If I had to categorize my fashion style in high school, I’d call it “functional.” I was the sneakers-and-ponytail sort. I lived in tennis sweats and jeans—which had to have pockets, non-negotiable. I wore workout tanks too, perpetually ready to shed my hoodie and play tennis: with a friend, against a brick wall, or even serving to an empty court.
Until high school, I never noticed other people’s clothes at all.
In that summer before freshman year, though, I must’ve missed some meeting, or maybe an entire convention, on fashion. On the first day of high school, the entire student body showed up transformed: the boys in polos or V-necks, the girls wearing tight tees, long necklaces, and makeup, everything meticulously gendered. Everyone’s favorite brands were suddenly Hollister and Vineyard Vines. And there I was at my desk, the latest volume of The Prince of Tennis in my bag, my Venus Williams EleVen tee at least two sizes too big.
To my classmates’ credit, they didn’t ostracize me for how I dressed. I was the one harping on it, returning over and over to the way I now dropped out of conversations with my lab partners, swirling my eraser against the black tabletop while they discussed fall layering, statement pieces, color palettes.
I was supposed to like those things, too.
To console myself, I focused on tennis. At least I still had that. I still had friends, too, many of whom cared more about anime, manga, and video games than clothes. Even that didn’t stop me from feeling self-conscious about fashion, though; I couldn’t help but feel that in the overall population of the freshmen class, more of us cared about fashion than didn’t, especially among the girls.
So, at the store, I started staring at the covers of fashion magazines. I studied storefront displays too, the Aeropostale mannequin sporting the same dress as my lab partner. What did my peers see in these clothes that I couldn’t? I didn’t know, but I hated it: clothes, fashion, school, my classmates, all of it. I was better than the other girls. Fashion was shallow. I’d stick to tennis and The Prince of Tennis instead.
Toxic thinking? Absolutely. But in 2006 I didn’t know better.
Feeling negatively about school is common, as noted by a 2020 Yale survey (and most teenagers), but a sense of loss and frustration followed me everywhere. Some of it was teenage angst, but the rest was rooted in fear. My identity was at stake. After all, my classmates had come back from summer vacation totally transformed. If it happened to them, it would happen to me next.
By winter vacation, though, my transformation still hadn’t happened. I was still a tomboy. Still stressed. It didn’t help that the media showed me feminine women almost exclusively. I kept waiting to turn into a girly-girl like them, like it was a switch that, when flipped, would alter me entirely.
While I waited, I overanalyzed every female character I saw. The first was Sam Manson from Danny Phantom. What if I went goth, like her? I liked her, but after a while I realized I didn’t want to wear her outfits—neither her typical skirt-and-tank nor her sparkly prom dress. The real-life clothes I found at Hot Topic, the only goth store I could access, included ultra-tight skinny jeans, fake pockets, and Lolita-esque dresses with bows and frills. None of that resonated with me.
I didn’t know it then, but I was on a quest for personal style. I was looking for clothing—and, more broadly, a character—that felt like me. Sam, in the prom episode, was a goth princess, but that wasn’t me, and it wasn’t how I wanted to see myself, either.
So I kept searching.
I moved on to Harvest Moon next, where I could build a farm, and a new life, from scratch. I sank hours into Harvest Moon 64, More Friends of Mineral Town, and, later, DS Cute, but I never connected with the female cast’s Victorian-era dress, Manna’s floor-length skirts and Elli’s aprons and Popuri’s corsets. Same as with Sam, those outfits looked fine on them, but I wanted something else for me.
Haruhi from Ouran High School Host Club came the closest. Her androgyny spoke to me, and while I liked that she wore a boys’ uniform, I attended public school and uniforms in general were a moot point. Haruhi’s casual outfits left me feeling alone all over again—she wore dresses, pink, and a frilly bikini. Whatever sense of connection I felt with her broke when she got changed.
It left me feeling alone, like I was the only person who couldn’t connect with the characters on my screen. Now I can see how it stemmed from issues of representation in the stories I had access to. The anime streaming landscape as we know it now simply didn’t exist: we watched anime on YouTube, back then, with each episode split into multiple parts. Crunchyroll, founded in 2006, was only questionably legal in its nascent years, and Funimation’s service wouldn’t exist for another decade. All of this meant that viewers, particularly those of us in high school and without credit cards of our own, were limited to YouTube, Waldenbooks, and the series our friends owned, which meant seeking out particular types of stories or characters could be difficult—if you even knew, and could articulate, what you were looking for. As for the less feminine characters that did exist, I hadn’t heard of them—I didn’t know what the word “butch” meant, and even if I had, prominent butch representation on mainstream TV wouldn’t rise until 2020, fourteen years later.
All of which left me, in 2006, feeling like I was broken.
The answer came from, of all places, The Prince of Tennis. I’d loved the manga for the past two years. Though known for its female fanbase, it didn’t feature many female characters—no one whose style I wanted to co-opt, anyway.
Until, that is, I saw Kunimitsu Tezuka in a flannel and tank top.
At first, I thought I liked the clothes simply because he wore them. Back then I would’ve described it as a crush, but really I wanted to be him. He was poised, elegant, confident. It wouldn’t bother him if he couldn’t connect with his classmates. He was a leader, too, a good captain, a player strong enough to bring his team to Nationals. I’d be trying out for my own school’s team in the spring. I wanted to be captain too, one day, take us all the way to states. It was Tezuka who resonated with me, finally, who gave me something in keeping with who I wanted to be: tennis player, athlete.
There was only one problem. The clothes Tezuka wore were men’s.
I wasn’t sure what to do. Haruhi had been a hint—I liked menswear—but no one had prepared me for the possibility that I wouldn’t, eventually, start to like skirts like Sam or dresses like Popuri. Could I wear men’s clothes? Being a tomboy was one thing, but dipping into menswear, and cultivating a wardrobe closer to butch than tomboy, would draw my classmates’ eyes. Could I handle that attention?
The answer, of course, was yes, but I didn’t have anyone to tell me that. So I did what I thought was smartest: nothing. I’d pretend I’d never read that scene in The Prince of Tennis. I couldn’t imagine what my classmates would say if I showed up to first-period English in menswear, the way their laughter and scorn would no doubt sweep me back out into the hallway in shame.
It was safer to do nothing.
Of course, it wasn’t that easy. My eye caught on similar outfits in other chapters of The Prince of Tennis. A lot of the characters wore button-down shirts with tees underneath, and I liked the ensemble each time. The outfit haunted me. It had me looking at my own wardrobe: I had tees and tanks already. All I needed was a button-down.
By now it was summer. It had been nearly nine months since my classmates had transformed. In the meantime, I’d made varsity tennis as a freshman, a veritable Echizen Ryoma, an upstart, underdog, real-life validated tennis player. That success—and my lack of free time during the season—made it easy to avoid style. Until, one day, replacing items I’d outgrown, I found it on a rack at the mall: a thin button-down, short sleeves with vertical stripes, all green and yellow like different shades of tennis ball.
I wore it all summer, and everything about it felt like home.
I don’t know how long it would’ve taken me to see menswear as an option, if not for The Prince of Tennis. I didn’t have any role models, fictional or real, who dressed outside of gender norms, who told me that that was okay. Though characters such as Haruka from Sailor Moon did exist, they were few and far between; that show, in particular, aired before I came home from school. I didn’t even know Haruka existed.
Increased representation—and intersectional representation, too, across gender, sexuality, style preference, and more—would’ve saved me a lot of confusion and shame. I wouldn’t have had to feel like “girly things” were a threat being forced on me, but one option of many; fashion should be about building a look that feels right, regardless of whether or not you’re “supposed” to like it. I wish our media said that more often, and louder.
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