If you had a bat mitzvah, that means you probably also had a Bat Mitzvah Dress. The dress(es) that were a part of our ceremonies and receptions are, for many of us, symbolic of the coming-of-age time of our lives. These dresses hold special memories and meanings in their own right — and in many cases, we couldn’t get them out of our heads even if we wanted to.
In light of the viral #10YearChallenge, which calls on internet-goers to share a then-and-now photo (which is truly always a delight), I couldn’t help but reflect on my upcoming 10-year bat mitzvah anniversary. Around this time in 2009, I was a 12-going-on-13-year-old whose search for the perfect gown was a much less-sophisticated episode of Say Yes to the Dress.
My dress hunt began and ended in a plasticy-smelling Jessica McClintock store with my favorite peanut gallery members: my mom and Grammy. I locked eyes with a glossy, zebra-printed frock (complete with a neon turquoise bow to define my not-yet-developed waistline) and fell in love without second thought or an ounce of self-doubt. If I think hard enough, I can still feel the shiny charmeuse fabric; it was the kind that if you spilled something on it, it would wipe off immediately, sans-Tide to Go pen.
Even more memorable than the reflective fabric, though, was the fact that in the dressing room, I never once thought, “How will this look in pictures?” or, “What will other people think of it?” The dress, as Marie Kondo would say, sparked joy with a capital J, and I loved it on myself even more than I loved it on the hanger.
My years of competitive swimming — coupled with the fact that I basically had zero curves whatsoever — made shopping for my body type pretty easy at the time. However, with so much of my time spent at swim practice, with my hair tied in a bun under a silicone cap and wearing sweats and athletic clothes, seeing myself in a whimsical, glamorous dress — the kind I imagined Jenna Rink might’ve worn in 13 Going on 30 — was something I couldn’t even try to envision until I saw myself in the dressing room mirror.
It’s important to mention that my bat mitzvah was the first time the majority of my school friends and other attendees in my small Midwestern town ever set foot in a synagogue and experienced this kind of life cycle ceremony and celebration. This fact alone gave me all the reasons in the world to be nervous about how I would appear to these guests who were unfamiliar with Jewish traditions and culture — but this definitely didn’t stop me from being proud to stand out during this important time in my life.
To this day, it’s rare that I find unconditional joy in a garment the way I did with the turquoise and zebra bubble dress that has become engrained in my memory (and a plethora of family photos). Now that I’m a 22-year-old on the cusp of actual adulthood, clothes shopping (and especially searching for formal attire) is typically a whirlwind of indecisiveness and frustration.
Some of those frustrations stem from feeling dramatically in-between a “junior” and a “woman.” My body is simply not suited for no-bra-needed strappy tops and dresses, and I’m fine with that — yet when I venture two steps over to the women’s section of a department store, I find myself in a vortex of linen pants and boxy shift dresses that belong in a Chico’s commercial.
But even more than that is how social media has subconsciously plagued my shopping self-esteem. At the time of my bat mitzvah, I didn’t even have a Facebook page. Now, Instagram is the runway of my generation, and as social media-absorbed as it sounds, when I try on something I love or that makes me feel great, I find myself thinking about how excited I’ll be to post a picture in it. This sometimes makes for even more shopping indecisiveness and insecurity.
I feel lucky that my bat mitzvah shopping was not a stressful experience (see: I’m pretty sure I even had to get my size 2 dress taken in at the waist), but like so many women, very real factors like size struggles to imagined judgements of how others will perceive us can inhibit our confidence. I recently spent nearly six hours (!!!) shopping for a single dress I could wear to a wedding, and the dress I decided on was the absolute last thing I tried on all day.
I definitely still have my fair share of happy dance dressing room moments — but the truth is that I’m not a bat mitzvah girl anymore, and I haven’t been for a long time.
The infamous Jessica McClintock dress was a fixture of my closet for a number of years following the big event. Like most wear-once garments, though, its plastic covering collected dust, and around the time I left home for college, the dress too (appropriately) left the building during one of my mom’s eBay phases. It makes me happy to think that maybe it made its way into the home of another bat-mitzvah-to-be.
Even though reminiscing on bat mitzvah photos tends to showcase the awkward moments (not to mention those unfortunate ankle socks that clearly clashed with The Dress™), in my case, reflecting on my nearing 10-year bat mitzvah anniversary — and the animal print dress — makes me realize what my 13-year-old self already knew: Wear and do what makes you happy at the time.
As I prepare to graduate college and transition into the next chapter of my life, this sentiment is more timely than ever. I hope moving forward when I have feelings of doubt — whether it’s about how I think look in an outfit or about non-important perceptions of others — that I’ll remember to trust my gut and dress solely for me, just like I did when I chose my whimsical bat mitzvah ensemble.
After all, I don’t only remember the satin zebra stripes (or how I did a cringe-worthy “snowball” dance with a boy my mom made me invite). Rather, thoughts of the satin bubble dress remind me of so many people I love who celebrated with me that weekend, and when my camp friends danced to Lady Gaga with my grandpa, and when I linked arms with my family to “New York, New York.”
The dress allowed me to enjoy those things, all while looking like the over-the-top, fun-loving 13-year-old I was. And when I look at it like that, ten years later, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.