Yesterday, on my way home from work, I stopped by Target to look at this dress and this dress, both of which I’d seen on the website, but honestly, trying to gauge the potential ugliness factor of floral prints using web images is a total drag. So off I went. D was with me, but as we reached the cobwebbed and neglected back corner of the store where the plus sizes are kept, lit only by gaslight and populated by roving bands of highwaymen, he went on to the video games department while I began my search.
As started picking through the racks, I was dimly aware of two girls chatting with a third, an employee on fitting-room duty, a few yards away. Within moments their whispers, giggles, and confidential glances at me — though not at my face — made plain that I, or possibly the combination of me and one of those crazy ruffled dresses from eShakti, was the subject of their shared humor.
Y’all, few things disarm me as completely as teenage girls. The harassment of teenage boys does not even faze me, but girls are another matter. Boys are down for a confrontation: they yell, I yell back, or laugh, or crack a joke, and we both go on about our lives with very little lingering anger. Girls tend to be less about confrontation and more about quiet humiliation, whispers behind cupped hands, comments delivered with a deceptive smile. There are exceptions, of course, but in general, these are the ways of the vicious world of teenagers.
The possibilities ran though my mind. I could say, “Hey girls, what’s so funny?” or “A word of advice: if you’re going to make fun of someone nearby, you may want to be more subtle, otherwise you look like assholes,” or “Excuse me ladies, can I ask your opinion? Which of these two dresses do you think is more likely to get me whispered about and laughed at?” I have learned, however, that in these situations my best approach is to keep my mouth closed, because no matter what clever rejoinder I may have in mind, once I open my mouth, all that will issue forth from it is a string of enraged profanities and abuse. Despite my best efforts. This is a personal limitation I acknowledge and moderate by keeping my fool mouth shut.
Instead I circled around the rack between us and stood in full view of them, feigning interest in a hideous hippie-caftan thing. I looked up at them and smiled, meeting all of their gazes. I had intended it to be as sincere a smile as I could manage, but it came out wrong and rapidly resolved itself into a sneer. I realized I was angry; sometimes it takes me a minute. I stood and gamely stared black-bladed daggers at the three girls, all of whom had been facing my direction. One, after a moment of looking very uncomfortable, turned her back to me. Another kept glancing up to see if I was still glaring. I was. And then she’d look away. Repeat. They were silent, their body language stiff and uncomfortable. Is this weird for you? I thought. Is being openly stared at and judged by a total stranger weird for you? Do you fail to enjoy it?
Though I was still angry — and I allow myself anger, in these situations, as anger is healthier than internalizing shame — I also felt a kind of sympathy. Girls at that age are utterly ruthless, often heartless, and rarely kind. They don’t know. They don’t know that fifteen years into the future they could be on the other end of this exchange. They see things from one perspective and in one direction only. When I was asked for advice to give a room full of sixteen-year-olds, among my thoughts was this:
Do not hate yourself. Have regrets, engage in second-guessing, be insecure, scared, desperate, lonely. But do not hate yourself. Do not hate your body, because whatever about it bothers you today will seem patently ridiculous years from now. Do not punish yourself, mentally or physically, for failing to look a certain way; for not striving to be an athlete or a model; for being socially awkward; for never quite living up to the expectations others set for you. Do not punish anyone else. Even the most confident and popular among you struggle with insecurities and pressures, no matter what you say. Be kind.
…Everything is changing, all of the time, but years from now it will seem nothing is changing, ever, and change will only come through a whole lot of effort, or with resistance, or with crisis. In the meantime, eat ice cream, listen to music that speaks to your soul, go on long pointless late-night drives to nowhere with your friends, windows down. Walk in the rain. Wear whatever you want, even if people stare. Have fun. Be safe. Most importantly: have fun.
I might well had added: don’t be a bully. I might well have added: don’t be a dick. For someday the dicked-upon may be thou. But these are instructions lost upon so many young people trying to learn the ways of the world and how they can fit into it. Seeing me, so willfully and pointedly sticking out in that world, is a disaster. Were the points and giggles because they assume I only stand out because I don’t know better? Probably. The concept of standing out on purpose is not a familiar trope. Why would anyone do that? Why would I enter a department store like that and make myself… a target?
I do it because others do, and because I want to support their efforts, and I also want to show others still that they can do it too. Standing out is okay. Standing up is okay. Doing both at once, well, that’s activism. Those Target girls can laugh at me for having the gall to look out of the ordinary, and I can know it comes from a place of insecurity and immaturity and, probably, a sense of not-fitting-in-ness of their own. Curiously, that knowledge makes me want to stand out more. I’m educating you kids; you don’t even know why.
Back in 1994, I was a senior in high school. And this was my jam.
And this little dalliance took me right back there. Some folks won’t ever fit in. Let’s keep it up and imagine that the day comes when nobody has to, when there won’t be any “in” to fit. When there are no more targets, and girls in department stores will laugh only at ugly hippie caftan-tops, instead of at other people. And I don’t have to vacillate between wanting to scream at those girls and wanting to take their hands and say, okay, girls, this fear doesn’t have to last forever. And pigs will fly! That’ll be the day.
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