CW: Strong themes/mentions of eating disorders.
When I was a kid, I knew I could be anything. I was as malleable and unmolded as a new jar of Play-Doh, ready to fit into any shape or size form anyone wanted to squeeze me into. For my father, something demure and dutiful, the next dolled-up thing to add to his dining room set. For my mother, something sweet-faced and empty, something to dress up in the bows and skirts she didn’t wear anymore. Never mind that I wanted to be the first mermaid-popstar-astronaut to live in a diamond castle on the moon; I had plenty of time for all those things, and I could be anything. Life was easy. Life was bright and new and free and coated in rosy-pink glitter.
When I was a teenager, I wanted to be lots of things. I wanted to be the daughters my parents wanted, and for the boys at school, I wanted to be pretty and fun and cool. But in that last summer before high school, puberty redesigned me into something chubby and acne-ridden and awkward. Suddenly, all my potentialities dwindled. For my father, I was still a fine daughter. For my mother, I was no longer a shiny, untouched surface she could make herself up in.
The transition from girlhood to teenagedom was a violent thrust into a crushing awareness of myself in proximity to everyone around me, a burden that radiated back through time and stained my every conscious memory in shades of anxiety and shame. My best friend’s eleventh birthday slumber party was no longer that time I pulled an awesome all-nighter singing One Direction songs and watching 12 Dancing Princesses and bonding with my closest friends, but only a time I humiliated myself by eating too much at a sleepover.
My new high school model came with dowdy sweaters and chunky glasses and a perpetually awkward hair length in a colour that wasn’t totally brown, but definitely not blonde. These clear labels made me a sure fit for the smart girl (Hey, you’re good at math, right? Could you help me with last week’s homework?), the good student (You always turn your projects in so early!), the funny friend (OMG, where do you come up with this stuff?). These were the spaces made for me, not the ones for the girlfriends or the popular kids, so I filled them out accordingly. I studied late into Friday nights (Yeah, you can just copy mine again), focused on school (Just have a lot of free time on the weekends, I guess), and crafted a crass armour to protect my still-soft insides (Unlike those girls, I have a personality).
I could be anything, except a date or a crush, except the pretty one in the friend group, except a girl who could wear heart-shaped sunglasses and get away with it. I could be anything people saw at first glance, because to ask for anything more was to ask for ridicule.
Then, in the summer before eleventh grade, I’d discovered a whole new underworld of the Internet for girls like me to make themselves into anything but. I trashed my glasses for contacts, faithfully worshipped the teachings of the goddesses of the YouTube makeup tutorial, devoted my days to the routines and expectations of keto, paleo, vegetarianism, veganism, intermittent fasting, calorie counting, restricting, the Military Diet, the ABC Diet.
I’d starved myself down to a size that made my mother happy, that made my father nervous. And finally, finally the boys saw a girl! An honest to goodness, life-size, dainty, (box-dyed) blonde, pretty-in-pink girl. Who needed diamond castles and wild careers when I now had access to all the short skirts and cute tops a girl like me could ever want, when it was no longer so audacious for me to wear makeup (but only that totally natural glam look, of course). To the boys I’d spent that last two years sitting behind, ignored except when there was a group project to be done, I was a glossy and glossed-up new toy they could possess for a weekend, show off to their friends, and then leave on a high shelf after playtime was over.
I moved up the ranks and away from my old friends who hadn’t yet encountered the miracles I had and bound myself to the girls who’d seemed born with those blessings. At bare cafeteria tables, we swapped eyeshadow palettes, sugar-free Starbucks orders, Instagram handles. We rarely swapped clothes since mine were way too small for the other girls (always said with a palpable bitterness, a familiar sadness), and I felt like a fucking winner.
I’ll admit it wasn’t all glitz and glam all the time. On some (most) days I couldn’t stand for more than ten minutes and those tall lattes I posted on Instagram ended up untouched in the trash more often than not. And despite my new friends and my new clothes and my new body, I couldn’t shake this ever-present paranoia that they’d all one day see past it, that they’d seen through me the entire time. I’d only put lipstick on a pig, I hadn’t really fooled anyone, and they’d one day stick me and eat me alive for daring to think I could trick them, that I could trick myself. All I’d ever been and all I’d ever be was a pathetic animal stuck in the mud.
But, at least for a little while, I didn’t need to make anyone laugh to make them like me, to make them pass me by as a target, to distract them from my vulnerable parts they could so easily strike and so mortally wound. I didn’t need to crawl in the shadowy, safe, ignored spaces. For now, they saw a date for homecoming, one of their own, something they could accept into their own toy boxes. I learned to play the parts and play them well.
This newly minted, limited-edition version of me came with her first boyfriend, her first kiss, her first party, her first drink, then her next, and next, and next. The older boys (how old does someone have to be before they aren’t a boy anymore?) offered cheap drinks in plastic cups endlessly because they saw a girl who could (couldn’t) handle them. Those firsts are hazy with a rosy-pink film and dredge up the acrid taste of bile and an ache in my skull if I think on them for too long.
Boys and men alike saw something they could shout vulgar words at as she walked home from school, something whose beach photos they could leave lewd comments under. It wasn’t like unwanted comments had never followed me around before, only now they had gone from cruel to desire, and I figured it would be so much easier to deal with desire. Cruelty was a metal bat to the gut I could hardly dodge; desire was a skintight dress made of eyes and hands and tongues I could pretend to flaunt.
I was everything I wanted to be, and everything I thought everyone else would want, too.
Near the end of that school year, my parents sat me down at the kitchen table to talk. It was a surface I hadn’t seen in weeks, but it still bore the rough scratches that looked like my initials when seen from the right angle. My seven-year-old hands had done that when they’d finally gotten a hold of my mother’s scissors, then promptly hacked the chunkiest bangs into my still blonde hair. How eager little girls are for control over their bodies. When my parents began to express their love and concern for me, I traced those grooves and felt deeply confused. Hadn’t I become the popular girl like you wanted, just like you were, Mom? And Dad, wasn’t I a picture you could proudly save in your wallet to show to your coworkers? I know my grades have dropped a little (You’re failing almost every class, sweetheart), and you disapprove of my friends (We hear you crying in your room almost every night, honey), but at least I’m taking care of myself (Darling, you’re wasting away in front of us).
I can be everything! I can be in every collection, lay behind taut plastic shields, strapped in by metal twist-ties against cardboard pink-sand beaches and neon-coloured clubs and stylish dreamhouses. Everybody wants me! I can be the Good Daughter, the Fun Date, the Pleasant Student, the Popular Girl, the Funny Girl, the Smart Girl, the Party Girl (let’s go party!), (how young does someone get to be before they're suddenly a woman?), the not-like-other-girls girl, the one-of-the-boys girl, the girls-girl, the Insta girl, #nofilter, #makeupgoals, #bodygoals, #skingoals, #facegoals, #lifegoals, #cleangirlaesthetic, #softgirlaesthetic, #thatgirlaesthetic, the flirt, the prude, innocent, experienced, naïve, wise, anything, everything, I can be it all, I can perfect, perfect, perfect,
When my parents put me in therapy at the start of my last year of high school, I tried to become the good-at-therapy girl to make the therapists job easy. The good-at-therapy girl is satisfyingly honest, politely complying, and goes along with it until she doesn’t have to be there anymore.
Yes, I’m doing alright. How are you?
No, I’m not concerned about my mental health.
Yes, I ate today.
No, I’m not lying.
Yes, I have a support system.
No, I don’t feel I can tell my friends or my boyfriend or my parents anything on my mind.
Yes, I feel an immense pressure to be everything they want me to be.
No, I don’t know if this is what they actually want.
Yes, I feel I won’t be loved if I’m not perfect.
Yes, I’d rather die thin at 17 than live to be a hundred and over a hundred pounds.
Yes, I know my choices are killing me.
No, I don’t really care.
It took me almost a year to discover it, but it turns I did care, deep down in a place at first only someone other than myself could see. Just enough, just a spark enough to coax into a flame. Dim as a nightlight but enough to see by, enough to navigate my way out of the darkness of the box I’d entombed myself in.
My therapist and parents and I agreed that I should wait another year before going to university or college, that I should take a few extra courses at the high school to up my neglected grades, that I should break up with my boyfriend (who was always telling me how mature I was for my age), that I should get off social media and reconnect with old friends and take up hobbies other than exercising until I tasted blood on my breath and agonizing over food until I hated myself.
Slowly, I became something different, someone I wanted to be.
As it turned out, I was someone who was good at math, but also someone who actually enjoyed it. These numbers didn’t cause me to break out in a panicky cold sweat, make me shaky with anxiety and insecurity and guilt. They were brain exercises, strings of riddles and codes that were so satisfying to puzzle out, and when my brain was well fed and properly rested, I was damn good at them.
This summer, my therapist has been helping me look for post-secondary programs where I can pursue this new/old passion. It seems my teachers were right; math really can lead to a lot. I could be a computer engineer, software developer, data analysist, economist, statistician. I could even be an astronaut.
I know I’ve still got a ways to go; I’m still quietly anxious about gaining the freshman fifteen (though I know now nothing would make my mother happier), and that perfect girl box is so enticing some days, no matter how much it now resembles a casket in my mind. I still have a hard time reconciling the idea that I can wear whatever I want whenever I want without needing to be shaped a certain way (but I did recently buy a really cool pair of sunglasses and the world didn't implode on me). I also know I'm so much more than my body and the ways it and I can fulfill others.
I know I don’t have to be anything in particular. I can just be.