I’m not talking about style or taste, though those always show, too. But have you ever noticed that about yourself? I put that truth together near the end of college, only when it was pointed out to me. Freshman year, depression took root. It’s expected that the first year away from home will change you. Isn’t that the point of college? And yet, I went home different in ways I could not have anticipated.

While I struggled internally, it showed externally. After a good decade of pouring over fashion magazines obsessively (folks, there was no internet back then!), clothing became even less than an afterthought. In the haze of perpetual preoccupation, I no longer considered the play of the hand-me-down men’s wingtips with the polka dot, vintage swing dress. I didn’t bother with the proportional balance of the homemade, gingham micro-mini and the nipped-in wool blazer I’d found in a Florentine flea market. I moved through my closet and days in an uninspired, robotic way. And if anyone noticed I’d changed on the clothing front, they never said so.

Early sophomore year, I began to grapple in earnest with my muted insides. Caroline was an approachable counselor I came to trust and open up to easily. We spent the academic year working together, and she saw me through some tough periods of growth and backsliding. We parted with mutual high hopes for my junior year abroad in Rome, away from the campus where I felt most deadened.

Looking at pictures of my Rome days, the colors are vibrant, the attitude is fierce, the platforms are high. There is sparkle, there is shine (literal and figurative). It was a world away for my body and mind. When I returned to Caroline in the fall of senior year, her eyes bugged. She didn’t recognize me. Having known me only during my darkest period (read: sweatpants, LA Kings baseball hat, no makeup), I was a different person on the outside to her, and she said so. I knew I was happier inside, that the year away had done more for me than simply educate, but I hadn’t realized the proof was visible. The bitch was back.

Cut to age thirty-five, and I’m a new stay-at-home mom. Accustomed to dressing as a creative on a Hollywood studio lot, my busy schedule now consists of regular meetings around breastfeeding, diaper changing and nap times. It’s long after I’ve come out of the three-month, dark tunnel phase, and while ecstatic to have a child at last, I’m still not carving anything out for myself and it shows. I meet fellow moms aplenty, all of whom are operating in this similar haze, like widget factory workers at a never-ending conveyor belt. Yoga pants, flip flops and worn out tee shirts that can withstand damp sandboxes, be spat upon (and worse) comprise our daily uniform. It was a rough time, people, sartorially and otherwise.

This go around I was aware I felt worn down internally, that I was disconnected from ‘myself’ and that my style was suffering for it. I was in the trenches. And while it seems so obvious now, I simply could not make the connection that dressing intentionally, with just  a few minutes of attention, would be worth the effort because it would actually elevate my mood.

My second son arrived as I was putting this together. (The learning curve with subsequent children is both mercifully and painfully different. Yes, they are all-consuming and two is harder than one, but at least by now you pretty much know what you’re doing.) I simply could not do another three years feeling like a cheap imitation of myself. I forced tiny, easy choices just for me. It started with a giant sun hat I actually liked for those frequent park dates. An interesting sandal as opposed to a flip flop. A sweatshirt with an asymmetrical silhouette. Some jeans with design details that spoke to my personality, not utilitarianism. Lip gloss! Mascara! Blush! Inch by inch, detail by detail, I became myself again. When visiting my eldest’s preschool a year post-graduation, a teacher did that telltale eyebugging I remembered so clearly on Caroline’s face. “You’re so different!” she exclaimed. She was right. I was back to me.

It was a long process of living it (twice!) and connecting the dots (d’oh!) when so many other things felt more important. My hard and fast rule for myself is now this: whatever the occasion, wear/get/rock the version that’s interesting, feels good, is even just a tiny bit special. This even extends to workout clothes, pajamas, and outdoor gear (translation, the stuff I don’t particularly care about). Sticking to it means I always feel like my true, best, confident self which translates to my mood. How could it not? And then guess what happens? I do better out in the world, whether I’m mom-ing, friend-ing, wife-ing, working. And so will you.