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How to be yourself … in a costume

Ever since childhood, you were told to “be yourself.” And love yourself just as you are. Of course, you first have to look for yourself to find yourself to actually be yourself and then love yourself, but that’s another story. Just ask Oprah. She has an entire TV network based on that very premise. So doesn’t it seem like a no-brainer that to “be yourself,” you should at the very least dress like yourself — well, except on Halloween? Not so in San Francisco!

Yes, Oct. 31 is just days away, and while everyone is busy conjuring up their inner twerking Miley Cyrus, bearded Duck Dynasty star, or Anthony Weiner (I’ll spare you the description), I had a revelation: In San Francisco, dressing up isn’t just for Halloween anymore!

For instance, last July (as in summer), while walking down Chestnut Street, I was besieged by about 15 San Franciscans in the midst of a pub crawl wearing pirate, alien, and superhero costumes. And these get-ups weren’t just your flimsy, childhood, tie-on Halloween costumes with those plastic masks that smell like old cheese and make you sweat like Richard Simmons, but amazingly authentic looking attire (although I can’t recall having seen a real pirate, alien, or superhero in the flesh). But for a fleeting moment, I really was terrified that I would be forced to walk the plank in my four-inch heels. Totally shivered my timbers.

A couple of weeks later, my husband and I were on a walk when we witnessed a bunch of Japanese anime characters lounging on blankets, snacking on Fritos and beer on the lawn at Fort Mason. Other than the fact that I didn’t think animes could drink (don’t they lose their virtual powers?), it was a spectacular site with all the elaborate, otherworldly, pastel-colored costumes dotting the green. And dare I say, all those cartoonish figures looked nightmarishly REAL. Yet oddly cute.

Then on a warm September night on Union Street, we ran into a gaggle of twenty-something guys heading to a football party wearing women’s professional cheerleading outfits. I mean, these guys were not kidding around: Their pompoms were ginormous!

San Franciscans have a history of dressing up for no reason. Take Burning Man, which started on Baker Beach in the 80s with just a handful of costume-clad (and not-so-clad) revelers. Then there is our annual, costume-crazed Bay to Breakers race. The first person to run that race in costume was dressed, for no apparent reason, as Captain Kidd, in 1940. Aside from the fact that Kidd was executed for piracy and the guy in the race placed last, a great tradition had begun for all of you wanna-be Jamaican bobsledders, walking Porta-Potties, Dr. Seuss characters, and salmon swimming upstream.

These days, it’s a snap to get fantastic costumes on the Internet while rounding up a group of goofballs — er, people — to wear them via a single tweet. Still, if this is the era of being yourself, why do so many people feel the need to dress up as somebody else when it isn’t even Halloween?!

First, it’s fun! Why not change up the routine of having your friends over for a simple, meat-and-potato dinner and instead slip into your Colonel Mustard garb for a Clue-themed picnic? Also, stress at work is seriously off the charts these days, and there isn’t much of an opportunity to let your inhibitions down without, say, losing your job. So put on a rabbit head and tweet your friends to meet you for an Alice In Wonderland “tea” party. Then proceed to go down the rabbit hole. That’ll blow off some steam.

Last year, a study by scientists of a phenomenon called “enclothed cognition” was reported in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. This study found that what you wear affects your cognitive processes. For example, some participants were asked to wear what they were told were white doctors’ coats, and others were asked to don the same coats, but were told that they were painters’ coats. The ones wearing the doctors’ coats showed an enormous improvement in attention, but those in the painters’ coats did not (and believe me, they weren’t Picassos either). The point is that when you take on another persona, you really do get to “be” someone else, i.e., not yourself. Maybe you won’t be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound dressed as Superman, but you probably could gather enough strength to lug that enormous keg to the roof deck. That’s gotta count for something!

So I guess you don’t have to dress like yourself — or even like a human being for that matter — to be yourself. In fact, wearing a costume on any non-Halloween day may be the best way to express who you truly are. Hey, I think I’m having an Oprah aha moment: Maybe you really don’t have to be you to be you!

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Sandy Fertman Ryan has written for numerous national magazines, including Cosmogirl, Seventeen and 'TEEN. She is dressing as a middle-aged Pussy Cat Doll this Halloween. E-mail: yipee633@yahoo.com

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