Who would have thought that a Bing Crosby movie could have such an impact on my body image?
One of my favorite movies – no matter what time of year – is White Christmas, and it has been since I was young. Every July I pulled the tape (yes, tape) out of its flimsy cardboard box and watched it, just because everyone needs a little Bing Crosby in July.
One of my favorite scenes from the movie is towards the beginning, when Danny Kaye sweeps Vera-Ellen out to a veranda at a club in Florida and they dance to the song “The Best Things Happen When You’re Dancing.” And oh, the best things did happen when they were dancing. I was a dancer, and watching Vera-Ellen and Danny Kaye glide around so lightly made my heart flutter.
I especially loved the scene when the duo did a tap/soft-shoe dance on top of an overturned boat (how convenient a wooden overturned boat just happened to show up when they wanted to do a soft-shoe – if only life were like musicals).
My favorite part, by far, though, was Vera-Ellen’s dress. It was pink and it had a flowing, breezy skirt that billowed around her just perfectly when Kaye spun her. It was so romantic, so beautiful, and I so wanted that dress.
I tried to get my mom to make it for me for a dance my junior year of high school. She convinced me to go with something else (black, sheath, slimming). I tried again senior year, and my mother reluctantly told me why she wouldn’t make it. She said, “Honey, imagine Rosemary Clooney jammed into that dress. That’s what you’d look like.”
Much as women do with comments about their weight, I tucked that thought deep into my soul. Vera-Ellen was wisp-thin and practically floated on air. Rosemary Clooney – well, she just wasn’t. She was round and lush and substantial, and most of her clothes in White Christmas seem to be designed to slim and shape her figure.
But, I wanted to be a Vera-Ellen. I did not want to be Rosemary Clooney. I wanted to wear the pink dress.
But the problem was – and still is — I’m not Vera-Ellen. I’m round and lush and substantial, and no amount counting calories will ever make me a Vera-Ellen wisp. I’m a Rosemary Clooney. I have always been jealous of Vera-Ellen, of how she looked in that dress, of what I could never be.
I have carried the burden of being a Rosemary into my adulthood. It’s always been my fatal flaw, in my mind.
I caught White Christmas on TV not too long ago. Out of curiosity I pulled up its Wikipedia entry. I was reading about the movie and where it was filmed, and I followed the familiar Wikipedia rabbit-hole down to various articles and off-site pages about Vera-Ellen. And what I learned made me stop and re-evaluate my disgust at my round hips and flawed belly.
Apparently, I learned, urban legend has it that Vera-Ellen refused to wear anything in the movie that didn’t cover her neck. And when I thought about it, I realized that in White Christmas, everything she wears – including that beautiful pink dress – has a high neck that covers her to her throat.
Why? Some biographers believe she had such severe eating disorders that the skin of her neck aged rapidly in comparison with the rest of her body.
This may be true, it may not. The story has been both disputed and corroborated. However, regardless of why, there is no scene in White Christmas where you can see Vera-Ellen’s neck. Coincidence? Probably not – turtlenecks weren’t that popular in the 1950s, unless you were a beatnik in to the coffee house scene. So there was most likely something going on that either she or her costumer wanted to cover.
Despite wearing that dress, despite dancing so gracefully in a way I never could imagine, Vera-Ellen had her own demons she was dealing with, no matter what they were.
Never once when I’d watched that movie did I think Rosemary Clooney was the beautiful one. She was the imperfect one, the one who should have been jealous of the pink-dress-wearing Vera-Ellen.
When I saw the movie again the next time (there’s always a next time), I watched it with new eyes. Not necessarily that Rosemary Clooney was the beautiful one, or the perfect one, or that Vera-Ellen was flawed, but that they were both women. They were real women, with real bodies, with flaws (perceived or real). They had to cover things they, or the movie-makers, didn’t like.
Vera-Ellen wore a turtleneck for an entire movie – I’m reminded of Mitch Hedberg’s quote that wearing a turtleneck is like being strangled by a “really weak guy all day long.” And Rosemary Clooney was probably shoved into a girdle so tight it would make Spanx feel like comfy yoga pants.
Will my newfound perspective make me celebrate my curves, make me embrace my Rosemary-ness? Probably not, at least completely. I have been trying to make peace with my body for 30+ years, and some days, it’s still a struggle. But at least now I understand that even the most beautiful, the most graceful, have their own struggles.
More than anything, this perspective reminds me that all women are in this never-ending assault on our body image together. There is no real perfection. Rather than “feeling sorry” for the Rosemary Clooneys, we should celebrate their unique beauty — not in spite of the Vera-Ellens, but together with the Vera-Ellens.