When my daughter was 3, I wasn’t sure how to dress her for her first ballet class. Did little girls still wear tutus, or did they dance in black sequined bike shorts and crop-tops? I settled on the standard pink outfit. At the dance studio, every girl was dressed exactly like my daughter. My heart soared with joy. She fit in! Then I immediately felt guilty. I shouldn’t be glad that my daughter looks like the masses, I scolded myself. But I just couldn’t help it. I was glad.
My mother was so practical and individualistic that I wasn’t allowed to follow a trend. She wouldn’t let me make those homemade barrettes with ribbons and beads dangling down because “if the ribbons dangled near my face, they would distract me from my schoolwork and hurt my eyes.” Schoolwork? I was 7. And I was already legally blind in one eye, so I didn’t understand how much more damage a ribbon in my nonexistent peripheral vision could do.
While other girls got to wear dainty patent leather Mary Janes at Easter, I had to wear some sort of unbendable, water-impermeable, German Navy-tested orthopedic shoe. My mother was convinced that patent leather was some sort of demon material that would ruin my feet.
The worst incident by far was the boot fad of 1982. When I was 7 years old, all the girls wore plain, brown leather boots that zipped up the side. The toe was pointed, but not so pointed that my mom could say they’d deform my toes. They were mid-calf length, so she couldn’t complain that they wouldn’t keep out the snow. When it was time to go boot shopping, I was thrilled. Even my mother couldn’t object to plain brown boots.
“Here’s what I want!” I said happily.
My mom looked at them. “No, those aren’t warm enough.”
No. Oh no. No. Not again… “Yes they are!” I cried. “They’re normal winter boots!”
She took the boot from me skeptically and turned it upside down. She pointed to the smooth sole. “You’ll slip on the ice,” she said and grabbed the most horrific boots that I, to this very day, have ever seen. They were made of thick, rubbery, poo-brown ’70s couch leather. Wool poured out the top, and the boot vomited shearling patches in two inch intervals down the front.* The soles were two inches thick and had treads like a Radial tire. The toes were flying-saucer big and round.
“You won’t slip in these,” my mom said. “And they’re really warm.”
“I can’t wear those,” I said.
“Yes, you can. I’m going to get your size.”
I felt hot and panicky. “I can’t wear those!” I said again. “They’re ugly! They’re so ugly! Please don’t make me wear those!”
At age 7, I wore a patch to correct the aforementioned eye and had some seriously messed up teeth. The whole “fitting in” thing wasn’t going smoothly for me thus far. The last thing I needed was to show up at school looking like an Iditarod titleholder. The kids were going to have a field day with me.
“Please, Mom. I’ll walk carefully, I swear. I’ll wear extra socks. Just don’t make me wear those boots. Please.”
But she was already flagging down the salesman. Maybe they won’t have my size. Maybe they won’t have my size…
They not only had my size, but the next size up and the next size down, just in case. Of course they were in stock! No one would EVER buy such hideous boots besides my terrified-of-cold mother.
When the salesman pulled those grotesque boots out of the box, I broke down and wept. I knew I was too old to cry in the middle of a store, but I couldn’t help myself.
“Just try them on for size,” my mother said, which was her favorite way of getting me to put on something tragically ugly.
The boots had no zipper but went all the way up to the knee, so getting them on was practically impossible. I had to contort my body on the chair while the salesman and my mother wrestled them onto my feet. Then I had to stomp on the floor 20 times to get my foot in all the way. We were all sweating by the end of it, but my mother was undeterred.
“Don’t they look nice!” she beamed.
“They’re uuugly,” I sobbed.
“No they’re not!” she said. “Don’t be ridiculous. Everyone will be jealous.”
I cried harder.
At this point, you’re probably thinking that my mother realized that if those gargantuan boots that looked like a steer puking up a lamb made me that miserable, we could figure out a compromise.
You would be wrong. She gave me her standard line: “Be an individual. You don’t want to look everyone else.” And my child’s heart screamed, Yes I do!
She bought the boots.
When I walked to school, I changed into my shoes the second I disappeared from her line of sight. I wore my shoes on the playground, even in two feet of snow. My mother wondered why I got recurring colds and ear infections that winter.
The next year, monogrammed preppy sweaters were all the rage. Navy, pink, Kelly green, with three initials, each one more adorable than the next. I admired those sweaters with such envy, but I didn’t bother asking for one. Even if she’d said yes, I couldn’t have had one because I had no middle name. hy, why couldn’t I have a middle name like everyone else? Lynn, Anne, Elizabeth… something. Then I could have one of those sweaters.
One day, I got home from school and my mom was smiling.
“Go see what’s in your room,” she said.
I went upstairs and two sweaters were on my bed. One was navy blue with the most gorgeous pink rosebuds embroidered around the collar. The other one was bright pink and green. They both had EFJ embroidered on them. I looked at my mother overjoyed, but questioning.
“I thought we could use “J” for June, since it’s your birth month,” she said.
I couldn’t express to my mother what those sweaters meant to me. What her small act of capitulation meant to me. I just hugged her.
Now I have a daughter whose middle name is June, for real. She wants to be unique in every way. She makes her own clothing designs; rips earrings apart and recreates them; laces her shoes in a funky pattern so she’ll look “different;” and tries to invent hairdos that no one else has.
Once in a while, she asks to buy the fad du jour, like hair feathers and Rainbow Loom. When she asks, the same words always come, unbidden, to my lips: You don’t want to look like everyone else, do you?
I take a deep breath and swallow the words. I tell myself she already looks like no one else. I tell myself that following a few silly fads won’t stifle her creativity or turn her into a vapid adult. And if I still have trouble keeping those familiar words down, I ask myself, what’s worse: letting her follow the masses by wearing trendy, light-up Skechers, or forcing her to wear ugly, stiff, poop-colored loafers so that she won’t have a bunion problem when she’s 80?
*For my younger readers, it’s important to know that UGGs were not on the radar yet and absolutely NO kids had shearling on their boots (except for yours truly).
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