“Mom, do you like my recital costume?” my daughter asked, offering a wadded-up ball of tulle for me to admire.
We both held our breath hopefully.
I unraveled the ensemble from my daughter’s arms and found a neon green leotard attached to a flouncy zebra-print mini skirt. A matching backless halter vest, belted with a silver buckle the size of a smart phone, tumbled to the kitchen floor.
Each year around this time, my daughter’s beloved hip-hop class goes bonkers over their recital costume. This is part of dance class culture: I’m pretty sure a group of girls would fawn over a baggy Ronald McDonald suit if it were made from shiny polyester and came with floppy red shoes. But the girls’ costumes aren’t just fun and flouncy anymore—they’re actually sexy. My husband maintains that last year’s getup, a mini-skirted schoolgirl uniform, had been pilfered from the set of a 1990s Aerosmith video.
If my Facebook news feed is to be trusted, I know that our school’s costume selections are not that unusual in the world of dance recitals. Still, I want to be able to watch my daughter dance without feeling like I’m tossing her into a public ring and celebrating her budding sexuality: dance recitals are not country fairs, and my daughter is not a ripening goat.
With my daughter anxiously awaiting my verdict, I waffled. Rather than feigning approval over yet another pile of saucy dance garb, it seemed more important to tell my daughter how awful it was that she was encouraged to doll up for an evening as some hyper-sexualized version of herself.
“Honestly?” I replied, thinking we could start a discussion right then and there about what the word “sexy” means and why it has no place in her life, yet.
When she looked at me, crestfallen, I backed down. Above all else, subjecting my daughter to further disempowerment would be ridiculous.
“I want to know what you think,” I asked instead.
She shrugged, still unsure.
What neither of us had realized was that this year, halfway between my daughter’s ninth and tenth birthdays, things had changed for her. The costumes she once categorically loved for their end-of-year flair now made her feel uncomfortable.
On the day of her dress rehearsal, I helped her get ready.
“I hate tights! They show everyone my butt. They’re itchy.”
She stretched the leotard up around her torso.
“Did I take home someone else’s costume by mistake? This feels too small!” She tugged on the straps, snapped them back onto her shoulders disdainfully, and then yelped in pain.
I read off the list of make-up requirements: blush, mascara, eyeliner, and lipstick. I know—these things make faces stand out on a stage. But with my two younger children in tow, we never arrive at the performance in time to sit close enough to the stage to see my daughter’s face anyway. Also, she’s nine.
“Do you want any of that stuff?” I asked her.
“Can we just do a light blush application? This is ridiculous!” she moaned as I brushed her cheeks from a small tin.
“Argh. Mom, it’s getting in my mouth. So is my hair. Do you have any hairspray?” she asked.
I pulled her hair into a ponytail with my fingers and grabbed a travel-size can of hairspray. I sprayed it awkwardly around the perimeter of her face, as if fending off a swarm of mosquitos. She stood with her eyes shut, and imagined the following scenario out loud:
“If a big man squeezed into my costume, it would take a thousand people just to button it up.”
Then she held up a six-inch zebra-print bow and squeezed her cheeks into a smile. “Look at this fancy bow I have to wear!” she cooed sarcastically. We both giggled.
“It says you’re supposed to have a ponytail with curls,” I explained.
The last time I borrowed a curling iron for a recital, I scorched my daughter’s hand and sent a friend running out at intermission to buy a bag of frozen peas to cool the burn.
“No curls,” my daughter said sternly, pulling on a pair of black fishnet gloves that extended up to her elbows. “These gloves are the best part of the costume,” she decided.
When she was ready, she looked at herself in the mirror, one hand on her square hip, and stuck out her tongue.
I thought back to the day one week earlier when I’d been catching up with a friend whose daughter is in the same dance class.
“What am I going to do?” I asked my friend, bemoaning our yearly costume dilemma.
“You’re going to put her in that hideous thing and get her to the stage on time,” she said.
Of course, my friend was right. But next year, if my daughter would rather not go through it again, I’ll tell her to opt out of the spring recital. Instead, we’ll clear the living room furniture and set up a stage. She can dance on the coffee table for all I care. Afterwards, we’ll have cake.