When I was nine, I knew exactly what I wanted to be for Halloween. I wanted to be Cleopatra. At the grocery store, there was a rack of costumes-in-a-bag you could buy for $9.99, and while my mother insisted on spending her time at the grocery store doing boring things, like buying milk so we could all survive, I’d beeline directly to the costumes-in-a-bag rack as soon as we walked in. My mother told me that I shouldn’t do that, because I’d get lost and she’d be considered a bad mother for abandoning me, but I felt she was being irrational. I would obviously be by the costumes-in-a-bag rack. The entire time.
At this point in my life, I considered myself deeply deprived as a Halloween-celebrating child. While my friends got to buy costumes from bags all the time, my mother insisted that I wear a homemade one every year. She spent hours at her sewing machine, toiling away at one-of-a-kind versions of princess gowns or genie get-ups, just to torment me. It seemed completely unjust that I, already the least popular girl at school, should have to suffer at the grip of an overly loving parent.
At nine, I was… rotund. That might sound overly self-deprecating, but I assure you it’s actually a very kind euphemism for what was going on. My grandmother even used the word “embarrassment” more than a few times. You don’t un-hear the word “embarrassment” when it’s applied to the state of your body in the context of a family picture.
It’s hard to say why I was so overweight. It’s possible it was just growing pains. It’s probable that it was because I liked to shame-eat entire cans of uncooked biscuits behind my bed. (You know, the kind that come in cylinder packaging you have to unwrap at the edges, and then they pop open? Then you hypothetically cook them in the oven at a safe, pasteurizing 350 degrees? And then you eat ONE of them, and share the rest with your family, like a normal, non-embarrassment of a human person? Yeah.)
The costume I wanted to buy was a bright gold spandex tube dress with a plastic jewel-toned belt and a sexy rubber snake that came with it. The picture on the package looked like this:
I had fantasies about how I would put on the dress, and my hair would magically turn silky pitch black. I would enter a room like Cinderella at the ball, and every boy in school would fall in love with me. Trevor Hanson would be especially in love with me. I had been infatuated with Trevor Hanson ever since the second grade when he fixed the VCR while we were watching a Thanksgiving special about mice on the Mayflower. He walked in, pushed two buttons, and a previously frozen mouse in a pilgrim hat offered a leg of turkey to a mouse in a stereotypical Native American headdress. I was utterly incapable of speech around Trevor Hanson after that. I had already named our future children. (Phoebe and Chandler.)
My mom finally gave in, probably out of sheer embarrassment over the scene I made at the grocery store for this thing. My future was set. I’d wear the dress, Trevor Hanson would fall in love with me, and then we’d have babies and make out. (At nine, the order of events was always babies first, making out second. I think I thought that was responsible thing to do.)
Our family threw a Halloween party every year on the Saturday before Halloween. We invited all our neighbors. This year, I insisted that we also invite Trevor Hanson. I am sure everyone thought that was very suspicious. Just neighbors and Trevor? Something was up. But honestly, I didn’t care if everyone on earth knew about my crush. This Cleopatra plan was infallible. So what if the set-up was a little forced?
On the night of the party, I barely wriggled into the gold dress. The bag said “One Size Fits All,” but that was clearly a misprint. The bag should have said, “For Small-But-Simultaneously-Hourglass-Figured Women ONLY. No One Else Should Buy This Dress. SERIOUSLY Not Chubby Nine-Year-Olds. We Cannot Emphasize This Enough.” I guess the company figured they would not sell as many costumes that way, but this “One Size Fits All” business seemed downright unethical. It was like trying to squeeze my entire body into just one leg of a pair of nylons:
My mother loaned me a black wig that was more like a mop than anything else. I did my makeup from a tutorial on cat eyes from Seventeen Magazine, using grease face paint from the grocery store. When all was said and done, I looked exactly, precisely, like a raccoon:
Still, I was pretty sure my plan would work. No one had ever dared to wear something so sexy and scandalous at our neighborhood Halloween parties. This was a year for the books.
Lots of neighbors came. No one had any compliments for my costume. The compliments mostly went to the Jochims, who had coordinated a dumb family costume so they all looked like they were gigantic Beanie Babies. This costume was not that great. They had really just made big “Ty” labels for themselves. It was a stupid, homemade cop-out costume, and it did not hold a candle to my authentic, from-the-bag Cleopatra gown. I figured people must be too in awe to really know what to say to me. I let it go.
Then, Trevor showed up. He was not wearing a costume at all. He had an R. L. Stine book with him, and he said he was going as “an avid reader of R. L. Stine.” I thought that was super-hot. He mingled with the neighbors. He ate a Dorito. And then he saw me.
“What are you supposed to be? A giant limited edition Tootsie Roll?”
And that was the last time he spoke to me all night. He went into our basement to play Snake on the computer. He didn’t even do bobbing for apples. I was completely heartbroken.
That was a long time ago, and now I live in New Orleans. New Orleans loves costumes, and you’re not allowed to get them ready-made from a bag. Since the Cleopatra incident, I have not worn any more Spandex. Instead, I pick costumes that are made mostly out of felt and that completely hide the fact that I have anything resembling a female human body. For Halloween last year I went as “pie.”
In fact, after the Cleopatra incident I stopped wearing sexy things pretty much altogether. It wasn’t just the isolated Tootsie Roll comment. There were lots of comments, from lots of people, about how my body was supposed to look. I was constantly reading about it. In the same Seventeen Magazine that (badly) taught me how to do my Halloween eye makeup, there was an article on the very next page about how to cover up my pesky problem areas. When I started dating boys, they (yes, plural, as in more than one) often told me to keep my shirt on when we’d have sex, because “it was hotter that way.” For years, I would look in the mirror and think, “embarrassment.” It’s amazing how hard that stuff is to shake.
Mine isn’t a unique story, and I know that. What’s amazing is that it took me until I was nine to figure out I was supposed to be hiding everything. As a current teacher of very young children, I gotta say: most six-year-old girls I teach today are so utterly aware of their body complexes that watching them interact on the schoolyard feels like watching a particularly gruesome Amy Schumer sketch:
But this year for Mardi Gras, some friends of mine said they wanted to do a group costume where we all dressed as shotgun houses. The catch was that the costumes would be meticulously painted — onto spandex body suits.
Obviously, I had to think about this proposal for a long time. I took a bath and thought about it. I looked at my body in the bath and logged all the bad things about it that people would see if I wore a body suit. Then I drank some wine to see if the idea would be more appealing to me after wine. It was not. It was actually worse. I crawled under the covers and wished all human bodies were just blobs and we lived in space. (Partially that’s just because I think that sounds cool.)
I said yes. Was I crazy? What was wrong with me? Why would I say yes?
Turns out I’m just really bad at peer pressure, and I wanted these girls to like me. I figured I’d just do it and wear a coat.
But then I went to put my body suit on to get it painted, and there were other girls there also getting their body suits painted. They were all also self-proclaimed feminists. They were also decked out in spandex, looking kinda nervous. And then, someone cracked.
“I put this thing on, and I’m not sure if I can do it,” she said. “I just look… it looks wrong.” Then there was a big parade of all the other women telling this one why she looked beautiful, along with lots of, “You don’t look wrong! I look wrong! Look at my weird boobs!” It was a room full of self-imposed Cleopatra incidents, all crashing together at once. And then, like a balloon just suddenly getting too big and bursting, everyone stopped. We seemed to simultaneously realize how ridiculous we were being. I found myself in a room full of beautiful women, who knew they were beautiful just as they were. And I was one of them.
I wore the bodysuit on Mardi Gras day, and even though it was super cold, I didn’t wear my coat. I even went on the news and showed the newscaster my hot body suit. I felt kind of crazy-beautiful, like Elizabeth Taylor but more. I want to wear spandex all the time now. I’d even pull out that One Size Fits All Cleopatra costume if I could find it, and parade around the town in it at as a grown-up. It’s incredible to me that it took me almost a full decade to grow up enough to get back to the place I was when I was nine: fine just as I am, without all the covering up.