Essay // ON DRESSING UP AND FITTING IN

WHEN I WAS FOUR, my mother dressed me as Norman Lindsay’s Magic Pudding. Grey tights, grey skivvy, a stocking over my face with currants drawn in permanent marker, and a pudding basin atop my head, the outfit’s crowning glory. No, she wasn’t indulging a deranged whim – it was dress-as-your-favourite-book-character day at kindergarten.

Already, I was different and, even at four, I knew it. All around me swirled tulle tutus and streaks of satin, glittering pinks and purples, cute little button-nosed Goldilocks and Tinkerbells. And here was I, a goddamn pudding. Refusing to submit to the indignity of the stocking, I gazed maliciously at the camera, unwittingly completing the impersonation of that bad-mannered, ill-tempered edible.

Years later, as I entered the painful so-called ‘tween’ years, there came another occasion for my mother to gratify the passion for dress-ups that invariably resulted in her children arriving in the most full-on interpretation of any theme. A friend held a birthday party for which we were invited to dress as our favourite pop stars, an assignment that filled me with inexplicable anxiety. Who to be? What to wear? It was an agonizing thought – my wobbly status as either cool or nerdy hung in the balance.

I’d embraced the Spice Girls, dabbled in a little Hanson and purchased the single of Barbie Girl, but this was about as far as my contemporary musical education had gone. This was the late nineties, and there was a plethora of socially acceptable girly pop stars from which to choose – Britney Spears, Natalie Imbruglia… all I needed was a crop top and a bit of sparkle. Even coming as one of the Backstreet Boys, although dressing as a boy was something I would not contemplate, would have been a better move than what eventuated.

I found myself, on the morning of the party, in a costume shop in the city, where my mother and the shop assistant consulted over who I should be, dragging out horrifying relics from the piles of musty clothes. Unlikely disco shoes were followed by jeweled sunglasses, worn pleather jackets and a seemingly unending supply of bedraggled feather boas. Suddenly one of them – my mother or the nutso costume lady – had a brain wave. Cyndi Lauper! Oh, wouldn’t that be fun! Fun? Fun! I didn’t want to be an object of fun. I didn’t even know who Cyndi Lauper was! And yet somehow, because of my panicked inability to make a decision or assert my social needs, Cyndi Lauper it was to be.

Looking back, I can only admire the effort and dedication that went into producing that outfit. Hair sprayed pink and teased up beyond repair, an aqua sequined boob-tube (although how I kept it up, at eleven, I’m not sure), miniskirt, inappropriately bright make-up, and the obligatory feather boa. Who are you supposed to be? Asked countless Britneys and Natalies as they took in the unfamiliar 80s aesthetic. Cyndi Lauper? Who’s that? You know, she sang Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, I’d respond defensively, clinging to the one fact I knew about my so-called ‘favourite’ pop star.

I remember tearfully gazing at my ludicrous reflection in the bathroom at the friend’s house, fighting back panic and irritation at my mother for having sent me like this, asking myself, why? Why can’t I just be like everyone else?

But if I had just been like everyone else, if I had been able to fulfill my painful desire to simply fit in, who would I have become? Would I have been imbued with the creativity, the courage, to start wearing Alannah Hill, vintage purses and pearls when those around me stuck to Sportsgirl and the surf brands? Would I ever have found the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, if I’d conformed to Britney Spears and Cher at an early age? Would I be an avid reader, a writer even, if my mother had just handed me an off-the-peg Cinderella outfit that day in kindergarten, rather than taking the time to read me gems of Australian fiction and draw currants on an old stocking?

While I found it painful at the time, perhaps dressing me in pudding basin was one of the best things my mother did for me – teaching me that to stand out, and take pride in your differences, is far more interesting, far more fun, than fitting in. And after all, girls do just want to have fun.

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