Mirror, Mirror: The Costumes We Wear

Fairest shmairest! Let’s get real about beauty and body image. Mirror, Mirror is a column running every other Thursday on The Frisky. It is written by Brooklyn-based columnist, freelance writer, and bagel enthusiast, Kate Fridkis who also writes the blog Eat the Damn Cake. You can follow her on Twitter at @eatthedamncake.

Every year for Halloween, I used to dress up as a gypsy. I was a lazy little kid, I guess, and I didn’t want to make some complicated costume. So I just put on a long skirt and a bunch of my mom’s jewelry and wrapped a bandana around my head, and people were like, “Are you a hippie?” And I was like, “Obviously not. I’m wearing a sash. Come on, people.”

One year, when I was being a gypsy and I was trick-or-treating with a pirate, a witch, and Simba in the sprawling ranch house development lower-income suburban New Jersey had conveniently provided us with, I saw my babysitter, dressed as a devil. But she didn’t look like a scary devil. She looked like some other kind of devil I’d never imagined. It was weird. I wondered if when I got to be older, as old as 14 say, if I’d wear things like that, with my belly showing even though it was cold. I wondered if Halloween was different when you were my babysitter’s age.

It was. It was very different. And by the time I was a teenager, it felt sort of weird to dress up as something for Halloween that wasn’t sexy. So I just stopped trick-or-treating.

Sometimes I feel like a big part of being a woman is wearing costumes. Dressing up is a proclamation of our femininity. A proof. A performance. I remember in college, the girls would all get dressed up to go to frat parties, freshman year, and they wore flashy, tiny, ridiculous things that looked pretend to me. They would all cluster around the mirror in the hall, layering makeup until they were wearing masks.

A big part of being a girl involves learning how to dress and what to do with your hair and how to put on makeup. It has to do with making yourself more of a girl. With making yourself prettier. It has to do with learning that you are not enough now, but that you can work to look better, and it has to do with learning that the way you look, the way you present yourself to the world, is very, very important.

I learned that.

So nothing in my life could really prepare me to wear the traditional shapeless burial shroud called a kittel that I wore this year on Yom Kippur, the dark pinnacle of the Jewish holidays, when I led a congregation in Hebrew prayer.

I am a lay clergymember (a cantor, specifically), which means that I am not ordained, but I lead religious services anyway, because my community likes me to and pays me to do it. I lead services alongside a rabbi. The rabbi does the talking and I do the singing.

Most of the time when I perform services like bar and bat mitzvahs, I wear a pencil skirt, a silk blouse, heels, and makeup, sort of like I work in a law office, except that there’s a fringed prayer shawl, a tallis, over all that. But on one holy day each year, it is traditional for Jewish clergy to wear the plain white burial shroud that emphasizes our mortality, fragility, and equality before God.

So I get to look mortal and fragile, I guess, but it also makes me look like a boy. Especially since I have short hair now. Especially since jewelry is frowned upon and so is makeup and the shoes that are usually matched with the kittel are white canvas—Keds, in my case.

It’s not really that I need to be sexy or beautiful in front of the congregation, but there’s something about standing in front of hundreds of people in a huge white sack and Keds that just … well, it seems awkward. So the first time I did it, a couple years ago, I worried a lot. Would I look ridiculous? Would people think I was unattractive? Should I wear just a touch of lip gloss maybe? I’d seen male clergy members wear kittels plenty of times. I had a feeling they didn’t have the same concerns. When I tried it on at home, in front of my mirror. I felt strangely exposed in it, as though everyone would be able to see me the way I was afraid of being seen—unadorned, unimpressive, unfeminine.

I have spent a lot of my life, like so many girls and women, trying to make myself look better. I wasn’t necessarily thinking about it the whole time. I was doing homework and hanging out with friends and applying for internships and jobs and going on dates. But I was also quietly trying to figure out which colors looked best on me and if I needed to lose five pounds and no, I won’t have any dessert, and oh my god, why am I so ugly in photos? There was that constant undercurrent of frustration with the way I looked that sometimes swelled and raged so hard I found myself in the plastic surgeon’s office, and sometimes slowed to an unobtrusive trickle. If only I just looked a little better, the evil voice in my head would whisper when I looked in the mirror, when I tried on new clothing in a dressing room. If only.

Which is why putting on the kittel made me feel like I was doing everything wrong. I was making myself look actively worse. I was doing the opposite of my babysitter that long ago Halloween. I was emphasizing my unattractiveness. Or maybe—maybe  I simply wasn’t emphasizing anything. I wasn’t dressing anything up. I wasn’t capitalizing on any of my prettier qualities or the things about my body I’d learned over the years were the things that were better than the things I was supposed to always be working to change.

It didn’t matter—I was sure I’d feel self-conscious and distracted during the services. I was sure I’d feel a little worse at my job, and a little more anxious about my singing. Because, after all, if I looked bad, didn’t I have to sound extra good? You know, for that cosmic balance sheet that’s being constantly calculated.

But something funny happened when I was finally behind my podium, in my too-big kittel that only came in man sizes, looking out at the hundreds of faces looking back. Something unexpected happened when I opened my mouth and started to sing.

I felt strangely free.

And then, along with the strange freedom, I felt awesome, wearing my kittel.

It didn’t matter what was under it. If my breasts were too small or my arms too chubby or my legs not long enough. It didn’t matter that my face was bare, because my mouth was singing. Suddenly absolutely nothing was about the way I looked, but everything was about the way I felt, the way my body moved. I was swaying automatically to the music, and it was easy, in the Keds. Much easier than in my sexy high heels. I felt like I might start dancing, which would probably have been a little weird.

When the sun set at the end of Yom Kippur, we ended our final service, after fasting and praying all day, and I went into the rabbi’s office and quickly changed into a form-fitting black maxi dress and cute heels. I went to greet the remaining congregants and break the fast, earrings in, a touch of lip gloss on.

“Wow,” said someone as I went by, “That’s quite the transformation!”

And it was. But the transformative part had happened hours and hours before, when I’d put on the kittel and let myself be anything I felt like being, even with everyone watching me.

We wear so many costumes. And there’s something to be said for the sexy ones that make you feel bold and appealing and full of life. But it’s probably not a bad idea to put on a burial shroud once in a while, or, you know, something less morbid but equally unflattering, and get a sense for what you can do when you’re not thinking about how you look at all. I think everyone needs a costume that can do that, and it doesn’t have to have anything to do with religion. Maybe it’s beat up gym clothes. Maybe it’s a judge’s robes. Maybe it’s what you wear when you’re gardening or lion taming or watching the Super Bowl.

Maybe this Halloween, if I end up going to a party, I’ll be a ghost. Or maybe I’ll just be a gypsy, like when I was little. I can probably find a bandana somewhere. And, of course, a sash.