Playing Dress Up

by Pamela A Mertz

Some children like to play dress up in adult clothes, pretending to be a grown-up or someone else. Little girls might delight in wearing mommy's hats and jewelry, and trying to walk in shoes that are six sizes too big. Little boys might like to wear daddy's hats or ties, and also try walking in huge shoes.

When I was little, I did not play that kind of dress up. No, my memory is different and as fresh as if it was this morning. I used to like playing with paper dolls, in our driveway, under the overhang. I had a whole collection of paper dolls, with little matching paper outfits. I would spend many quiet hours playing and dreaming. I often imagined trading places with a paper doll or being someone else entirely. How would she sound? I kept those wishes to myself. No one would understand.

Sometimes we did play dress up, with my brother as an unwilling participant. For some inexplicable reason, my sisters and I loved to torture him and dress him up like a girl. We would corral him into the bathroom, and put make-up on him, do his hair, and usually made him wear one of my grandmother's old house coats. Oh, how he hated this. It was mean - we knew it and did it anyway.

Just like kids who made fun of me when I stuttered. It was mean. I hated it, just like my brother hated being teased by his sisters. Looking back, I regret being part of torturing him like that, because that's exactly how I felt when kids picked on me. Tortured. I still feel the sting now as an adult when someone makes a dumb comment about my stuttering. It makes me feel like a helpless little girl.

When I go back to that memory, I better understand what I sometimes do now with my adult stuttering. I can relate to the analogy of dressing up or dressing down. If I am really comfortable with whom I am with, I am dressed down and loose. Kind of like wearing an old ratty pair of jeans, ones that are so thread-bare that they should be thrown out, but which I can't bear to part with.

If I don't know the group very well or feel I have to make a really good impression, or that I will be judged on my "performance" I might put on my dress up clothes. Suit, blazer, dress shoes with heels, all the things that I am not entirely comfortable with. And I might try to dress up my stuttering too. This might mean avoiding or switching a word, or talking at a much slower rate.

These are some of the covert dress-up tricks that I have used for years, and that still show up from time to time. It is so easy to slip back into old habits, sometimes almost unknowingly.

I am most comfortable in my old pair of jeans that has a big tear in the back. They no longer get stiff after washing and drying. That is my goal - to no longer get stiff, and only dress up when I really want to, not because I feel I have to. We should always have a choice!

added August 2, 2009

Originally printed in the Times Union, Albany NY on 7/26/2009. (, added here with permission