In which various comments on my body make me believe I am hideously ugly and unlikable
***Author’s Note: This has not been properly proofed and edited due to time constraints, so be kind.*** From Kindergarten through 12th grade, I attended Catholic school. For grades K-8, uniforms of the plaid variety with white collared polo shirts were required. Until the rules changed when I was in 7th grade, the girls were not allowed to wear pants or shorts, so it was culottes or skirts only. In the winter, you better hope you had some thick tights because it didn’t matter the temperature. Uniforms always.
In fourth grade, someone noticed that my leg hair was a bit darker than some of the other girls. OK, a lot darker. They called me a gorilla. I was eight.
That evening, as I stared into the mirror, I noticed my sister’s razor in our shared bathroom. Shaving can’t be that hard. I’d seen them do it. I could manage it. I hoisted my little leg on the toilet and ran the generic razor over my leg. No water, no shaving cream. Completely dry. Ouch! I cut myself. But I didn’t care. I kept going. I pulled the blade across the skin of each shin, bottom to top. Nick. Nick. Nick. Blood trickled down in violent zebra stripes, but the hair was mostly gone on two strips of each of my legs. That should solve it. It didn’t.
My mom was instantly horrified when she finally noticed. “What have you done?!” I tried to make up something, hoping I would be in less trouble. She strictly forbade me from doing that again until I was older. However, she did feel sorry for me. She went to the store to buy hair bleach. She thought if we could make the hair less noticeable, I wouldn’t get teased for it anymore. After the cuts had healed, she pulled on some rubber gloves, sat me in front of the television, legs outstretched, and generously lathered them with bleach.
Within seconds, my legs were on fire. “They ITCH! GET IT OFF ME!” I wriggled and shook, and she reprimanded me. “It can’t work if we don’t leave it on. Just relax.” Relax? Was she out of her mind? The itching and burning was like nothing I’d ever experienced in my short life. After a few minutes of my screeching and wailing, she caved and grabbed a wet washcloth to wipe it all off. She was exasperated. I probably didn’t even say thank you for her efforts to help me.
I wished I was naturally blond.
In the summers, I was on a swim team. You know what the uniform for that is. I lived in my swimsuit. As I grew older, my dark hair became more and more of a problem for me. I was so intensely self-conscious about it. I would stand with my hands right in front of the bikini line of my swim suit, holding my goggles, hoping I was blocking anyone from seeing how hairy I was. Even after I started shaving, the blazing red razor burn and ingrown hairs seemed like a neon sign. “Look at the gorilla who can’t even shave right! She’s nothing like those models in the magazines.” I hated that when I bent over on the blocks, people could see an area that I couldn’t. I had no idea what it looked like on the back side. Instead of focusing on the race ahead of me, I imagined I was just as much a gorilla back there. Why was my body betraying me by being so freaking hairy?
When you made the championships, you got a t-shirt, and for a few extra dollars, you could have letters ironed on the back. In the summer of 1991, I asked my mom to let me do it. I knew what I wanted. My brother had given me the best nickname: REX. He is 18 years my senior, and it sounded so bad ass to me. REX. Like a T-Rex. I loved it. Back at school in the fall of my sixth grade year, I brought my cool shirt with my cool nickname to change into for P.E. The sounds of their laughter are all I can hear. Their jeering looks are all I can see.
“Rex? That’s a dog’s name! Are you a dog? Are you a dog, Rex Rover? Can I pet you?”
I stand there, staring. Staring into the faces of my friends. My friends for the last seven years who have inexplicably turned on me. All because the nickname my brother gave me is emblazoned on my back in iron-on letters. My brother was cool: a musician, guitarist, pianist and singer, commanding performances in Southern California. He wouldn’t give me an uncool nickname.
A little tattered and torn 26 years later.
I look down at my shoes and their reflection on the gym floor. Why are they laughing at me? How did this happen? Because of this shirt? It’s just a shirt. I remember how reluctant my mom was to pay for me to get the letters ironed on. I begged and begged, “It’s only three letters, Mom. Please?!?”
The boys start to get in on it, too. “Come here and get a treat, Rex Rover!
Don’t cry. Do not cry. A tear slips out. I turn away to try and wipe it without them seeing. I look up at the gym teacher who quickly averts his eyes, pretending he sees nothing. If you cry, it will get worse. If you run to the bathroom, it will get worse.
“Awww, I think Rex Rover is sad. Are you sad, Rover?”
At lunch, I sit with them at our normal table. No one looks at me or talks to me. I eat my lunch in silence. They whisper and look. Holding up their hands to each other’s ears as they stare at me, laughing. At recess, I try to tag along with them and everyone turns their backs on me. Finally, one of them turns to me and says, “You’re kicked out of the group! We don’t want ugly dogs hanging around us.” The girl who said this to me was new that year. I looked earnestly at the friends I’d known since kindergarten, pleading with my eyes, “Why are you abandoning me? We’ve been friends forever. Help me. Please!” But they didn’t. When it came time to sign yearbooks at the end of the year, I remember catching a glance at my picture in a yearbook. “DOG!!!!” was scribbled across my face. The girl who owned it was a year older than me. Even the seventh graders were in on it. She caught me looking and didn’t even seem guilty or ashamed. She just smiled and laughed. By 7th grade, I would be back in the “group”. I knew then I would do whatever it took to stay there. The worst of it, when I look back, is the times I did this to other people. Caught up in the web of inclusion, I ridiculed other people for unsightly physical attributes. I scrawled across their pictures in my yearbook with hurtful names. I sat on the sidelines and did nothing when the “group” attacked them. I know how demoralizing that felt; how insecure it made me; how much I just wanted the Earth to swallow me up. But I did it anyway. It was paramount that I was included, all else could suffer. Both the victims and my conscience.