The summer before I entered seventh grade, my pediatrician found a curve in my spine. I would have to wear a back brace for at least two years. A big one, like the one Joan Cusack wore in Sixteen Candles that made her look like she’d had a nuclear accident with a 19th century dressmaker’s dummy.
The fitting required me to lay motionless as my entire torso was caked in plaster, which took about an hour to dry. Then, once the brace was molded to my form, several adjustments needed to be made so that it would fit and function properly. This took most of an afternoon, during which time I remained uncharacteristically silent and morose.
I watched myself in the mirror as the orthopedic specialist took a screwdriver to the metal bar splitting my chest, and I told him, “You might as well kill me now.”
He laughed, but when I looked at my mother, she was tight-lipped. She knew. For a thirteen-year-old girl in middle school, a corrective brace would mean social death. My condition and treatment were rare, meaning that no one at my school would have seen anything like my brace before. I had no idea how they would react, but I knew it would be bad. I also knew that I was alone.
All my life, I’d been the weird kid. This hadn’t made me popular, but my unpopularity was bearable because at least it had been on my own terms. This brace would ruin me. I would never survive.
As I gazed into the mirror wearing what looked like a medieval torture device (as my father had helpfully pointed out), I said to my reflection, “Enough.”
When my friends from primary had joined the popular group in our new school, I hadn’t gone along, because I wasn’t willing to do what I knew needed to be done to be popular – gossip, cruelty, and manipulation. Now I was willing. I would sell my soul and enter that dark realm with no regrets.
Did it work? Sort of. Slowly, by mimicking the movements and speech patterns of my social superiors, I climbed the figurative ladder, rung by exhausting rung. There were so many rules. I kept a notebook detailing my outfits for the day, making sure I didn’t wear the same thing twice in a month. I said hurtful things to and about people I actually liked. I begged my mom for designer jeans that I knew were overpriced and made from mediocre material. I stopped reading books and spent my allowance on the newest issues of Seventeen, YM, and Jane. I got pierced, got in fights, and quit doing my science homework.
Considering my natural weirdness and my late-blooming interest in popularity, I rose surprisingly quickly. I became kind of the token nerd of the popular group. Did these girls become my friends? Again, the answer is, “sort of.” Some of them were girls who seemed in a position similar to my own – they were genuinely nice, caring people who were willing to be superficial if it kept them safe from the scorn of the popular kids. I can picture them now, as they were then, standing in their own bedrooms, glaring at their reflections with teeth set, yelling, “Enough!” Those are the girls I still keep track of on Facebook.
This all lasted through eighth grade. High school came, and I only had to wear the brace to bed. I became more interested in extracurriculars like newspaper, drama, and swim team. I stopped caring what other people thought of me. My interest in fashion and makeup waned. I still haven’t learned how to use liquid eyeliner.
Here’s what I learned:
1) Our culture does a very good job of teaching young girls what is deemed important: their appearance. That’s it. You aren’t supposed to be smart or funny or resourceful. You’re supposed to make yourself pretty. Get a boyfriend. Keep quiet – opinions aren’t cool.
2) Reading beauty magazines makes girls and women self-conscious and miserable. I will never look like Heather Graham or Scarlett Johansson no matter how much plastic surgery I get – not that I can afford plastic surgery, anyway.
3) Though popular culture tells me that all anyone cares about are my looks, most people really don’t give a crap. There is the occasional sad, lonely jerk who goes out of his way to let me know he thinks I’m unattractive, but anyone who matters is too busy living life to dwell on the fact that I have thin lips and freckles.
I no longer have to wear the brace. Sometimes it makes appearances in my dreams, where I’m trapped inside it and can’t get out, but when I go back home and take it out of my closet to try it on, it doesn’t even fit anymore.