Ugly Sister Syndrome.

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A photo I took in Nîmes last year: “A pair of shoes can sometimes change our lives. Cinderella.”

Summer has arrived with a vengeance in the Languedoc. The cat has resumed its favourite pastime of soaking up heat in a lazy heap on the wall. Luis the Nightingale is in fine fettle, warbling opera to his offspring throughout the night. Greasy fingers have been ceremoniously licked clean at The First Barbecue. And MM has come out in a cold sweat as she observes her summer dresses  and wonders whether she will pair them up with bare feet or a pair of trainers.

Welcome to the world of big-footed girls – the ones who spend all summer in size-too-small sandals and know the ugly step-sisters’ side of the Cinderella story by heart. Do you have hands like shovels that are too big to fit into the gloves in the dye box? Are the trouser legs too short on that pair of trousers you covet so much? Do you get tutted at by girls who “can’t see through you” at the cinema, and mutter under your breath that you will get your revenge when you are the only person tall enough pass them the last six-pack of girly drink off the top shelf at the supermarket? If so, the odds are on that you too suffer from Ugly Sister Syndrome.

MM has been a fully signed-up member of the anti-Cinderella brigade since her childhood. The brothers Grimm claim that when Prince C turned up with Cinder’s shoe, her sisters chopped off their own toes in a desperate attempt to fit inside it.  Big feet are synonymous of nastiness, frumpiness and spinsterhood in this sinister tale, whilst small feet rhyme with femininity, fairy godmothers, vertiginous social ascension and a Prince Charming to sweep you away to be a social handbag in a gilded cage.

What happened to the ugly sisters at the end of the story?  I have an idea of how their story ends:

They felt fat, frumpy and Dame Edna-like, in the full knowledge that without fitting into that damned glass slipper, they didn’t have a hope in hell of getting anywhere in Fairytaleland. They never found girly shoes their own size and, unable to leave the house for social functions, ended up living as manic-depressive hermits, binge-drinking Bordeaux out of their size nine trainers and throwing darts at the official portrait of Cinders and Charming. The End.

I remember the moment I realized that I would never be a delicate female. My mother had taken us to the theatre to watch Coppélia. I don’t remember much of the experience except my fascination with the ballerinas, and the huge ball of despair that knotted my stomach as I watched ‘real’ girls who didn’t scab their knees falling off their bikes, didn’t climb trees, held themselves beautifully and had small, delicate feet laced into minute satin slippers with pink ribbons shimmering around slim ankles. Their long, straight hair was tied into a neat, well-behaved bun on their heads. They were everything that I was not.

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If the ballet dancers had been like Taylor Swift, I wouldn’t have cried on my way home from Coppélia.

Sitting glumly on the bus on the way home, I looked down at my feet in their Clarks lace-up shoes, clocked my untidy tomboy reflection in the dirty bus window, and burst into tears. When my mother asked me why, the only answer I could find was: “I want to be a ballet dancer.” She took it at face value, but that wasn’t what I meant. I yearned to be feminine and delicate. I had realised that somewhere deep down inside the resilient tomboy there was a girl, but she could never be that kind of girl. It hurt. I got over it soon enough, because everyone knows that you can’t make a tree house or sail Mirror dinghies in a tutu. But that tomboy complex still surfaces on a regular basis. Particularly when I have to buy shoes – every ugly step-sister’s nightmare.

I took my boys with me to the shoe shop last year, and challenged them to find me a pair of shoes. Bigfoot stuffed a brogue into my hand – not at all what I was expecting. He reassured me that they would look beautiful with my trousers and top – he was obviously thinking in terms of a high-power business woman, but MM’s head was already busily conjuring up a hybrid of Madame Doubtfire and Mary Poppins.

Sadista the saleswoman glided up from the depths of the slipper section – petite, with perfect make-up and tiny feet. She tipped her head back to look up at me and simpered, “How can I help you?”

And that was when the Ugly Sister Syndrome kicked in. I looked around, and suddenly felt out of my depth in enemy, girly territory. I was Goliath Girl, trampling around in a field full of Lilliputians – an Alice who had bitten off more Wonderland cake than she could chew.  Panic rose in my throat and my bold confidence disappeared in a puff of shoe deodorant. I made a last ditch attempt to appear calm and unruffled, and silence suddenly reigned in the store as an unnaturally loud and strangled “Do you have this shoe in a size 9?” echoed around its walls. Bargain-hunting predators paused and swivelled their carefully lacquered heads to locate the whereabouts of Queen Kong in the undergrowth of the commercial jungle.

 

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“Queen Kong wanted that last pair of size 9 Jimmy Choos, but Rulah the big-footed Jungle Goddess wasn’t going to give them up without a fight.”

Sadista smirked and drummed her manicured claws on a shoe box. “These stop at a size 8, just like in most stores, for most shoes.” She drew in her breath, and I prepared to jam the box lid between her coral pink glossed lips sideways if she dared to add, “… for most women.

“May I suggest that you try mail order?” she rattled at high volume, looking at my feet with an amused smile twitching at the corners of her mouth. Bigfoot glared down at her. ‘She’ll try the size eight anyway,” he barked.

Five minutes later, Sadista trotted back with the shoes. I tried hard to fit my foot into that shoe, really, I did. But there was nothing doing. It was like trying to shoehorn a Hummer into a dog’s kennel. It would have been easier to get Sylvester Stallone into Paris Hilton’s G-string than fit my Patagonian-sized plates of meat inside those size eights.

I handed the box back. “Cinderella’s sister won’t be wearing those to the ball, then.” She looked at me in confusion. I spared my sons the embarrassment of developing my argument. They knew that unlike MM, Sadista had never suffered the humiliation of spotting a pair of garish size nine heels in a shop window and eagerly pushing open the door to what she hoped to be an unexpected haven for big-footed girls, only to be greeted by a confused transvestite who, judging by the expression on her face, was far more surprised than I was.

So we all smiled. I hooked each hand through the teenaged arm that appeared on either side of me, tapped the heels of my size-too-small red sandals together and tripped out of the shop with my heroes. Not quite Julie Andrews’ magic red shoes, but they’d do the job for as long as my apprentice Prince Charmings had my back.

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