For an Orthodox preteen, Tonya Harding was a hero—and a Purim inspiration
When Victoria Beckham last week told a panel of sports experts—that is, the ladies of The View—that she thought men should not wear feathers, I took offense at the swipe directed at Evan Lysacek, the just-crowned Olympic figure skating champion. He had pumped his feathered fists after a successful short program and wore a silver snake draped around his otherwise understated black outfit during the free skate. His costume was classier than the one I wore for Purim in 1994, when I went to synagogue as Tonya Harding, the disgraced bad girl of figure skating.
It was hardly an obvious costume choice for an Orthodox girl in Brooklyn. Rollerblading around the synagogue while brandishing a baseball bat, I wore a bright purple leotard over black leggings and rouged my cheeks to beauty-pageant standards. Though my collarbone, knees, and elbows were supposed to be covered (and not in clingy spandex) in keeping with Jewish law, I got around this restriction because I was still under 12 and had yet to enter formal Jewish womanhood, when dress guidelines went from suggestion to requirement. After my Tonya night, I thought, I would go quietly into adulthood, not minding the high necks and low hemlines I would have to wear.
But when I watched television or read my sister’s People magazine, which arrived every Sabbath afternoon, I would stare at the photos of celebrities and long to wear the same low-cut dresses and short skirts. I tried but failed to imagine what I would look like in those outfits. All I could see was my uniform—a long sleeved blouse paired with a plaid skirt that fell below the knees. It was tough to envision myself as an Olympic figure skating champion in such modest attire.
I had discovered figure skating and Harding simultaneously in 1991, while watching the National Championships, having stumbled on the broadcast on a Sunday afternoon. Back then she was known for hitting jumps, not kneecaps—sort of like Yevgeny Plushenko, but marginally more artistic. Specifically, she was famous for being the first American woman to successfully land a triple axel, the Everest of women’s figure skating, in competition. I was amazed by her raw speed and power and immediately converted to Harding fandom.
Frizzy hair aside, Tonya and I had little in common. I had never been to an ice rink or even roller skating before I watched those 1991 Nationals, but I was captivated by her. I started attempting what I thought were toe loops, salchows, and axels in the middle of the living room, despite having neither blades on my feet nor ice beneath them. I became so infatuated with the sport and Tonya that I threw a tantrum on the eve of the 1992 Winter Olympics because the ladies’ short program was to be broadcast on a Friday night, Shabbat, which meant I wouldn’t be able to watch the competition. My mother preferred the possibility of divine wrath to the certainty of a preteen meltdown and decided to set the black-and-white TV in her bedroom on a timer. We agreed not to tell anyone at school or synagogue about our indiscretion.
That night, my sister, mother, and I watched the short program huddled together on my mother’s bed. In our jingoistic fervor, we chanted “fall, fall, fall” as the Japanese Midori Ito attempted a jump, hoping to clear the path for the Americans: Kristi Yamaguchi, Nancy Kerrigan, and my beloved Harding. We burst into wild applause when Ito seemingly complied, not realizing we were watching a taped broadcast.
Unfortunately, my witchy powers were of no use to Tonya, who also fell at those games and ended up in fourth place. In my carpeted indoor rink, I recreated the competition, pretending that my 360-degree jumps had actually revolved three–and-a-half times. I landed them cleanly and awarded myself and Tonya the gold medal, which I had borrowed from my small collection of gymnastics awards. I considered sending one to her, but then figured she could order it from the Oriental Trading catalogue just as my gym did.
My older sister couldn’t understand why I preferred Harding to Yamaguchi, the gold medalist and world champion, or the elegant Nancy Kerrigan, who wore her hair pulled back tightly into a neat bun. But I didn’t care about clean wardrobe lines—it was the early `90s, which is to say it was the `80s in terms of figure skating fashion. Almost everything was ruffled, bedazzled, and feathered—looks that have endured in the sport.
Having been raised in a community that rigidly enforced gender roles, I enjoyed someone like Harding. Though she wore a figure-skating dress in competition, she seemed devoid of femininity. She was a boon to the sport of figure skating. All that she had was sheer athleticism. Tonya was so rough around the edges, no one could ever call her a glorified dancer. She performed her programs with brute force.
Of course, I wanted the brute force to be only stylistic, not literal. I abandoned Harding when it became plain that she had been complicit in the physical attack on the rival Kerrigan. She had become a national laughingstock, and no one, least of all a self-conscious preadolescent, could admit to supporting her.
Everyone assumed I was mocking Harding when I glided around my Brooklyn shul in character, which I suppose I was, but only in part. Just a few months earlier, I had admired Harding and I felt guilty for turning on her so quickly and viciously. But I received my comeuppance—I didn’t even place during the Purim costume contest. The next year, I would dress as a Coke can, and then later as a pencil, and then later still as a chocolate bar. I earned a spot on the podium for each of those efforts, having learned that bulky, inanimate objects were the way to go if you wanted costume accolades from the rabbis.
Purim will be here again on Saturday, days after tonight’s completion of the women’s Olympic figure skating competition. Once again, I’ll be looking to the ladies for costume inspiration. As an adult, I no longer subscribe to Orthodoxy’s feminine dress code—hemlines, necklines, and taste are no longer obstacles. I can go as low (or high) as I want to on all fronts.
Dvora Meyers is a freelance writer in New York City. She blogs about the unholy union between Judaism and gymnastics.
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