I’ve been a waitress, a nurse, and even a park ranger, but the professional uniform I found to be most magical was that of a school custodian. In an emergency situation, custodial uniforms are an indicator of wisdom and competence. If there were a plumbing disaster, with sewage spewing everywhere, everyone would be glad to see the custodian, who could shut off the water and sanitize the area. And if you need an event set up, need to move something heavy, or want something built, that uniform heralds the arrival of a hero.

Most of the time, however, they’re a cloak of invisibility. The middle school where I worked was not big. I got to know every teacher and administrator: their interests, their family stories, their struggles. But whenever I saw these coworkers around town, they wouldn’t recognize me out of uniform. And I’m a big, loud redhead with wild glasses and an outgoing personality. I’m pretty hard to miss.

One Sunday I ran into a school secretary at the grocery store. I talked with this woman every day. I knew her kids and her husband. She knew my mom. Yet she seemed uncomfortable when I inquired about her weekend. I asked if she was ready for an upcoming school event, and she murmured something noncommittal, excused herself, and scurried away.

As I cleaned the secretary’s office on Monday, I mentioned our conversation the day before, and she exclaimed, “Oh my gosh! I didn’t recognize you! You looked so good. I thought you must have been someone from church.”

Listen, she meant well. But being constantly shown you are invisible erodes your self-image.

Two years in, I was cleaning the locker rooms when “I need the gym custodian to report to me outside of the entry doors” sounded from my walkie-talkie. I radioed back that I was on my way. As I exited the building, I saw a box on the sidewalk between the bus loop and the doorway. On the other side a black pickup was parked several feet away, the principal crouched behind it. “Be careful, Ms. Smith!” he called. He indicated that the box was a “suspicious package” that needed to be disposed of. When I asked if it was dangerous, he said no, but stayed crouched behind the truck.

It was just a box of trash—chip bags, string-cheese wrappers, and sandwich bags—but the principal had obviously thought it was something more sinister. That day I had to choose what to believe: either he thought that I, the woman who made ten dollars an hour cleaning up after middle-school children, was the most qualified person to act as an impromptu bomb squad, or that I, the woman with a disabled husband and two little boys at home, was the most disposable individual on campus. I chose to believe the former. I was strong, smart, and capable. I would defend my coworkers and the students from any and all boxes of refuse that dared to threaten my school. I was a professional. I was a custodian.

Rhea Smith
Trenton, Texas

I joined the Navy in 1977—not out of an abundance of patriotism, but because I was unprepared for college, did not envision myself working in a factory, and desperately wanted to see the world. Plus I knew I would look damn good in the new dress uniform. The navy had recently transitioned from the traditional “crackerjacks” to a navy-blue jacket and slacks, white shirt, black tie, white combination cap, and polished black shoes.

After graduation from boot camp we were given a half day of liberty in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Two shipmates and I donned the dress blues and, filled with pride and accomplishment, went sightseeing downtown, where we admired our reflections in the shop windows.

A woman and a small boy walked hand in hand toward us. Seeing he couldn’t take his eyes off us, I thought, This will be a memorable moment in his young life.

As we passed each other, the boy said, “Mommy, are those mailmen?”

Michael Sternberger
Lexington, Kentucky

At fourteen years old I got hired at Burger King and was handed a too-large pair of brown pants, a brown knit top with a bright-orange collar, and a matching ball cap, all of it stained and smelling like dirty cooking oil. I used safety pins to shorten the pant legs and take four inches out of the waist.

I walked to and from work in this gaudy getup, hoping no one from school would see me. I was grateful when my cousin gave me her Members Only jacket to wear over it—the same brand the rich kids wore. “When you put it on,” the Members Only ads said, “something happens.” But I doubt what happened to me was what the ad writers had in mind.

On my walk I would pass a video store with a seven-foot-tall statue of a gorilla out front holding a sign that showed the day’s VHS specials. The gorilla was motorized and turned slowly from side to side so that all could see the sign.

One day it was windy, and my long hair kept blowing in my face. I refused to wear the Burger King ball cap on my walk, so I tucked my hair inside the jacket. As I approached the furry gorilla, I realized it was not only moving side to side but also swaying back and forth in the wind. Watching it teeter on its stand, I thought, Jeez, that stupid thing is going to fall over.

Just as I passed in front of it, the gorilla toppled forward. Instead of jumping out of the way, I instinctively put my arms out to catch it, but I wasn’t strong enough to keep it upright. My legs crumpled, and I ended up on the ground with the gorilla on top of me, still rocking suggestively side to side.

“Get a room!” a driver at the stoplight yelled.

Lying under the gorilla in my smelly uniform and Members Only jacket, listening to the beeping car horns, I thought for a second that I must have been on Candid Camera, and any minute someone would come running from behind the building to yell, Smile! But this was not an elaborate television prank, and I was mortified.

With great effort I crawled out from under the gorilla. Then I did my best to hold my chin high as I walked the rest of the way to work.

Elisabeth Harrahy
Oconomowoc, Wisconsin

A highway-patrol officer pulled me over on the interstate, claiming I was doing ninety-five in a sixty-five zone. The excessive speed added “reckless driving” to the charges, which meant I had to appear in court.

I knew I was innocent. I obtained records showing that, at the time of my violation, only one lane was open due to road construction. So how could I have been driving ninety-five miles per hour? I thought maybe I’d have a chance.

I decided to wear my nursing scrubs to my court appearance. I even draped my stethoscope around my neck. Hey, if the cop could wear his uniform, and the judge his, so could I. When it was my turn, the judge asked if I was a nurse, and I said yes, that I worked in the ICU in St. Joseph’s Hospital. He thanked me and said the nurses in that hospital had saved his daughter’s life after her car crash a few years earlier.

Before I had a chance to present my defense, the DA and the officer who’d issued the ticket went up to the judge and whispered something to him. Next thing I knew, the judge had dismissed my case.

Andy Roman
Greenacres, Florida

Growing up in Iran, I witnessed the bloody revolution of 1979 and the violent toppling of a government, all before I hit puberty. Then, just as I started to enter womanhood, a war with Iraq broke out, and many of our young men went away to fight. Teenage girls like me were caught in a war, too: one the Islamic Republic of Iran had declared on women. Religious rulers forced us to wear the hijab and took away our rights to our own bodies. There was an entire police force dedicated to arresting, raping, torturing, and even killing any girl who let so much as a couple of strands of hair escape her head covering.

On a chill November morning in 1983, when I was in tenth grade, I stepped through the iron gates of our all-girls high school and immediately sensed something was different. Students were queued in the front as usual, dressed in long black coats, dark pants, and black headscarves, with only faces and hands exposed. But that day there was a hum of anxious energy.

Her eyes filled with worry, my sister, Mahtab, joined her twelfth-grade line. I asked a friend what was going on.

“They’re searching us,” she said. Makeup and other contraband were being confiscated, and students caught with any of it were suspended. Anyone wearing short or tight pants beneath her hijab would also be in a ton of trouble.

I clenched my teeth. School officials often performed random inspections, and pants deemed acceptable one day might be considered “seductive” the next. I wasn’t worried for myself. A tomboy, I had on loose-fitting sweatpants under my coat. But the thought of the bitter hags who ran the school tormenting my friends over tight-fitting pants or a little bit of lip gloss brought tears to my eyes.

Something was going on beneath the window of my sister’s classroom, which was on the second floor and hidden from view of the entrance. Moving out of the line, I saw girls in the schoolyard rummaging through backpacks, finding potentially offensive items, and tossing them up through the window to classmates who’d already made it inside. Mahtab’s friend Guiti hung out the window to grab backpacks filled with contraband.

Instinctively I turned around to make sure no school authorities were approaching, but it was hard to stand guard with all the giggling behind me. I looked over my shoulder and saw girls in various stages of undress, frantically stripping off their tight pants and throwing them into the classroom, while looser pants were sent flying out the window for them to put on. Our schoolyard had been transformed into an open changing room full of bare-bottomed girls, thanks to the absurd policy of forced modesty.

I got back in line and, once I’d been allowed in, ran to my sister’s classroom, where a pantsless Mahtab welcomed me by handing me some contraband to stow in my backpack. I was about to take off my loose pants and throw them out the window when I heard a cry.

I turned to see a school official staring at a half-naked Guiti, who was holding a pair of pants above her head, ready to chuck them out the window. After a moment the stillness was broken by a roar of laughter from the students. The tragicomedy of our lives came pouring out of us, chasing away the horror this crone had brought.

Humiliated, the school official tried to restore order by grabbing at anyone within her reach, but this only triggered a stampede of half-dressed girls, falling over each other to run out of the room, backpacks flying everywhere, hysterical laughter and calls of warning to others. By the time the old woman had collected herself, we were long gone.

Sayeh Beheshti
Orange County, California

In North Carolina every incarcerated person wears one of four uniforms, each with its own formal and informal meanings.

A yellow jumpsuit designates a prisoner as a “safekeeper,” or pretrial detainee who was deemed too much trouble to hold in the county jail. Maybe they had a high-profile case or kept getting into fights. When I was arrested in 2005, the thought of spending the rest of my life in prison was so unbearable that I attempted suicide several times, and the jail sent me to prison to keep me “safe” until trial.

Green clothes mean the prisoner is housed in minimum security. It says they avoid trouble, follow the rules, and show up for their crappy prison job, earning $0.40 to $1.00 a day. They don’t try to escape, even by suicide, and altogether their behavior earns them a lot of extra privileges the rest of us envy, such as work release for real wages. Guys have been known to get their wives or girlfriends pregnant while out of prison to “work.” At the very least they get to eat restaurant food on the outside, while the rest of us are stuck with prison grub.

A prisoner wearing brown is classified as either medium or maximum security. They can earn their way down to greens, but this can, and usually does, take years. If they stay in browns, it generally means they were convicted of violent crimes or keep getting write-ups.

And then there are the red jumpsuits. That’s what I wear. Every prisoner in red was charged with first-degree murder, convicted, and sentenced to die by execution. Some suggest the red is a sort of warning to outsiders: “Beware! These men are dangerous.” (This is ironic because men on death row actually commit fewer offenses in prison, and the regular population has more people convicted of first-degree murder; they just weren’t sentenced to die.) Others say the red jumpsuit is meant to imply we have blood on our hands.

I would add that the red also reminds us of the blood that will one day be demanded from us. I’m a born-again Christian, however, so for me death is just the gateway to heaven, where I’ll trade this red jumpsuit for a white robe.

George T. Wilkerson
Raleigh, North Carolina

The only high-school class I excelled in was modern dance. After graduation I thought perhaps I could find work using that skill, but I failed numerous auditions for TV-show background dancers, and the “hostess” jobs in the classifieds all seemed sleazy. Depressed, I went shopping.

In a department-store sporting-goods section I saw a barefoot, leotard-clad woman twisting back and forth, demonstrating the Trim Twist Executive Exerciser: a thin, square board “guaranteed to take inches off one’s waist.”

That could be me, I thought. I wouldn’t be a dancer, but at least I could wear a leotard.

I applied for that job, and a week later my schedule arrived in the mail, along with the exercise board and a white leotard with a red T across the chest. The fabric was so thin, my bra and panties showed through as if outlined with black marker. Even the cruel crinkles in my A-cup bra were visible.

Going naked underneath seemed risky, but what was my alternative? I tried that at home, and only the bumps of my nipples and a subtle shadow near my pubic area were visible. I figured the department-store overheads would reveal less than my glaring bathroom light.

The next day at work, dressed in my leotard, I mounted my exerciser and began twisting. Then a male shopper met my eye. He could see through my leotard; I just knew it. I froze.

After he passed, I resumed twisting, but every time anyone glanced my way, I felt naked and ashamed. Get a grip, I told myself. It’s just stage fright. Yet the feeling only worsened.

I darted into the storeroom and came up with a plan: after work I’d buy a black leotard, then say I spilled wine on this one, or the dog ate it. Hopefully I’d still have a job the next day.

After my pep talk I was back on the floor. A fat man wiggled his eyebrows at me. Then a child exclaimed, “Look at her! She’s not even wearing—”

“Shush,” a woman said.

I almost wept.

When my shift was up, the department manager was waiting for me in the storeroom. He said he didn’t think I had the personality for the job. I couldn’t disagree.

Mary Weikert
Santa Fe, New Mexico

In the spring of 1995 my stepdad leaves us. My mom, my four younger siblings, and I move to a house on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, and I get a job at the drugstore to help out. Mom takes a position as a housekeeper at a bucolic hotel where a two-night stay costs the equivalent of our monthly rent. She must wear a white golf shirt, a navy cardigan, knee-length plaid shorts, and thick navy tights to work, even on the hottest days and even when working in the laundry room, where the heat from banks of dryers and the steam irons is stifling. She comes home red-faced, sweating, and mute with exhaustion.

Before my stepdad left, I was always fighting him for my mother’s attention. Many times I feared I’d lost her. Now, after twelve years, I have finally won, but my prize is a mother too flattened by grief and stress to have anything left for me.

Most Saturdays Mom works a split shift: 9 AM to 2 PM, then 5 to 8 PM. She says it’s like working eleven hours and getting paid for eight. But this Saturday we have a plan: Between her shifts we drive to Blackburn Lake and park the car behind a few other beat-up vehicles on the shoulder. We make our way to the rickety dock, where the smells of patchouli and dope greet us. A man in ragged cutoffs dangles his feet in the water and pounds a small drum. Mom finds a secluded spot in the trees and undresses, folding her uniform carefully, placing it into her bag, and stepping into her blue Speedo. Then she picks her way among the bodies lining the dock, lifts her arms above her head, and dives.

As the water closes around her, the old fear flashes—Mama, come back!—but soon she emerges, slick and shining. She turns to find me, then smiles.

Laura Nicol
Calgary, Alberta

Drawn to the prospect of free travel, I decided to make a career change at the age of thirty-seven and become a flight attendant. I assured worried friends the feminist in me was alive and well. By the early 1990s airlines had toned down the blatantly sexist image of flight attendants in their ads. (“I’m Susie. Fly me.”) No longer was it necessary to be pencil thin, single, and under twenty-seven. A uniform and a little regulation makeup were the only requirements: small compromise for the exotic places I would get to visit.

After six weeks of surprisingly rigorous training, I donned my flight attendant’s garb and prepared to be kind and helpful, give directions, and occasionally soothe nervous flyers. Easy.

One day I was serving first-class passengers on a six-hour flight when a businessman requested wine with lunch. As I placed the glass on his tray, he grasped my hand and kissed it. After a second glass he attempted to slip his arm around my waist. I smoothed my skirt and stepped away. With each refill, I made the pours smaller.

Toward the end of the flight I was tidying the galley when the annoying passenger I’d been fending off stepped in: a big violation of protocol. Worse, he lunged forward and attempted to kiss me.

I threw up my hands and said, “You can’t do that!”

He backed off but handed me his business card, on which he’d added his personal number. He said he’d love to see me again.

No longer feeling the need to be gracious, I ordered him back to his seat. Now.

A passenger later wrote a letter to my supervisor, complimenting my professional handling of the unwanted personal attention. It was a good thing I’d been wearing that uniform, I thought. If I hadn’t, I would’ve given him a swift knee in the nuts.

Nanette Laufik
Portland, Oregon

My white jacket bounced against my ample hips, its pockets bulging with mini reference books, a silver tuning fork, and a rubber hammer. The stethoscope around my neck was like a sacred vestment, symbolizing my legitimacy as I shuffled between hospital floors.

I’d just completed two years of classroom instruction and was encouraged to refer to myself as a doctor, but to my superiors—the surgeons and orthopedists and nephrologists, all of whom wore knee-length coats—that short white jacket identified me as nothing more than an underling. They were the real doctors, barking commands and heaping never-ending responsibilities upon me in the furtherance of my education.

Throughout my teenage years and into adulthood I’d battled people’s supposition that I, a young Black woman, wasn’t good enough. Even after I’d been accepted into medical school, I’d questioned whether I was cut out to be a doctor.

Luckily I’d chosen to study at a hospital where the patients looked like me, and I’d soon discovered that, when I listened to them, potential solutions to their ailments revealed themselves. I began to see my patients not as a collection of symptoms but as real people with cultures, religions, and philosophies. They came from families as diverse as the diseases I’d committed to memory. Neighborhood shootings kept them awake at night. They worked three jobs but lacked access to a decent grocery store. As I relied less upon my reference books and more on careful consideration of my patients’ histories, I lightened the load in my pockets.

After two years of grueling overnight shifts, I graduated. Dressed in a crisp, knee-length white coat, I embarked on an additional three years of internship and residency. By then I understood it was my investment in my patients, and not the length of my coat, that would make me a real doctor.

Michelle Smith
San Diego, California

In our eighth-grade class at St. Patrick’s Catholic school, Molly stood out: smart, confident, long-legged, and tanned from her family’s many trips to the Salton Sea to water-ski. She and her handsome father, fashionable mother, and cool older sister all seemed just a bit more sophisticated and exciting than the usual families at St. Pat’s.

Our diocese was progressive for the early sixties: it offered two seasons of sports for the girls—volleyball in the fall and “volley tennis” in the spring. Volleyball scared me, as a spiked ball came at you fast and hard, but I liked volley tennis, where the net was lowered and the ball was permitted to bounce. I was decent, if not great, at it. Molly was the queen—a natural athlete, graceful and deadly.

Then the unthinkable happened: Molly’s parents forbade her to play. I don’t remember what offense had prompted such a drastic punishment. I just know the girls in our class were hollowed by shock as the season approached.

I almost made the team but didn’t quite survive the final cut. That evening, however, Sister Ruth Marie called me and said she needed one more player after all. I’d made the team.

At our first practice Sister handed the other girls their uniforms from the previous season, checking each jersey for the name printed inside. Then she held one up to me and said she thought it would fit. Inside was Molly’s name.

Did I fill her shoes that season? Not a chance. I lacked confidence and couldn’t shake the feeling Sister had picked me only because she’d felt sorry for me. I almost wished she had just let me be disappointed. Hobbled by the thought that I was not a true member of the team, I never even put my own name in my uniform. At the end of the season I turned it in with “Molly” still written inside.

Maria Christine Conrad
Oakland, California

In the sixties I was a Protestant campus chaplain at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Protests against the Vietnam War were increasing. Being opposed to the war, I counseled students about resisting the draft and was present for the public demonstrations of draft-card burning. Students began to identify me with the anti-war effort. When some decided to picket churches, they asked my help to organize it. I agreed but only if they offered to have a dialogue with any church that was open to a conversation about the war. Not every church agreed, but a few did, and soon many pastors were calling me to see if the students might come to their church to talk.

One day anti-war protesters held a sit-in in the lobby of a university building. I joined them because I was uncertain what kind of police presence might be sent. After the students refused to move for several hours, the police arrived with billy clubs and began hitting them. Blood was spilled. Word about the confrontation soon spread over campus.

That evening hundreds of students gathered in front of the library to protest the war and police brutality. The library was situated between two streets that dead-ended at the base of a hill, atop which were the main administration buildings. I urged a few of the student leaders to lead some kind of silent, peaceful protest, but it was unclear what they would do. In the meantime dozens of police lined up on the other side of each street. The atmosphere grew incredibly tense.

Suddenly there was movement on the hill. Two columns of faculty, dressed in their academic robes, marched down and stood between the students and the police, who gradually left while the faculty remained. As students began conversations with their professors, I was overcome with relief. That day, at least, there was peace.

Jim A. LaRue
Medina, Ohio

I once worked as a forest ranger in Hinsdale County, Colorado, one of the least densely populated counties in the US. At the time most of its 467 residents lived in the quaint town of Lake City, where everyone generally knew one another, though I was recognized mostly by my uniform.

One weekend, when I was off duty, my daughter and I drove sixty miles to buy groceries in Gunnison. In the store I recognized an older man from Lake City and said hi to him. He cocked his head and furrowed his brow, then brightened. “Oh, Sandy,” he said apologetically, “I didn’t recognize you with your clothes on.”

Sandra Guerrieri
Gunnison, Colorado

My older sister’s attic bedroom had a sloping ceiling, a Princess phone, and a Jimi Hendrix poster, but the most fabulous thing there hung in her walk-in closet: her uniform from the Day Prospect Hill School for girls. The green-and-blue-plaid kilt fell just past her knees and was held together at the thigh with a glittering, supersized safety pin. It also had knee socks and, for formal occasions, a sort of tie. But the best part was the blazer: navy blue and boxy with a golden crest on the pocket. It gave my sister a panache no one else in our home possessed, and an intellectual authority almost as great as our parents’.

When the time came for me to start as a freshman at the girls’ school, I hoped the uniform would impart to me the same magic it had granted my sister, but somehow whatever it was didn’t transfer. Disheartened, I muddled through the difficult college-prep classes required at Day Prospect Hill. The blazer’s shoulders rested heavily on mine, the knee socks itched, and the hot kilt fell open when I sat.

One day, heading toward algebra, I came upon my sister sitting cross-legged in the hall outside her English classroom. Her blazer on the floor next to her, she was reading D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love and radiating intensity, confidence, and clarity of purpose.

The fantastic quality I’d wanted had never resided in the kilt or the blazer. It had always been inside her.

Iowa City, Iowa

In 2004 I was deployed to Afghanistan and assigned to an all-male platoon that had yielded to pressure to diversify. I was honored to be chosen and excited for the opportunity to prove a woman could perform a job traditionally reserved for men.

My team of three, plus an interpreter, supported infantry operations in remote villages. We performed low-level voice intercept, positioning ourselves on hilltops where we could listen for threats. We carried hundreds of pounds of gear—enough to sustain us for days at a time. I was the only female, but with my short hair, desert camouflage, helmet, body armor, and eye protection, I appeared to be just another male solider on patrol.

That’s the way I wanted it. Muslim culture has strict gender roles, and I viewed my gender as a risk to the unit’s safety. My biggest fear was that it might influence our operations. I hid the fact that I was a woman from fellow US soldiers as well as the Afghans we met.

I’ve only recently realized how harmful my thinking likely was for my self-image and for other women. At the time I thought I was being tough, but looking back I wonder if hiding my gender only perpetuated negative views of women in combat.

I still work for the Department of Defense, and in recent years I’ve seen the military’s views on gender identity and sexuality change dramatically. We still have a long way to go, but I’m overjoyed to see increased acceptance of all genders within the ranks. I look forward to a day when anyone who serves their country can do so without hiding who they are.

Cynthia Archibald
Waialua, Hawaii

For a summer in college I waitressed at a small restaurant popular with seniors in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. It had a main dining room upstairs and a smaller basement room with a bar. The owners were a middle-aged couple: the husband tended bar, and the wife greeted customers upstairs and pounced on us waitresses if anything was amiss.

We all disliked basement duty because we had to carry large trays loaded with food from the upstairs kitchen down a steep, narrow stair with no railings. One older waitress was especially nervous about falling. We complained to the owners, but nothing was done, and with jobs being scarce, quitting wasn’t an option.

One day I was working the basement and waited on two sweet regulars in their eighties who ordered the daily special: meat loaf with gravy, mashed potatoes, and beets. When their food was ready, I loaded my tray in the kitchen and slowly descended the stairs.

Halfway down I smashed the tray into the wall and sprawled out on the stairs. Food went flying, dishes clattered, and the male owner came running to ask if I was OK.

I told him I’d missed a step and fallen but was fine, just a bit shaken up. Beet juice was splashed across the front of my uniform, and gravy oozed down my neck. The owner left to get the dishwasher to clean up the mess. The other waitresses said it was a good thing I hadn’t broken a bone or worse.

My two customers, who’d heard the crash, said, “Oh, you poor dear! Just look at you. Are you OK?”

“I’m fine, but I’m so sorry I dropped your meals. Your new dinners will be ready soon,” I said as I caught a clump of potato dripping from my hair.

I never told anyone that I faked the fall to get management to do something about the situation. I wore that beet stain on my uniform like a badge of honor.

Diana Coleman
Rockland, Maine

Seeing me in my white Tyvek suit, a passing stranger asked fearfully if I was investigating a crime scene in his building. I was not, I told him, but I was elated that the outfit had created the illusion of authority around me. The truth is I was part of a waste-audit team sent to see how the building’s tenants were doing on their recycling and composting.

In other words, I was paid—poorly—to sort through people’s trash.

On that job I waded through garbage, my arms deep in the putrid mess. The thin, billowy material covering my body did little to prevent fermenting liquid from soaking through to my clothes as I handled an ever-surprising array of refuse: fish heads larger than my own, with teeth the size of fingers; eighty-pound bags of wet, rotting food; medical waste like needles and bloody bandages and human feces that had been illegally dumped into the building’s general garbage. I often worked in loading docks where diesel trucks poured thick smoke into the air. We weren’t provided masks.

The only part I liked was that when I donned the white Tyvek suit, I looked identical to everyone else on my team, as if we were aliens from the same planet. It made me more comfortable in my skin. As oppressive as the work was, I had more confidence and freedom in the suit—and less of the shrinking and fear I felt around others the rest of the time.

It took that stranger asking if I was investigating a crime scene for me to finally put the pieces together: I could be secure in my formless white suit because my gender was obscured, and therefore my body couldn’t be gazed at and appraised. I’d been assaulted many times in my young adulthood, before the #MeToo movement. The suit didn’t do much to protect me from the garbage, but it gave me a sense of protection from our culture.

Name Withheld

For a significant part of my life I wore a six-yard sari, the traditional garb of a married woman in India. Like many women I knew, I’d gotten wedded in my early twenties, even though my parents are quite modern and liberal. It was I who chose to marry young, after I fell in love with my high-school sweetheart. Little did I realize I was also marrying his family.

Up until the wedding they’d seemed as modern and liberal as my own parents and had always appeared to respect my choices, but once I came to live in my mother-in-law’s house, all that changed. The sari became a symbol of my new life. “No skirts and jeans,” my in-laws insisted, though their daughters roamed free in these clothes. When I pointed out the disparity, my husband had no answers for me.

Well-intentioned relatives and friends were eager to help me perfect my draping technique. They meant well, tugging at the pleats and adjusting the silk pallu over my shoulder, but this sisterhood of sari-clad women I suddenly belonged to felt overwhelming, a violation of my personal space. My mother had prepared me for academic achievement, not for an identity defined by a six-yard piece of cloth.

I harbor no animosity toward those who wear traditional attire. A decade later I sometimes choose to wear a sari myself. But as a newly married woman I resented the expectation of unquestioning compliance. Every morning I had to dutifully prepare for my role:


To assume this coveted position of wife, I had to shrink myself. I had to become invisible beneath the garb.

Anna Camins
Springfield, Illinois

I took my nine-year-old granddaughter to a women’s basketball game to witness the excellence of the athletes and the Black woman coach. But as we crossed the university campus to the arena, I thought about the name on the team’s uniforms: the Rebels. A celebration of the Confederacy.

A Black student athlete with an athletic scholarship had once told me she hated wearing that uniform. It made her feel complicit in her own degradation. I’d gone to the university myself but never attended athletic events because of the team name. My great-great-grandfather Parker Robinson had been born into slavery and would surely have haunted me if I’d cheered for the Rebels.

The starting players took to the floor: women of all shades of brown, who flew as they pounded down the court, passing the ball with such speed it was almost impossible to follow. My granddaughter’s eyes were bright with admiration. I prayed she wouldn’t ask about the team name.

At the first time-out, cheerleaders bounded onto the court. They were all white. The crowd’s response seemed to exceed the cheers they’d given the athletes. My granddaughter grew quiet, and her eyes lost their sparkle. She asked to leave in the second quarter.

In all my pregame thinking, it hadn’t occurred to me that race would also be part of the uniforms.

Barbara Phillips
Oxford, Mississippi

After a long day at work I was rushing home to breastfeed my infant son. As I rode the elevator, a man pointed to my chest and inquired, “Nurse?”

Embarrassed, I glanced down, expecting to see two saucer-sized wet spots on my front. Then I realized he was pointing to my white scrubs. “No,” I replied, relieved. “I’m a massage therapist.”

Debra Casey
Bellevue, Washington

In 2013 I flew to Japan to vie for the honor of becoming one of the few female tenth-degree black belts in budo taijutsu. On the flight I imagined tying my new belt around my waist, striding across the dojo, and touching a small wooden plaque with my name written in Japanese alongside those of others who had achieved the same rank.

First I had to get three recommendations from shihans—master teachers. I already had one, from my former instructor. The next came from a woman I had trained with often on my yearly excursions to Japan. I needed one more.

In class a shihan asked if someone would demonstrate a technique. I volunteered, and a friend followed me to the mats. He attacked; I sent him flying. The shihan nodded, and for the rest of the class I became his uke, or demonstration partner.

Eager to impress, I attacked the shihan fiercely. When my fist grazed his nose, everyone gasped. Unfazed, the shihan launched me across the dojo.

At the end of class he asked me to sit with him. “I’m going to write you a recommendation,” he said, “because you’re so good. And so pretty.”

The word pretty hurt. I had spent twenty years working twice as hard as the men just to be seen as an equal. I’d also survived a ten-year relationship with a former instructor that had put my mental and physical health in jeopardy. All I wanted as I entered my thirties was to leave the past behind, open my own school, and teach others to defend themselves. Especially girls.

I politely accepted the shihan’s recommendation, but later, in my room with a bottle of sake, I tore it up. I removed my black belt and vowed never to put it on again.

In 2023, while out of work due to the writers’ strike, I came across a posting for an assistant instructor in budo taijutsu. I applied, thinking of it as temporary. The program director told me she could hardly believe a woman with my experience had shown up. “We have so many girls,” she said, “and we need female leadership.” I knew then the job would not be temporary.

That night I asked my father to mail me my old gi, which was stowed somewhere in his garage. As soon as it arrived, I put it on, tied my black belt back around my waist, and looked in the mirror. The gi didn’t fit the way it used to, but it was good enough.

Merridith Allen
Los Angeles, California

My father owned a store in the South End of Boston that sold industrial work uniforms for union men. It had been founded in 1930 by my grandfather Sam: hence the name, Sam’s Outlet. Also in the neighborhood were a Jewish deli, Foley’s Irish Bar, a secondhand store whose wares had “fallen off the truck,” and a storefront bookie.

Sam’s Outlet was dark and narrow, with towers of neatly stacked Carhartts and Dickies on either side. To retrieve a size on the bottom required a feat of unstacking and restacking. The walls housed boxes of steel-toed boots and warm socks. A bell at the door signaled the arrival of a customer.

These uniforms were made to last through the rough New England winters, as the men who wore them never stopped for anything—unless there was a strike, and even then, the scabs wore the same outfits. Sam’s Outlet sold to utility-company employees, carpenters, bricklayers, and construction workers: laborers whose parents and grandparents had come to America from Ireland and Italy to start new lives.

I remember the Blizzard of 1978 brought unimaginable amounts of snow and an epic day for sales. Customers filled the store, scrambling for jackets, socks, hats, gloves, boots—anything that would keep them warm so they could get on with earning their paychecks. My dad was the only salesperson there, and the workingmen helped one another to find the right sizes before making their purchases.

Selling those uniforms and being around the men who wore them taught me about loyalty, tenacity, hard work, and family. It made me aware of the often unnoticed people who make everything run smoothly.

Shelley Karpaty
Rancho Mirage, California