04/08/2013 02:15 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2013

Liberty and Looking

After a long spell of cold weather, the "cruelest month" is finally showing its friendlier side. To celebrate, I donned new navy and white pants (on sale at J. Crew) covered in a floral print by Liberty of London. My legs look like a spring garden. "Only you could wear those," a fellow classmate said to me as we undressed for yoga class. It was intended (I assume) as a compliment. I have a boyish physique with what have been called "chicken legs," so I don't shy away from a loud print on my thighs (mind you, if we talk about the stomach area, my fashion choices are an entirely different matter.)

I've long felt split between a passion for clothing and my more cerebral side. Over different summers during graduate school, I worked at Seventeen magazine and the Yale University Press. I relished the colors, textures and design on the pages of Vogue and I learned from Ms. magazine The New York Review of Books. Without the aplomb or savvy of Tavi Gevinson and current teen fashion bloggers, I investigated my identity through clothing choices.

So, when I assigned my college students Susan Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others this week and instructed them to write about their own relation to a photo of atrocity or pain, I was not entirely thrown off when a student asked if she might write instead about fashion. To her credit, this student has read widely about trauma and representation. She's no Pollyanna when it comes to thinking seriously and feeling for others. But she wanted to explore her own relation to the ethics of looking (which is indeed one of Sontag's primary questions) in a different way.

Which got me thinking about how we look at others and how we invite the gaze upon ourselves. It's a much lighter topic than those Sontag addresses regarding the responsibility of taking action after seeing images of atrocity and the exploration of the scopophilia (the pleasure of looking) in looking at gruesome imagery. But the first sunny and warm spring day turned me to lighter topics, particularly the liberty of looking different or wild. During one of our poses in yoga class, my teacher said, "make it your own." How we use our bodies (and the clothes we put on them) to 'make it our own'?

Of course, much of how we are seen by others lies beyond our control. My dark hair may not please someone who prefers blondes. While my "chicken legs" allow me to wear outrageous printed pants, I will never attain a sexy, voluptuous look, no matter where I put padding. On a more serious note, people infuse all kinds of ideologies and bias into how we see and treat people of different races, identities and colors. The fact that my cousin Cypora had kinky hair and a prominent nose in Poland in 1942 meant that she could not hide in homes where her blonde-haired but also Jewish friend, Danusha, could pass as Aryan. The images of lynchings that Sontag discusses in Regarding the Pain of Others bear witness to the immoral history of looking at people of color with hatred -- and of acting with violence and sadism. And we are still discussing the dangers of racial profiling in 2013. Ethics and looking is not a light subject.

But some of how we present ourselves to others -- and to ourselves -- lies within our power. We need to look within to shine to the world without. As I twisted my shoulder under my leg to prepare for an arm balance called astavakrasana, I couldn't help but go within. From there, a memory of my friend Stacey in her motorcycle jacket washed over me.

Why Stacey in a motorcycle jacket? In September 1984, I began college. Some consider my alma mater, Dartmouth College, to belong to the boarding school-bred WASP crowd, to frat-boy traditions and to conservative politics. They can make a convincing argument. But on my first day of college, I entered a small triple dorm room to meet my two roommates, Gail and Stacey. Gail was black, Stacey was half-black and half-Native American, and I was Jewish. People called us the "model-UN" even though we were all from the East Coast. We became instant friends in the way that only insecure freshmen in a strange place with no other connections can.

Stacey and I remained locked at the hip for years. If neither of us reflected a "typical" Dartmouth student, then we didn't try to camouflage our differences. Eschewing the standard L.L. Bean preppy look, we both picked odd items of clothing, especially outlandish leather jackets, to cover ourselves as the temperatures dropped. In 1984, we lived without Internet shopping. If you wanted a clothing item with distinction, you had to work for it. So when Stacey decided that she wanted to start wearing a black biker's jacket -- and remember, this was way before the current season of leather -- she had to mail in her order through a motorcycle-supply catalogue. As others donned navy pea coats and forest green Dartmouth varsity jackets, Stacey stood out on campus in her black motorcyclist's jacket. I, in turn, reclaimed from my parents' hall closet the battered brown leather coat I had bought at a flea market in Paris as a high school exchange student. Neither of us looked the part of the ivy co-ed. We liked that.

Stacey's father was from the Shinnecock tribe on Long Island and during the years that I knew Stacey, I learned an enormous amount about Shinnecock history and culture. Stacey eventually majored in Anthropology (and Spanish) and she took out the one book in Dartmouth's Baker library about her tribe so many times for various anthropology papers that I wonder why she ever bothered returning it to the stacks. (She may have occasionally neglected to return it.) Her Native American roots were omnipresent in our dorm room, such as the large American flag she hung upside down on Columbus Day in protest. Stacey constructed looms and would bead a belt for anyone who asked. She often procrastinated from homework by beading late into the night (or early morning). I hope that the many lucky recipients of her fine work realize the value of their handmade belts. I attended pow wows with Stacey. It was the highest honor when Stacey would bring you as a guest to her "Rez" in Southampton. Bringing pieces of her Native American culture to Dartmouth helped Stacey feel less like an outsider in Hanover, New Hampshire, a land that had once been populated by Native Americans.

Stacey might have made fun of the floral pants I am wearing today. She might have said they showed how white I am -- the Liberty of London/J. Crew pants being a sign of cultural identity like my love of Bruce Springsteen and inability to move my hips when I dance. But while teasing me, she would have loved me anyway, dressed in her beaded headband and distinctive new spring fashion statement.

I don't know quite what fashion statement Stacey would make today. On the very night of our graduation from Dartmouth, Stacey was killed by an oncoming car. Another Dartmouth student was eager to make a movie. Driving his car packed with friends, he crossed a double yellow line, sped along on the wrong side of the road and crashed head-on into Stacey's father's car as the family returned from a celebratory graduation dinner.

In certain yoga classes, a position can open all kinds of sensations and memories for me. My 25th college reunion is coming up and I am trying to decide whether to attend. Today, as I stretched and twisted, visions of Stacey in her black motorcycle jacket kept me smiling. I felt her laughing at me and enjoying my embrace of the whacky floral pants. They helped make the spring day my own.

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