When I was 12 I sat on one of those giant leather couches you feel you might disappear into, reading a Seventeen magazine and wishing I looked like the people on the pages. We were in the nail salon, my mother and me, her to get the talons she wore for a while filled, painted red, and me to try to beat my bushy eyebrows (let’s be real, brow, singular) into submission with hot wax. The pain didn’t even bother me anymore, I looked forward to it as something I deserved. Punishment for the parts of me that were wrong.
The article was about five teens, though to me they were women, and they talked about dating. But there was one that pulled me in more than the others. The girl talked about how now that she was considered beautiful, she had all of the power. Boys who had treated her badly now wanted to date her. She would string them on and drop them. Payback for middle school taunts. I’ve thought about that girl a lot since.
When I was that awkward age I felt like my skin didn’t fit. Like I couldn’t get anything quite right. I felt too chubby, too hairy, too generally uncool. I could never make my clothes fall the way the cool girls did, exactly right. I had braces, the aforementioned eyebrows I didn’t know how to tame. It’s easy to perceive sophistication at that age, to think everyone has found it but you. We’re all faking it but because no one talks about it, we all feel alone. I worried I’d never catch up. That I’d never be anything but the smart one, the one who liked weird things. That I’d never be beautiful. You see, back then I thought that beautiful was the only thing worth being, and I thought there was only one way to be it.
I don’t know when that changed. I don’t know when I became my school or my town’s idea of beautiful. I think it was around 15, though I got comments before then. I remember an adult man who worked at the barn where we kept our horses, telling a boy who was my age that I’d be worth going to jail for. To my face he was sweet, kind and helpful. That’s when I learned that men aren’t to be trusted. The things they said and the things they meant never quite lined up.
Sixteen was also the year we learned to sneak into bars. Well one bar really, the only one that would let us in. It was next to a 7-11, and none of us had IDs. When we stood at the bar to order the drinks we were pretending to like that week, men would talk to me. I laughed at the right times back then, I guess. I thought this was what acceptance felt like. I had learned at twelve that people will take things from you without your permission. Some part of me felt that giving it away beforehand meant I’d stay in control. There is so much you can’t know when you’re sixteen.
The summer before senior year, I learned to drink like the boys, liquor that I hated but made me feel like I was flying. People who would never have spoken to me the year before, became people I called my friends. I forgot where the performance ended and I began. I didn’t know how to turn it off anymore and I became some mixture of cruel and grateful. I became that magazine girl, finally. So why was I so fucking sad?
On Long Island, so many people meet and get married in their early 20s, everyone is just looking to be loved. To prove to those around them that they’re worthy, lovable, with diamond rings, and parties to prove it. They marry their cop or their fireman and they buy a house 15 minutes from their parents. They have kids, name someone from high school a godparent, have them baptized in the same church where they received Holy Communion. The cycle continues. They see each other in Target and promise to meet for coffee, though they know the never will, eyes trained to look first at the left hand for a ring. I’m sure, for many of them this is a good life, but it was never the life I wanted. Anyone who wanted to leave did so for college and never came back.
I left for college but there were things I couldn’t escape. They followed me to DC, came up when I least expected them. Like the drunk boy at a party who looked me dead in the eye and told me that if I weren’t attractive, I’d be really fucking weird. I still remember what song was on, who was playing beer pong in the background. If he meant it as a joke, it hit like a slap. I had somehow made it that long before realizing that parts of me existed to buy space for other parts, at least that’s how the world saw it. Most of my friends were men at the time and we collectively treated women pretty carelessly. I judged and rated right along with them, drinking to forget that I was held to these “standards” too. That I was only allowed entrance here because I was fully comfortable drinking scotch in six inch heels and a dress that barely covered my ass. Or I pretended I was anyway. I was a good actress back then.
I learned to control my surroundings. I learned what control could look like. I learned how to handle tempers that ran hot. I learned the delicate balance of being protected from men by other men. Working through my own internalized misogyny, the ways I hurt people in a grasp at power that would never be allowed to me, has been painful, but it has also been freeing. The thing was that I had so few role models on how to treat people. There is no excuse, but I didn’t know.
I don’t have an end point in writing this. It’s something I’m working through in therapy, something I will probably be working through for a long time. The way that adaptive patterns build on adaptive patterns and you learn to survive in them but never to live. The way it’s hard to find the starting point after so much time. Putting it here helps. This is something I never wanted to claim. But I am not the girl in that magazine and I am not twelve years old anymore. I don’t confuse bitterness for power and I know most of the time, that I’m not an object.