CASSIE LANE How to Dress a Dummy. Reviewed by Robin Elizabeth
How to Dress a Dummy speaks frankly of Cassie Lane’s battle for acceptance and will ring bells with many women.
Cassie Lane is a former international model with a Masters in Creative Writing, but seems to be best known in Australia for dating AFL player Alan Didak (who is only mentioned briefly in the book). Her memoir How to Dress a Dummy is endorsed by prominent Australian feminist, Clementine Ford. It is a book about not only Lane’s public life but the struggles she has faced as a girl and as a woman. Struggles that will be familiar to many women, not just world-renowned models. In fact the relatability of this book, which is written with colloquial dark humour, is what makes it such an interesting and easy read.
Lane’s authorial voice is clear from the very outset. It is sarcastic, it is self-deprecating, and it is without a doubt very Australian. Rather than centring the narrative on the glitz and glamour of Hollywood and Milan she very quickly introduces the reader to herself as a child. Her unflinching and unflattering descriptions of an awkward child with bad hair will ring true to anyone forced to endure countless awful haircuts at the hands of their mothers. And the escapades made possible by the lack of childhood supervision will also be familiar:
The first time I broke both my wrists, I was six. There was a two-storey house under construction next door to our place in Wheeler Hill, a suburb in south-east Melbourne. My older brother, Alex, was climbing it, so naturally, I followed. ‘Beat ya, shithead!’ I shouted when I reached the peak, raising my fist triumphantly. I lost my balance, slipped through the slats and landed palms first on the concrete foundation. My wrist bones crumpled like a one-way accordion, but I survived. The second time I broke both my wrists, I fell off a stage in drama class, breaking completely different wrist bones and acquiring the nickname ‘Arsewipe’, due to the frequency with which I was elbow deep in plaster and in need of assistance when I went to the bathroom.
Lane is not a lofty star beyond our reach; she is one of us. She is someone who has had childhood mishaps, someone who has been embarrassed and someone who has been bullied. And when Lane admits on page 5, ‘I wonder if my series of accidents wasn’t a plea for Dad’s attention using the most apposite method my young mind could devise …’ the reader can see that Lane had been battling for acceptance for her entire life. She was a young girl looking for the love of her family and never quite receiving it.
This battle for acceptance is repeated beyond her family and extends out into her school life and into adulthood. At school, a boy whom she thinks is oh-so-handsome announces that he would rather commit bestiality than be with Lane; she is left in tears. When she graduates high school she ends up with a drug-dealer boyfriend who continually isolates her from her family and friends, claiming that he is the only one who truly loves her. And when she begins modelling in Australia she has a relationship with a man who gives her compliments paired with insults. He tells her that she is beautiful, but that she needs to lose weight. All this she accepts because she is desperate to feel loved and accepted; she puts up with an awful lot of bad to get a few crumbs of good.
Later in the memoir Lane picks up on how universal this issue is of women feeling as if they’re lacking and how they bend over backwards in order to feel as if they’re acceptable. Her story about a sexual encounter that nearly happened with a man named Calum while she was living in America in many ways typifies this experience. She writes of how when things turned unexpectedly amorous with Calum she quickly ran to his bathroom, remembering that she hadn’t shaved her nethers for some time. So distraught at the idea of being caught out with pubic hair, Lane finds a rusty, blunt razor in Calum’s bathroom and uses that to shave with. The idea alone was enough to cause shaving-rash to spontaneously erupt in my crotchal region. In the end the encounter did not go through because Calum had bed bugs! When Lane discusses this with her housemates, they are very sympathetic, having been through similar situations themselves. Not necessarily dry-shaving their area, more trying to hide who they really are in order to please. And this does seem to be an experience more felt by women than men – as one of Lane’s housemates points out, Calum did not seem to go to any extraordinary lengths to impress:
Lola, an ethereal Brit with a thick blond mane and navy eyes, said in her Queen’s English, ‘What I don’t get is why you cared so much about something as natural as body hair when this guy clearly didn’t give a toss what you thought. I mean, bed bugs for fuck’s sake?!’
I had no response. Body hair wasn’t even the half of it. The way my body looked at certain angles, tummy fat, body odour – they all caused me distress when I was naked in front of a man. I experienced perpetual shame regarding my vagina, as if every other woman’s smelled like fairy floss and produced the same amount of fluids as Barbie’s. I’d seen enough porn to know that to qualify as a sexually appealing woman, you had to be so thin that no fleshy mounds were visible even while you twisted yourself into unendurable, pretzelly positions; that you had to be cellulite-free, hairless as a Sphynx cat and hankering for some cum on your face. I was none of these things. As such, I’d never had a sexual experience without the accompanying suspicion that I was a bit gross or, at the very least, deficient in some way.
This inequality is also explored in Lane’s experiences outside the modelling world. One male boss called her into his office and showed her a video that his friend had emailed him of a dog humping a woman. She was expected to laugh and not make a fuss. Another boss would stare at her during meetings. Not a brief glance, or politely watching her when she spoke, but a long, lingering stare that did not waver from her even when others spoke. It was a stare that let her know that she was an object:
He was communicating that my boundaries meant nothing to him. That he could think about me and let me know about it and there was nothing I could do. I wanted to scoop his ogling eyeballs out of his fat skull. I was seething with rage, while my face remained passive.
How to Dress a Dummy is an interesting exploration of not only Lane’s own life but also of how women are treated in society. The book is definitely geared towards an Australian audience, with plenty of biting humour, swearing, and slang. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Cassie Lane How to Dress a Dummy Affirm Press 2017 PB 278pp $29.99
Robin Elizabeth is the author of Confessions of a Mad Mooer: Postnatal Depression Sucks and blogs at Write or Wrong about her love of Australian literature, depression, and whatever tickles her fancy bone.
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