If we’re going to start talking about The Teenage Years (insert horror movie soundtrack here), it’s important that I confess something up front: I am entirely incapable of cultivating an image.
It’s true. I am the sort of person who will announce to a group of L.A. hipsters that I absolutely love the band Counting Crows. My wardrobe still consists almost entirely of t-shirts, jeans, and cardigans. In an upturning of gender dynamics, many of my boyfriends have been appalled enough by my style of dress that they had to make me into their own personal paper doll. I still don’t really understand how to style my hair. My bookshelf displays no coherent sense of taste beyond being skewed vaguely Victorian. My music and film collections are ALL over the place and, again, have no interwoven theme other than, “Man, wasn’t that AWESOME?” I describe almost everything as “The best (or worst) thing EVAR!!!!” I am a sucker for Greatest Hits albums.
This doesn’t mean that I am not conscious of image in general. I am not a holier-than-thou, “I’m better than you because I don’t NEED an image” type. (That in itself would be an image, and is therefore beyond my capabilities.) In fact, for a good deal of my life, the fact that I had no image was one of my greatest sources of self-consciousness. But no matter what I did, I just couldn’t change that aspect of myself. My most consistent personality trait is my inconsistency. I just can’t stick with something long enough to be identified for it. When I was a little kid, I frequently changed outfits four or five times a day. When my mother finally confronted me about this, pointing out that it made an awful lot of dirty laundry, I countered, “But, Mom! I HAVE to change clothes because I need to be different people!” That pretty much sums it up. I’ve always lived buried inside my own head somewhere, and inside of that world I am constantly shifting identities. I have a jillion different contradictory identities always fighting for attention. And I’ve never managed to figure out exactly how to project a singular image – how to cultivate an appearance and style that magnify rather than diminish all the things that I am on the inside. And ultimately, the self-consciousness about my lack of identity came from a basic teenage drive – a desperate desire to find a place where I truly “fit in.”*
So when Erin began what she references as her “freak” phase, I was insanely jealous. I wanted a Freak Boyfriend too! I wanted to hang out with the “weird” kids who were in bands or occasionally might have smoked pot (Horrors!). And, more than anything, I wanted to be accepted by the “artsy” crowd, the kids who liked indie movies and did their makeup in experimental ways. I KNEW that I was NOT “Vanilla.” But no one else seemed to notice this at all. At least as far as my appearance was concerned, I was your basic everyday Goody-Two-Shoes, the same that I’d been in our elementary school days.
Since Erin included some photographic evidence for her post, I’ll be brave enough to pony up some of my own.
This is a pic of the two of us in the church rec room. The dress Erin’s wearing is one she made herself, from scratch. Although she’ll make fun of herself for it now, you have to admit it’s a pretty cool dress. And it looks good on her. I, on the other hand, am wearing jeans that don’t really fit, along with what was my favorite top – a sleeveless black sweater from (gasp!) The Gap. I loved this shirt. You know what it says about me? Absolutely nothing. Same goes for the jeans. From this picture, I could literally be any generic white girl. And that’s pretty much what I felt like I was during the years from about 6th grade on.
So again, I repeat: insane jealousy. What I didn’t realize about myself, though, is that the same qualities that prevented me from actively cultivating an image also prevented me from editing myself in any way. I said pretty much whatever I felt like saying, pretty much wherever I felt like saying it, regardless of the consequences to my image. At school this wasn’t such a big deal. For middle and high school, Erin and I attended large public “magnet” institutions – meaning that we had big student bodies made up mostly of kids who were slightly smarter than average. Because we got classified as the “smart” kids, more than a few of us were fairly self-righteous and loudmouthed. We liked to argue, liked to show off our “knowledge” of important “issues.” My tendency to spout off wasn’t unusual in the least in such a setting. However, that same tendency made my presence at church more than a little bizarre.
Before joining Erin’s church in what I’m pretty sure was the 8th grade, I had spent one year as an official part of a church congregation – the year that I was four years old. I have exactly two memories of church: coloring pictures of Jesus walking on water (my Jesus’ robes were always orange) and the day when a boy named Michael got his head tangled in the volleyball net in our church’s gymnasium. And that second one I really only remember because my mom reminded me of it when Michael later became a beautiful specimen and member of the Untouchable Popular Group at my middle school.** Despite my attendance at the Unnamed Religious Private School (or URPS, as I will refer to it from here on out), I didn’t really understand what constituted “appropriate” church behavior. I wasn’t familiar with the politics and hierarchies of church, the way that a congregation can divide itself into cliques the same way that any other body of children or adults will do.
Like Erin, I was obsessed with being Good. I wanted to Do the Right Thing. I wanted to be Perfect perfect perfect perfect. Desperately. The thing was, I was still really too young and unaware to know that the definition of “Good” and “Perfect” change depending on the crowd you’re hanging around. My ideas of Good were based mainly on my parents’ notions of right and wrong. I practically worshipped my parents for most of my childhood, and as far as I was concerned they were the ultimate arbiters of Truth. For some kids Parents and Church are virtually one and the same. They live in households where their moms and dads uphold the laws and dogmas of an organized religion. My house was a bit different and this, combined with my general loudmouthedness, made me into an accidental outcast.
There was no CHANCE I would have been invited to Sam’s private Bible study. Sam maintained a fairly open distaste for me, actually. And I’m pretty sure I know why. Here are some (not all) of the things I said and did during the 4 or so years that I was a member of the Major Religious Institution of Baton Rouge:
1. I declared myself to be, along with Erin, a member of the Abrasive Liberal Feminist Democrats – four out of four of those things were unacceptable adjectives for women.
2. I once told off the child of a visiting minister, in my most professorial tone, because he explained to our Sunday school class that “religious tolerance” was a sign of weakness and that, basically, we were fighting a spiritual war with every other major belief system on earth. I believe that somewhere in my speech I used the phrase, “I don’t care who your father is.”
3. Erin and Alex and I once planned to stage a PROTEST, complete with feminist signage, at a church picnic because we girls had been excluded from the all-male basketball tournament that was the main event.
4. I wrote a letter to the editor of our local newspaper decrying the poor behavior of Christians on the gay rights front. (I received actual hate mail from members of our congregation for this one. And I received some letters of praise from other members. Although I will sometimes portray the church as the Bogeyman, we were surrounded by plenty good and well-meaning people. It’s just that they tended to fade into the background when I was on a tare and telling people off.)
5. Most of the time, our Sunday school classes were separated by gender. Once, however, most of the girls were absent for some reason and the few of us who remained were “invited” to sit in with the boys. Their leader, whom I will call Lee, was teaching a lesson that somehow involved discussion of the death penalty. I told him off too, in dramatic fashion. And he did not back down an inch. We spent a good deal of the lesson debating the ethics of capital punishment. I remember that at one point Lee read me a verse in the Bible that basically says “God put earthly leaders in charge, so it is our job to follow their laws” and implied to me that this meant all laws must be good. Because leaders are from God. I wish I’d been savvy enough to bring up Roe v. Wade here. Dammit.
6. I committed the rather large sin of forgetting that I had boobs and hips. I dressed without regard to how much skin I was exposing. And I really really love dresses with spaghetti straps. I also loved tiny tank tops.
I was NOT in the cool group at church. I remember being jealous too, but I also remember realizing vaguely that I had no hope of being included. And that that was okay.
I have never had a great explanation for how I ended up at church, especially coming from a family where church was not part of the requirement. But now that I look back on it, I realize that perhaps not fitting in was part of what I loved so much. Like I said, I’d always been jealous of people who could cultivate an image. I’d never been able to do it. I wanted, so very badly, to be a “freak.” I wanted people to stop thinking of me as the quiet, unassuming girl I’d been in elementary school – the one with the perma-white shoes and perfectly straight belt. I wanted to be seen for the abrasive girl I wanted to be.
Simply by joining a Baptist church, shoving myself in amongst people who thought differently than I did, I was able to experiment with a new identity – an image. I had accidentally found the one place where my developing teenage assertiveness allowed me to be viewed exactly the way I wanted, Gap clothes or no. I was still included; I was still given the impression that I belonged. (As Erin said, a great deal of what we did was met with closed mouths or shrugs. I’m sure the preacher’s wife talked behind my back when I refused to participate in part of the Sunday school lesson, but no one ever asked me to leave.) But I was on the outskirts. I was edgy. Sometimes I was even tough. And because my parents weren’t there, I was answerable only to myself. I decided who I was, and I loved the feeling.
At some point I want to address some things about Jeff as well, but I don’t feel what I want to say quite fits in here. Perhaps for a different post? For now let’s just say that Jeff for some reason never treated me in the particularly bad way he often treated Erin – and I’ve been unable to figure out exactly why. Jeff had a lot of power in our youth group. He was an attractive guy – attractive in the way politicians are attractive. And he was charming. He sang in the church worship band (Swoon!), and he was uber-involved in all church activities – including the drama group that Erin’s dad started for us. He was a hand-shaker, a baby-kisser. And at some point all of us had crushes on him.
But somehow, Jeff never tried to exercise his sense of power over me. He let me get away with a lot. At church camp each year, we were separated into Bible study groups that would become our “families” for the week(s) we were there. These groups consisted of kids from all across the country, and they were intended as centers for mingling and meeting new people. Thus, only two or three kids from one youth group could be assigned to any given Bible study. Our second year at camp, Jeff and I were on our own in one group. The entire week, I made fun of him mercilessly. I referred to him, for no particular reason, as “Sparky” and patted his head as though her were a small puppy dog. I got in the way when he tried to flirt with out-of-state girls and lectured him about how his tastes were “too narrow.” (I guess what I meant by this was that he always chose the most obviously traditionally pretty girls – pretty like politician’s wives are often pretty. Or I could have meant anything. I was an angry abrasive liberal feminist democrat!) I also, along with Erin, would tease him for his dandruff problem, reciting under my breath a satirical poem Erin had written referencing said dandruff. (We were nothing if not creative about our insults.)
Jeff and I continued to be acquainted through college, and our relationship remained in this vaguely friendly-antagonistic state. We argued politics, and he would ask my opinion on poetry he’d written. He told me about his girlfriends. He told me about his crisis of faith. And I sat and listened. And I was honest with him about my opinions, just as I’d always been.
I will never understand how we managed to stay friendly, especially now that I know the full extent of the way Jeff treated Erin. It’s something I want to explore further, as we tell what I’m sure will be a few more stories about Jeff and the cameo appearances he would make in our teenage lives.
*I want to acknowledge here that I know I am insanely lucky in this department. Although I will sound here like I am bemoaning my life as an outcast, I want to acknowledge that I am the bearer of an insane amount of privilege that in most of life allows me to fit in really anywhere I want. I am white. I am upper-middle class and have the bearings and education that go along with that class identity. I am cis-gendered (feminist lingo for not being trans-gendered. I am a woman with distinctly feminine features who identifies socially as a woman). I am also naturally petite. I am (at least apparently) able-bodied. Although I do not identify as straight (I’m bi, for whatever it’s worth), I am also not gay and can therefore “pass” as straight. I have enough features that are close to the modern standard of beauty to get by and not be ridiculed for my appearance, even when I’m understyled or dressed down. In other words, I recognize that a lot of kids suffer for being socially marked in ways that I am not. So although I had some awkward moments based on my inability to cultivate image, I got off really easy because of a set of social and genetic factors that are a pure accident of privilege.
**Erin and Alex and I also once made a series of prank calls to said Michael – something that still constitutes one of the most amusing and terrifying evenings of 7th grade. I hope we revisit this later.