This post is part one of what is a three-part series about the BIG fun we had at my cousin’s wedding in Birmingham, Alabama. Family weddings don’t get any better than this one, y’all.
We received the Save the Date for my cousin’s wedding in February, so it wasn’t like I had no idea I would be attending a wedding over Memorial Day weekend. I knew. I also knew I would need a new dress for both the rehearsal dinner and the wedding. I knew. In February.
Weeks before the big day, Ginny told me I should go online and order, “like fifteen dresses and try them all on in the comfort of your own bedroom. Then, send back the ones you don’t want. I do it all the time. It’s so easy.” I thought about it for a day or two and decided to try it her way.
After a Google-search for “Appropriate Wedding Guest Dresses for 40yo Woman”, I found a handful I liked from an online company that I’d never heard of. The website looked reputable. I double checked the return policy. I studied the sizing chart and took my own measurements with a measuring tape to be sure I ordered accurately. Because the company was based in the UK, I did the price conversion myself to be sure I wasn’t getting the wool pulled over my eyes. I did my due diligence.
However, after two weeks passed and my order had still not arrived, I contacted the company. They assured me I would receive my order within three days. Those three days came and went and still no dresses. The wedding countdown clock was ticking. I called Ginny in a panic, to which she responded, “Zizzy, you ordered from EUROPE? Why do you do this to yourself? I TOLD you to order from Nordstrom.”
On Tuesday, before the wedding that Saturday, when the dresses from Europe had still not arrived, I resolved to go to town during my lunch break and find two dresses. It had to be that day. I had run out of days. It was now or never.
On my way to town, I started feeling queasy. If there is one thing I hate, it is clothes shopping. I’ve never really liked it, but now that my body-image is in the toilet, it is definitely my most hated thing.
I had a white-knuckle grip on my steering wheel. In an effort to calm my nerves, I turned off NPR and prayed, “Dear Lord, I realize you have bigger issues on your plate today. This silliness and anxiety I’m having right now about not looking like a royal embarrassment cannot even be on your radar it is so incredibly insignificant in the scheme of our troubled world. But Lord, I have got to get this done, and I don’t think I can do it without your help. Please help me find two dresses: one that is cocktail party appropriate (as per the invitation) and one that is 6pm wedding guest appropriate for a 40 year old. I would love it if I could coordinate with my impeccably dressed children, but if it cannot be, it cannot be. And Lord, since I’ve already wasted your time on this, I’ll go ahead and ask that if you can also help me find a suck-it-all-in ladies foundation garment, that would be incredibly helpful, too. Please forgive me, Lord, for this selfish, indulgent request, but I cannot look ridiculous at this wedding. Amen.”
Clearly on a mission, I parked the car and headed straight for the ladies’ dress department. This was an in-and-out situation. Focus and breathe, Cantrell.
I have a much easier time of declaring what I won’t try on: no sleeveless anything, no peek-a-boo sleeves, no maxi-dresses, nothing that gathers or pulls, no pleats, no rhinestones, no polyester anything, no loud prints, nothing that has ties or strings or belts. Subtle is what I wanted, just something that would help me blend into the surroundings.
I saw options right away and decided to take as many as I could carry into the dressing room with me to save time. The first dress I tried on was too small. I got stuck with only my head and shoulders in, unable to pull it over my shoulders, like a dog with its head stuck in a bucket. I started to smother. An unseen zipper had clogged the works, and I was doing the twist trying to wriggle my head and neck back out. “Go toward the light, girl,” I whispered.
I could feel my heart beat faster as my brain started it’s negative diatribe, “You’ve really let yourself go. You may not be able to find anything flattering. I hope they don’t take a family picture. You’re such an embarrassment. You’re not getting any younger, that’s for sure. When did that start flopping?” I closed my eyes and swallowed hard.
I looked at myself in the mirror, suddenly a drill-sergeant, “Pull it together, Cantrell. This is not do-or-die. You are trying on dresses for a wedding, for Pete’s sake. Get a hold of yourself, sister.” That seemed to do the trick. My heart rate slowed. I closed my eyes and took some deep breaths.
The dressing room was hot though, and I felt woozy. I was breathing too fast and too shallow. Again the drill-sergeant, “You cannot have a panic attack in a department store dressing room. Your deductible is too high for shenanigans. Get these things tried on and get out of here, Cantrell.”
I find it oddly comforting in times of crisis to call myself Cantrell. It helps me focus.
It really didn’t take too long. With the drill sergeant’s help, I found a knee-length, A-line, navy sheath with a navy lace overlay and a smattering of navy sequins with three-quarter sleeves. It was subtle, had a flattering cut, a little sparkle, perfect for a cocktail party. Ever the optimist, I determined it could easily be worn again – maybe to a fancy Christmas party – or my funeral – whichever comes first.
Then the search for a dress for the wedding itself. After several misfires, I decided on a simple trapeze dress, in a color called dark navy. It had three-quarter length sleeves and a scooped neckline. However, the neckline met at the sternum with three small silver hoops sewn vertically down the dress. Not revealing at all, but showing just enough skin to look a little sassy.
I certainly didn’t feel sassy standing in a hot dressing room with sweat beading across my top lip. I couldn’t believe I’d found two dresses in twenty minutes.
Almost done, but not quite, I still needed a foundation garment. That’s lady-talk for SPANX.
SPANX are not for the foolhardy. I knew they would flatten everything into one smooth smush, but I dreaded trying it on. The trick is, it has to be tight enough to do what it is designed for, but not so tight that you pass out on the dance floor, or can’t get them off fast enough to use the restroom.
The lingerie department was right next door to the fitting room. (I felt assured at that moment that the Lord had heard and answered my selfish car prayer in the affirmative.) I tiptoed over and there it was: a shoulder to thigh, suck-it-all-in, bathing suit looking foundation garment. I could see from the super-strength stitching and diamond-shaped panels, this garment was the mother of them all. I grabbed it, and back into the dressing room I went.
Stepping in is easy. It always is. It’s when the thing hits your thighs that things get to be a bit of a struggle. I was reminded of what Clairee says in Steel Magnolias, “It looks like two pigs fightin’ under a blanket.” I pulled. I hoisted. I yanked. I “worked it up.” I twisted and squirmed and did every yoga position I have never, ever done in real life.
I knew better than to look at myself in the mirror but accidentally caught sight out of myself out of the corner of my eye. “Don’t stop to look at it, just get the damn thing on Cantrell,” I said out loud, not even caring if someone was around to hear me.
I pulled from the top. I pulled from the waist. It was hot. I was miserable. The beads of sweat glistening on top of my lip had multiplied to damp patches around my waistline. I couldn’t breathe. With all the twisting and turning, I slipped and fell, more like turned onto my knees, onto the floor of the dressing room. Panting, I caught myself with both hands and looked up, right into one of the mirrors.
My hair had slid out of its clamp and slightly damp curls had started to form on my forehead. My face was red. My eyes looked bulgy. I had half a foundation garment pulled over my hips and had the other half dangling at my waist. I was, literally, a hot mess. I started to panic. As I tried to pull myself together, I gagged and dry-heaved. I forced myself to stay still. There on all-fours in the department store dressing room, I hung my head and forced myself to take deep, cleansing breaths. “Stop it, Cantrell. Good Lord, girl. This is just a foundation garment,” I whispered, “Please, dear, good, Lord, please don’t let anybody come in this dressing room.”
I stood up. Pulled the rest of the garment over my shoulders, like a bathing suit. Tried on both dresses with it on. It made a difference. It would do. The dresses would work. As Jamie had already reminded me twenty times that week, “Babe, nobody thinks about what you are wearing or how you look as much as you do. We are going to a wedding – and you aren’t the bride.” Excellent point.
I took off the dress. I peeled off the SPANX. I put my work clothes back on, slipped on my sandals, and walked out of the dressing room. I was a hot, red-faced, sweaty, emotional mess, but – mission accomplished.
That night, I was scheduled to lead our Bible study with the Elmodel Women of the Church. After all that, I really didn’t feel like going. I certainly didn’t feel much like a leader. I’d already said enough cuss words inside that dressing room I knew my one-way ticket to hell was just waiting on me. I went on to Bible study anyway.
Elmodel Women of the Church Bible study is one-third great food, one-third good lesson, and one-third group therapy. We arrive at Bible study around 6:45pm and usually leave somewhere around 10pm, but we have been known to go longer. I always, always feel better when I leave than I did when I got there.
Sitting in Mama’s living room with women I adore and trust with my whole heart, it didn’t take long before the whole horrible dressing room experience bubbled up and out.
The more I talked, the more they laughed. They’d all been there. Loving their bodies and hating them at the same time. Being grateful for so much, but frustrated at so much too. Desperately cramming themselves into SPANX just like me, or deciding that the time for SPANX had come and gone – and good riddance and who cares! We cried and laughed.
I wasn’t alone in any of my feelings, no matter how silly or insignificant I’d thought they were when I’d walked in the door. They even cajoled me into going out to my car to get my dresses, and asked to see Mama’s, and Ginny’s, too. They ooh’d and aah’d and said all the things.
The women (most of whom I’ve known all my life,) applied such a balm. My mind quieted, my stomach stopped churning. I relaxed into the knowing that I am not alone – that none of us are alone – in feelings of inadequacy, in this mean-girl struggle with body-image, in moments of self-doubt and even despair.
In Mama’s living room, I was reminded of what I’d allowed myself to forget. Weddings aren’t about dresses or SPANX, or trying to look any certain way at all. Weddings are about love. Most things are, actually.
It took the women I love most in the world to remind me.