Mean Girls: All Grown Up

I’m not always up for a Naked Ladies party. Sometimes I think the dynamic of a group might be too intense, or I don’t have time to go through my closet, or I just don’t feel like subjecting myself—in bra and panties—to trying on what may or may not work in a roomful of other people. You kind of have to be in the mood for that last one.

I prefer going into any dressing room alone, though will occasionally share with a close friend, but only if no other option is available, and have never even liked getting dressed—from my own closet—in front of my boyfriends. I know many women who are not so shy; they’ll take an entire basket full of clothes into a dressing room and be perfectly comfortable with a friend sitting on the floor drinking an iced mocha and commentating on every hem, collar, and waistline. I am not one of those women.

Erma Bombeck was a slapstick columnist and best-selling author who made a career out of finding humor in the mundane. One of her titles speaks for itself All I Know About Animal Behavior I Learned in Loehmann’s Dressing Room. Loehmann’s dressing rooms are legendary in that they are long, open rooms with three-way mirrors lining the walls end to end. There’s nowhere to hide, nowhere to avert your eyes, nothing to do but hope the women around you don’t narrate your experience of trying to make an 80% off designer dress work for you, when you both know it won’t. Some things you need to figure out for yourself and some things are better left unsaid, but in Loehmann’s dressing room all bets are off. Women have even been known to put another woman down not because she looks bad in something, but because they want the item for themselves. It’s cruel. It’s mean. It’s sad. It’s typical.

Girls are inherently mean. In 2004 Mean Girls debuted as a number one hit movie based on the book Queen Bees and Wannabes by Rosalind Wiseman. Adults thought it was hilarious, but teenagers, screenwriter Tina Fey said, “…watch it like a reality show. It’s much too close to their real experiences so they are not exactly guffawing.”

When we are too close to a situation we might not be able to laugh, but from that uncomfortable place we are prime for retaliation. We only know how to be hard on other girls because we’re so hard on ourselves. Boys are mean too, but their aggression manifests on sports field as physical acts of violence, whereas girls are socially obnoxious and engage in bitchery that seems to know no bounds. The door tends to swing both ways, though, and a trendsetter one day might be eating her lunch in the bathroom the next. Self-doubt and insecurity are generally at the root of “mean girl” behavior, but that’s hard to remember when you’re on the receiving end. One woman had such a terrible experience as a sorority girl that, even twenty years later, she was wary of female friendships and avoided dealing with women, “particularly women in packs,” and wrote an article about it for the New York Times, which turned into a book called “The Twisted Sisterhood” that the Associated Press described as “an earnest look at how women might stop turning away from one another.”

It’s not always so bad, or at least it doesn’t have to be. Most of us grow up, and we have the option to natural select the mean girls out of our lives as we bury our own inner mean girls. We learn to be gentler and more forgiving of ourselves, and in turn we can offer the same to others. In the same way that meanness proliferates, so does generosity.

I had a hunch about last week’s party. I had a feeling it was going to be a good one. I knew a few good friends would be there but that the majority of the group would be acquaintances and a couple of people I’d never even seen before and that new friendships would be made because barriers are instantly bulldozed when you have to ask the woman next to you, “Um, I’m stuck; can you help me out of this?”

I wanted to get rid of stuff and didn’t even care if I brought anything home, while other women went with the intention of taking home a mother lode; that’s what makes these events so great. But is that it? Is it just about cleaning out your closet and/or scoring a new, free wardrobe? Nope, not at all.

There were thirty or so women at the party ranging from early twenties to later forties. Some with kids, some practically kids themselves; some with bigger incomes, some with EBT cards in their pocketbooks; some who always buy new things, some who’ve stuck with the same styles for years. The women in this group were polite, thoughtful, and humane, but I didn’t know that yet. I’d heard horror stories of women being aggressive, hoarding treasures, acting like little girls.

We drank wine and snacked on appetizers before the main event. We introduced each other to our friends, and re-introduced ourselves to each other. With so many women there the pile was epic in proportion, and though we were all excited to dig for treasures, we had so much fun connecting on a human level that we almost forgot about why we were there. One friend called another right before the digging commenced and said, “I think you need to get over here…”

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My friend Charlotte and I had our eyes on the same pair of barely worn, apricot-colored, basket weave Seychelles, and we almost bonked heads reaching for them when our hostess told us to “Go!” but came up laughing and each holding a shoe. They were on the smaller end of my range and the larger end of hers. She tried them first, “They’re too big; you should have them.” I tried them on and they were a little tight. I considered trying to stretch them out, but have been down that road before. Bursitis? Tendinitis? I did that in high school when I desperately wanted a pair of loafers from Barney’s (not my size but they were on sale…..), and god help me if I haven’t grow out of certain adolescent behaviors, not the least of which is trying to force square pegs into round holes. We both loved the shoes, and it was almost absurd how we wanted the other to have them. We finally agreed that she could add an insole so should take them, and then we were off and digging through the pile with the rest of the ladies.

Clothes flew across the room as we found things we thought would be great on our friends. It didn’t stop at the friends we came with, and we sized up our neighbors, though not in the bad way. The flatter-chested traded with the bigger-boobed. The taller gals passed the shorter pants and skirts to the more petite. The first round of try-ons went back into the pile, which at times seemed bottomless. Every once in a while we turned the thing like a giant compost pile, and eventually the pile evolved into more of a slug shape so more women could have access to it. We were cooperative and conscientious.

A stranger turned to me in a sweatshirt, “What do you think?” “It’s too big,” I said a little tentatively, “And I don’t think it’s your color. Try this one.” She loved it, thanked me, and then we exchanged names. I downright cheered when a woman found a hot dress and a pair of booties that matched perfectly. My excitement overwhelmed her at first, but other people joined in and the next thing you know she was vogue-ing for us all.

We also told each other, “Sorry, but I don’t think I can get this zipper all the way up,” “That jacket doesn’t do you any favors,” and, sometimes just straight up “No.” It’s amazing what you can say if there’s a genuine smile behind it and a complete absence of malice.

The take-home: you can be honest and still be kind. You can share and expect nothing in return, you can understand that giving and receiving are the same, you can love yourself and others. Can this evolved behavior extend beyond naked ladies parties? It sure can. Ladies: let’s do this.

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