The standard-issue horrors of puberty ambush me in 6th grade. Why is my body so stinky, hairy, oozey, curvy and big? I am five feet, eight inches tall. I tower hideously over most of my peers. Why am I so not normal? I ask Julie Whitman if I can borrow her cool pants. We are both tall, but the cool pant legs drag and the waist is too low on me. I am a freak. When it starts, my period is totally unpredictable, but the science textbook in Mrs. Mauler’s room says “the normal cycle is every 26-28 days”. I am a freak! And how charming are feminine pads worn with wandering belts under my old-lady panties the other girls see when we change for P.E.? My freakness is complete!
If You are Female
It is a truth universally accepted: How you look is more important than how you see the world, what you think, or the things you do or dream of doing — IF YOU ARE FEMALE. Attractive women have glossy lips, perfect hair, and run braless in high heels. How do I know? Charlie’s Angels starts daytime reruns. In 7th grade I kiss a boy underwater at the pool. At the eighth grade class party I have my first experience with something totally taboo: dancing!! (Why don’t Adventists have sex standing up? People might think that they’re dancing.)
Farah Fawcett, kissing, dancing. Consciousness level raised — self-consciousness that is. I am so sure everyone is looking at me and criticizing my appearance that sometimes I get cramps in my shoulders. How anyone survives middle school is a total mystery. And that’s just the warm up for high school.
The First Bad Boyfriend
I have my first boyfriend at 15. His name is Dal. Point of personal anger: I am so desperate for male attention, that I think Dal a catch. He is an 18-year old who 1) dropped out of high school, 2) has his license suspended, 3) often stinks of beer and sweat 4) believes that life is like Saturday Night Fever. Yup, lucky me.
A walking ocean of hormones he is quick to tell me I look good. He whistles at me. He is thrilled that I’m a tall blonde. Dal believes deeply in transaction/exchange relationships: time listening to me traded for time touching me. With a wink he calls me Jailbait which I think means I’m so cute it’s criminal. Yes, it is possible to be that sheltered.
We talk, but have little conversation. But that’s okay; Dal thinks I could be a model! I tell Mom and with very little urging she enrolls me in Barbizon School of Modeling. What if I could skip college? I’ve been told how hard serious subjects are for girls, so posing in fashionable clothes would be great. Other people will do my hair, make-up, clothes. Pay attention to my body, my skin, how I look. Wait, what?
When we first make out I feel some chills and a few thrills, but no waves of wonderful. I think, Gross! What is with the tongue?! So so so gross! Keep it to yourself. But there’s something even worse. This boy introduces me to the term erection in the practical sense. We kiss good night at my front door and one time I pull him close for a proper hug. Oh! The rigid shape below his belt startles me. He quickly says, See what you do to me. I do not like knowing this or feeling it. But once I do, it becomes a routine part of every good-night ritual. Mentally, I check out. I abandon my body and enter my head. Is that geometry quiz tomorrow? Are my favorite jeans clean? Are we almost done?
We never have intercourse — I am jailbait and a nice girl — as Dal says, but his hands end up on all parts of me. A horrific burning develops between my legs. I’m scared it’s an STD. The shame of my first yeast infection — thanks to his filthy fingers on my privates — burns as much as the itch. But if I want someone to listen to me, call me, take me rollerskating — the understanding is clear. He will (seem to) listen, I will let him touch.
When I was very small my father would tell me, Be a good girlie. I wasn’t sure what this meant. What would be good enough for him? Now my father tells me: It’s the girl’s responsibility to put on the brakes. I don’t drive yet, so what does that mean? The metaphor is a one-line harpoon of guilt because at summer camp I was told that Jesus should be in the driver’s seat of my life. Now I’m supposed to be in the driver’s seat, but I’m taking Jesus to places he doesn’t want to go, and not putting on the brakes! I am a physical AND spiritual mess. Not ever good enough.
How do I put on the brakes, I want to ask Dad. But I don’t because Dad has lots of work to do and expects me to know.
Let’s Pretend I’m Fine
My busy father makes time to play golf with my brothers, and takes time to give me a dating tip. That’s all he can give me; it’s a man’s world. I tell myself that if I don’t put on the brakes I’ll just get what I deserve. It is supposed to happen. I have to accept it and be fine. I start pretending.
I complete the modeling course. I break up with Dal. My mother is upset. She takes Dal’s side. But I soon have another boyfriend. Mom is happy again. I have a string of less-than-great boyfriends. Mom likes them all. Dad not any. With an exception or two, each boy expects the trade: listening for touching. I believe I get what I deserve. I pretend I am fine. I get so good at pretending I forget that I’m pretending.
I’ve heard the phrase Damaged goods. I know I am a damaged, a disappointment, nothing near good enough. Jesus knows too. If my parents knew of all the time I didn’t put on the brakes — Hoh, boy! Talk about disappointment. I feel ashamed and alone. According to the transaction model of relationships, aside from my body, I have nothing to offer. I have nothing that is worthy. What I have is shame and secrets and a freakish body I do not know how manage, protect, or respect.
I am unfriendable. Who would want me as a friend? If someone could see the real me she would be utterly disgusted! She would throw up. Then leave forever. Or the earth would swallow me whole. Same thing. So I try to look totally fine. I tell people I am fine. I am fine. I am fine, Fine, FINE!
When I began writing this series about personal anger and the break up of my Body/Mind/Spirit trinity, I thought of it as just that — a split, a Big Break Up. Now I see that it was not so much a Break Up, but a process of self-betrayal. I compartmentalized. I abandoned the truth. I said I’m fine when I was not.
All kinds of things contribute to the self-betrayal process. But I can name the trifecta of self-betrayal: Pretending. Silence. Shame. So I continue writing. When I click Publish on this piece and share my story of anger and shame the world will not stop spinning or swallow me whole. And someone reading, maybe you, will say me too.
Enough Pretending. Enough Silence. Enough Shame.
Because we are enough as we are.
Thanks for reading, friend. With gratitude ~ Rebecca
If you know someone tired of pretending, tired of silence, tired of shame — please share! Thank you.