It Can Take Years to Recognize Your True Colors

Anyone with grown children surely can recall elementary school field trips to an apple orchard, a local park or a science museum where their kids were assigned to wear matching T-shirts. Decades back, I took it to be a simple, visual way to keep the kids together and prevent the wanderers and rowdies, like my older son, from getting lost, which soothed my maternal anxieties.

But now that I’ve had opportunities to wear my own matching-color uniforms in both professional and volunteer roles, it occurs to me that the T-shirts also provided children with identity and pride, a reassuring sense of place. Like a sports team or a squad of soldiers, the kids felt special. Like they belonged.

My own, more recent experiences with uniforms and matching T-shirts tell a similar story of belonging — and of recognizing our true colors as we age.

Dressing alike at work “builds rapport and makes us feel safe. If there is a sense of conformity, then we feel able to identify ourselves in others, which can bring a level of certainty.”

Dr. Sarah Jane Khalid,

Years ago, when I was head of marketing and communications at St. Catherine University, our president had a penchant for morphing the annual launch of the academic year from a standard motivational speech into a stage show, complete with musicians and dancers. I tap danced twice, alongside other game faculty and staff members who saw the assignment as a novel break from our workaday routine.

The president had a canny ability to showcase her subordinates’ creativity while nurturing their loyalty and sense of place. That was most evident the year she ordered hundreds of matching T-shirts, swore department heads to secrecy and then closed campus after her opening-day address so everyone could hop on chartered buses and enjoy a late August day at the Minnesota State Fair.

I still remember the giddy thrill of strolling through the fairgrounds and acknowledging other purple-clad Katies with a wink and a wave. Whether friends or strangers, we felt this unmatched sense of belonging, all because of matching shirts.

Though examples abound about how the potent mix of power and uniforms can be brutally misused, in this case the common colors served the common good. Matching purple T-shirts helped us show the world that we were part of, and proud of, our campus and its women’s college culture.

“It is always an honor to put on a uniform.”

San Diego Padres third baseman Manny Machado

A less happy experience with uniforms occurred recently at the headquarters of Planned Parenthood North Central States when I arrived for my monthly shift to make donor thank you calls. The usual array of protestors was on the public sidewalk as I passed by: kneeling to pray and count rosary beads, pacing and chanting with gruesome signs, yelling at patients as they left their vehicles and before they’d made it safely to the main door.

As a volunteer, you try to tune out the racket. As an older woman, I have learned that temper rarely serves me. But the fall of Roe v. Wade, the misogynistic bills in state legislatures around the country, the sanctimony of Trump’s conservative court that, I believe, will harm democracy even more than the insurrection — all of my simmering resentment boiled over into rage that day when I saw a protestor wearing a hot pink vest, in the exact style and color of Planned Parenthood’s volunteer security team.

I strode past her, toward the building, and then pivoted and marched back. I’d never shouted at a protester, something we are ordered not to do. “Hot pink is our color,” I said, standing inches from her face. “That is the most cynical thing you can do, to impersonate a volunteer and make women think you’re here to help them. You have no idea what people are here for.”

I ignore the woman now when I arrive for my volunteer shifts as an escort or a phone banker, and breathe a sigh of relief when I see someone in the driveway wearing the pink security vest branded with white lettering: smiling, waving, welcoming me inside the gates. Hot pink is our refuge, our code and color — our symbol of collective resistance to a society that increasingly restricts voting, that fears other freedoms and that will not stop with a rollback of abortion rights.

“One thing I’ve learned as I’ve gotten into serious old age, it’s not nearly as scary when you’re inside it.”

Jane Fonda, “Wiser Than Me” podcast with Julia Louis-Dreyfus

I am 20 years younger than Jane Fonda, one of my icons; and yes, in my darker moments, I do fear growing older, dreading mobility loss the most. Aging is intimidating, and if any person 65 or older tells you differently, take time to ask a few follow-up questions.

Among the health risks for older people, cherry picked from a list of 15: dementia, incontinence, heart disease, hypertension, arthritis, depression, hearing loss and cancer. No wonder the United Nations declared 2021–30 the Decade of Healthy Aging, given the exploding population of older folks worldwide.

One can deny aging, as I am prone to do — stubbornly insisting, for example, that the name of my blog remain “The Middle Stages” (“Do you plan to live to 130?” one sarcastic reader inquired). So, it’s no surprise that I’ve resisted participating in what I’ve derisively called the “old people” classes at Lifetime Fitness, the facility I joined for free once I qualified for Medicare.

During my first class in the Aurora “community,” Lifetime’s program for active seniors, I announced to anyone who would listen — and likely more than a few folks who didn’t care — that I’d transferred recently from CorePower, the youthful yoga chain founded in Denver. When I didn’t return to my Aurora class for weeks, the front desk at Lifetime reached out to entice me back with, yes, a colored T-shirt.

In contrast to the industrial black-and-gray shirts pedaled to younger members of the club, the Aurora shirts are a calming shade of blue. Would this relegate me, a former fitness instructor, to forever exercising among slow-moving seniors?

“Healthy, active, social,” the back of my blue shirt reads. I swallowed my pride and wore the T-shirt to an Aurora program full of bald and graying heads, a Pilates class that acknowledged realities like foot neuropathy and shrinking muscle mass. I was one of four people wearing the blue T-shirt in class that day, and like the schoolkids of decades past, that helped me feel at home.

“People eventually show their true colors,” the saying goes. Mine are now hot pink for social action and a soft sky blue for safer, gentler physical activities that encourage both self-acceptance and self-care. All of us 65 and older are journeying toward a future that none of us can see. It’s a different sort of field trip, complete with matching T-shirts.

It is the place where I belong.

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