Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Let the Shame Spiral Begin

I couldn’t believe my luck. It was playtime at Smiling Tykes Preschool, and out of the two dozen other toddlers, I’d scored the ultimate playtime prize. Most days, I never made it to the toy box fast enough. My shyness and disdain for the rushing horde of my peers usually kept me in the back of the pack where I’d end up with a box of half-broken crayons and a book whose every page was already defaced with a doodle. But not this day. On this day, I’d decided it was my turn for glory. I’d watched too many other girls spend playtime reveling in the splendors of the coveted item, and now, that feeling would be mine. So when my teacher announced we were free to pick out our toys, I mustered up all the speed my tiny legs could manage and hurled myself at the big wooden box. There, on top, was the floor-length, beaded green ball gown fit for any princess worth her weight in sequins. Our teacher had probably plucked this gem out of a donation bag some spinster sent to the school a decade prior, but to us, it might as well have been haute couture. It’s puffy sleeves, cinched waist and taffeta-stuffed skirt were all mine for the next 20 minutes. Granted, it was easily a woman’s size 6, and therefore laughably large for our 4-year-old frames, but none of us ever cared. It wasn’t about fit. It was about ownership. 

As the other girls looked on dejected, I stepped into the dress and pulled its sleeves up over my shoulders, feeling myself transform from an awkward pigtailed wallflower into a graceful, regal woman, the envy of all around her. I spent the entire playtime either legs crossed, perched on one of the tiny plastic chairs as though watching over my court or taking a quick twirl to watch the translucent “crystals” shimmer.

What I Thought I Looked Like:

What I Probably Really Looked Like:

Other girls who had never bothered to talk to me stopped by my makeshift throne to touch the gown’s satiny fabric or tell me how pretty I looked. I couldn’t have been more pleased.

Because the thing is, I knew this moment was about more than playtime. This was me showing myself that if I just put aside all the incessant anxiety I had about every single little thing, I could really be somebody. Putting on that dress was the first step toward my new future as a cool, calm, confident person, I just knew it.

Apparently, I’d been concentrating so hard on imagining my new life that I hadn’t heard when the teacher informed us that play time was over, and we needed to return our toys to their rightful places and get back to our desks.

“Rachel?” she asked, snapping me out of my daydream. I looked around and saw all my classmates hustling back to their seats. My heart sank as I realized my moment in the sun was over, but as my peers started to glance quizzically my way, I knew the dream had to end. I crouched down, picked up the bottom of the dress and, for reasons I’ll never understand, opted not to step out of the gown, but yanked it up over my head instead.

I instantly was immersed in a sea of green, blind to the outside world and in direct danger of toppling over backward as the hefty material rendered me top heavy. I yanked again, but the dress didn’t budge. I could feel the tug of my hair and realized the dress had somehow adhered itself to one of my pigtails. I began to panic. Even through the forest of material, I could feel 24 sets of eyes on me, judging, wondering what exactly the heck I was doing. I honestly didn’t know myself. I just knew that I’d become the center of attention, but for all the wrong reasons. I had to fix this. I had to get back to normal. I just wanted to be the quiet girl no one looked at again. Why, oh why, had I even tried? Wasn’t this what I’d always feared more than anything? To me, the idea of embarrassment had always been far worse than any monster under the bed and now here I was, meeting it face on. Well, dress-covered face on.

With one more mighty tug, I managed to get the dress entirely over my head, where it stayed in place like a cathedral veil. My racing heart and pounding ears convinced me that for now, this would have to do. So, with the dress still attached to my head and dangling down to the floor behind me, I walked over to my chair and sat down, as if Nothing Ever Happened.

Every single face pointed at me froze in an expression of utter shock and confusion. No one said a word. Even my teacher remained silent as she cocked her head sideways like a perplexed puppy. For what seemed like an eternity, we all stayed that way, nobody quite sure what to do next, least of all me.

Finally, my teacher walked over to me, bent down and asked if I needed help.

“Yes, please,” I muttered, not able to make eye contact.

She took me by the hand and led me to the bathroom connected to the classroom. The door wasn’t even closed before the eruption of laughter coursed through the room. After much shimmying and unavoidable hair pulling, I was free from the dress. But I knew I’d never be free from the shame. I returned to class as the students mercifully quieted down. No one spoke about it for weeks. Then, one day, the boy in class I harbored a secret crush on responded to my playful jab about his drawing of a house being “silly,” with, “Well, at least I don’t have green hair!” and the entire room burst out laughing all over again.

That was my first taste of embarrassment, a feeling I’ve actively avoided since. Of course, there’s no way to entirely escape it, but I’ve found only buying dresses that I can step into helps.

This all has got me thinking about embarrassment, why it affects us all so much and really, why we even care. If you can remember your first embarrassing story, or even a not-so-long-ago one, I’d love to hear it, either here or at rfweaver@gmail.com. Maybe if we talk it out, these things won’t seem so scary any more.

And maybe we’ll all realize that at one point or another, we’re all little girls with green dresses stuck to our heads.

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