Rising at our seats during Chorus Practice in the elementary school auditorium, a girl whom- for all intents and purposes I considered “popular”- turned to me and said, “Jennifer, do you think you’re pretty?”
I paused for a moment and considered her motives- had this been pre-meditated? Was it a trap? Was she mocking me?
A multiple choice question was being presented to me- no gray, no “none of the above.” And while there was no grade to be given, there was the symbolic red check mark hanging over my head. Was I to be validated in my response? Was it okay to claim confidence? Was I enough?
Stumped for an answer, I gave her the only honest one I could find.
‘Yeah,” I answered.
“Good,” She said, and faced forward once again.
I never reflected on her drive. My focus wasn’t on what led her to ask the question, but rather on the sudden and unforeseen permission to come out of hiding. I stated my answer neutrally and honestly. It was no more or less than what I believed. “Pretty” seemed a broad enough range for me to safely qualify somewhere within its borders.
I realized that our interaction had allowed me a rare moment of feeling human, acknowledged, and- dare I say, borderline equal- in school. Here I was, a “less-than person”, being noticed by a “person of greater stature.” I suspect my blank stare reflected my shock at being given the time of day from someone I deemed more legitimate than myself. For a few precious seconds, I existed without apology.
I’d spent most of my remaining moments at school haphazardly defending my existence to the boys and girls who tore me to shreds at a volume from which I could not hide. I’d been on the receiving end of a seemingly endless array of names, sounds, and gestures from children trying to outdo one another at my expense.
I remember one day- because of a mindless piece of gossip that had gone awry- I was chased by at least ten kids around the circumference of school. I remember running several feet in front of them out of the schoolyard and down the block, hearing them screaming after me. I remember acutely the terror and the shame.
Another time, a couple of girls made fun of me for the socks I was wearing and so they took me aside for some fashion advice. I was so terribly insecure that I went to school the following day wearing exactly what they had instructed me to wear. Upon seeing me, they laughed with each other at me and scoffed, “She actually did it.”
There’s a sort of “sub-humanness” that accompanies these encounters; an utterly pronounced exposure of the worst of me. Every day I went to school and I learned- in small, big, and regular doses- that I was pathetic.
And while they never made fun of my body size, I became so paranoid that I thought anything about me was grounds for scrutiny. For example, I once sat in class watching a movie where one character called another, “fat,” at which point I looked down at the floor, embarrassed at the likely notion that I was now being looked at in association with the word.
My eating disorder first showed signs in my pre-teen years. While I don’t cite the bullying as the sole reason for my disorder, I am certain that it played a role in cementing my pre-existing feelings of worthlessness.
I am certain that the effects of bullying justified the presence of my eating disorder. How could it not justify the gnawing of a distorted voice waiting to break? Amidst the traded lunches across cafeteria tables, there I was, my shame budding and beckoning. Oh, I was not enough. I was far from enough. This much I digested as fact. And so of course I would later apply their words to the tape of my own self-talk. Of course I would integrate the harshness directed at my unwelcome presence. Of course I would internalize the inherent hatred of my inherent wrongness. Of course I would choose to conceal my body under layers of clothing, subtract my worth by way of minimizing my frame, and seek comfort in food that loved and punished without fail. Of course I would burrow in the bite-and-swallow and hang my head in toilet bowls of self-dictated repentance.
It can take a while for shame to set in. During the bullying itself, I put so much gusto into fending off the messages flying at me that I didn’t have the time or energy to recognize the shame that was building. And when I later started feeling badly about my body, I felt detached from the source of that shame.
Years into recovery, I have begun to remove that protective layer separating my bullying from my shame and, in doing so, make a statement whose inherent boldness is founded on its uncertainty:
“There is nothing wrong with me.”
Its taken me the better part of 25 years to stop apologizing for being the person that I am. As I’ve recovered from my eating disorder, I have subsequently begun to take back every apology I’ve ever made in service of my scrutiny. I’ve taken back every time I’ve apologized for myself through hiding, body-shaming, self-injuring, and attempting in vain to control my sustenance.
Its taken me the better part of 25 years to know that I don’t have to be anyone other than the person I am right now in order to warrant someone’s love, friendship, or affection- even if I’m having a bad day, even if I’m feeling insecure, even if (gasp) I’ve gained weight!
Its taken the better part of 25 years to say, “How dare they.” And furthermore, to practice compassion. After all, they were kids; insecurity had to have driven their need for a sense of power over another. Its taken me until this very moment, in fact, to realize that they too were seeking control.
I am a musician today. The auditorium chorus seats from which I rose are behind me now. These days, I sit and rise from a piano bench; I use my voice to proudly reinforce my already-visible presence.
“Do I think I’m pretty” today? I think I’m beautiful, in fact: with or without permission.