Sending Strength to Anyone Shopping With Mom Today
Black Friday brings up a ton of memories for me: bacon Brussel sprout-related food comas, multi-day Law and Order: SVU marathons, and, of course, shopping with Mom. As most anyone with a mother and a credit card knows, the mental file labeled “Shopping with Mom” contains within it many of the best and also worst memories. It’s why the thrift-store dress-shopping scene from Ladybird punched so many of us right in the gut. We’ve been there.
We use our clothes to declare who we are, and our mothers often see that in a way we can’t. Sometimes it’s a source of joy — a way for them to remind us of our strength and value at a moment when we might not be able to see it for ourselves. Sometimes it’s a source of pain: a loud, sour note that strikes a dissonant chord between who we know ourselves to be and whomever it is our moms wished we were.
Throughout my life, shopping with my mom is a place I return to frequently, or rather, crash land, after the light traumas I love to attract. The experience is like a comically large trampoline held by a bunch of firefighters; I come hurtling out of the window of a five-story building and into a Macy’s with Lisa Paul.
At times growing up, my vision of who I wanted to be didn’t line up with hers. I remember bursting out of a dressing room, extremely proud of a pair of low-cut bell-bottom jeans that very sexily laced all the way up the side, with lots of open spaces revealing my legs beneath. She laughed.
She burst out laughing at, what I’m sure appeared externally as, a frizzy haired, semi-nude adolescent potato inelegantly stuffed into a sack. Her reaction made me feel, in a way that to this day remains unparalleled, unseen. I knew, at 14, that I was turning into a sexual being, growing up and becoming a woman. She still saw me as her American Girl Doll-loving little girl who frequently conducted full volume conversations with her Leonardo DiCaprio poster, believing it could transmit her messages of love directly to the man himself. (Just in case this still might be true: Hey, Leo! Call me?)
As any self-respecting teen would when confronted with a situation like this, I screamed and slammed the door so hard, it made another woman in the dressing room come and give my mom an understanding pat on the back.
Growing up, I always felt insecure about my body and was especially uncomfortable about my triple-D chest. When it was time to get a prom dress, it was especially hard to find one that fit and didn't make me look like an 18-year-old Jessica Rabbit, if she were chubbier and very pale. And before you gasp at my crass body-shaming of myself, please take a moment to revisit the year 2008: Lauren Conrad was our queen and Ashton Kutcher our king; the ability to possess a Sidekick phone seemed as important as diplomatic peace with North Korea; and Britney Spears was making absolutely wild decisions with umbrellas. The teen prom dream was a silk floor-length, low-cut, tropical print spaghetti strap dress over a deeply orange spray tan. None of this cared if you did not look or fit or exist in any way similar to a Lauren Conrad. Sometimes your mother was the only one attempting to bridge that divide.
This is where I legally have to mention I grew up on Long Island, a place known globally for the tendency to go a little off-the-rails with “Events.”
At prom in my town, people come to sit in bleachers and watch the kids walk a red carpet, pulling up in fire trucks, Rolls Royces and in some cases, on Jet-Skis towed by dads in pickup trucks. Some kids would perform pre-planned skits on the red carpet. In other words, this is the one place where prom is exactly as momentous as your average teenage girl thinks it is.
It’s why we can still support multiple specialty dress boutiques with names like ‘Pzaz’ and ‘Flair,’ while literally every other type of brick-and-mortar store is struggling to survive in the age of Amazon.
My mom took me to every one of these within reach: three months of Saturdays going from shop to shop, trying on every dress with the right amount of sequins or wrong amount of cleavage, as one after the other did not quite fit. When this invariably happened, my mom would get outraged at the style or the cut, always careful to never react in a way that I could interpret as a flaw about my body.
She and I were on the same team, searching for dress that would prove to me that my body was right — that I was. She was refusing to allow me to view myself as a victim to whatever societal standard I had internalized from movies and magazines, or Lacrosse jerks named “Jamie” from my AP earth science class. It was her way to guide me toward self-love. When we found the dress that fit, that felt amazing, it was a triumph — for both of us. I wanted to look amazing and she wanted to make sure I was ready for this huge moment of a becoming a woman. She wanted me to look like “who I was” for a moment that would mark the beginning of who I was to become. I wanted to look hot, and, if I say so myself, I did.
Three days before the dance, my prom date dumped me to take someone else. Because I was a junior and he was a senior, this meant I couldn’t attend at all. I will always remember two things about this day. One: it marked the occasion of my first Xanax (procured via an emergent call to my pediatrician). Two: My mom and I went right back to the mall.
After I stopped sobbing, she stuffed me in our Volvo and took me to the nearest Lucky Jeans (again, it was 2008). She watched me try on approximately 100 bootcut pairs while refreshing Facebook for prom photos and delivering unbelievably sick burns about my dearly-departed date.
I walked into that store as a girl who got publicly, humiliatingly dumped three days before prom. Because of my mom’s combination of affirmations, reassurance about how well I was pulling off the jeans, and, weirdly, reminders about my scholastic accomplishments and bright future, I walked out as Myself, again. This exchange was like Oxi-Clean, removing a stain this event could have left on me for good, returning me to a gleamingly clean shirt with an equally bright future. It worked; I am now an extremely rich CEO married to Leonardo DiCaprio. Okay, not quite; but in part because of those shopping trips with my mom, I learned to accept variations on what a bright future might be. And one is loving how I look in a dress.
But as I said those shopping trips weren’t always happy. We got in one of our biggest adult fights over my college graduation dress. By the time graduation rolled around, I was exhausted. I felt totally disconnected from my preppy New England college. I could no longer identify with the friends I had made over bottomless handles of Rubinoff and sorority formals; I was souring on my frat-boy quarterback boyfriend. Alone and rocked by the transition, I had nothing on the horizon but a bleak prison of a cubicle nine-to-five. I was ready to put it all in my rear-view.
While we were shopping, I couldn’t work up the energy to care which dress I got for my graduation day, an arbitrary vestment to live under a black polyester gown. I was depressed and tired and ready to perform whatever functions would get me out of there the quickest. She got upset with me for not caring. My mom would squawk her disapproval as I chose a shapeless muumuu. She wanted me to cherish the moment, acknowledge my accomplishment, bask in it and represent that through my clothes. She was convinced that the right dress would say “I’m proud of myself, proud of this accomplishment.” She succeeded by way of a beautiful white lace belted shift. Now, when I look back on those pictures, I find it hard to recall that drained, demoralized girl.
I see a triumphant young woman setting out on the world in a crisp new dress — and that was exactly what my mom saw all along.