I try to smile at the figure in the mirror, but she just stares. Waves of white fabric wash around her. I tell her she looks pretty. Her expression is disbelieving, far from bridal. It is steeled. The invitation said 18:00. It is now 18:23 and I am a snow-beast.
I’m 18. Everyone keeps telling me to savour these high school years – that they are the best of your life. I pray every day that they are wrong. “Please help me be better, please make me thin and please let this not be the peak.” I cling to my parents’ sound advice that life does improve after high school; that the formative years are transformative; that life is a marathon, not a sprint.
It is 2009 and I am finally in matric. I weigh in around 85kg – the goal weight of the first-team rugby squad brutes. At 1.5m tall, I am a caterpillar ready to burst from this skin. But this is not the time to crystalize – my matric dance is already underway and I am not there.
My first dress fitting was about 24 hours ago. The seamstress asks me to envisage the gown she will conjure from the two sheets of white satin sprawled across the table. It was not being fussy or demanding that lead to having a dress custom-made; it was the only option. My body shape was awkward to begin with, and a tradition as ancient as my private all-girls Anglican school stipulated that all formal dance dresses had to be white.
My mother and I scoured all four of Grahamstown’s shops and at least managed to allay some concerns. We scored a pair of strappy silver high-heels, and at last unearthed a white bra in my size – 36G (if bra measurements are gibberish to you, this means I carried about 4kg on my chest). Though I am relieved, this outfit will not pass “dress-check.” I decide to make the call.
So a few weeks prior to countdown, I trawled the Internet for inspiration, met the seamstress to discuss the design and bought the liquid fabric. Anyone who knows their fashion will tell you that stark white is possibly the most unflattering colour if you are overweight. Leniency was therefore granted – a band of colour “of width no more than 3cm” was permitted. One girl impressively bucked the system by sporting a zebra-striped bodice. The previous years’ girls had firmly trodden on the shoe regulations, though we were still encouraged to wear white, silver or gold heels.
It is now 22 hours before the dance. I stand back in the seamstress’s house, fidgeting in my underclothes. The March winds are already drawing the cold weather nearer. She smuggles aside her empty wine bottle and glass, gathering the tent from the table. Holding the pinned pieces to my body she urges me to exercise my youthful imagination – the poufy sail will flatter my figure; this lopsided waistcoat will be the beautiful bodice and the support which my bursting bust requires.
The morning of the dance and 10 hours to go. The other girls are getting their hair and nails done. My date calls me – he is my best friend. I had invited him secure in the happy knowledge that, no matter the situation, we would have a laugh together – sharing our skeptical amusement in these high school rites of passage. But he has to renege on his promise; he cannot come. He cannot face this dreadful archaic and sadistic parade, he is sorry. I call my ‘boyfriend’, but he cannot bear to accompany me for fear of people knowing we are involved. OMG, someone please kill me.
8 hours to go. I have another fitting, an hour later another. Before going to the next one around lunchtime, a begrudging classmate agrees to tag along. He has a suit but needs a tie.
2 hours. Every strand of hair is in place and I am willing my nail-polish to dry.
“This is the dress rehearsal for your wedding, you know!” the girls had been trilling through the corridors for months. No pressure. If this is any indication, I should definitely not walk down the aisle. “You can get married as many times as you like, but you only have one matric dance” – as if the ritual didn’t sufficiently smack of matrimony.
The clock chimes 17:00. My face is powdered and decorated to my satisfaction. My hair is holding. I tap my toes.
17:13 I fight the urge to gnaw my nails and ruin my home-manicure.
17:17 I lose the battle, and lose my thumbs. FML.
I count the seconds till 17:38. I know calling the seamstress again is futile. She was already slurring an hour ago.
17:58 I fervently and finally decide there is no way I’m going. This is all just daft. And everyone is already there. My life is ruined.
18:02 I change my mind. I straighten my blurry make-up. My mom makes me a cup of tea.
18:14 and the seamstress finally calls. We dash out of the house with impressive speed.
It is now 18:23. I stare at the girl in the mirror. She pauses in her judgemental prodding of me – her eyes stop shredding and ripping. The girl looks at me. We see each other and understand. I am proud of her and what she is about to do. We both smile. I am ready.