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What Being Inside A Very Hungry Caterpillar Costume Taught Me About Social Anxiety

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My caterpillar suit-clad frame lumbered on stage to greet the crowd of 200 screaming children, who had gathered for a Very Hungry Caterpillar meet-and-greet. I had just been strapped into the inflatable caterpillar costume, complete with a four-foot tail, a bulbous green head, and four mushroom-like stubs for limbs. The suit was equipped with a backpack fan, which whirred perpetually, plumping my tarp shell. As the sea of children left their seats and rushed towards me, I peered out of the netted eyeholes, braced myself, and reflected on why I’d so enthusiastically volunteered for the position.

When the bookstore I work at booked the reading of Eric Carle’s classic picture book, we parsed out roles: who would read the book, who would manage the register, who would direct customers.

“And I’ll be the caterpillar,” I announced before anyone could even suggest it.

“Are you sure?” my boss asked.

I usually overthink things, but this time was different.

“Me, definitely me, I am 100% in.”

From the first time I saw a grainy Google image photo of the suit, I knew I was destined to become that sexless object moving through space, simultaneously the center of attention yet removed from the crowd. To inhabit a costume character suit is to be revered as an uncomplicated symbol of childhood, while remaining a detached observer. As someone who frequently feels adrift in large social situations, this was a fantasy: I would exist in the thick of commotion while experiencing the freedom of complete anonymity. I would perform without the pressure of performing.

“Well, ok,” said my boss, “that’s cool, I didn’t think anyone would be so...enthusiastic about it.”

I’m in, I thought gleefully.

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When the caterpillar handler arrived the day of the event (yes, this is someone’s actual job) he advised me to stick my hands into the stub limbs and flop them around. That would make me appear more animated.

“Another thing,” the caterpillar handler said, looking into my hollow, mesh eyes, “don’t forget about the tail. People forget about it since it’s not actually part of the body and all, but kids can get stuck under there, so move slowly.”

I nodded.

“Did you hear me?” he said, tapping the suit between the eyes. I wriggled my body vigorously so that the neckless head bobbled in agreement.

“Good,” he sighed, “let’s go.”

Maybe this is what it feels like to be a celebrity, I thought distantly, as the herd of children barreled into my non-body. One toddler head-butted me, as two others attempted to clamber up my flank. I realized, with increasing alarm, that I was trapped. It was at this moment I remembered that, not only do I have social anxiety, I also have an acute fear of being trapped in confined spaces. The caterpillar handler gave me an exaggerated thumbs up from behind the sea of miniature people. My face contorted in an exaggerated, pained expression, which he had no way of seeing. I was alone.

“Can I have your autograph, mister caterpillar?” a kid implored, looking up.

The handler had also told me that it was off brand to make any remarks to children, and I was frazzled, so I did they only thing I could do: I just stood there.

“It doesn't have hands, sweetie,” an adult voice responded.

The kid looked disappointed, kicked my thorax, and walked away.

Inside the suit, sound was muffled and muted, but my senses were heightened. I was fighting to remain aware of my surroundings, as I was effectively wearing blinders. Judging by the crowd surrounding me, I estimated at least half an hour before I would be free.

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As I began to accept my fate, I took stock of my immediate surroundings inside the suit: my translucent shell cast soft, green-tinted light over my face. I could hear the aquatic hum of the fan, which dampened the sounds of excitable children. I was standing in an ocean, and clambering children were the tide. They came in waves, nudging me backwards and forwards, threatening to knock me down. To resist the tide is to fall, but to sway and bob your mushroom arms as parents take selfies is to stay afloat.

Twenty minutes into the meet-and-greet, a little girl walked over to me cautiously, nudged forward by her mother. She was about seven or eight, the age you become aware that cartoons are a construction, and that other people also have a complex inner life.

“Is there a person in there?” she asked, flinching as I raised my nubbly limb in greeting.

“No,” her mother replied, “that’s a caterpillar. Now stand in front of it, mommy needs a selfie.”

She froze in front of me, and her mother knelt beside her. In the iPhone screen, I saw the mother's well practiced grin, the pained and compliant smile of her child, and, for the first time, I glimpsed my own facade. In that moment, I saw the nascence of social discomfort and obligation, and I had no way of offering a palliative word, or a knowing look.

Soon after, the caterpillar handler gripped my stump limb firmly and announced to the crowd that it was time for the caterpillar to wrap in a cocoon, to transform. Relieved, I waddled along with him.

“So, how was it in there?” he asked after I emerged from my synthetic chrysalis.

“Hard to describe,” I said, winded. “I feel kind of sea sick.”

“That happens,” he said, “just stay still and feel your feet on the ground, you know?”

“Sounds good,” I said, looking him in the eye.

The question remains: was I transformed into a butterfly? I no longer feel the desire to be an observer as opposed to an active participant in bustling social scenarios. Sure, the uncertainty and vulnerability of interaction still feels uncomfortable, but so does wearing armor, and so does retreating. Next time I find myself caught in a crowd, I’ll remember myself back into that green aura. I’ll take stock of my immediate surroundings, and I’ll remember the advice of the caterpillar handler: I’ll feel my feet on the ground.

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Liz von Klemperer is a Brooklyn based writer and succulent fosterer. Her work has been featured in The Establishment, The Rumpus, Electric Literature, and beyond. Find more at lizvk.com.

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