How I Stole Beauty

How one shoplifted dress earned her the attention she craved as an anger teenager. 

by Niki Smart • Member { View Profile }
Photograph: iStock

Craving validation in any format, I entered a local beauty contest when I was 15 years old, mailing in a photo and bio that read: “I love to water ski, horse ride and play badminton” as if I’d actually participated in these activities. Still, I was chosen to compete in the finals. High excitement except — it called for a dress. I had to wear a dress! I didn’t own a dress, and certainly nothing my sister wore could win me a beauty contest. My mother gave me $20 to purchase a new outfit, but $20 didn’t quite cover it. I brooded with a girlfriend from my high school, Vivienne, who artfully solved my predicament.

“Which dress do you like?” she asked after I’d tried several on at the local mall. I pointed to a plain, but well-fitting, lavender dress, and Vivienne promptly stuffed it in her school bag.

“Right! Let’s go,” she said.

It was that easy.

Our crime induced “high” turned to shame and guilt as we ordered burgers, fries, and cokes at the local Burger King with my $20 dress money. Munching our way through greasy burgers, the idea struck us that we should go to church. Of course! God would forgive us and we could rest easy.

We planned to attend the following Sunday, but Vivienne lived far away and never made it to church. I however, was determined to go, especially now that I’d appropriated myself a whole new wardrobe. And these new pillaged garments were exacerbating my irksome compulsion to seek forgiveness.

Sunday arrived, and I bee-lined to the nearest church. The picture in my head was one of welcoming arms that embraced me like the prodigal son returning. Not that I had been prodigal, quite the opposite — my method of “shopping” was exceedingly thrifty. Be that as it may, I imagined the church would slaughter a goat for me and then some. As a truly repentant sinner, I felt I was a worthy cause.

To my surprise and indignation, when I arrived at the church, a handful of smiling, religion-imbued folk blocked me at the door.

“You must wear a hat to come inside,” said an overweight lady with a smug sense of self-righteousness (and a lovely hat).

“I’m sure God won’t mind if I don’t wear a hat,” I reasoned. “He’ll be happy to know I’m here. This is a big step for me because I never come to church.”

(Um excuse me, where is the goat?)

“You can’t come in without a hat on,” she said. “That’s the rule.” She crossed her arms, preparing to do battle for God’s bonnet decree.

Anger welled in my chest. Had she not just heard me say this was a big step for me? Rome wasn’t built in a day. Maybe if I liked the program, I’d come back the next week, and if I felt so inclined, maybe the following week too. Perhaps I’d even steal a hat for myself the week after that? The whole religion thing annoyed the heck out of me. Who seriously believes that God thinks you should wear a hat to church? (Or that you should lop off your foreskin for that matter, if you’re Jewish?)

I wanted to scream at her jelly neck-fat “God doesn’t give a baboon’s ass what you wear on your head. He cares about what’s in your heart!”

Well, God must have loved me a little, because I won that beauty contest. And my prize? A $20 gift certificate to Papillion: the very same clothing store that had unwittingly supplied me my well-fitting, lavender dress.

With a look of amazed disbelief on my now “proven pretty” face, I was crowned Miss Teenager of Randburg. Accepting my award I sure didn’t feel like a beauty queen. Would they take back my prize if they knew I was wearing a stolen dress? Would they decorate me with handcuffs in lieu of a sash and tiara? In retrospect I should have been crowned: Miss Shop-lifting, Promiscuous, Alcoholic, Brimming with Rage, Mighty Miserable Teenager of Randburg. But I guess that would’ve been a tad wordy.

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