Saturday, November 26, 2011

There's a Gown for That

Headed out to the library? Confused about what to wear? Ask Sophie. There’s a gown for that.

Going up to Grandma’s and its freezing out? There’s a gown for that.

Need to pick up a forgotten ingredient at Wegmans, but your pink taffeta is in the wash? Don’t worry. There’s a gown for that too.

These days, I am either picking gowns up off the floor, prying dirty gowns off Sophia’s body, or arguing their inappropriateness. They are slowly, insidiously taking over her wardrobe.

It started fairly innocently. The first gown, a rainbow-tutued Cosco nightmare, was purchased by my mother. It came with matching wings. Sophie was delighted. So were the neighbor girls. Sophie would resort to fisticuffs if anyone lay a finger on it, and it was soon evident that if we didn’t stock up, there might be bloodshed.

My friend Emily came to the rescue, passing on several silken frocks that no longer fit her daughter. Peace was restored in the kingdom.

Then, in need of some new duds myself, Sophie and I went to TJ Maxx. As I piled a few garments into our shopping cart, Sophie said, “I want to try on something too!” Okay, fair enough. This might even be a good strategy—keep her occupied. I grabbed the first thing that I thought might appeal to her—a pink velour generic princess dress. Sophie grabbed it out of my hands, “OH I LOVE THIS MOM!” Inside the dressing room, as I tried to eye my butt from all angles in front of the mirror, Sophia pushed me aside, exclaiming, “I’m so BEAUTIFUL! Can I have it? Please? PLEASE?” She skipped out of our stall, prancing down a narrow hallway towards the three-way mirror at the far end. Other women heard her exclaiming over the dress and leaned out to see what all the fuss was about. “Oh look at you!” “Aren’t you the cutest!" "Oh mom, you have to get it for her.” Sophie mugged and grinned and posed, and I quickly realized that I was not getting out of TJ Maxx without this dress.

“We’ll see…” I said, drawing upon the rich tradition of evasiveness that exists in my maternal line. But, of course, I left with the dress.

Little did I know, it would become Sophie’s daily uniform, a major point of contention, and probably, the most appreciated thing I have ever given her.

When Sophie wakes up in the morning, the first thing she does is don her princess dress, several necklaces, a headband or tiara, silver slippers and grab her magic wand. Then, she heads into my room to tap me awake. Were her magic as strong as caffeine, I might be able to roll with this program. But, alas, polyester and plastic do not confer any real powers, and the only effect this has is to make me very, very grumpy.

Her first question is, “Can I wear my princess dress to breakfast?” to which, if this is a day when she has to go to school and I have to go to work, the answer is no. This frequently devolves into a wrestling match. Tuesdays are the worst, when she has gymnastics and, because there is tumbling involved, I insist on pants. Pants have become abhorrent to Sophia. It began with a hatred of jeans. If I tried to pull them on, she’d scream, “NO! They’re too scratchy! They’re too stiff!” This squared with her whole sensory-defensive thing, so I didn’t force the issue. No skin off my nose. She seemed okay with leggings for awhile. But, once she discovered gowns, she started rejecting anything that had a whiff of masculinity. Anything that wasn’t “beautiful.”

At first I was disturbed by her princess aesthetic—for one, it was alien to me. My mother likes to talk about how she used to have to steal my jeans to wash them once a week because otherwise, I would wear them every single day. “They could practically stand up and walk away by themselves,” she told each of my boyfriends.

I was a self-proclaimed tomboy. When I was four, I told my friend Christine that I wanted to have all the boy toys in the world. I also told her that I could push a nail into board with my bare hands.

I couldn’t.

But I really, really wanted to be able to. I don’t think pushing a nail into a board with her bare hands has ever occurred to Sophie.

And then there’s the whole feminist thing. I just don’t like her holding up princesses as a feminine ideal—the simpering, need-to-be-rescued, will-give-up-my-fishtail-to-be-with-the-man-I-love thing. Haven’t I supplied her with a better model than that? What happened to her aspirations of dentistry? Of all the things she thought she could and wanted to be—a daddy, a dance teacher, a bus driver?

But, then I unearthed my old copy of Grimm’s fairy tales. We were sitting in the doctor’s office when I read the “real” story of Cinderella to Sophia. It’s far more gruesome than the sanitized Disney version, e.g., when the stepsisters try on Cinderella’s slipper, they each slice off a section of their foot to make it fit. I hesitated over this part. I didn’t want to give the kid nightmares. But when I finished, Sophia exclaimed:

“Read the part about them cutting off their toes again!”

Ah! There are my genes!

The fact of the matter is, I really loved—love—fairytales. I love the drama of good triumphing over evil, of there being a reward for suffering. I love magical possibility. I love talking animals and kids who outsmart witches and wishes that come true. And so does Sophie. She wears her gowns, not to emulate Disney princesses, but to fully inhabit the world of pretend. At naptime, I prick her finger with a spindle so she’ll sleep deeply. Before dinner, I might suddenly cross the floor on all fours, my eyes round and threatening and Sophia will shriek with delight, “What are you? WHAT ARE YOU?” And after we’ve eaten, I might roast her arms and legs in the oven for dessert. Sophie offers up a piece to her father, “Daddy, would you like my tickle bone?”

The gowns are the vehicle. Not steering her toward a feminine ideal, but down the rabbit hole, into a world of fantasy. She manages to look stunning while retaining every bit of her wild, dark, vicious self.

Feeling sinister? There’s a gown for that.

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