When you’re a child, you don’t really have much of a say on what you get to wear. (Well, if you’re me, anyway, I don’t know about you.) Your parents dictate your clothing purchases and your day-to-day outfits, for the most part, deciding what looks good on you and what doesn’t, what’s acceptable and what isn’t — “You’re not leaving the house in that!” — that phrase sure rings a bell, doesn’t it?
I remember wearing dresses a lot as a child — there’s one I remember from when I was four, I believe (I also had a pretty sweet mullet and there’s photographic evidence but that’s neither here nor there), and later on in life it would become a picture we’d make fun of; whether it was the horrible 80’s hairstyles or the painfully stereotypical 80’s apparel, I’m not entirely sure, but we’ll go with a little bit of both. This dress though, I remember hating it, instantly. My mother loved it, obviously, because she chose it and I had no other choice but to wear it and what’s a four year old going to do, argue with her mother? (The answer is yes, obviously, and throw a fit but at the end of the day the mom always wins. Moms: 1, 4-year-olds: 0).
After that, I didn’t particularly care for dresses. I turned into a bit of a Tomboy, in my clothing apparel, the toys I liked and the things I did for fun. (A little red fire truck that I got as a child was my favourite no matter how many Barbies I was given. I’d sleep with it at night, tucked under my pillow just below my head so it was always close to me. To this day, I still have that little fire truck, somewhere.) I used to teach kids how to swear, something I probably shouldn’t be proud of — but c’mon, how bad ass is it that a 5 year old kid taught kids how to swear? To say things that would get them grounded from their parents?
“Repeat after me,” I’d say, instructing them to line up behind me so I could lead the way. I didn’t waste time and dove right into it, with the harshest word I could think of: “Fuck,” I said proudly, and a chorus of it was repeated behind me. It was thrilling and I loved that feeling of being in charge, even if was brief and terrible; I’d like to say that I didn’t know better, but I’m not sure that’s 100 per cent true. Something a little girl wearing a dress wouldn’t do, I’m sure, but I wasn’t that kind of little girl — not anymore.
Anyway, I spent a lot of time with boys as a kid, doing outdoor activities, riding bikes and playing in the dirt hills; there was no time or place to wear cute little dresses and I was perfectly okay with that. It’s not to say I didn’t have any girl friends or did girly things — it just wasn’t as frequent and I felt more comfortable playing on that dirt hill just down the street from us, until the town I lived in turned it into a cul de sac of houses.
Then it happened.
I was 9 years old and in the third grade and I was gifted a dress by a family member I didn’t know very well — which made sense because why would a family member that knew me well give me something I clearly didn’t want?
It was hideous — atrociously hideous and I loved it. It was this little cotton neon pink dress with bright green polka dots scattered all over it with a bright green bow at the back. My mother coated her distaste for it in ways she probably didn’t think I picked up on, but I did. “You know, you don’t have to wear that if you don’t want to,” she’d say, and anyone would think she was telling me that because she knew I didn’t like dresses in general, but that wasn’t the case. If someone had given me a dress that she liked, I’d be wearing it, no ifs ands or buts about it, no matter how much I didn’t want to. Trust me on this.
“No, I like it. I want to wear it,” I said. I felt myself liking it more as those words came out of my mouth because I knew my mom hated it; her hatred towards it fuelled something in me.
“But sweetie, you don’t like dresses. Besides, when will you wear it? You’re always playing outside.”
“Well, I like dresses now, mom.”
The next day I wore it to school. It was a big moment for me because no one at school had seen me wear a dress before and I didn’t know what to expect. The possibilities were endless, but I went with it and held my head as high as I possibly could.
“You know you don’t have to do this,” my mom said, and I wanted to tell her to shut the hell up, that she didn’t know what she was talking about, that I liked the dress and everything would be fine. In hindsight, maybe she was just looking out for me.
All morning, no one said a word to me about the dress, which I also didn’t know how to take because DIDN’T ANYONE NOTICE ANYTHING DIFFERENT ABOUT ME? I want to scream it from the top of my lungs but that probably wouldn’t get me anywhere. Sure, people looked at me and smiled and like they wanted to say something, but they didn’t. Instead, they’d quickly turn back to their group of friends and giggle amongst themselves. Later I would realise they were laughing about me.
I sat alone at lunch time, feeling sorry for myself that no one had said anything to me about my gloriously hideous dress and then I went for a walk outside around the school, pretending I was Belle from Beauty and the Beast as I read my book whilst walking. Somebody whistled at me and when I turned around to see who it was, it was a boy who was in Grade 7 that I’d had a massive crush on. He was with two other boys, boys who had previously bullied me and would continue doing so, but Connor never had so I thought he was being sincere. He told me he liked my dress and that I looked real pretty while the two behind him burst into fits of laughter. Then Connor did and all three of them were pointing and laughing at me.
“You don’t think she believed us, do you?” I heard one of them say, but I don’t know if the question was answered. I guess it was supposed to be rhetorical.
Then, just like that, they scurried off in hurry in case anyone saw them standing so close to the girl with the ugly dress.
Then it hit me and then my heart sank. I was an embarrassment and no one wanted to be seen with me. People were talking about me behind my back and I became the laughing stock of my elementary school that day and many more after that. I don’t regret it though, not now, because I dared to follow my heart and to be different. It wasn’t easy, I went through what I imagine would be hell and back, but I did it and I turned out okay, I think.
I started wearing dresses again, and continue doing so to this day. With polka dots, even (okay, mostly polka dots, who are we kidding here). Not because I was told to or because anyone wanted me to, or because I felt like I had something to prove. I did it for me.
I suppose it worked.