The phone rang as I struggled to suck down a cup of coffee. “They’ve stolen the swap,” my friend Wendy said in a hushed tone. “Some bitch has gone and written about it.” It was 7 a.m. and I began to sweat. “Go out and pick up a copy of Mademoiselle.” she said. “I’ll be waiting for your call.” I’ve always been told that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but it was hard to contain the rage I felt as I walked out the door that morning. I burst into the newsstand wearing my pajama top with a sweater buttoned over it. My hair was unbrushed. The newsstand guy asked me twice if I was O.K. “I’m fine,” I said in a panicked tone. I picked up Mademoiselle. There it was, on page 44: “Bitch ‘n’ Swap, parties where guests get to raid their friends’ closets, are sweeping and stripping the nation. By Nicole Beland.” Wendy was right. The swap was not only stolen, but it was spun into a sugary women’s-magazine version of what was a regular, down-and-dirty, bawdy, drunken all-girl event.
Who the hell was Nicole Beland? And who were her friends? I looked at the article and the pictures that accompanied it. I almost threw up. These girls weren’t real bitches. They were models wearing sunglasses inside, parading around in Diane von Furstenberg wrap dresses and red leather pants. All wrong.
All morning, the phone rang incessantly. The real bitches were up in arms, and everyone wanted to know who the leak was. It was clear that someone who attended a swap had blabbed about it to a friend. Fine, we all blab about it to our friends, because it’s such a bitchin’ good time, but the name of our party was ripped off, and the true essence of the event was completely ignored. My friend Alex marveled at the accuracy of some of the details in the piece but called it the “made-for-TV version.” She was right. It was up to the real bitches to set the record straight.
I left a message on my friend Erin’s machine. She was the original co-founder of the Bitch ‘n’ Swap, which started about six years ago in a tiny Upper West Side apartment I shared with my sister. I had two giant bags after a major closet clean-out and figured all my friends probably had old clothes they wanted to get rid of. My friend Erin thought it would be cool to have an organized bitch session. “We’ll get together and swap our old things and bitch and drink wine all afternoon. We’ll call it a bitch ‘n’ swap,” she said. The first gathering was small, but there the concept was born: Get drunk, trade old clothes and bitch about the men in your life, your job, your family. But in Mademoiselle, the idea was attributed to some woman out in California who called them “Naked Lady Parties,” because everyone gets naked while they try on clothes. Bull. Yes, we get naked when we try on clothes, but no one I know has ever refered to a swap as a “Naked Lady Party.” Ugh.
What offended me most about the article was that it didn’t do the real Bitch ‘n’ Swap justice. Starting with the guy: In the Mademoiselle account, a male allows the host to borrow his apartment and proceeds to make ham-and-cheese sandwiches while leering at the women as they try on each other’s clothing. “If there were ever a guy on the premises during a Bitch ‘n’ Swap, he’d probably be killed,” my friend Anna said. “The only man allowed near the swap is the pizza delivery boy. And even he has to wait outside the door.”
Every time I host a swap, my friend Jordan begs to come, and every time I have to tell him: “No chance in hell.” “It would be a great way to meet women, and you’re always telling me you’re going to set me up and you never do,” he said. Jordan became so angry that he threatened to have his own swap, called the “Grunt ‘n’ Switch,” where he and his men friends would get together and swap ex-girlfriends.
Most men I know just don’t get it, including my ex-boyfriend, who always got an incredibly anxious look on his face when I said I was going to a swap. Fear of the unknown. “As long as you don’t discuss our sex life, I’m fine with it,” he would say as I walked out the door carrying armloads of old clothes. Little did he know.
That was the other major point the article missed. We talk about everything, from crazy exes to lecherous bosses, from painful bikini waxes to friendship divorces. And the chatter gets racier as more cigarettes are lit and more wine is poured. Sure, we all bitch over the clothes. And sometimes it gets pretty damn competitive. The clothes that more than one bitch wants go into a “bitch pile.” At every swap, there’s at least one article of break-up clothing. And everyone gets to hear the story of how one of us bitches dumped someone or got dumped wearing a certain dress or pair of pants. Clothes with bad associations are always a sure bet.
So are clothes with great associations: the jacket someone landed a job in or the shirt someone got laid in. I’ll never forget the swap where a friend held up the most unattractive chartreuse dress and admitted it was the dress that delivered her from a long stretch of celibacy into the arms of her current boyfriend. Three women fought vigorously for it, hoping some of its magic would wear off.
At a recent swap, a friend won the prize for taking the ugliest article of clothing: an Ultrasuede patched shirt. When it was taken out of the bag, there were groans from pretty much every bitch at the party. “That’s one butt-ugly shirt,” someone yelled as they poured another glass of wine. Everyone agreed, except for Kate, who tossed it in her bag, happy she didn’t end up having to fight with anyone over it. The next week she wore it to a dinner party, and the shirt was such a conversation piece that it attracted the foxiest guy there. She’s now dating him.
If you’ve ever been in a group dressing room, that’s pretty much what it’s like: women of all shapes and sizes, some with cellulite, some with big boobs, some with small boobs. The size 12’s and the size twos all vying for clothes, acknowledging the fat asses and the skinny asses in the room. Throw in a lot of liquor and cigarettes and it feels like a cool bar where you happen to know everyone. It’s a night when we can be honest with each other and let each other know when a dress looks shitty or when it looks great. Some have said a swap is all niceness, a self-esteem-boosting affair. That’s the same old women’s-magazine crap. We all grew up knowing exactly what our friends looked like naked, and we know now, even before the clothes start flying. We can bitch at the top of our lungs about what we perceive to be our flaws. It’s not that insidious dishonesty we indulge in day after day, where the word “fat” is usually whispered like it’s something to be ashamed of. That’s the beauty of a real bitch ‘n’ swap-we bitch and swap and drink and bond and leave the party with a few fresh items of clothing, feeling great after unloading.
Run for your life, Nicole Beland, whoever you are. You’re no bitch.