A few days before Halloween, my solemn yoga teacher began class with some thoughts on identity. He encouraged us to be mindful of the masks we “put on” for trick or treating. He warned: our costumes might hide our true selves. He said we must also be careful not to lose our sense of self in a persona we “put on” each day. He admitted even yogis don a identity, actors performing enlightenment. The Halloween costume was his symbol of our pretending.
Poised with my hands flat on my knees, I smiled at the teacher. Inwardly my knee jerk reaction was: that’s not it. He’s got this wrong. In a costume, I feel the most me I can be. In a costume, I am comfortable, complete.
While I cycled through some cat-cows, I worried: maybe he is right? Are costumes some strange extension of our secret self-hate? Does the cheerleading costume hide my critical nature so I feel positive? Does the wig conceal my gray hair so I act younger? Does the eyeliner open my eyes so I can fake being more awake, present?
For the last four months, in the steady build up of indulgences (Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, Twelfth Night, and then the endless balls, parties, and parades of Carnival) to Mardi Gras Day, I have been considering costumes and masks.
On any given day, I hate thinking about clothes and hair and eye shadow. While I might be uncomfortable in clothes that don’t flatter me or worse, just don’t fit, I hate spending time on the daily procedure of readying for the day. I also hate shopping and taking time to set myself up with a comfortable and appropriate wardrobe.
I used to be a “wash and go girl.” As I mother, I guess I am just a “go woman,” meaning showers are no longer a daily routine. Most of the men in my life, from my brother to my college roommate to my husband, generally take significantly more time to get ready for the day than me.
While my mom used to pester me to brush my hair and take my chipped toenail polish off, she’d also say, “I get it. You have more important things to worry about.” Still, when I was staying with her a few years ago and slept in eyeliner and mascara, she brought me make-up remover and cotton balls in the morning.
In high school, I baffled at put-together girls wearing cotton leggings and matching flats. Often, even their bracelets and earrings coordinated with their outfits. I don’t believe in changing jewelry on a daily basis and too-much matching is somehow oppressive to me. How did they do it?
In college we were all supposed to wear baggy jeans at our hips and as a teacher it was colored khakis and t-shirts from the fancy end of the Loft spectrum. At every life stage, I opted for comfortable shoes. I admit, I wear heels and a sheath dress whenever I present at a conference and I clean up well and slip on a LBD when a evening event requires it. But, as a rule, I am more Eleanor Roosevelt than Michelle Obama. Practical and sensible.
Now, as a stay- at-home mom, I wear yoga pants nearly everyday in hopes that I may fit in a workout. What a cliche. When I put on a frumpy jean skirt a few weeks ago, my six-year-old told me, “You look fancy. It’s funny when you don’t wear leggings.” I never really liked that skirt anyway.
The reason I do not relish, in fact I inwardly groan, at the readying process each day, is it is fraught with so many expectations. Be cute. Look together. Be professional. Look feminine, but not too soft. Be approachable. Look laid back. Be in control. Look like an expert. Be fit. Hide your tummy. Smooth your flyaways. Moisturize your face, hands, and lips, but don’t be greasy or oily. Hold the camera above your head to hide your chin.
I'm already drowning in expectations. Some are self-imposed, some are placed on me by others. Be an ever-present mother and wife, available. Keep a cleaner house or at least one where the laundry gets folded and put away. Cook healthy things from scratch. Be a smashing success in a professional capacity. Take care of yourself--exercise, be social, take quiet time, and go on dates with your husband. Do everything right.
I spend each day convincing myself to live by more a reasonable code. I am human and I need to accept the human condition. Perfection is impossible. I fight the shoulds from dawn to dusk. I’ve convinced myself it’s pretty alright that today I “dressed up” in jeans and slipped on a bracelet. Still, I’m working on letting go of the fact it took me a week to revise and edit this post and am fighting an urge to squander this writing time clearing off the dining room table.
Costuming gives me a break, true freedom from the dance of constantly readjusting expectations and accepting what is. Costuming is my unmasking.
In costumes, especially Mardi Gras costumes, there are few rules. For the first event of the season, I wore my pink wig and favorite green shawl and then entered a silly contest where I pretended to be a nutria and chewed my way through a cabbage to find a surprise. Last week my husband and I dressed in matching cheerleading costumes. On Fat Tuesday I wore a beard and he wore a dress. And several glorious days and nights he danced in powdered blue shorts for the masses while I provided security at the curb. For one night, I even had purple Barbie-doll hair and though it was tangled, I didn’t brush it.
Costumes cultivate real moments when I can shed codes, customs, and habits that dominate my psyche and just be me. Costumes silence my inner critic, weaken him and strengthen the person I am called to be.