Tuesday, April 5, 2011

No Turning Back Now

I realized today that I didn't really start at the beginning. Just finding the first journal entry that refers to my physical appearance is not enough. I need to think back farther than that.

I think the first time I really started to become conscious of my appearance was the summer before sixth grade. Even though before then I had played dress up, put on my sister's makeup, and compared various anatomical features with friends, I think it was mostly surreal, mostly play - and most of all private. Even though you might have noticed things about yourself, nobody else was really noticing them. There was no connection between the lipstick you wore or didn’t, or the trendy clothes you bought or didn't, and how many girlfriends you had or what boys would talk to you. Or what people expected of you. But the summer before 6th grade it all started to take on more meaning.

To explain it best, I have to take it back a moment. In second grade, my mother took me to the salon to get a haircut. She had convinced me (it probably didn't take much - I liked change) to give a chance to what she called the "Dorothy Hamill" cut. I knew nothing of the cut's eponymous inspiration, but remembered loving the extreme lightness I felt when I walked out of the salon that day. The way my hair bounced and how I couldn't see it anymore when I hung upside down in trees. It looked like this:


And after it got a little longer like this:


It was a hit with the family, especially my older relatives (grandparents, etc). I don't have any recollection of anyone at school even noticing though. Of course, time marches on and parents get busy and my hair was growing all the while. It was probably halfway down my back by the time 5th grade came along. Graduation came and I started to wonder about middle school - what it would be like, if I'd make more friends when the eight local elementary schools merged into one. I had always had plenty of friends in elementary school. I wouldn't have called myself popular but I was pretty middle of the road, and I had an annual birthday pool party that everyone came to.

I don't remember anymore if it was my mother's idea or my sister's, but they were in agreement (as women so often are) that a new haircut could be a transformative and exciting foot to kick middle school off on. A rehash of the popular Dorothy Hamill was suggested, and I agreed. Back to the salon. Rita, my hairdresser, was by then only a slightly crusty 60 years old. It seems in the intervening years, however, she had forgotten a few things because instead of the Dorothy, I got this:


Which in case you can't tell, is a bowl cut. A style of haircut very popular for boys around 1994. Skater boys. As if this wasn't bad enough, the intervention of puberty a few months later changed many things, including the texture of my hair, and left me with this:


And this (btw, funnily enough this is the chiquita dress):


To this day, I could not tell you who the first person in Central Middle School to call me "Fro" was. I can speculate, but that's all it would be. What I do know is that said nickname because synonymous with Beth for just over two years. I could probably count the number of times someone called me "Beth" on my fingers and toes. It was like I didn't even have a name. I was just Fro. Everyone from the cheerleaders and jocks, to the nerdy asians, to the juvenile delinquents - even the girl who weighed over two hundred pounds at age 11 who I shall save from naming here - called me Fro, or at the very least laughed when someone else did. I have blocked out a lot of memories from this time period in my life, but here are some things I do remember:

- The first two weeks of school. Suddenly kids I've known my whole life stop speaking to me. The nickname emerges. I start crying a lot. Only a handful of kids, including my down-the-street neighbor, come to my 11th birthday party. Big pool party, adieu.

- The early December day of our winter band concert. On the program was a medley of songs from "Fiddler on the Roof." Little did I know as I sat up front playing my oboe that the percussion section had made up a whole new set of words to "If I Were A Rich Man" that started "If I Had an Afro, my name would be Beth Mandel…" which they proceeded to sing in front of the entire school assembly.

- Not too long after that, the day my four best girl friends - Annie, Wendy, Peggy and Alisson - had a meeting with me in the guidance counselor's office and told her that they couldn't be my friend any more because I was not cool enough and that I was "too hyper" (perhaps bottling all my frustration at being teased into being hyper).

- How thankful I was about a week later when Alisson reneged.

- The day I tried to stand up for little John Henckey (Hankey? Heneky?) who had the unfortunate position of being at least a head shorter than all the other boys in sixth grade. Upon seeing him be bullied, I pushed the perpetrator Khaled Turan (about a head TALLER than all the other boys and twice as wide) and told him to leave John alone. John, with a 'deer-in-headlights' look, realized that being defended by the most unpopular girl in school would only make his reputation worse and yelled "I don't need your help!" This only caused everyone around us to dissolve into a chorus of "ooooohs" and to start chanting "Fro loves John!" So much for those on the bottom of the heap sticking together.

- Nearly weekly, my book bag gets unzipped as I walk down the hallway so that all its contents, splayed across the hallway, can be kicked and stomped by my fellow students. I come home from school and cry and hug my dog, and thank him for being my best friend.

- Flash forward to spring of 6th grade. My social studies teacher, Mr. Walek, overhears some of the kids calling me Fro at the start of class. Trying to be helpful, he insists that my hair looks nothing like a Fro and pulls his dictionary out to read the definition of 'afro'. This only makes them laugh harder. Mr. Walek has trouble holding anyone's attention for the rest of the period. I feel like dying, and consider the idea that it might be better actually die than to feel this way.

- Seventh grade. A couple of band-geeks (my friends to this day) start sitting with me at lunch. I am astonished. Shortly thereafter, the masses start to call Steven Felber "Fel-Fro" for being nice to me and sticking up for me. Feeling like my curse had spread to other people, I was torn between feeling happy to have another friend or two and feeling guilty for causing someone else the pain I was feeling.

These are just a handful of memories. I'm sure there a few more that are escaping me at this moment, and countless more that have been repressed deep into the subconscious from where they may never be recovered.

Over these middle school years, the combination of puberty and discovering food as a refuge for emotional distress caused me to put on weight for the first time in my life. I'd always been a fairly average sized kid. My sixth grade physical fitness report (of which I still have a copy, god knows why) puts me at a normal 11 year old size of 92 pounds. By eighth grade this number had ballooned more than the six inches gained in height should have allowed. I felt disgusted with myself, and had already begun comparing myself to other girls, obsessively. The following anecdote about weight sticks in my mind clear as the day it happened. I think it was largely responsible for my first tango with crash-dieting.

It is November of eighth grade, about a month before my bat mitzvah. We are in gym class. It is physical fitness day. We are condemned to do timed sit-ups, pull-ups and jumping jacks in pairs, and then afterwards hop onto a scale and under a ruler to be defined by our size in both directions. Our teacher is late. We have all changed into our gym clothes and are sitting in groups of twos and threes along the gym wall - waiting. People are chatting, laughing. A few people stand. I walk back and forth along the line of groups hoping someone might invite me into conversation. The object of one of my numerous adolescent crushes, Mike G, sits with his girlfriend Megan, his arm wrapped around her tiny waist as I look on wistfully from afar. Bravely, I walk over, determined to talk to them. Before I can say anything, she wrinkles her nose and mentions to Mike how much she hates physical fitness day, hates getting weighed because she is "SO FAT." In girl code, she is begging any bystander (though probably hoping for Mike) to disagree with her, so I quickly take up the charge. "Are you kidding? You are SO skinny! I'm sure you'll be the skinniest girl out of all of us!" Feeling scripted, my next statement serves to pre-empt what I imagine they are thinking: "I know it's not going to be me!" In reality, probably they weren't even thinking about me. At that age, most kids are really only concerned with themselves. But my statement serves the opposite purpose and instead focuses the attention my way. Mike, with all the tact of a 13 year old boy says, "Why, how much do you weigh?"

I know the number to be 154 pounds, having developed the habit of weighing myself every day leading up to my bat mitzvah, praying my dress will still fit when the day arrives. But I am horrified by this fact. The number itself means nothing to me. But because of how I see myself versus all the other girls, it feels like it MUST be a huge number, must be completely WRONG for me to weigh. So I decide to lie. I quickly decide that I think I can get away with taking about 15 pounds off that number and still be believed. So I tell Mike and Megan, "130", hoping they can't somehow smell the lie. To say the reaction is not what I expected is an understatement. They quickly turn to each other, eyes wide, and start laughing immediately. Guffawing, really. Through uncontrollable laughter Mike asks, "Are you serious????" "Yeah," I say, tentatively, not sure if they are laughing because they can tell I'm lying. "Holy crap!" he says, laughing so hard he's nearly crying. It quickly becomes clear to me they are laughing not because they think I'm lying, but because even my unreal, IMAGINED, lie of a weight is far more poundage than is acceptable for me to admit to weighing at 13. My face suddenly feels uncontrollably hot. I get dizzy, not sure if I will vomit or pass out. I wheel around, unable to face such cruelty head-on for any longer, and see that the gym teacher has arrived. Commanding everyone to quiet down, his arrival allows me a second to cry silently while my peers are distracted and I am facing away from them. He, of course, does not notice me either.

A few weeks after this, in reading and writing class, we are introduced to the idea that we will each be writing 20 page research papers in the second half of the year. A sheet of paper with about 50 suggested topics is passed out. My eyes scan the page and one of the earliest suggestions stands out brightly – ANOREXIA/BULIMIA - I am half disgusted and half intrigued. I know immediately that this is what I will choose.

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