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.

ballerina

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.

Tomboy tales.

Here is today’s confession : I enjoy dressing up in women’s clothing. Sometimes I play it light, with a dress and a pair of flat pumps, and occasionally I go the whole hog by adding a well-cut jacket, tights and a pair of heels. I even go so far as putting on make-up and jewellery and doing my hair on occasions. I turn this way and that, inspect myself from all angles, then get changed before my resident Fashion Police tells me I’m too old/my skirt’s too short/ the occasion’s not right (see this article for more on my fashion advice team).

Warrior Gaze

Perfect hair and make-up for a night out on the tiles (Photo credit: Will Merydith)

Just in case you are about to check out my « About » page for any changes, or wondering if you got the wrong blog address, please stay tuned in to Multifarious Meanderings. I am indeed a woman. I just don’t behave like one. When offered a drink, I go for a beer. I don’t like the colour pink, and I don’t cry delicately like Miss France does. I don’t wear red nail varnish because I think it makes me look like Mrs Doubtfire. I have no idea how to put on make-up without ending up looking like a cross between an Amazonian hunter and a Bois de Boulogne cougar. I have hands like shovels and feet so big they would turn the average Patagonian girl green with envy. My handbag is no more than a survival kit for the entire family and does not contain anything even vaguely resembling make-up (more details for brave readers here). But I’m tall, and I’ve come to enjoy it. After all, there is nothing more satisfying than the supermarket power trip of getting the last box of PG tips off the top shelf for a Frenchman who comes up to your belly button.

I suppose it’s too late now; I have always been a tomboy. Whilst other little girls in my class joined the Brownies then attended ballet classes, I climbed trees with my sisters, played hockey and sailed dinghies. Thanks to the unpleasant comments of other girls in the neighbourhood, I finally realised that clothing had other functions than simply protecting limbs from grazes and bruises when I was in my early teens. I didn’t care: you can’t sail in a skirt.

I would try to grow my hair from time to time, then got annoyed with it getting in my face and sidled off to the hairdresser’s. I always returned to see my father’s face light up at my short back and sides, and my mother roll her eyeballs in mock despair. The expression on my Mum’s face the day she saw me in a wedding dress will stay with me all my life; delight combined with a tangible fear that I’d trip over it before I got to sign the register. A close friend said, « Oooh, look….  your Dad’s all emotional because you’re getting married! » She was a little nonplussed when I told her that he was probably emotional because it was the first time he’d seen me in a dress since I was ten years old.

When I went to University, I finally grew my hair long and occasionally « dressed up as a girl ». Most times it turned sour, the most memorable occasion being a Cinderella-style outing with my BMF (Best Male Friend) who had a «”his and hers » invitation to a classy military dinner dance. I reminded him that I was a very dangerous choice if he wanted someone who didn’t put their foot in it at official functions. He insisted, so I reluctantly agreed and started getting my head around the logistics of looking like a girl.

Being a dainty size 9, finding girly shoes was about as easy as resolving the israeli-palestinian conflict. After drawing a blank in all the “normal” shoe shops, I finally bought a pair of impossibly high black heels in a shop where I suspected only transvestites shopped. I practiced crossing my room in them every evening for a week until I considered I could remain upright long enough to avoid attracting the attention of the local police. I borrowed a fabulously feminine 1940’s blue silk ball gown off a friend.

Cinderella - Prince Charming & Cinderella

P.F and M.M in a parallel universe (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On The Big Night, a girlfriend attacked me with a hairbrush and her collection of  war paint, and when I finally looked in the mirror I didn’t recognise myself. I set off on foot from my University digs, teetering self-consciously towards the street. The ground suddenly seemed too far away. I made a mental note not to drink if I wanted to get home without resorting to my hands and knees. I could do it.

Yet when I saw the last pumpkin to the ball waiting at the bus stop, the real me took over. That stupid student reflex reared its head: if you see a bus, run. I promptly forgot about the stilts I had strapped on my feet, stuffed my purse into my cleavage, hooked up armfuls of ball gown and sprinted for the bus.  I should have known better: only Cinderella managed to lose one shoe and escape with the other. My ankle twisted, and I ended up sprawled inelegantly across the pavement with my tights ripped, cursing like a sailor as I tried to keep the blood from staining the dress. The bus driver kindly scooped me up and plopped me onto a seat, transformed from aspiring princess to a sad pile of Grandma’s old curtains with a skew-whiff chignon dropped on top. He gave me an elastoplast at the next red light, and gallantly dropped me off right in front of my chaperon’s door.

The ensuing evening was a nightmare as my ankle doubled in size. We ended up driving to the local A&E unit, where BMF insisted on carrying me from the car to reception. The staff blinked, some dewy-eyed and others perplexed at the sight of BMF in his uniform, a ballgown-clad, barefoot M.M yelling “Put me down, do you know how much I weigh?” from over his shoulder. We must have looked like an offbeat Prince Charming and Cinderella on their way to a fancy-dress party.

That was the day I decided that I can only ever dress up as a girl inside the house. I don’t know where BMF is now, or what he’s doing, but I doubt he will have forgotten that evening either. I just hope he changed his recruitment criteria for any future official dinner dates, or chances are he’ll still be single.