My Purim Story: Behind the Mask

By: Esther Nahon  |  May 24, 2024

By Esther Nahon, Opinions Editor

Being that my name is Esther, I don’t think it comes as a surprise that my favorite holiday growing up was Purim. Sure, I thought it was cool to be the heroine of the holiday and hear my name read dozens of times during megillah reading, but honestly, the part I always loved the most was dressing up in costume. 

Whether it be for my school carnivals or shul chagigot, Purim was the one day a year that I felt like my inner princess-loving personality could really shine. I have vivid memories of my mother waking me up early on Purim morning to fix my makeup and hair and take pictures of my siblings and I before leaving for school. Of course, “Queen Esther” has been, and continues to be my always-trendy, go-to, (and costless!) costume. But she is not the only princess I have dressed up as. I dressed up as princesses from many different cultures and genres; you name a princess and I’ve been her, each time feeling like a true Disney Princess wishing the clock would never strike midnight. 

What was even more rewarding was arriving at school and greeting my friends who also embodied their unique and creative selves through their choice of costume. Together we formed a sea of princesses, pirates, movie stars, minions, ninjas, and cowgirls, proudly and creatively strutting our unique personalities and individual interests across the elementary school halls for all to see. Despite the fact that we were meant to be “hidden” and masked behind these costumes, they somehow did a better job at revealing our true selves than our everyday uniform shirts ever could. 

And so Purim held a special, comforting place in my heart, reserved for genuine fun and excitement about sharing the “real me” with the world. 

But then I arrived at the fabulous, glamorous years we call middle school and high school; the ones filled with teenage angst, social anxiety, social pressure, fitting in, groups, cliques, acceptance, and all of the other lovely challenges we are never taught how to master, but expected to intuitively navigate on our own. 

The thing about Purim throughout middle school and high school was that the question of creativity changed from “what are you dressing up as for Purim?” to “what is your group dressing up as for Purim?” It mattered less what you chose to be and more who you chose to be with, as one’s own position on the ladder of the adolescent social hierarchy can only be defined by the status of those they choose to call their friends. The group slowly began to replace the self, and with it any outlet for individual creativity. Gradually, I began to shift away from the elaborate, princess-like costumes that reflected my personality, and more towards the cheap, classic, and – dare I say – boring costumes that my friends found cool and  convenient. 

Purim then accumulated a special sense of drama and dread, planning and stress, about choosing “which part of me” I’d share with the world this year; all feelings that probably shouldn’t be associated with Purim at all.

It wasn’t until the ninth grade that I actually let the situation affect me. When Purim rolled around once again, my mother thought it would be cute for my older brother and I to dress up as an iconic freshman-senior duo: Peter Pan and Tinkerbelle from our favorite Disney childhood movie. Tinkerbelle, a costume that would have made the little girl in me jump for joy with pixie dust, tutu, fairy wings, and the like, now completely and utterly disgusted me. I could not think of something more unappealing, dreadful, or humiliating than being the only freshman in school wearing a huge pair of wings on her shoulders while the rest of my friends partook in a sleek and uniformed Incredibles look. I had lost any shred of self-esteem or self-confidence that I had so happily embraced as a little kid. I was so embarrassed and ashamed to be different that I actually brought a change of clothes that  I quickly changed into after my mom saw me leave the car, and before the entire school could catch a glimpse of my faux pas and laugh at me. 

Breathing a sigh of relief after pulling the Incredibles t-shirt over my head, I made my way, with the rest of my friends, to watch the annual senior costume contest. I watched as I saw my older brother walk down the aisle alone, without Tinkerbelle by his side. In that moment I felt a pang of guilt wash over me, but not to the extent that I actually did anything about it. It was only when a different brother-sister duo claimed the $100 prize that I heard a little voice in my head finally speak up; one that I had been shushing for far too long:

What if? it echoed. What if that was you? What if you stayed in your costume and walked down that aisle and won that cash prize? Guess you’ll never know… Hindsight is 20/20, I thought before I cleverly countered myself with the inverse: and what if I didn’t win? Huh? 

My little voice had yet another question in response: So what? What would’ve happened… what would’ve been the worst thing? What did you really have to lose? All of five minutes to make the audience laugh? To create a core and funny memory with your brother? Would that have really been so bad?

I spent the rest of that Purim contemplating these thoughts, disappointed in myself for so easily losing myself, and upset that I had to wait a whole year until I could actually make a change. So when the 10th grade Purim costume group chat was made, I didn’t feel sorry that I was “missing out” on wearing an all-black skeleton bodysuit in the Miami heat like the rest of my grade. Instead, I walked through my high school gates in my traditional Moroccan caftan and golden headpiece. Somehow, I had skipped over the “Moroccan Princess” costume idea – the culture I am actually a part of – when deciding which kind of princess I’d be each year. Though I was a bit shy and uncomfortable to make my stand-alone debut in front of the whole school, I reminded myself of the “so what?” and “what’s the worst that can happen?” questions that had been echoing in my head all year. This is who I am, these are my roots. The thought of actually displaying that excited me. So while it may have been an uncomfortable first five minutes of stares and whispers about the lone costume girl, the uneasiness quickly dissipated as I was quickly complimented by my friends, teachers, and underclassmen. 

I spent the rest of that day feeling as though an invisible weight of dread and anxiety had been graciously lifted off my shoulders. Not only was I able to enjoy my favorite part of Purim once again, but I was left feeling rejuvenated, confident, proud, and empowered in my decision. All it took was about 20 seconds of standing out.

I know that we are way past Purim and nowhere near it coming up. The thing is, this small act, this small decision – that happened to take place on Purim – really helped shape who I am, turning around the entire way I decide to lead my life. From that point on, I was joined with a newfound sense of confidence and comfort with my decisions – my decisions, and nobody else’s. I was no longer scared to put myself at risk of “social death” or rejection, because my own acceptance was the only one that held any real significance. For the rest of that year I found myself joining clubs, starting initiatives, and sharing ideas I never would have thought or dared to do on my own or alone beforehand. I auditioned for the school plays Beauty and the Beast and Grease, started a creative writing club, joined the yearbook committee and, ironically enough, came up with the idea for our grade’s senior year group costume. The memories, fun, and joy I gained from each of these experiences was incredibly special and rewarding, and I couldn’t believe how I let myself miss out on that reward all this time.

I came to learn that establishing true respect for yourself and your values is easy; what’s difficult is actually living by them and putting those values into practice. Mustering up the courage to stand out, to defy social norms and the status quo is no easy feat. But with enough practice, the consequent self-reward feels so worth it. To live knowing that you, yourself, completely support your actions is pretty wild and even more gratifying. Before you know it, the genuine, unapologetic lifestyle you’ve created for yourself will be so felt by others that they, too, will come to respect and admire you for it – at least in my experience.   

Now, I’m not telling you that group costumes are bad or to cancel your dinner plans with friends and go watch a movie by yourself on a Saturday night. Instead, I challenge you to give yourself a chance to truly be yourself. To not just think for yourself and know who you are, but to actively be who you are – or better yet, who you want to be. Especially during those challenging, uncomfortable, and vulnerable situations that leave you torn on what to do or which mask to put on in front of others: subscribing to yourself, your values, and your gut feeling is your most authentic bet. Give yourself just 20 seconds of courage to overcome that obstacle that’s holding you back. What’s the worst that can happen? Do it for yourself because you deserve it and I promise you, you’ll be surprised with where those 20 seconds lead you.