I think it’s only fair that I share humiliating and excruciating moments from my childhood. It balances the score. It may even lay some ghosts to rest.
Edition One: Fancy Dress
I despise fancy dress. I think it’s the Radley handbag of the party world: for people who lack imagination and humour. My absolute snobbery and vitriol is purely defensive. I have been humiliated once too often.
Sally White: aged 7
Mary in the village is having a birthday party. I never get invited to birthday parties because I am odd and have homemade bread sandwiches and don’t watch telly. But Mary is kind and has invited me and the theme is ‘Bright Colours’. My normal clothes are also homemade and corduroy. But on the morning of the party, my sister takes it upon herself to help dress me. I am wearing two pairs of tights- pink over white- and a skirt from the fancy dress box. And it’s sparkly! I have bright pink lips that my sister has neatly drawn on me using facepaints. I feel like a princess. My mum and sister walk me through the village: the pavement feels like a red carpet. We arrive at Mary’s big rambling house. All the other children are there. They’re in their shellsuits or jeans with Sweater Shop jumpers. Mary’s mum clasps her hand to her mouth in genuine upset. Had no one told me they’d cancelled the fancy dress theme? Then she gathers herself and tells me I look like a princess and I put my chin up and feel it. Now, looking back, I see what a gracious and well-timed reaction she had. Because I didn’t want to curl up or go home: I wanted to stay and show those girls that I wasn’t just a frump in a fringe, I could be a sparkly princess. I enjoyed the party and the mum even rustled me up a Best Dressed prize. But I carry with me that brief moment of utter humiliation. But I also carry the ability to rally and ride it out, princess-style.
Ten Years Later
I’ve changed schools for six form and I am so much happier. My new classmates are funny and open-minded and totally accepting of this oddbod nerd who’s joined them. On the Friday of the first October half-term, a new friend has organised a fancy dress party in a hall in Canterbury. The theme is ‘Spies’. I find this oddly specific and dress as the only one I know: Charlotte Grey. The film has just been released. I’m in a woollen floor-length skirt. I have a shirt tucked in under a blazer and a beret on my head. My body has recently changed and thinned and plumped in different places. I feel sophisticated in my outfit. I arrive at the party. I can’t understand it: everyone is dressed in 60s dresses. Short hems. Bright colours. Bobbed wigs. My lovely friend looks at me, bewildered. ‘Sally, which Austin Powers character are you meant to be?’. Austin Powers: Goldmember had also just been released. No one had bothered mentioning these were the ‘spies’ in mind because anyone who hadn’t lived under a rock/book would know that. I am a pretentious 16 year old. I didn’t know. But that group of lovely new friends just chuckle at me, admire my hat and engulf me in the party. I try and dance along but don’t know any of the words to the songs.
There is no photographic evidence of this humiliation. I am ever-grateful that I teenaged pre-smartphones.