“Only children” have it a little weirder than most. We’re not used to getting dressed and undressed in front of other people. We’re more private. More sensitive to prying eyes and bodily integrity. Close the door! Get out! Quit looking at me! Shriek!!!
So it was always quite the expedition when I was in elementary school for my mother to drag me to the only children’s clothing shop in our very small Southern town. It was the mid-1960s. “Pretty Maidens Shoppe” was owned by a massive woman with a fat towering beehive hairdo, coarsely drawn-in eyebrows, heavy eyeliner, and a perpetually constipated expression — particularly when I walked in. Think of the looks of a Far Side cartoon woman combined with the surly attitude of comedian Lewis Black.
Her shop’s changing room had a skimpy half door, positioned so that anyone browsing nearby could see your head and shoulders at the top and, at the bottom, your legs from the knee down. I loathed it and wished only for a full door I could close and, with luck, lock.
Beehive-Brain was a continual jarring note to my private peace of mind as she sneaked up, peered over the low door at will and chirped, “How we doing in there?” From long experience with her, I learned to rip off my clothes and leap into the new outfits in a flash. I would get dressed so fast that I sometimes ripped seams and popped buttons just to keep her eyes from roaming all over me as she did mental nips and tucks to the clothing. My strategy worked okay, except for when I had to try on several outfits to find something I liked. Inevitably, she would stroll over and peruse me at her leisure.
My mom wouldn’t tell her to piss off, no matter how much I wanted her to. So I mustered up my courage a few times to face the store owner myself. I tried asking her in advance several times, nicely, to please not check on me — that I would come out if I liked something well enough for my mother to see it. “Thank you, but I won’t need any help” or even “I’m sorry, but I’m private and don’t like to be seen in the dressing room, if you don’t mind.”
She peeped in anyway, “just checking,” until I was either furious or in tears, and then she’d chuckle at my meltdown with my mother because “you know how kids are.”
Then she’d peek again, chuckling and saying, “Oh, you don’t have anything I haven’t seen before!” (As if that’s a reason to violate someone’s privacy. Like children don’t have feelings. As if it were her sensitivities I was trying to protect.)
She would always INSIST that I step out and pirouette to show the clothes to my mother, especially if it was an expensive outfit and even if I hated it. If I didn’t like several outfits in a row, it was, “My goodness, we certainly are picky,” said with a sniff of disapproval. If I got tired of trying on clothes, it was, with a sneering chuckle, “Someone sure is cranky.” (Yes, trying on clothes really IS a great test of character, you crackpot.)
I complained often to my mother, who was exasperated at how bad her spoiled and overly entitled child was acting. Looking back now as an adult, I can understand some of the pressures my mother felt: Beehive-Brain was a town lady, and my mother was a country mom who grew up poor and never forgot her humble beginnings even though she earned a college degree and had a professional career. So I think she was a little intimidated by the townie and her social connections, and I embarrassed her. She couldn’t bring herself to stand up for me and firmly tell Beehive to leave me the hell alone.
Recurring dynamics like this are where I developed so much of my prickliness. My only defenses at Pretty Maidens were anger or bitter words. Sometimes it was anger, right up to the limit just before my mother would yank me by the arm and begin spanking me while Beehive-Brain partially hid her smirk. Most times, I would just give one of those ear-piercing screams that only little girls can do, and then I’d say, innocently, “Oops, you know how I am when someone startles me!” (She really, really hated this. Sometimes she would approach the door, saying, “Now, don’t scream.”) Other times, I just couldn’t even. Then all I had were animosity-laced words.
“Can I HELP you?” Or I’d stand there in my little girl panties and ask her with dead-eyed sarcasm, “See anything you like?” We would lock eyes and silently acknowledge how much each of us wanted to say, “Oh, fuck you, you hateful bitch.”
Yeah … Mama eventually started driving me to the mall in the big city a half-hour’s drive away. I think Beehive Brain was kind of happy about that. And I know I was.