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Wear The Hell Out Of It

My friend Jenny is not what I expected to find in my blogging journeys. When we met several years ago for the first time I watched her demeanor change as a woman approached her and began gushing about how wonderful and awesome Jenny was. I couldn't ignore the fact that Jenny became quite uncomfortable in the situation. I saw in Jenny an anxiety disorder that I recognized in two of my children. To lighten the mood, I made a silly joke and then she looked me in the eye and asked, “Would you like to go to the bathroom and share this airplane booze with me?”


It was sort of a ridiculous situation but there was something amazing in it. At least for me there was. You don't come back from those easily nor do you want to come back when you meet special people.

My friend Karen is also not what I expected to find in my blogging journeys. The first time we met we bonded over people wanting to touch our hair as if we were pet store animals to be petted. Last year when she sent me her published book, The Beauty of Different, there was a chapter in it that included Jenny and I used that book to talk to my female students about their worth and value and the importance of being different. It has become a sort of workbook for me as I use it to start conversations with adolescent girls about fitting in and accepting ourselves the way we are. A lesson that, truthfully, I must learn as well as teach.

I guess I didn't expect a whole lot of what blogging has been for me.

When Jenny bought herself this red dress and wrote about what it meant for her I was struck by meaning of it all. The part of Jenny's post on The Traveling Red Dress that got to me the most was this:

“I want, just once, to wear a bright red, strapless ball gown with no apologies. I want to be shocking, and vivid and wear a dress as intensely amazing as the person I so want to be. And the more I thought about it the more I realized how often we deny ourselves that red dress and all the other capricious, ridiculous, overindulgent and silly things that we desperately want but never let ourselves have because they are simply “not sensible”.”

Here is the thing about being so far from normal: that eccentric and different part of who you are looks at the ‘normal’ people in life and thinks they have it easier. What a terrible lie we tell ourselves in that. Rather, that’s a terrible lie I tell myself. Sometimes I believe it. Sometimes I pretend to be normal. It’s an ongoing internal struggle. I have faked normal most of my life because I don't want anyone to see my weaknesses. In doing this, I come off as strong-willed and confident and sometimes I am just that.

Why did I need this red dress?

Earlier this decade all I could do was think about how exhausted I was. My life was just so tiring. It has always been challenging. Not much comes to me easily and I wasn’t always this person that far too many folks think has it all together. But I did assume, falsely, that if I worked hard and followed all the rules that I was previously breaking that things would get easier. Without going into too much detail, let me just say that my American Dream isn’t shaping up to be how I want. People I trusted let me down, people I once loved stole lots of money from me, and people took as much as they could take from me. All the while I have maintained a semblance of normalcy and get-it-togetherness in a strangely ridiculous life.

It’s more than that.

I want things. I want a sense of normal. I want these things that I kept seeing everybody else having and I can’t master it. I want to fit in somewhere that isn’t a place of my own making.

How silly is that? I have this perfectly ridiculous life and I want ‘normal’.

But Jenny is right. The reason I am so attracted to the philosophical idea of the red dress is because it is a “shockingly inappropriate or overindulgent thing that we long for all our lives but deny ourselves because it’s not sensible”. I don’t always think so, but I suppose I am shockingly inappropriate. Not so on the overindulgent, because that is something I cannot afford. Inappropriate because of the path my life has taken. I am ultimately responsible for that because, at any time, I could have gotten off that path and created a new one, but I think I really do like this one. Having babies when I was in high school, placing one for adoption only to find her 21 years later, walking out on a failing, crumbling marriage while trying to finish grad school and get a new job, going into educational administration in the midst of creating a writing career – these aren’t things I know to be appropriate or whatever the opposite of overindulgence is. Underindulgent? Normal?

But I’m not normal. If my title walks in the room before I do then people don't know what to expect. Whatever it is that's expected, it is certainly not the me I know and like. You know what I like? I like being an assistant principal that doesn't look or act like the majority of them out there. I like that my students grow up and stay in touch with me and come over for dinner. I like that my students know where I live and ring the doorbell just to say hi or meet me at a coffeeshop to talk books and life. I like that I have stories and share them here.

Lately, that's been another struggle. The Me who I like gets challenged on telling stories. Either I hear "write more about your school experiences" or "write less about your school experiences". I hear "write more about race" or "write less about race". Too often, I stop myself from writing freely because if you knew the real struggles and that didn't fit with accepted norms from an assistant principal then...well, I don't know what would happen. We writers, we start blogs to explore our core beliefs and experiences in writing and that makes us feel less alone. As time goes on we realize just who is reading and then, at least for me this is true, pull back from it all.

That's why I needed the red dress. I needed a moment of the abnormal, a celebration of the irrational. I needed the absolute crazy idea of getting a red ball gown in the mail and going out in the middle of the woods to take pictures in it. I needed to be something that maybe you wouldn't expect from the person at your child's school. I mean, really, can you see this person as the trusted individual whose office you might need to go to when your child gets in trouble or is in need of help?

photo credit: Matt Penning Photography

Nothing about my own personal journey with the red dress was normal. First, it came in a box that looked like the post office used it for a game of volleyball. It was crushed on one side and I had honestly forgotten about expecting it in the mail so I had no idea what this mangled box was on my porch last week. I wanted to put it on right away but I was afraid it wouldn’t fit. I took it up to my bedroom and prayed that the physical difference between Jenny and I wouldn’t be so great that it wouldn’t even get up over my hips. But I’ve lost enough weight lately that it slipped right on and the beauty was that I didn’t lose weight for this purpose.



After I realized that it fit, I contacted photographer Matt Penning whom I had previously never met. Our paths crossed online and I knew his work from seeing his photographs in our local newspaper. He offered to take my picture a few months ago but I asked that he wait until the dress came. Luckily, his schedule allowed for us to meet yesterday when it was a bizarrely gorgeous 70 degrees so I set into motion all the things it would take to meet him and his wife, Karen Sue, at Sugar Grove Covered Bridge, a place he suggested. First, I needed some help getting into the dress but Mallory was busy and The Cuban was, too. Since it’s in public I couldn’t very well change clothes once I got there. I knew I had to put on the dress before I left the house. But I needed to make a stop first.

I remembered that I didn’t have much gasoline and that I needed to stop for some before our photo shoot. In true Kelly fashion, I got to the gas station and couldn’t open my gas cap so I had to find this older gentleman to help me as I professed to being an idiot about such things.

I’m so glad I wasn’t wearing the red dress at that moment.

As I walked in to pay, I saw a truck driving slowly with a woman in the front seat yelling, “Aaaaashley! Aaaaashley!” out of the passenger window. Four women, standing by the side of the gas station entrance, walked up to the car giggling as they were clearly having a good time. Aaaaashley and her friends got into the car and, since the windows were down as I passed by them, I noticed that Aaaaashley was very drunk and having trouble getting her leg to swing up high enough to get into the truck. It looked like they were part of a bachelorette party and in need of a ride. I walked up to the driver who was smiling and I said, “Whatever it is that you ladies are doing it looks like you’re having a fantastic time.” All the ladies in the truck laughed when I said, “And, um, Aaaaashley? Can you even get in the car?” Now, this situation? It would have been made more incredible if I were wearing the red dress.

I’m so sorry I wasn’t wearing the red dress at that moment.

Our photography session was anything but common. A reunion, an auction, a live band, and several other people were there taking advantage of the weather. Matt suggested we meet at sunset to capture the very best light and his suggestion didn't disappoint. His photos are incredible and he is a generous photographer who shared the photos with me as he took them. When he really likes one he's just snapped he is altogether giddy and smug because he knows what he's doing. Matt made a sound like a little stifled laugh before making his way over to me to show me what he just took. I have to admit that his laughs are properly placed because boy, did he ever capture the light. I assured him that I normally don't look that creamy or glow-y in photographs but he kept proving different. He made magic for me. Then, he called me sassy. Matt is a keeper. So is his wife, Karen Sue. You should see his photoblog and read how he talks about that woman.

Since the area was full of people I stood out even more when I emerged from my car in a poofy red dress. There was a family taking photos about 20 feet from us with a little girl who looked to be around 2 years old. She was mesmerized by the dress and took off, her mom running after her, to come stand next to our shoot. I tried to coax her into getting in the picture with me but she just stood close to the dress and stared at this grown woman dressed up in a princess dress with cowgirl boots on. Throughout the evening lots of people walked by and said, "Nice dress" as they passed by. Sometimes I gave them the short version: I have this friend who sends this dress all around the country for women to wear. It's a traveling red dress. Another family was leaving the covered bridge and I heard the little girl whisper, "I like her dress" to which her mom whispered back, "I like her boots." The whole thing was quite an experience.

This uncommon, unconventional, capricious, ridiculous, overindulgent, silly, sassy and nonsensical life has to be worn I suppose. It doesn't come in the form of a dress. It is an outfit that I cannot take off when I tire of it. Maybe none of us is the 'normal' I keep thinking I need to be and we're all like this. Tell me we are so I don't feel so alone about that. If not, tell me you're normal and you still want a red dress in your life. Whatever it is that you're wearing, just go ahead and wear it already. These are reminders as much for me as for anyone and that red dress came just at the right time.

Red dresses are transformative. Red dresses are necessary. Red dresses have the power to resurrect.

Red dresses are the best kind of ridiculous. Thank you, Jenny, for reminding me of that.
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Reader Comments (120)

You look amazing. Radiant.

October 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRobin

Normal can't wear a red dress. Extraordinary can and does. Beautiful post.

October 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnn

You really did wear the hell out of that red dress! Beautiful!

October 23, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterjacqui


You look amazing. Jenny is one of those people that just leaps into your heart, I just adore her and this Red Dress journey.

You. are. simply. spectacular.

Love this post and I love your photos! You do look radiant!

October 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterZaimanhi

"We writers, we start blogs to explore our core beliefs and experiences in writing and that makes us feel less alone. As time goes on we realize just who is reading and then, at least for me this is true, pull back from it all."

YES! Oh, how this post resonated with me! It's as if you pulled my thoughts from my brain and wrote them in such a beautiful and amazing way.

You are gorgeous. With the red dress. With jeans and a t-shirt. Anything. You have always radiated beauty! Thank you for writing this. I LOVED IT!! (One day I'll seek out that dress, too....)

October 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJenn @ MommyNeedsCoffee

This the most wonderful story! And the timing for me is perfect. I've been toying with taking a leap. But worried I can't do it.
You know what? Yes. I. Can.

Thank you

October 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRenee

Love, love, love this!!!! Jenny sent me here and I am so glad she did! The pics are gorgeous! Good for you!!!!

October 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDana

I had heard of the Red Dress post, but didn't know there is a real red dress. You look amazing.

October 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMrs. Wonder

I've been following the story of the red dress and your story is just as amazing as Jenny's story is. Wear the hell out of that dress!

October 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKristin

Stunning- your words & your beauty. Thank you for sharing.

October 23, 2011 | Unregistered Commentersashalyn

I love the red dress and I love you in it. Thanks for sharing your experience with it!!

October 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPgoodness

Twas an honor, a pleasure and a delight to see and bring out the sassy lady in that red dress.

I giggle like that when I'm particularly pleased, which i was. I still grin like a fool, looking at the images we three captured.

- Matt

October 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMatt Penning

I am so glad to read this and see that I am not the only one feeling this way. Finding was the greatest thing in my life recently because she has brought me to people like you. Thank you for sharing.

October 23, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteremotionally naked

You look amazing. You always do, in every picture I see of you--but really--you are all lit up!

I like the idea of an amazing magical red dress. That creativity of Jenny--she's kind of a wild artist, really, more than a blogger.

You are too cool to have had no life struggles--am I ever sorry to hear about those jokers stealing from you and so on-- but you really do wear it all very well. And I mean primarily that you are kind and focused on doing for others.

October 23, 2011 | Unregistered Commentersnozma

Wonderful... someday perhaps I will have the courage to also wear the hell outta a red dress. xox

I read about Jenny's red dress quite a while back. I thought about it for a while.

My "red dress" is my tiara. I wear it at home sometimes or when I blog and I've threatened to wear it at the office. Sounds dumb I know, but's me. And my blog is kinda my "red dress," too. That is something I always wanted but figured everyone would think I'm stupid or look at me like I'm crazy.

Then I realized, since when have I ever given a rats a*s about what anyone thinks? And why am I starting to now?

You look stunning. Simply stunning.

October 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCarrie

I have tears in my eyes!
You are beautiful.

October 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMary Jo

I guess I always had the upper hand when it came to the "normal" issue because my whole family is anything but "normal" when you get to know them. This was always a positive in my family. We wore the "red dress", we wore a foam steak costume, and we wore what we thought would make others smile. Sometimes my problem is I sometimes feel naked without the "red dress" or I feel my dress isn't red enough. I am learning though. I m learning you can't make everyone smile, nor should you have too. And sometimes T-shirts are damn comfortable!

Thank you Jenny, TheBloggess, for linking to this post and thank you for writing it!

Ohmygosh! I TOTALLY know this covered bridge!!! My dad used to drive over it when he was much too young to be driving---"If you went fast enough you could get airborne," he tells me. The bridge just kind of whispers stories of nostalgia, doesn't it?

Love it! Love that you wore your red dress there! You look radiant!

October 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJulia

Brilliant! Gorgeous! Radiant! The best kind of everything! My red shoes aspire to being that dress! You do wear the Hell out of it! Well done!

October 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAmy C.

That is a beautiful red dress and you look awesome in it.

October 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGa

This is awesome. So are you (but you already know that)

October 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBen

You look FAB-U-LOUS baby! Wow! Just wow!

October 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda

I have a friend that mentioned the concept of a handmade life to me years ago. At the time I had considerable anxiety about stepping off the beaten path I thought I was on but that really never served me, and wanted to step onto the path that was, for better or worse, mine.

I now have my path, and on it I've found incredible people like Jenny, and now you. None of us are normal, and I'm glad for it.

October 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLacey

Jenny is one of those people who's definitely on my list of "People I'd really like to meet, even though I'm sure I'd act like a total fool inadvertently." There's other people I would avoid because of that whole accidental-fool thing, but for the chance to meet Jenny, I'd gladly risk it.
Enough of my gushing though.
You look gorgeous and vibrant in that red dress. And confident. And generally amazing.

October 23, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterthepsychobabble

What a great story and a wonderful experience! You look magnificent. And yes, red dresses are powerful and wonderful, needful things..... but most especially this one, it has super powers.

October 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKaren

You are glorious and if I had a child I would trust you with her immediately based solely on your eyes and smile. I don't know what normal is, but you look amazing and I hope you enjoyed your red dress day!

October 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKathleen

Isn't it amazing what a red dress can do? You look gorgeous, but I suspect that you look fabulous regardless of whether you're wearing the dress or not.

It's challenging balancing the 'red-dress' in us with the reality of our lives, but if it can be done, and done well, what a remarkable life it is. I'm an archivist; insert any number of stereotypes from introverted egghead to blue-haired old crone. I am nearly AARP eligible, but in the last two years I have 'red-dressed' myself in a big way. I have two rather large tattoos, beautiful artwork both of them, I have lost 30 pounds and become active by taking up fitness pole dancing last January. I assure you, my life is a mess, but I believe I have more confidence in myself as a woman than I ever have.

May all of you that read this find your red dress...

October 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLaura Cosgrove Lorenzana

Wonderful story. Gorgeous dress. Stunning photos.

Thank you for sharing!

October 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSara Kerr

Seriously. you are wearing the hell out of that dress. I'm so happy Jenny's message is getting amplified and can reach further than this blogging world that all bounce around in.

October 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBitchin' Amy

This will probably sound silly and insipid to you, K, but I swear, whenever I see you, I see you in the proverbial red dress. You ARE the red dress to me.

Beautiful, outrageous and spirited.

I'm just so very glad YOU got to see yourself in the red dress. Because for a moment you got to see what I always see when I see you.


October 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRedneck Mommy

Those pictures are beautiful! This is a great post about the dress and its meaning.

Sigh. This takes my breath away. How radiant you are. I wish for a red dress for all women and, my precious child, NO, we are NOT all normal. We all spend a lot of time looking for whatever we think normal is. Until we don't. And that is really when the fun begins. I promise.

October 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNanna

Wear it you did.

You are wonderful.

Jenny is wonderful.

The dress is wonderful.

This is wonderful.

October 23, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermoosh in indy.

I'm going to get a red dress!! Love this blog!

October 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJeans Y

To answer your question: yes, unequivocally, I can see you as the person whose office I would go to you if my daughter needed help at school.

October 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKaren

You rock that dress!

October 23, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermameyer1959

Kelly, I am so grateful that you choose to share the uniqueness that is you with us.

I remember being told once that "Normal was only a cycle on your washing machine". I say it to myself often... and yet still fight for that "Whoo Hoo I'm fitting in" feeling.

You are not alone. I don't know if we're all like this... but I am. I've found that when I get to know people I like, respect, or cherish... they are as well.

Congratulations for choosing to Wear the hell out of it!!!!

October 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterFiona

Why does this make me cry so hard?

You're one of the most stunning, captivating, amazing women I have ever met. From the first time I ran around the pool in San Jose with you sporting a towel wrapped around your head to talking to you on Erin's porch and just going so deep into important stuff so've always amazed me.

But that picture in the bridge? Magic.

October 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSuebob

You are suited for everything it represents.

Thank you. I'm that square peg who's always tried to cram herself into the round hole. Halloween is a favorite season for me. I "pretend" to be someone else. Only, it's in that, I'm actually more myself--flamboyant, flaunty me. How ironic that, in costume, I feel extraordinary, beautiful, happy, and whole. Hail the red dress!

October 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDawn

I need a glorious pair of red pants, I believe.

October 23, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterthe muskrat

Normal is a lie, none of us are. You rock the dress! Love everything about it.

October 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNora

Karen used the line I was going to use.

Yes, I totally see you wearing the dress if my child walked into your office. To add, I wish my child could have the honor of knowing you as an administrator who really gives a damn.

You are simply stunning and beautiful with or without the red dress


October 23, 2011 | Unregistered Commentergorillabuns

Oh, how I want the red dress...I have always wanted the red dress. It is too late...I am seventy! I loved this story more than you can know.

October 23, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterb

So beautiful, so moving. I wept.

October 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCaroline Pollock

I just found out about THE dress and, if I may be so bold, YOU truly wear it well.

October 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGeorge Scully

You look so beautiful and so wildly comfortable in your own skin. Yay for the wicked red dress!

October 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy

You are so not alone. One of my favorite new quotes is from Albert Einstein: "Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid." We are all glorious and amazing and beautiful in our own ways, and that's one of the reasons it's so easy to look at other people and think, "I'm not that smart/pretty/in control." The key is to stop comparing and just celebrate being you--you're the best at it!

October 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChristine

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