My college boyfriend still insists that the day he met me, I was wearing a pair of overalls. The fact that I have never actually owned any overalls does not make this an implausible memory.
Truth is, I was exactly the kind of girl who would wear such a thing – if, that is, I wasn’t already wearing a burlap sack, a dropcloth, or a muumuu.
What I had a hard time believing, as I stood just outside our Art History Survey course, was that this exquisitely dressed Italian artwork of a man was actually talking to me.
I’m guessing that the day we met, I was probably wearing one of my typical freshman year outfits. I usually left the dorm clad in a billowing t-shirt stolen from my 6’4” brother, matched with baggy corduroy pants that flapped and scraped like cricket legs. I was sure, at least, that my treasured Free Soviet Jewry pendant marked me as supremely hip – if, that is, your social life began and ended at the local JCC.
I’d been taught to dress this way by my mother, who used every means at her disposal to sideline me from womanhood. Her goal was to convince me that I’d never be kissed, much less ever be the kind of girl who just might possibly maybe some day ever lose her virginity. This was not a sign of maternal abuse, but just the opposite; she thought that clothing might protect me from the cruelty that lay in my future. To do this, she used the contents of my closet in order to hide me in plain sight.
By college, I was fully on board with closeting myself.
I was born in 1958, with a disability called spina bifida. Back then, most kids died of complications before they reached two years old. If, like me, they managed to beat those odds, they mostly ended up living in institutions – or in their parent’s basement, which was where I fully expected to reside till the end of my days.
When I was a kid, no one had ever heard of disabled people getting married. Or even getting horny, for that matter. We were the unusable members of the family. Never to be the seedlings of families ourselves, but to slowly fade and dry and blow away. We were the ones who’d be spoken of, with brittle cheer, at weddings and bar mitzvahs, and anticipated at funerals.
So it’s no wonder that my mother kept repeating these confounding words:
Honey, no one will ever want to have a relationship with you.
So I don’t want you to be disappointed when it never happens.
And men only want one thing.
Promise me you won’t let them near you, or I’m afraid you’ll just get hurt.
Huh? Men only wanted one thing, which was and was not me?
Now, it’s not like there was some prudish streak among my tribe. Once puberty came and swept up my girl cousins, everyone wanted to know the juicy details. Diane, honey, do have a crush on anyone? Ellen, let’s get you a new dress for that dance. Leah, pull your hair back and show off those lovely eyelashes. And try this lipstick – but make sure to blot!
None of that was said to me.
At least they knew I was female. I’d been given the same toys as my cousins had, but my Easy-Bake Oven and Betsy Wetsy doll were never meant to prepare me for womanhood. Mattel didn’t make orthopedic platform shoes for my Barbies – though with those pointy feet, she sure could’ve used ‘em.
Everyone said that my best hope lay in finding a “nice crippled boy.” We could take care of each other in grimly sweet Platonic fashion.
You couldn’t tell by looking at me, but my family l-o-o-o-v-ed clothing. My uncle claimed that back in Russia, we designed for the Imperial Romanoffs, though it’s to imagine the royal carriage thundering all the way to our tiny shtetl of Chernigov, so it could pick up my great grandmother and her hand-woven, horsehair tape measure.
When I was little, my mother made us matching outfits, even creating tiny, identical dresses for my doll out of the scraps. She was a big woman in a world that didn’t like big women any better than it liked little weird cripples. She coped by making herself elaborate caftans that hid her size, encrusted with so much embroidery and rickrack and rhinestone that they practically became sculpture. Still, it was a simple matter to downscale these into little shame-tents for me. All I knew was that I was thrilled to look just like Mommy, who was the most beautiful woman in the world.
Inevitably, I became a teenager. Mom tried to ignore the triple onset of acne, boobage, and an obsession with the Partridge family. But sometimes the urge to gussy me up was too much for her. I knew I was doomed if she’d watched a Shirley Temple movie that afternoon. I’d come home from school, and out would come the curling tongs, and the instructions to sit still, do you want to get burnt? After which I’d look like someone had scalped a cocktail waitress and stapled the pelt directly onto my head.
And then there was the trip to buy my very first brassiere. Imagine an epic safari of sexual ambivalence, starring my mother, my grandmother, a coven of professional tit-inspectors, and me, longing for spontaneous combustion.
Even then, I was still not allowed to pick out my own clothes. At times, it would be grandmother who took me shopping. She’d fill up our cart with unisex pullover shirts and old-lady double-knit pants (in all six available colors!).
I must point out that Grandma was a woman of great style, and would never have worn such things herself, under pain of banishment from Hadassah.
Mom had wanted to be a fashion designer (her parents instead sent her to pharmacy school, an unmitigated disaster) and used to obsessively draw the 1950s New Look, Dior wasp-waisted frocks worn by Audrey Hepburn in all our favorite films. By then, she wouldn’t have been able to wear them, though I have photos of her in her twenties, swaying in flared, dance-with-me skirts and fitted blouses that clung to her D-cup chest.
As puberty came for me, and my body became less of a tubular generality, it became clear that I was not going to be female-shaped enough to fit in those dresses my mother had taught me to love. I had a strange, barrel-shaped rib cage that erased my waistline, and the curve of my spine made everything I wore hang at a tilt. I was 4’9” at twelve years old, and there my height came to a permanent stop. And, of course, there were those enormous shoes.
I craved the precision of a fitted, flowered party dress, or the extravagant hourglass of a Cinderella ball gown, or even the ability to wear my (horrid, grey-green, box-pleated) high school uniform belted tight like every other girl in my class. Instead, I wore mine hanging loose and looked like I was hiding a secret pregnancy for four whole years.
I felt like the permission to want, or to be wanted, was entirely a function of the symmetrical, full-tight-full silhouette I would never have. So even though I had my crushes – on boys and in retrospect, on girls – I tried to keep them secret even from myself.
But after being laughed at in high school one too many times, I finally snapped, and flat-out begged my grandmother her for something – anything – stylish to wear. She had me lay down on a big piece of paper and drew around me with chalk (yes, this should have been a warning). Three days later, she presented me with a pair of floor-length elephant-bell-bottom pants, proudly pointing out that she’d designed them so they completely hid my shoes. Unfortunately, they also completely hid my legs. I looked like I was walking around in my own personal trench.
No matter what I wore, it was in pitched battle with what lay beneath.
So there I was, a year later, standing in the hallway outside the lecture hall, about to meet William, New Wave fashion idol of the University of Cincinnati, a man possessed of three sharkskin suits and 500 hand-painted ties. William was about to meet someone dressed with all the sexual pizzazz of Ralph, the ambiguously gendered handy “man” on the Green Acres TV show.
Who knows what made him able to see an acceptable body under all my layers of obfuscation. Maybe he was just kinky for fixer-uppers. I do know that my life suddenly became a whirlwind of vintage shops, and highly “conceptual” outfits, such as my transparent raincoat whose pockets I filled with broken glass, or the skirt I made out of a pup tent and several yards of telephone cord.
I was coming to understand that I was going to be stared at my entire life, so I may as well give them something confounding to look at.
William and I broke up many years ago, but during our time together he taught me that everything I wore was a costume. This got me through my crucial years in the Lesbian Haircut Wars, and the brief period of my life involving business suits. I will always be grateful that he blew open my closet door – in more ways than one – and let me use clothing to play any damned game I want.
Riva Lehrer is an artist and writer whose work focuses on issues of physical identity and the socially challenged body. Her work has been seen in venues such as the United Nations, the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC, the the DeCordova Museum, the Frye Museum, the Smithsonian Museum, the Chicago Cultural Center, and the State of Illinois Museum.
Her work has been featured in numerous documentaries, including “The Paper Mirror” (2012) by Charissa King-O’Brien, on her collaboration with graphic novelist Alison Bechdel; “Self Preservation: The Art of Riva Lehrer” (2005) by David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder; “Variations” (2014), by Laurie Little and Anuradha Rana; and “Code of the Freaks” by Salome Chasnoff, Carrie Sandahl, and Susan Nussbaum (in progress).
Ms. Lehrer’s writing and visual art are included in publications includingCriptiques, edited by Caitlin Wood, 2014, andSex and Disability, Duke University Press, edited by Robert McRuer and Anna Mollow, 2011, and TriQuarterly, 2013 and 2014, for which she received a Special Mention Pushcart prize.
Riva Lehrer is currently an instructor in Medical Humanities at Northwestern University.