Before online shopping became the norm, I would count the days till back-to-school shopping at the mall. I grew up in a small rural town in upstate New York, and any trip to the mall, which was an hour away, felt like a treat. When the only shopping options you have around are Walmart and Sears, it was nice to go into a store that felt like it was created with you in mind, not a place where you buy a T-shirt alongside groceries. For me, that store was Forever 21, the epitome of style and coolness for teenage me.
I remember very vividly my first experience at the store, equal parts overwhelming and exciting. I dug through the overstuffed racks like an adventurer looking for treasure, pulling out items of clothing in search of the perfect “look,” aka anything Blair Waldorf would wear. I felt oh so cool and grown-up as I tried on dresses, ripped jeans, headbands, and sequined tops.
From then on, the clothing at Forever 21 became a major part of my wardrobe. There was the faux-fur vest I was wearing during my first kiss. The backless rose-print tank dress I wore when I finally felt confident enough to show my scoliosis surgery scar. And the mesh-sleeved black skater dress I wore to my first reading in a room full of people. In fact, there aren’t many milestones in my life where I wasn’t wearing clothing from the store. Some of the pieces are still in my closet today after years of wear, lasting longer than my houseplants and some of my relationships. Forever 21 was not only a great place to try out the latest trends cheaply, but also a place I could get T-shirts, jeans and semi-professional clothing for less, making style affordable. I even spent part of my 21st birthday at Forever 21, partially as a joke and partially because I needed something to wear for my internship.
But as I grew older, my love for Forever 21 faded. My body changed, and my body image grew worse. My boobs weren’t big enough; my stomach wasn’t flat enough; everything felt like it was filtered through a fun house mirror. Eventually this manifested itself into a life-threatening eating disorder. Soon my trips to the mall became less exciting and more excruciating as the dressing room became a torture chamber. The sizing seemed to wildly inconsistent: Jeans of various sizes all fit the same. Shirts with the same size on the label would all fit completely differently, making this a mental minefield for my body dysmorphia. No matter how much weight I would lose, I would stay the same dress size, sending me deeper into my illness of trying to reach an unattainable weight goal. I always wondered why their models looked much older and thinner than the average shopper. And while some logical part of me understood that those models were heavily Photoshopped, it didn’t stop me from feeling terrible for not looking like them. Forever 21 didn’t cause my eating disorder, but the inconsistent sizing and overly airbrushed models surely didn’t help my recovery or body image.
The thing about growing up is realizing that the things you adored when you were younger now seem out of place, weird even. You understand the sex jokes in cartoons, you know that Ross from Friends is actually the worst boyfriend ever, and you wonder why your middle school principal played “Get Low” at all of the school dances. Forever 21 falls into that category. The racks that were once an adventure now just look like clutter. There are random Bible verses on clothing, such as one T-shirt with Joshua 1:9, and John 3:16 is on the bottom of every yellow bag. The store that once carried affordable plain dresses and cardigans that I could wear for my internships now had shirts in weird cuts and a Cheetos tube dress — and let us not forget the time they had the USPS collection. I learned more about the horrors of fast fashion, from the use of sweatshops to the theft of designs from smaller designers. I begin shopping more at thrift shops and small businesses. When I did order from Forever 21, the quality of the clothes wasn’t great or the fit was wrong. And when the store started sending diet bars to customers, I was officially done.
With the news of Forever21 filing for bankruptcy, it seems that the go-to store of my teens and early 20s won’t exist for much longer. So a few weeks ago, for old time’s sake, and because the store was having a 70% off sale, I decided to take the hourlong drive to the mall. The mall that once felt fancy and cool was almost dead, and the store I onced loved was no longer an exciting place to be. The lights were too bright, the racks looked chaotic, and one of the shirts I was holding had a few ripped seams. I stood in the same dressing room I had stood in on my first visit, trying on a jumpsuit that fit my chest but not my waist and tried not to overthink it. The store hadn’t closed yet, but it still felt empty, and my shopping experience was bankrupt too.
As the light on the chandelier above me started to flicker and die, I thought about how there was a time when this store meant everything to me. The clothes defined my whole self-esteem and self-worth; they made me feel at times cool and grown-up and other times out of place and worthless. Style is still important to me, but it’s different now. I get dressed for the person I am, not the person I hope to be. That means shopping at places where my body feels welcome, where I feel like I’m practicing sustainable consumer behavior, and most importantly, places I feel like were created with me in mind. After all, no one stays 21 forever.
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue