|a cygnet, baby swan, or ugly duckling of lore|
I fear this will come across as another of my self-pitying posts. Such is not my intent. It is rather my purpose to put into words the plight of many girls. Boys go through the same thing, I suppose, but less a premium is put upon beauty for a boy. No one wants to be ugly, but girls are expected to be pretty, and if they're not, it seems to be an expectation that they will devote every ounce of energy that they're not already devoting to being sweeter than everyone else to trying to be pretty.
I actually had a fifth grade teacher who once looked directly at me as she told the entire class, "Not all girls are pretty. There is at least one girl in this class who is not pretty, but if she would just be sweet and kind more of the time, people would forget that she isn't pretty." In this case, I don't think it was my state of paranoia that caused me to think she was staring straight at me as she made her pronouncement, as several other students confirmed that she had been looking at me and must have been talking about me when she made her pronouncement.
"You're not that ugly," one girl awkwardly tried to console me at recess. "I don't know why she had to pick on you."
I didn't bother mentioning this particular indignity at home because: 1) The teacher was always right unless I was being abused, and I doubted at the time that this indiscretion would have been considered abuse in my parents' perspectives. In retrospect, it might have been a battle they would have chosen to fight. 2) I feared my brother might have thought it was really funny. We were at an age in which we didn't get along particularly well. Being laughed at for being funny-looking at school was bad enough. I didn't really want to deal with it at home as well.
It all started when I was born, really. I was a twin. One of two things happened in utero. Either my brother was conceived in an earlier cycle than I, or he had the far better-functioning placenta. Either way, there was huge size discrepancy. My brother was a beautiful over six-and-a-half pound baby, while I weighed in at well under two-and-a-half pounds. Whether a preemie or just a very small baby, there probably hasn't been a pretty two-pounder born at least since the troglodyte era if even then. I had that hair that anorexics also have, called lanugo, all over my body, but none on my head where hair belongs. My skin was red or purple, depending upon the body part. My dad didn't care that I was ugly -- he probably didn't even notice -- because he was so thrilled that I was going to survive. My mom was scared to death of me. I looked to her too much like the twins she had lost when she delivered them before 23 weeks.
Eventually I stopped looking like a space alien, though I still wasn't what anyone would call pretty, or not really even very cute. It might have been OK -- lots of children have average looks -- had Matthew not been almost ridiculously good-looking. Uncle Mahonri was fond of referring to me, out of earshot of anyone who would care, as the ugly duckling who never turned into a swan well into my teens -- until my Uncle Steve heard it and threatened to punch him in the face if he ever said it again. Various relatives (on my dad's side, of course) distinguished my brother and me by referring to Matthew as "the cute one" and me as "the other one." They could have called us "the girl" and "the boy," or "the big one" and "the little one," or even "Matthew," and "Alexis," but they preferred "the cute one" and "the other one." They presumably thought they were being charitable because they weren't saying what they were really thinking, which was "the cute one" and "the ugly one." This continued until I was at least nine. I think my Aunt Joanne finally threw a something of a fit one day when someone said it one time too many, and after that, they mostly stopped referring to me as anything at all.
As a baby I was a cue ball. When my hair came in, it was sparse and white and straight as a board, though it curled up a bit if I got sweaty, particularly when I was sleeping. One day when I was five, the most curious thing happened.
I woke up one summer morning with hair that was noticeably curlier than it had been before. The next morning it was even more so. The progression continued until I was basically an unkempt Shirley Temple. My mom tried keeping my hair pulled into a pony tail or braids, or even nicely combing the curls, but nothing she did with my hair ever looked right for more than five minutes.
Compounding the curliness of my hair was that I had a protective layer of skin many children have but don't retain into adulthood (my skin now burns just like that of any white girl) that tans very easily and very darkly. My parents slathered me with sunblock with no effect. With my wildly curly blonde (though no longer tow-headed) hair, dark skin (we got sunshine for roughly eight-and-a-half months of each year, and we often spent a couple of weeks during Christmas vacation in Fort Lauderdale, providing even more sun exposure) and blue eyes, I had the look of a biracial child. When our nuclear family was together, people often commented, as though it was in any way their business, about my being adopted, and asked what country I was from. This was in spite of my facial features looking a great deal like those of my mother. If anything, it would have been more likely that my mom had a fling with a bi-racial (you need blue eyes in the DNA on both sides to produce a bona fide blue-eyed kid) Maytag repairman than that I had been adopted.
Things continued through my early grades. I heard the remark I've reported in an earlier blog in which a child noted, as the class looked at a picture of a tornado, that the tornado looked like Alexis because it was skinny with things sticking out all over it, and everything around it was a mess. The teachers there started calling me "The Tornado Child." It was another indiscretion I should have shared with my parents, but it happened at a time when my mom was fighting leukemia, and it seemed wrong to bother my parents with something so trivial at the time, so I just dealt with it in my own way, which was to be sad and say nothing. We moved at the end of that year, so I at least didn't have to listen to anyone calling me "The Tornado Child." What I heard about my presumed racial makeup wasn't much better, but I wasn't necessarily the prime target who was picked on. The overweight children and those who struggled with academics were treated much worse than I was. I was self-absorbed enough that it didn't occur to me to feel sorry for the actual biracial kids who faced taunting on a daily basis when teachers weren't around to deal with it.
The issues were only at school or when I was with my dad's extended family, and we weren't with them all that much, so it's not as though my childhood was one of nothing but misery. I had far more good times than bad. I was still in gymnastics, so I had limited time to dwell on the issues of my appearance, and there was a mother of an African-American girl in my gymnastics club in fourth and fifth grade who could do my hair so that it stayed in place for at least the length of a competition.
Then when I was nine, in the autumn of my fifth grade year, the incident occurred where, on a bet from my brother, I did a back walkover and a cartwheel on the highest part of the roof of our two-story home. My parents were oblivious inside the house, but a neighbor walked out his front door just in time to see me finishing the cartwheel. He got my brother and me off the roof, then rang the doorbell to alert my parents as to what their daughter had been doing on the roof of their house.
One of the consequences of my rooftop gymnastics display was that I was pulled immediately from all gymnastics and tumbling programs. My parents had already paid nonrefundable fees for the remainder of the calendar year, but they didn't care. I would never touch another piece of gymnastics apparati until I turned eighteen. In retrospect, I don't fault them for what at the time seemed to me to be an extreme reaction. What it did, however, was give me far too much time on my hands. At least in part because it was the year I was in Mrs. Moore's fifth-grade class, it was excess time I used to obsess over my appearance.
My dad learned of a marvelous invention known as a hair straightener -- one of those things that basically irons a person's hair flat -- and he bought one for me. He learned to use it relatively well, and it did a decent job at straightening my curly mop, although if my hair got sweaty or damp, the curls came back. Also, there was the problem of my dad not being there every day. My mom wanted no part of the hair straightener. I did the best I could, but my best wasn't all that good, and I kept burning myself. After about the fourth visible burn, Mrs. Moore told me she would report my family to Child Protective Services if I came to school with another burn. She had threatened me with CPS over my weight as well, but I think she forgot about that.
Our family had already had one encounter with CPS the time I sat on my brother's Mardi Gras beads all the way from Las Vegas through a traffic jam and snowstorm in the Tehachapis most of the way to Fresno. A creepy girl peaking over the restroom stall saw the bead marks on my bottom and ran all over the school and into the office telling everyone I had shingles. Somehow the school nurse became involved, and when I refused to show her, she assumed the worst and called CPS. CPS showed up on our doorstep and the matter was cleared up, though not without my showing them my nude bottom under heavy protest.
Anyway, just about the worst thing anyone could have threatened me with was calling CPS on my family. I didn't realize a teacher was allowed to use it as a threat against a child essentially as a disciplinary tactic, and I now know that she wasn't. Regardless, I would not risk burning myself again because I didn't want another CPS encounter. My dad straightened my hair on the days he was home, and the rest of the time it was braids or ponytails that pulled out of their moorings and were a complete mess within an hour.
I spent a lot of my spare time during those days in my room, looking at myself in the mirror and crying. My mom was working full-time after recovering from Graves' Disease and leukemia. It was all she could do to get dinner on the table and get us to bed. If my eyes were red, I doubt she noticed. When I did complain about my looks, her response would be something to the effect of, "Alexis, you look just like me. How do you think it makes me feel to hear you complaining about how ugly you are? It's just like you're telling me I'm ugly." I didn't want to tell my mother she was ugly, so I stopped complaining to her.
My dad would agree that I looked like my mom, and would say, "I would never have asked your mom out if she hadn't been beautiful. Of course I think you're beautiful, too."
But I didn't believe him. I thought it was just one of those things a parent had to say to his kid.
Then we had picture day. After the original kindergarten picture day, when I ended up looking like a clown in my picture, my dad had volunteered in my classroom every day on picture day so he could keep me from being pushed into a mud puddle or messing up my hair worse than usual before pictures were taken. His schedule made doing so impossible that day -- he would be out of town for the week. My mom put my hair in braids and hoped for the best.
I knew my pictures weren't good, but it seemed pointless to worry too much about it. Then, maybe a month later -- before Christmas, anyway -- picture packets were delivered to the school. Mrs. Moore looked at each one as she called the child forward to pick up his or her packet. It was the child's decision as to whether or not to show the packet, in which the largest picture was displayed through a cut-out, to the class. Then Mrs. Moore came to my packet. Her face turned red as she stood. She shrieked at me, "Do you even own a comb, Alexis?" She held the packet up for all the children to see, then, as they laughed, she walked to my desk and slapped it face-down on the surface, very hard.
My brother and I had been attending the same school we attended the year before because we had moved about two months into the school year. The plan was that we would finish the school year there, then switch the next year to our neighborhood school of residence. The school was maybe six miles from my house.
I was supposed to go to the school's after-school daycare program, but instead I walked off campus. Because I didn't buy milk for lunch that day, I had just enough change to get onto the municipal bus, and it was a direct ride home with no transfers. I had no key, but I knew where the spare was kept. I let myself into the house, locked the door behind me, then dropped to the floor and cried for several minutes. Then I got up. I knew I needed to do something.
I grabbed the scissors from a utility drawer in the kitchen. My original intention had been to remove as much of my hair as I could possibly get with the scissors. If I didn't get enough with the scissors I could look in my parents' bathroom to see if there was a razor, and I could shave the rest. My dad was gone, but I thought he might have an extra razor.
As I was walking upstairs, I passed my parents library where, in addition to books, family photo albums were kept. In an instant, it occurred to me that even more important than cutting off my hair was destroying every picture of myself I could find. I grabbed three albums and took them into the bedroom, along with my school pictures.
I started with the school pictures, not even bothering to remove the individual pictures from the packet. I cut the packet into thin strips, much as though I was doing the job of a shredder. It then occurred to me that my parents owned a shredder. I looked in the attic until I found the shredder. I plugged it in and started pulling out any picture of me from the album. I didn't take any group photos out; maybe I thought I'd be in less trouble if I didn't destroy any pictures of cute Matthew, although I don't think I really cared all that much by then about what kind of trouble I would face. I tore every picture I could find of me from the photo album into which it had been placed and fed it to the shredder.
The phone had started to ring shortly after I arrived home, but I ignored it. Then someone started pounding on the door and ringing the doorbell. I ignored that as well.
Eventually I heard the front door open. I heard my mother calling my name. I fed the photos into the shredder as fast as I could, knowing my time with the shredder was almost finished, and wondering if I should lock myself into the bathroom with my scissors and do the number on my hair before my mom could unlock the bathroom door. It was too late.
My mother opened my door and flipped on the light switch. I had been working essentially in the dark on that late afternoon in early December. It hadn't even occurred to me to turn on the light as the sun set. I looked at my mother and braced myself for the worst.
"Alexis, sweetie, what's the matter?" she exclaimed. "Why are you doing this?"
I tried to tell her, but I couldn't get any words out except, "Mrs. Moore." She sat on the floor and held me on her lap as I cried. Then she did what she always did when there was a problem, which was to call my dad.
'I know you've paid for two more days of the conference, John," she told him, "but you have to get home now."
My dad said he'd get a flight out of LA that night, and he got home somewhere around midnight. By then my mom had pieced together most of what had been happening with Mrs. Moore all year and in particular what had happened in school that day. "What are we going to do?" my dad asked.
"I don't know, but she's not spending another minute in that witch's classroom," my mom answered.
Exhausted, I fell asleep to the sound of their arguing. My dad carried me to bed, but the arguing continued, and I heard pieces of it through my sleep. I heard my mom say, "That stuff has cancer risks. Do you really want her to get cancer?"
"Not really," my dad answered, "but we can't have her constantly standing in front of the mirror crying. She hates her hair. We have to do something about it."
I have no idea how late into the night they argued. I fell into a fitful sleep with dreams about having cancer and about cutting my own hair off. When I woke in the morning, it was past 9:00, almost an hour after school should have started. I wondered what was happening. I got up to find my father in the kitchen. He asked what I wanted for breakfast. I told him nothing, which was my usual response. He told me that wasn't an option and to try again. I settled on a bagel and orange juice, and I drank the glass of milk I was required to drink each morning. Then he said, "Get dressed. You have a hair appointment."
I wondered what in the world anyone thought they could do to my hair that would make it look better, but didn't ask questions. I showered since I hadn't bathed or showered the night before, put on jeans and a sweatshirt since no one had mentioned school, and got into the car with my dad.
I assumed my mom was at work and my brother was at school as usual, but I didn't ask or mention them.
My dad parked the car, grabbed his laptop, and walked with me into the hair salon. "So what are we doing for this young lady?" a pretty young woman with turquoise hair asked.
I looked at my dad with wide eyes. For all I knew, he was going to tell the lady to shave my head. "We're straightening her hair."
The turquoise-haired lady led me to chair, put a padded board across the arms so I would be tall enough for her to reach my head, and lifted me onto the chair. She ran her fingers through my hair. "Are you sure?" she asked. "It's so beautiful the way it is."
"Are you sure, Alexis?" my dad asked me.
"Yes!" I both spoke and nodded, not quite believing what was happening.
"OK," the hair dresser conceded. "Let's get started." She lowered the back of the chair to shampoo my hair. "Have you been plucking your hair out, young lady?" she asked in a mock stern tone.
"Yes," I answered truthfully. Hair-plucking was one of my coping mechanisms for the stress of being in Mrs. Moore's class.
"I'll only straighten your hair, " she told me, "if you promise to try really hard not to do that any more."
I gave her my most solemn promise. I can's say that I've never plucked a single hair from my head since, but I've been able to stop myself as soon as I realized I was doing it every time I've done it since then. She essentially cured me -- she and moving me from Mrs. Moore's class, but I didn't know about that yet.
I fell asleep in the chair before she was finished, as it's a long process, but I woke up as she was putting finishing touches on the styling job she was doing on my hair. I looked in the mirror and cried. The stylist didn't understand that they were tears of joy.
"I told you it wasn't a good idea," she admonished my dad.
"Do you like it, Alexis?" my dad asked. I nodded my head up and down as I smiled through my tears. The stylist breathed a sigh of relief.
It was almost time for lunch when we left, so my dad said we should go pick up my mom at work and take her to lunch with us so she could see my hair. As we drove into the parking lot of the school district office where she worked, she drove in right after us. "Did it take that long?" my dad asked.
"Yes. I carried his cum photocopies with me." (In her particular position as a school district administrator, she knew that she had the right to copies of every single paper in her child's cumulative folder. "I got Alexis' copies, too, which is part of the reason for the holdup. Then, " she continued, "they wanted to test him in every subject before they placed him in a class, and they started with third grade level. It's going to take even longer if they try to do that with Alexis on Monday." It then occurred t me that Matthew and I were changing schools. I can't say I was saddened in the least with the prospect of no longer being under the supervision of Mrs. Moore.
Then my mom looked for the first time at my hair. "Do you like it?" she asked me.
"Do you like it?" I asked back.
"I do. I liked it the way it was before, too, but I know it caused you a lot of unhappiness. We just want you to be happy."
"My hair looks like yours now," I told her.
She looked at her own hair in the passenger seat mirror, and commented, "Yeah, I guess it does."
For several years I had the chemical process repeated every four months or so. now I just have a Chi straightener. I'm able to use it without burning myself, and a bit of moisture in my hair doesn't cause it to geri-curl itself anymore. My hair is also closer to the tow-headed shade it was when I was very young. I started lightening it a couple of years ago.
I was still far shorter and thinner than anyone else in the class -- hence the dreaded nickname Anorexis --but I felt as though I could deal with that. The hair problem was the straw breaking the camel's back sort of thing for me. One can look different than her peers in only so many ways without feeling alien or outcaste.
I'm still feel like the water fowl paddling around in the lake, wondering if I'll turn into a swan or if I really am just a slightly funny-looking duckling. I've learned not to obsess on looks all the time, as there are more important things in life. When I'm in a class, I'm thinking about what the professor is saying, not about whether or not I'll ever be as pretty as the girl sitting behind me. When I'm playing piano or violin, I concentrate on playing well, as opposed to worrying about looking beautiful while I'm playing.
My grandma always says "Pretty is as pretty does," in her French accent. Hearing "pretty is as pretty does," even from my sweet grandmother, makes me feel as I did when Mrs. Moore looked directly at me and announced that there was at least one girl in the class who was not pretty, but people would forget about her looks if she would be sweet.
How does a person get past early conditioning? I don't need to think I'm beautiful, or even pretty. I want not to be ugly, and I want to be able not to think about it at all. How does one achieve that state?