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KALEA, SHE / HER

What are your parents? Are you mixed? Wow! You’ve gotten so small! Have you lost weight? As harmless as these phrases were in the moment, they built and built over time to create filtered layers of style that either highlight or mask my racial ambiguity and body shape. Can’t I be stubby and proud? Can I be black? As I implore and uncover my ethnic make-up, does my blackness become less of who I am? When I wear hoops and braids am I more black? When I wear kente cloth and cowry shells am I being my true self or am I putting on yet another filter? At the end of the day physical adornment serves this societal purpose—to be seen, recognized, and organized into your “appropriate” identity. 

INTRODUCTION

Be smaller, be more mature, don’t show too much, you’re not showing enough. Too quirky, too childish, too fat. For as long as I can remember I have always been a bit of an overthinker. Which can be helpful in many ways but rather harmful when it comes to self-expression. There are so many things I have tried to actively unlearn over the past year or so—the main one being to not censor myself. Yet if you mix in indecision and insecurity you’ve got a recipe for identity disaster. Who am I today? While that statement appears to be liberating, the reality has been one of constant doubt and dilution of myself. 

DESCRIBE LOOK 1.

The context of both of my looks is “a night out.” The significance of each piece is as follows:

Slick-back bun
This hairstyle is probably the most mature (and low maintenance) style I can muster. It is best for going out because it helps me blend in and makes me feel more approachable.

Hoops
Earrings are my main accessory and hoops are the #1 going out item. I don’t care what anyone says. 

Spaghetti strap across the front
This piece is from my early days in college when I worked at American Eagle. I remember buying this shirt and thinking, yes! finally I have some acceptable “going out” attire that will make sense! People will know I’m going out, I’ll look like I belong.

Denim mini skirt
I bought this skirt back when I lived in Korea for the same reason I bought that spaghetti strap top and many other items I got while I was there. It wasn’t because I genuinely wanted them for my own standards on style, I needed to fit in. To this day I realize this skirt wasn’t made for me (not my hips anyway) but I do actually like it now. 

Heels
These chunky heels are about as much as I can go for in the ‘high heel’ department. I am always conflicted when it comes to heels because I want to be comfortable but I also want to be feminine. I walk like bambi and being taller makes me feel bigger and feeling bigger makes me feel less feminine. 

Smoky eye and gloss
These are “going out” basics, I guess.

Overall Look
I’m sending a message that I am a girl going out with my friends and I want to be flirty and fun in the most generic way possible as not to offend potential suitors with my unapproachable authenticity. 

DESCRIBE LOOK 2.

Half-up half-down
This is my favorite hairstyle by far. I love how my bangs frame my face. The bottom half is so full, but the top half being up gives me cute vibes and shows just how much I like to have fun.

Hoops
You can fight me on this one, hoops are essential. They are so versatile yet so empowering. Fun fact, I’ve had these earrings since I was 10.

Triathlon tank
I thrifted this lil piece at one of my favorite thrift stores in Columbus, Ragorama, because I love the athletic look and even though it’s black it has pops of color on the side.

Pink camo pants
I actually thrifted these right off the interwebs (thanks Instagram) because I wanted some sick gear for this Higher Brothers concert I was going to in Chicago. 

Black platform boots
These belonged to my old roommate. I was surprised she was throwing them out because I always loved how badass she looked in them whenever we would go out. I always wanted a pair!

Red & blue eye with magenta lip
If Imma pop out I might as well pop all the way out. I love colors and I love my face…simple as that.

Overall Look
Biiiiiiitch. I’m out here having a grand ol’ time. Tf Imma be boring for?!?!?  There really is no rhyme or reason to this look, I just took some key pieces from my wardrobe that I thought would be fun to wear. I'm not sure if the fit makes sense, but oh well I guess. Life is too short to wait for “the right opportunity” to wear what I want to wear and be who I want to be. If I like the way I feel then that should be what matters.   

WHAT DOES DRESS. CODE. MEAN TO YOU?

It's a tangible test of my relationship with style and how I have or have not used it to my greatest potential. There are so many things, from outfits to lovers to job opportunities that I have been hesitant to take on because of overthinking, indecision, and insecurity.  I want to see the potential in myself and I believe that starts with dressing like I believe in myself.

IN WHAT WAYS HAVE YOU BEEN SCRUTINIZED?

When I was in high school, I remember guy friends of mine teasing me and calling me “ratchet.” They may not have meant any harm but as the only black girl in most of my classes I couldn’t help feeling like I was being othered. I hated it so much; it felt like dirt was being poured over me, painting me into this person that I didn’t want to be. I wanted to be respected and I felt that I wasn’t and that my demeanor needed to be dialed down a few notches.

What I didn’t anticipate was how uncomfortable I became with my body. I have always been bigger, but when I first started getting curves and a figure I couldn’t be happier. I am not sure if being called “ratchet” was the seed that sprouted a weed of self-consciousness or what, but showing off my curves or even going out and shaking my ass (one of my favorite pastimes) is something I am still hesitant to do because I hate being put into a box. That shit is tiring man. 

Black women, especially, are over-sexualized to the point where we are not even valued as intelligent and sophisticated beings. It makes me feel like if I beat my face and show a little titty for my damn self that I won’t be taken seriously. Yet at the same time I find myself in collared tees and glasses STILL not being taken seriously. It’s as if I am trying to find my angle. As much as I love being the center of attention, I became afraid of the negative aspects of being noticed. Styling, acting, even just being became a matter of “would they like it if” rather than “I want to”. Rarely do I do something or wear something without thinking “am I doing too much?”

IN WHAT WAYS HAVE YOU FELT EMPOWERED BY YOUR BODY + STYLE?

I find myself more expressive and more outgoing when my outfit and hair are big and bold. At the end of the day, whether I admit it or not, I think I am just a big, bold, bitch. I love when my curls are full and flowing and I love when I am wearing bright, bold colors or put a fit together that doesn’t seem like it works but I made it work.

WHAT IS YOUR PROCESS IN TERMS OF STYLING YOURSELF?

Comfort is key. For me I have to be comfortable and what I’m wearing has to be functional. Next comes color. There was a period of time during late high school early college that I tried to suppress my love for colors and patterns in order to fit the trends and be more mature—whatever the hell that means. I guess that is one good thing about social media algorithms—the more I like outfits, make-up and hairstyles that I want to emulate, the more they appear on my feed. 

I am a fan of chunky platforms and sneaks with funky colorways. I love a good oversized tee dress and you will only catch me in high-waisted jeans. Earrings are my jewelry of choice and even if I am too lazy to try eye make-up I will almost always throw some color on my lips. It is also worth mentioning my appreciation for the surge in female rappers. Thank goodness for Meg Thee Stallion for inventing thee hot girl summer and for Rico Nasty, Doja Cat, Tierra Whack and Lizzo who consistently exceed my expectations of how to express different sides of oneself in the biggest and boldest ways possible.

WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT YOURSELF FROM THIS EXPERIENCE?

BRUH. Biggest takeaway is that all I have to do is give myself permission. And that style—steez if you will—is all about attitude.  And the biggest realization I have had since starting this summer and this experience is that I am in control of my actions and my attitude. No matter what anyone else says or does, as long as I give my all and act with authenticity and intention, then I can be content.