(Content note: Abuse, sexual assault, body image.)
Whenever I see old pictures of myself like this one, it’s hard not to cringe. Not because of the high-waisted shorts or the uneven haircut.
I cringe because I see a girl who is at an age where she wants to believe she is beautiful. But she’s already been told no one will ever want to marry her because she’s too ugly, too fat, and too much of a loser.
I see a girl who, just weeks after this picture was taken, got barked at like a dog when she passed by a group of boys while she was out for a walk on a summer evening.
The day had been good otherwise. When I got home, my mother asked how it was outside and I said it was nice. It would have been too embarrassing to say anything else.
It would have been too embarrassing to admit that things like this happened all the time.
Not that there was anyone at home who would understand, anyway. I was raised by a mother who believed women should be thin, feminine, and polite. My mother would buy clothing for me that was one or two sizes too big and would laugh at the suggestion that perhaps a smaller size would fit better: “Are you kidding? That would never fit you. What kind of attention do you want, anyway?”
But I did want attention. Especially as tenderness. At home, I felt alone, weirdly pressured to be someone and something I could never quite live up to. My mother told me once that when she found out she was pregnant with me, her only child, she “thought we would be best friends.” But she was bitterly resentful when she realized it wouldn’t be so easy to have such a relationship.
I remember being surprised at her admission statement, but it all made sense. I’d been living under expectations that I had never been aware of.
No wonder we had always argued, two stubborn, fiery women. Many of our tensions grew out of a confusing push and pull of the type of person my mother thought I should be, and her clear disappointment that I had a mind of my own.
But in so many pictures, I look like this. Happy, smiling. And everyone who knew me saw me that way: Easy to figure out, easy to dismiss, easy to put down.
I remember when I started to change, little by little. Sometimes it was in the way I dressed. Sometimes it was in the music I listened to. Sometimes it was in the friends I hung out with, and the consequences of our collective actions.
Often, people would say, “I never expected you to be this way.”
Often, I would think about that later and wonder if I was forever stuck as the girl in this photo.
Which was the real me? I wasn’t sure yet.
But when I started writing, I knew. I could lay down the facts of my life and look them in the face, like I am doing now: This happened. This is how I felt. This is what I know to be true.
And even then, there was a surprise sometimes. As though people didn’t expect me to be real, to have emotions, to have a mask to remove.
Back then, I did straddle different worlds.
In this photo, I remember desperately wanting to know what it might be like to be loved. To be desired. To be fully accepted for who I was. At school, at this age, saw how boys looked at some of the other girls, the ones who were popular, the ones who still had narrow hips and who talked loudly about shaving their legs and endlessly passed notes to each other in class. I wondered what it might feel like to be them. I wondered what they had that she didn’t.
But at home, I still slept with a stuffed animal. I still had all of my childhood toys, though they were guiltily stashed away. I was moving into a different kind of life but still wanted to be a child. It seemed easier to stay young.
And that’s one of the reasons why it’s so hard for me to look at the girl in this photo. Because standing here, smiling, aching on the inside for something more, she’s trusting that what’s to come is going to be everything she’s wishing for.
She doesn’t know – how could she? – that two of her earliest relationships will be controlling and abusive. That they’ll be underlined by the insecurity, paranoia, and jealousy of young men. That they will colour her expectations of others, and of herself, for years to come.
She doesn’t know that will never forget the smell of being spat on. She will never forget what it’s like to be hit in a public place and not have a single person come to her rescue. She will never forget the pain of sharing these experiences with people who she wanted to trust and countered her story:
“If anyone ever hit me, I would leave right away. That’s what you should have done.”
(Which is why I write: “It’s not that easy.” Make it known, permanently.)
“Was it really bad? Like, was your face really swollen and you had black eyes and stuff? Did he ever send you to the hospital?”
(Which is why I write: “These are not appropriate measurements. Just listen to me when I say that it happened.”)
“You should have just called the police. That’s what I would have done.”
(Which is why I write: “You don’t ever really know what you will do until it happens.”)
I know so many things that the girl in this picture doesn’t.
I know that she will be so shy in her teen years that she will barely be able to bring herself to order off a menu at a restaurant. That she will have to try harder and longer to ever find a job because when she speaks her face turns red and her words are uncertain and she forgets who she is.
I know that she will go years under-eating, restricting as many meals as possible, skipping lunch, smoking cigarettes at the first sign of hunger, pretending she’s not hungry, refusing sometimes to let other people see her eat, feeling defeated when her body still doesn’t look the way she wants it to, feeling the pressure from the tiny portions on her mother’s dinner plate.
I know that at 16 she will be followed home on a November night by a man who grabs her from behind and then tears down his pants. As he jerks off, she will think, “This is it. This is the night I’m going to get raped.” It all happens just steps from her house, an eerie detail that veils the memory. And even though she gets away before anything worse happens, it’s not the only time that she will be so threatened. Because:
I know that at 19 she will be drugged by another friend and wake up in his apartment at four in the afternoon the next day, disoriented, with bruises all over her neck and will always wonder all that really happened that night.
I know that over the years life will continue to fall apart and come together and fall apart again in a strange, limping rhythm.
I know that even as she finds great loves in the years to come, she will always feel a little bit alone, always struggle to really let the walls come down, always wonder if one day her love will wake up and tell her she’s not enough.
But I also know that she will rebuild herself time and time again, even though it might not always feel like it’s possible.
I know that her shyness will eventually disappear. I know that she will one day stop believing that she is nothing more than other people’s opinions.
I know that she will become things that no one expected of her, but maybe that’s because they weren’t really watching. In the shadows, great things can grow.
I know that she will one day start to see what it is she really deserves, and how different it is from what she’s been told to expect. And I know that she’ll learn this by drawing from her own strengths first, by showing herself how to rise up.
I know that this is the one person I am always writing for, the one who runs on fire that so many might have extinguished over the years.
I know that she will write her way to something more.
I know that this is the one who refused to hide, even when people expected she would. This is the one who decided who and what she needed to be even though it took nearly killed her sometimes to figure it out.
I know that she will decide one day that truth is important, even though the world might not always agree, even when others might find it easier to look away from the facts.
I know that this is why I write: To honour the truths of the past and to integrate them into the present. To remember the girl I was and to let her know that she is still with me, still part of me, and that we are in this together, always.