I’ve been thinking about Cinderella. According to a book I just read*, most women cite Cinderella as their favorite fairy tale. It’s not mine. I love her story** — undeserved riches to undeserved rags to riches she earns — but the message I got as a child has misled me more than once as an adult.
I’m not talking about being rescued from a life of drudgery by a loving prince. I’m not talking about staying positive in a negative situation. I’m not talking about my life being transformed by magic.
I’m talking about the promise of the ball. The ball and the gown.
The message I heard was: If you put on the right clothing, people will see the real you. The beautiful, wonderful, amazing adult you.
All my life I’ve been waiting for my ball, my Cinderella moment. In America, the big white wedding is the modern version of the ball. The bride puts on the dress and is the center of attention. If she’s lucky, she goes home with a prince.
At my wedding, I felt the power of being the bride, of being in the spotlight, but I didn’t feel like Cinderella. I wore the gown and my life changed. I crossed the threshold from maiden to wife. But I didn’t feel like I’d earned the attention. What they saw was The Bride and The Gown. Not me.
Years later, after my divorce, a better chance to be Cinderella came my way. The party was a big event, an office dinner and dance with over 100 attendees. It was a true ball.
Recently divorced and without a date, I prepared carefully. I put on an evening gown and put up my hair. Here was my chance to shine after failing at my marriage and struggling to find a life of my own. I walked into that party with my head held high and my hopes even higher.
Many of these people knew me from work, but I expected some of them to be astonished, to see me in a new way, to recognize all the changes I was feeling inside from the way I was dressed on the outside.
One or two women commented on my dress. And that was it.
No interest from any men, no sense that I was causing a sensation with the new me. No one even saw the new me. They saw a woman they worked with every day, who happened to be wearing a dress.
I was crushed. I went home feeling like a failure, because I couldn’t pull off the Cinderella transformation. Was I proper woman at all?
The day my divorce was final, I felt rather strange having signed the papers and knowing that I was officially done with my marriage. I had crossed a threshold I’d never dreamt I’d see when I was a kid. There was no dress, no announcement, nothing to mark the event.
A handful of co-workers were going out for happy hour that evening, just to socialize, so I went with them. As I was sitting quietly with the group, feeling odd, one of my co-workers asked me what was up. I told him what had happened that day. He commiserated; he was on his second marriage so he’d been through it, too. A few minutes later, he took off the felt fedora he was wearing and put it on my head.
“You look good,” he said.
I was grateful. I needed a way to signal to the world the transition I was going through. The hat showed the change, and the change looked good on me.
That was my Cinderella moment.
*Spinning Straw Into Gold: What Fairy Tales Reveal About the Transformations in a Woman’s Life by Joan Gould
**Not the Disney version but earlier renditions, like the one told by the Grimm brothers.