“Her name was Connie. She was fifteen and she had a quick, nervous giggling habit of craning her neck to glance into mirrors or checking other people’s faces to make sure her own was all right.”
These opening lines from Joyce Carol Oates’ short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” capture the essence of my adolescent experience. Mirrors taunted me; I both wanted constantly to judge the way I looked and to avoid my own reflection. I wanted to be aware of how overweight or frumpy I was, how far my butt stuck out in my jeans or how disproportionate my top was to my bottom, so that I could deride myself before anyone else did.
In dance class, I stayed in the back so that I couldn’t see myself up close in the mirrors, but I couldn’t help but measure my figure against all of the other girls’. Their quadriceps were chiseled and firm; their arms taut yet graceful; their derrières well-contained inside their leotards. I wore more clothing than they did—oversized tee shirts and those garbage-bag shorts that suffocated my hips and thighs and made me sweat uncontrollably. I didn’t want to watch all of them watching my body, because I knew what they were thinking: I’m glad I don’t look like her.
I will never forget the day that Mrs. L., the school director, asked me to join the Dance Company. She pulled me into the hallway to congratulate me, and then began, “You’ll just have to take off some of the—” –and I nodded before she finished her sentence, anticipating that the next word would be “clothing”—“weight. Because you know, unitards are our basic costume, and you will be onstage next to girls like Susannah (a tiny, cute Asian girl with tiny legs and tiny arms and a tiny waist).”
I was paralyzed with shame. Mrs. L. had reflected back at me, like all of those damn mirrors in my life, my most debilitating insecurity. It wasn’t just that I was fat…it was also that she caught me completely off guard and had called me fat first. I hadn’t had time to acknowledge to her that ugly fact about myself, and therefore had come away looking disillusioned and clueless.
So now I teach a 9th grade Honors English course. My class consists of 14 girls and four boys, so clearly, feminine auras and voices dominate the room. Within the first few days of school, I began feeling a sense of awe that I couldn’t quite pinpoint. Now, I had never taught high school girls before; I was coming out of a career at an all-boys prep school where the majority of kids didn’t bother to brush their teeth or their hair. It was dawning on me how absolutely, unconditionally beautiful these 9th grade Honors girls were. Usually, I avoid the term “beautiful” because it’s such an abstract descriptor. In fact, I come down pretty hard on my students for resorting to it. But in this case, the word kept repeating in my mind as I watched them day after September day, their bodies so compact in their leggings and camisoles, their faces full and eager, skin as soft and unmarred as baby powder, cheeks flushed with energy, eyes squinting with laughter, hair thick and long and swirling over shoulders, and not a lick of makeup or hairspray or self-consciousness to undermine their authenticity.
As days in my new job turned into weeks and months, I learned that these girls’ beauty animated them from the inside out. They were—are—open, sweet, bright, and genuine. I don’t know where I developed the notion that I was perfectly happy not teaching girls because they were catty and dramatic. These girls are anything but. (Well, maybe a teeny bit dramatic, sometimes. But I can dramatize with the best of them.) My impression throughout my adolescence was that I could never be this beautiful. I obsessed every single day about my flaws: my blemished forehead, my fine hair that was always droopy and staticky by noon, my inability to wear shirts tucked in. The fashion and hairstyles of the 80s and 90s didn’t exactly help my cause.
I know that all of the girls and boys I teach suffer from their own insecurities, and I would be insensitive not to acknowledge this reality. However, the beauty that beams out of these fourteen young ladies, natural, wholesome and unassuming, sweeps me up in its warmth the minute they enter the room. I forget to criticize myself in their presence. I think it’s partly because their effusive energy reflects how they feel about our class together. They cast themselves out, trusting and flexible, and I catch their loveliness and toss it back to them. They smile, I smile. I share a story, they share a story. They get tangled in a hyper tangent about weird dreams or rats in their middle school lockers, and I let them go until they can unmire themselves from their own giddy joy. We reflect each other’s spirit back and forth.
Know your beauty, I want to say to them. Know it right now. Seek your beauty in other people’s faces, because it’s there, reflecting right back at you.
But… But… But… You were good enough for Mrs. L. to ask you to join the company. What an absolutely horrid experience. Thank God it has become an opportunity for you to teach in a different way. I teach dance and would never say such a thing to my students. Dances can be choreographed to highlight each student and seeing an nontraditional sized dancer might have encouraged other girls.
Visiting from Five Minute Friday,
Hi, Drusilla! Thank you so much for your comment. Yes, I know — I was a strong dancer, “despite” that I wasn’t as thin and lithe, or muscular and tight, as the others. And when we talk about weight in dancing, we know that the standards are different from real-life weight expectations or normalcies. I have struggled with my weight since I was little, but nowhere else was that struggle highlighted as drastically as in dance class. I love that you teach dance! It sounds like you are a compassionate, creative instructor who sees the potential and the beauty in every one of your students.
Elizabeth, I enjoyed this piece very much. However, who knows what lurks behind the perceived physical perfection? Later in life, I became privy to what many of my stunning classmates’ lives were really like…not good. High school is but a brief, fleeting moment. The trick is how to survive it.