I'm not stupid. I went to Wendy Ward Charm
School... I know how to walk, how to get in and
out of a car without showing the world everything."
TERRY VENTURA, on her readiness for her new
role as Minnesota's first lady (Time.com, 01/18/99)
Despite our wildly divergent political bents, Mrs. Jesse Ventura and I share a special bond. We're both proud graduates of The Wendy Ward School of Charm. With the recent demise of its sponsor, the venerable but never quite hip Montgomery Ward, I think it's time fess up. On the third floor of a local branch of Monkey Ward's (as my brothers referred to my University of Charm) I learned all about the magic P words—Poise and Posture. And it was there that I learned that sometimes size does matter—for all the right reasons.
MaryAnn Palumbo, a tall skinny doppelganger of 1970s siren Marisa Berenson, presided over 10 pre-teen girls in various stages of gawk every Saturday. She wore the title of Your Personal Charm Director like a tiara. Her eyelashes were becomingly false, her rosy lip-gloss blindingly shiny; her silver bangles never jangled on her willowy arms. By the second class I was mesmerized. Like me MaryAnn was tall & part Sicilian; unlike me she was thin and a walking definition of perfection in motion. There was hope!
I had planned to hate MaryAnn and her skinny arms. It was definitely not my idea to attend to enroll in The 20-Day Wendy Way to Charm; my mother thought it would help me, bring me out of myself. (As if that was something I'd cheerfully initiate!) My body was something I tried to hide, ignore, and distance myself from; I was 12 years old, but with my height and my breasts in full bloom I looked 18.
I certainly didn't want to prance around in a room full of other 10-13 year old girls who still looked like children. I telegraphed my disdain as I slouched through the door in baggy jeans and T-shirt, mother behind me, on that first day of class. My cool was practiced but with my head down I stumbled into a row of folding chairs. Well, I guess you have your work cut out for you! , my mother said . She headed for the door, leaving me to do my best impersonation of a paralytic as Ms. Palumbo and class looked on. Nonsense! MaryAnn purred, She's a tall & lovely girl. I was hers; it was that easy.
With the voice of an angel matched with the personal force of a drill instructor, MaryAnn schooled us in the ways of Classic Charm & Beauty. Before we could even think about touching the jeweled parcels of color & gloss nestled so temptingly in our Beauty Kits, we submitted to, what was for many, our first mantra: Cleanse! Tone! Moisturize! Repeat! I can still smell the oatmeal soap & almond moisturizer we were issued; my first real girl gear.
Several girls, myself included, began wearing our hair in disheveled homage to MaryAnn's always-sleek chignons, French rolls and twists. I managed to achieve a sort of "attempting to hide a small woodland creature" effect, but gave it up for a side parted Veronica Lake do. MaryAnn pronounced it chic but impractical; blinded by my heavy hair, I kept tripping when we practiced our Model's Walk. I added a small clip as a compromise.
MaryAnn imparted the physical mechanics of modeling with all the gravity of a tutorial with Balanchine. The Model's T (which, indeed, resembled ballet's fifth position) was the natural starting point for The Model's Walk— a sort of pantherish prowl involving rolling hips and loping legs. The Pantsuit Lunge, my favorite, came next—lurching forward with a hand on one knee, elbow slightly bent. Few were fond of The Skirt Tilt, performed with one hand on hip with a slight dip to the side. It put me too much in mind of the unflattering I'm A Little Teapot ditty and dance I'd been corralled into performing in grade school. Only the Hokey-Pokey earned more of my childhood scorn.
The group favorite was The Little Twirl, a controlled spin useful for showing off a skirt. Spin Girls Spin! Maryann whispered in encouragement as we dizzied ourselves with varying degrees of control. Beatrice Chasee, a sallow milkfed veal of a girl, became briefly notorious for twirling herself into a nosebleed. Heedless to her distress, the rest of the Charm Commandos twirled on as MaryAnn ran for paper towels.
Spin Girl Spin, I chanted under my breath as I practiced at home. Model T, Model Walk, Pivot, Lunge, Model T, Model Walk, and Pivot. Up and down we practiced our baby-panther-on-the-prowl strolls, all for the ultimate reward—A Fashion Show at the end of Wendy's 20-day Way to Charm. This was the golden carrot MaryAnn held out to us as we toiled on our imaginary runway; if she had strictly adhered to the Wendy Way playbook it's doubtless only the hapless Beatrice would have been left at journey's end.
The Wendy Way featured such weird and deathless prose as "Beauty is learned…and earned—you'll never find it sitting on a mushroom" and the slightly frightening " …remember rudeness is the devil's gift to a self-conscious girl, and you don't want people to think you're self-conscious." If that was true, the entire class may have well enlisted in Satan's Gift Registry.
MaryAnn understood where our young fantasies resided—the pages of Seventeen, Young Miss—Harper's Bazaar & Vogue for some of the more precocious. I worked hard for MaryAnn, she of the sloe Sicilian eyes, porcelain skin & noiseless charm bracelets. She smiled and her huge eyes seemed to reflect what I could become. If I practiced enough. By the fourth class I was voluntarily showering two times a day. A miracle!, my mother declared. I sneered my best elegant sneer; my new Model's Smile was for MaryAnn and our charmed circle alone.
When MaryAnn looked at all of us—the gangly and the pimply, the plump, and the flat-chested, the hopeless and the already charming alike, she really seemed to see Classic Beauties capable of pulling off a graduation Fashion Show. Natural Poise & Beauty are the Best Cosmetics Girls—Makeup and Stylish Clothing are Only the Icing! If I had known enough then to discern them, I would have forgiven her mixed metaphors.
My first great fashion and size revelation came the Saturday we descended our 3rd floor aerie of charm to Ward's retail floor. We were each to select an outfit, which could later be purchased at a discount, for the graduation fashion show. My stomach tightened with a familiar reflex of dread. At twelve and a half I was 5 ft 8, though not yet at my full height, and I weighed 120 pounds. Huge, enormous, gargantuan—or so I thought. I had worn my now regular uniform of baggy jeans and flowing T-shirt covered by an over-sized zippered sweatshirt to almost every class; MaryAnn persuaded me to ditch the sweatshirt for the last two classes.
Nothing ever fit me right—why bother looking? I was a freak—too tall, too big. My inner rant continued as the other girls fanned out in pursuit of Fashion. I lurked near the shoe department feigning strong interest in Earth Shoes in case anyone walked by. I started to slink behind a pillar but MaryAnn caught me with her gimlet eye. Why wasn't I looking for an outfit?
I looked at the pillar and the Earth Shoes and MaryAnn's charm bracelet of the day—all hearts. And I let loose with my litany of woe—too big, too tall, too giant—too much! Nothing ever fits! She was unconvinced. Show me where you usually look, she commanded. I led her to the children's department where my parents, usually my father , bought my clothes. Always in the largest size possible. I couldn't bring myself to tell MaryAnn my baggy jeans and tees came from the boys department; it seemed shameful.
A frown broke the usually placid surface of her features, and then she smiled and said, Why , sweetie this is the children's department! You are a lovely young woman—not a little girl. In memory I see her as a sort of Disco Era Glinda the Good Witch, her bewitching lipgloss reflecting light from an ever-present rotating mirrored ball. I wanted her to curse my parents as fools, but without another word she led me to the Fun & Lovin' Juniors department where I selected my first grown-up outfit in a size 11/12! A fitted brown and cream windowpane-plaid jacket and a peach mock turtle neck shell with chocolate brown pants; brown leather platform shoes completed the ensemble. I swooned.
When I looked at myself in the mirror I froze. I had a real woman's figure—breasts, waist, hips, long legs. No wonder my parents tried to hide it. No wonder I was speechless; I'd never really looked at It. It being that Body. I only knew what I felt like all the time—too much. Yet now I felt just right. I wasn't fat—I was curvy. For once I didn't cringe at my own reflection. Nearly drunk with self-love I did the Pantsuit Lunge and nearly bonked my head on the mirror. No matter—I spun in the dressing room and softly whispered Spin Girl Spin!
So here I am some thirty years later daily battling the voices within and without that tell me I should be smaller even though I'm quite well proportioned. Most of the time, I win the battle of Bad Body Brain Buzz. Truly, I believe we are not all meant to fit into Sarah Jessica Parker's size 2 jeans. I live fully in my tall curvy body; I'm a mean dancer and can often be persuaded to demonstrate the Pantsuit Lunge at parties. And you should see me spin.
Though I never became the super model of my pre-teen 70s dreams, like Mrs. Terry Ventura I believe Wendy Ward—and Mary Ann—equipped me with enough charm to take on just about anything. My charm bracelet sports both heart and typewriter charms.
~Maura Alia Badji