To the girl I hated...
A few weeks ago I saw a video by the Try Guys where they recreated pictures from middle school which seemed like a great idea because the late 90s were a TERRIBLE time for fashion but it took an introspective and emotional turn as they looked back on how younger them felt and how far they had come. It was at that moment that I decided I had to recreate this picture from 7th grade almost as a cathartic exercise. This picture is a running joke in my family because of how terrible I look and the fact that I’m dressed like a receptionist named Sharon but I see more when I look at this photograph.
In this picture I see the epitome of my middle school experience and it makes me very uncomfortable. In fact, there was a time when I would have gladly burned every copy of this picture. Truthfully, I’ve spent most of my life hating this girl. I blamed her for making my life very difficult and knew if she could have only been thinner or prettier or less awkward then perhaps people would have been nice to me. I remember in 6th grade still enjoying school but becoming very aware that other girls were cute and tiny and I simply wasn’t. I didn’t realize then that they had the cutesy outfits because they could shop at the Limited Too and I was essentially an 11-year-old in a 20-year-old’s body at a time when “adult clothes” looked like “adult clothes”. Due to some harsh “feedback”, I began to believe that I was fat, ugly and had little value to offer to the societal biosphere of junior high because I didn’t really fit in so when my peers began to harass me at the start of 7th grade I kind of saw their point.
I don’t know what changed over the summer between 6th and 7th grade or why I was such an easy target but everyone seemed to agree that I was the ultimate middle school pariah. One of the many things, I was made fun of for was being smart and well behaved. It was a constant battle between wanting to please my school loving, perfectionist personality and praying to God that the teacher wouldn’t hold up my project as an example. I quickly learned to keep my mouth shut and not ask questions. After all, if you didn’t draw attention to yourself they might forget you were there for a bit which was a blessing.
I was regularly mooed at in the cafeteria for being fat though at the time I was definitely not but quickly found lunch easier if I just didn’t eat. They can’t moo at a “cow” for eating if the “cow” doesn’t eat. This “no public eating” rule would become a safety mechanism I employed for the next two decades. I still have to make a conscious decision to eat at a party or around strangers because I’m embarrassed and dinner dates make me more anxious than I can possibly say.
As a child, I loved fashion and would pour over my mother’s design textbooks learning the different necklines, sleeve shapes and color profiles. Even in elementary school I enjoyed picking out fun clothes and shoes. However, it only took a few times of dressing up to realize my classmates would not let that slide. I was tormented for trying to look like the “it” crowd, for NOT looking cute enough to be in the “it” crowd and for existing at all. Once again, I adapted to not draw attention to myself and began wearing jeans and a t-shirt most days. As my curly hair was another target for torment, I tried to brush it as straight and flat as possible which was just as successful as you can imagine.
It was also during this time that I became painfully aware that I wasn’t the type of girl boys found attractive, sent valentines to or asked to dances. I was the friend they came to for advice but nothing more. I learned to become very suspicious of any male attention after several pranks involving asking me out, sending me candy grams and other romantic gestures. I decided that rather than take the chance it was best to assume any male attention was meant as a cruel joke or was a misunderstanding on my part. This became another safety mechanism that I employed far too often for my own good and one that, if I’m honest, cost me some opportunities with some great guys (for which I am truly sorry) but I had decided that I’d rather not have a date than be asked out by a guy only for him to make a big announcement to a crowd about how stupid I was to think someone would want to date me. If you don’t give a man, the chance to speak you can’t know if they are being hateful or not, right? No risk…but no reward.
So, with all the bullying and harassment, why would I choose to look like this for school picture day instead of my usual blending in? Several reasons…
Reason number one, as stated before, I didn’t have the body of an 11-year-old so I had to work with the clothing opportunities I had available to me. Obviously, I couldn’t look like a schlub in a t-shirt and jeans so I had to find a better option which included a black crew neck sweater, patterned palazzo pants and this lovely scarf. I loved this scarf as a kid because it reminded me of the Hermes’ designs I had seen in my mother’s books. Unfortunately, my peers had never heard of Thierry Hermes or couture so they weren’t nearly as impressed. Reason number two, my hair was tragic beyond belief but in my defense, a hairdresser convinced me to cut it off like one of the popular girls at school and my child’s brain didn’t consider the fact that naturally curly hair with no access to straighteners looks closer to Doc Brown than Louise Brooks. This was literally the best option for my current hair situation. Finally, I had acne and glasses which couldn’t be helped. (I would get contacts my freshman year of high school which was a godsend.)
Looking at this picture directly it’s so obvious to me that my smile is fake and doesn’t begin to touch my eyes. My eyes look sad. I didn’t want to have this picture taken at all and the fact that we had to line up and take it in front of our classmates made it 10,000 times worse. Now, they could harass me while I had the picture made AND when we got our yearbooks. Truthfully, I became more and more aware that I wasn’t photogenic and that was just one more thing for people to criticize in my mind and I figured if you didn’t take a ton of pictures there was no evidence so that became my method. In the last ten years I have only had 11 Facebook profile pictures and one of those lasted over five years. I’ve actually tried to post more on social media in the last year as a growth exercise in not overthinking though I do run my post by my friends just to insure they aren’t terribly embarrassing.
So, why recreate something I so very clearly hated, especially when I don’t like pictures of myself?
Because I want that sad, scared little girl that I’ve spent two-thirds of my life hating to know it got better. Not overnight and it surely isn’t perfect but if I had known how I would turn out I might not have felt so hopeless. I would tell her that being smart will one day be an asset and that people will enjoy my random knowledge because it makes for interesting conversation. I would show her how many shoes and dresses I own so she could know that she won’t always have to hide her creative side. I would also show her pictures from my Pi Omega days and college so she knows that one day she will feel like she belongs and finally I would take her to my classroom or to the choir loft or one of a dozen other places that at times still challenge my fears but allow me stand out in a way so she can perhaps find her courage a little earlier than I did. I want her to be proud of me because if I’m honest I know objectively I should be proud but subjectively it’s often harder than you’d think.
Meg said I look like a flight attendant which this does have that Pan Am look of the 1960s.
Unfortunately, this recreation is as close to that conversation as I will ever be and truthfully, if 7th grade me had met current me she would have peed her pants and been terrified because current me is a whole lot of what I wanted to be then but was intimidated by or felt was unattainable. Since, I can’t go back and help her I’m glad to know the Lord gave me a mission field that allows me to help the MEs that currently wander the halls of OGHS and perhaps if I can make one step of their journey a little easier it was worth it? And that scarf, well as you can see, I still love it and it hangs in my closet at this very moment.
I had to do one with glasses to redeem what my glasses looked like in the 1990s.