I am 12 years old and I am shopping for a dress for the end-of-year school dance. Somehow, I am alone in the dressing room at Lerner’s, even though my mom is reluctant to let me go to the mall by myself. I take the dress off its hanger. It is strapless with a sweetheart neckline; it is pink with cabbage roses and made of polished cotton. (It was 1985…this dress was the shit.) I adjust and wiggle and struggle to get the zipper up by myself. I don’t want to ask one of the salespeople for help. Finally, the dress is zipped. I can already tell that it fits perfectly.
For the first time, I look in the mirror and dare to think I actually look pretty. I stand there for at least 15 minutes, trying to decide if I am brave enough to wear a dress with no straps, a dress that looks so grown up, a dress that says I may still be an awkward, dorky kid, but that someday, someday, I will be an adult.
But as I stand there, the voices inside my head start eroding that pretty feeling. They remind me that kids make fun of me for being fat, for being tall, for having red hair, for reading too much. And even though I know, deep down inside, that I do look beautiful, I am not ready for that realization to stand up to the lasers of meanness and hate that dominate junior high. You do not get to feel pretty or feel good about yourself unless you are one of the popular kids, the cheerleaders with caked-on layers of foundation trying to hide the adolescent acne; the girls whose mothers let them get edgy haircuts and don’t mind buying Guess jeans and Esprit tops instead of telling them to pay for their trendy clothes out of their babysitting money.
And I am also reminded of art class. One lesson focused on drawing people. My art teacher was one of those tiny people…petite, thin, already dwarfed by a lot of the students. She asks for a model. Most of the class volunteers. She picks me, and says it’s because she wants everyone to have someone to draw who has “meat on their bones.” I have never wanted to fall through the floor any more than I did at that moment. A few of my classmates snicker, but most of them feel as uncomfortable as I do. But of course, in sixth grade, you remember the snickers, not the classmates who told you afterward that the teacher was mean.
You realize later that no one felt confident, no one felt beautiful, not even the girls who were wearing strapless dresses and slow-dancing with their boyfriends; not the mean girls standing on the sidelines making fun of everyone’s outfits; not the boys standing awkwardly by the refreshment table making fun of each other and the girls and secretly wishing they could just get up the nerve to talk to a girl; not the girls lurking in the shadows of the bleachers, hoping that the popular girls don’t notice but the boys maybe do.
I put the dress back on the hanger and get dressed in my jeans and t-shirt, and I leave Lerner’s. I end up buying another dress, a turquoise tank dress with a matching jacket covered in turquoise hearts. I do not feel pretty at the dance. I do not feel pretty until I am an adult. But even then, the 12-year-old girl in the mirror is peeking over my shoulder, telling me that fat girls aren’t pretty and they don’t get to be pretty.
It’s still hard to shut off the voice. It’s still hard to walk by a group of teenage girls who are giggling and not think you’re the target. It’s still hard to look in the mirror and be happy, to see the good and not the bad.