luscious off a diet of Dorito dust and rage, until, finally, it would return from its exile to exact virtuosic revenge.
Two weeks later, he texted me a photo of something red lying in the road.
“I threw it out the window near a crack house in Mahwah,” he said.
All of this is to say, I should have been a Winona for Halloween. It’s so easy to be a creepy teen: tubercular makeup, black wig, lace filigree, maybe some Doc Martens. I could have hunted down a cheap croquet mallet. Or a pilgrim’s bonnet. I could have worn white and glued some plasticware to a glove. The options were endless—and cute.
Instead, I chose to be Barb from Stranger Things. Less of a character, more of a symbol. It’s her quality of being easily overlooked that unites her sorority of fans: her trademark forgettability, so conspicuous that it even became a subplot in season two. Barb stans believe that Barb is, deep down, a main character. A heroine treated like Demigorgon bait. The great tragedy of Barb is that her death is a plot device no one really notices, not even her friends.
Unlike its patron saint, the #JusticeForBarb movement brims with color and personality. That’s not to say that Barb is boring, but only that it’s not her job to entertain. She is a blank slate, a nerdy template onto which we can project (and protect) our former selves.
I chose to be Barb for Halloween because I was trying to choose myself.
In 2016, a good Barb wig was hard to find. They had yet to appear in stores. I had plenty of frumpy clothes, from mom jeans to pilled sweaters, ruffled blouses to old parkas; but in terms of wigs, my options were limited. I had to choose from an assortment of plastic bags labeled “Little Orphan Annie,” “Male Hippie,” and “Flapper.” I chose “Flapper.” Though oddly flat on top and slightly asymmetrical, it most closely resembled Barb’s curly coif.
Next, I turned to Etsy, where I located a cheap pair of vintage pink Coke bottle glasses (The lenses were like fiberglass; I had to get a professional to pop them out).
I decided not to buy any new clothes. After all, reclaiming frumpiness should be a budget exercise. So I borrowed a friend’s bulky pink sweater and layered it with a plaid blouse. Underneath it all, I wore a black mock neck bodysuit that I just happened to like.
It looked awful. Swaddled in the three shirts, I sweated profusely throughout the night. Slick synthetic ringlets clung to my forehead. But I wasn’t about to change course. The bodysuit was the only item of clothing I had on that made me feel like myself. Everything else was intended to convey a lack of style. That, I told myself, was the goal—and I’d succeeded.
To be a cute, pert Barb would have been a travesty. An inoffensively gamine Barb is a Barb that misses the point. The only real Barb costume is one that looks a little bad, because it’s a protest against geek chic, against the Deschanelization of feminine eccentricity. To forgo that essential element of dowdiness would be to sap this symbol of all her nerdy power.
In retrospect, I should have been Nancy.
For the first two weeks of middle school, I wore what I liked. I was partial to the green outer layer of a secondhand parka because it reminded me of the jackets Lindsay Weir and Daria Morgendorffer wore. But I also wore pink things: sweaters embroidered with lace and rosebuds, gauzy shawls, skirts with dark tights. One day, in the cafeteria, a boy came up to me and shouted, “you’re always fucking wearing skirts!” The outburst was a weird moment amid the ambient violence of constant bullying. I was too young to recognize the irony of a boy shouting at me for dressing too girly.
As an adult, I’ve encountered the same boy again and again, in the form of various apoplectic men on street corners. They complain that my clothes aren’t feminine enough. Other times, I’ll meet his distant cousin, the one that says “nice ass” or “hey sexy.” Each man is desperate to convince himself that he is a little king—that his dick is a scepter and his pronouncements have meaning.
In middle school, when I wasn’t being harangued for wearing skirts, I was being called the F word. Incidentally, Winona Ryder’s classmates also called her the F word when she was twelve and liked wearing suits. They mistook her for an effeminate boy and beat her. Unlike Ryder, who kept wearing the suits, I quit experimenting with clothes. I stopped washing my hair. I wore the same oversized sweatshirt every day. Depression may have had something to do with it, but it felt trite to admit that at the time. I was just trying to opt out, I rationalized—trying to make it clear that I was not participating in their brutal little world. If I wasn’t playing the game, I couldn’t lose.
It didn’t work. They involved me. For years, I wondered if my routine of extreme self-effacement was what provoked those boys. Now I’m old enough to know that abuse never needs a reason.
By freshman year of high school, I started to enjoy clothes again. I couldn’t put the sweatshirt days behind me fast enough. Wearing my old green jacket would have felt like a humiliation, a regression into meaninglessness.
“Enclothed cognition” is the theory that the clothes we wear influence us psychologically. The term was coined by professors Hajo Adam and Adam D. Galinsky in a 2012 paper that found that what we wear—and what we’re told we’re wearing—has the potential to alter our behavior. Adam and Galinsky set up several experiments to test the hypothesis that what we wear affects our psychological processes.
In the first experiment, they divided volunteers into two groups. The first group wore a lab coat; the second wore their own clothes. The group wearing the lab coats outperformed the second group on a set of attention-related tasks. In the second experiment, both groups wore the lab coat. The first was told it was a doctor’s coat; the second was told it was an artist’s smock. Again, the first group outperformed the second. So Adam and Galinsky concluded that simply wearing the lab coat wasn’t enough to affect the wearer’s psychological processes. Their awareness of the coat’s meaning was what changed them.
My Barb costume symbolized more for me than it should have. When I looked in the mirror, I didn’t see myself dressed as a beloved character or a nerdy feminist meme. I saw a symbol of extreme loneliness. I saw myself, left for dead in a dirty backyard pool.
When I first learned about enclothed cognition, I thought of R.L. Stine’s The Haunted Mask, the eleventh book in the Goosebumps series. The story follows a timid eleven-year-old girl who decides to get back at the boys bullying her. She buys a grotesque mask. She scares them with it, successfully. But when she wears it for an extended period of time, she begins to exhibit uncharacteristically aggressive behavior. She throws apples at a house. She chokes her friend. Finally, she tries to pull off the mask and finds she can’t.
That’s what being Barb was like. Only instead of becoming belligerent, I just began to disappear.
We arrived more than an hour late to the party, which was at the FiDi loft of a friend of a friend. The hostess greeted us at the door. We came bearing many, many gifts, all of them picked up from Restaurant Depot: a tub of dates, two jars of pub mix, a yard of shortbread cookies, a trunk-sized crate of bagel chips. Our friend’s friend, though perplexed, graciously accepted the load.
After making introductions, we sat down at a red picnic table in the corner of the loft where people were already pouring each other plastic cups of rosé. S opened the crate of bagel chips and started passing them around. C picked up a Polaroid camera—the kind they sell at Urban Outfitters. Four of us tried to take a photo in the hallway mirror. I looked washed-out, sickly. Instead of a tribute to risk-averse nerds, I’d become a kind of sexless caricature of one. The dignity I was trying to reclaim was nowhere to be found.
In the only photo of me from that night, I am leaning into the clownishness, elbows bent in an exaggerated shrug that says oh well! I am dead. What can you do? But the truth was, I felt depleted. It made me wonder how the “real” Barb felt, covered in blood and slime at the bottom of that pool. The slime might have bothered me more than the blood. To be covered in a demonic creature’s refuse before it eats you — maybe also a drizzle of evil spittle—seems like a really extravagant insult. You’d think the Demigorgon wouldn’t bother with high school hierarchy, but you’d be wrong.
My neck felt hot. Every conversation sounded the same, whether it was about work or restaurants or high-end consumer electronics.
G, my best friend in the world, seemed completely at ease. She’d had the foresight to be something cute and topical: a Dead Ass Bee, which required only a Yankees cap, bee wings, and considerable vamping in order to be legible. It was a very Polaroid-friendly choice and a good look any time of year. She was sitting on the floor next to the coffee table, chatting with the Grim Reaper, some developer types I didn’t recognize, and S, whose Little Red Riding Hood costume nicely complemented his thick black beard.
None of them heard me ask for the bagel chips.
“Now that I’m Barb, no one can hear me,” I pointed out to no one.
G replied in top G form. “Hey, did you guys hear something?” She craned her neck to the side. “Must have been the wind.”
I felt hysteria budding in my chest like a frail bloom.
“I’m right here!”
I waved my hands in front of her face. She ignored me.
“Hmmm, I don’t see anything—”
“—I could have sworn I heard a sound.”
We went on like this for a full minute. My growing distress confused me; I didn’t understand the reasons for it at the time.
She gave me a small push. I toppled over, onto my side. My cheek made contact with the floor and I burst into tears.
G pulled me off the floor and helped me to my feet. She looked shaken. We stumbled to the kitchen together—her searching my face for some kind of clue as to my condition, me frantically struggling to pick out the bobby pins holding the wig to my head.
It’s not until you find yourself crying about being ugly in a stranger’s FiDi loft that you realize how low you can actually go. Some mysterious force was trying drag me into its depths, get me back in its clutches. The same thing that immobilized me with dread in middle school, the thing I’d confused for ideological, militant frumpiness, had come back. And it was doing all the reclaiming.
I splashed cold water on my face from the stainless steel tap. G watched me carefully.
“I think I took the Barb thing too far,” she said.
I pulled off the sweater. Relief flooded me. I felt my hair—my real hair—with quiet gratitude.
“It wasn’t just you.”
S and his sister joined us in the kitchen.
“Er, yeah,” said G. “I think I overdid it.”
During our post-cry huddle, we all somehow came to the conclusion that loft parties were boring and that we were very tired of talking about Elon Musk. We wanted to go play board games. So we said our goodbyes, grabbed some bagel chips, and got into S’s car. I kicked the wig under the passenger seat and forgot all about it.
If you haven’t seen Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special yet, drop everything and go get your life changed. That’s not what I want to tell you, though.
Before Nanette, you may have seen Gadsby on the Australian TV show Please Like Me. You may have seen the scene that lodged itself in my brain and has since become an indelible part of my worldview. In this scene, the eponymous Hannah is third-wheeling with her roommate and her roommate’s dirtbag love interest, Stuart. Stuart comments on the state of the potted orchid Hannah is trying to save. What follows is a brief, simple, and astounding exchange:
HANNAH: It’s a good thing I’m never gonna be a parent.
STUART: What, never?
HANNAH: Never ever.
STUART: That’s a shame, with those hips.
HANNAH: You think it’s a shame I’m not having kids because my hips are large.
STUART: You got hips for Australia. (Laughs) No use for ’em.
HANNAH: It is a shame, isn’t it? It’s like my hormones pulled a real swiftie! They thought, “Let’s make this one into the ultimate baby-carrying vessel.” Then they gave me absolutely no desire to make one.
Only after Stuart pretends to apologize does Hannah stop joking, refusing to absolve him:
STUART: Hold on, Hannah. It wasn’t my intention to upset you.
HANNAH: Oh, don’t be so modest, Stuart. You meant it. You just didn’t expect that I’d retaliate. You know, usually sprinkle a little shame and a woman will wilt. Isn’t that right, Stuart?
Sprinkle a little shame and a woman will wilt. Hannah doesn’t eviscerate Stuart. She doesn’t comment on his appearance. Yet she calls what she did “retaliation”—as though retaliating just means describing a person’s actions for their own edification. In that scene, Hannah reveals how powerful it can be to understand how you are perceived, and reject it.
I wish I could do that.
The penalties of nonconformity are real, and they are more severe for women. Trying to change perception through clothes is a tricky business, and there’s no guarantee it will work. It may protect you on the street, and it may appease some men. But a strong sense of self proves more durable in the long run. We are not taught to recognize ourselves, but only to appraise ourselves in terms of arbitrary cliches, notions we’ve internalized that keep our real selves obscured in a fog. It can take a long time to find yourself in a fog.
It wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I was able to see myself even when others did not, or refused to see me—when they saw a stock character or a slur instead. Slowly, I discovered a hobbyist’s enthusiasm for experimentation. I began to find fashion fun: a personal project, not just a strategy for defending myself against the world. Putting together these ensembles brought me a measure of joy and helped me envision the next chapter of my life.
I probably won’t wear the Barb uniform again. It’s possible that I’ve internalized too much bullshit over the course of my life to ever make it feel okay. Instead, I’ll aspire to wear whatever makes it fun to be in my body.
I have a feeling it won’t be a wig.
Marianna Nash is a writer from Queens. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Cosmonauts Avenue, Litro Magazine and other places in print and online. She tweets a little.