I don’t remember many dark moments in my early childhood. Mom was a pleasant, smiling, patient woman in a cotton house dress and apron who smelled like bread baking, and at least once a day she would give me a big hug and call me her sugarplum. She sang “You Are My Sunshine” to me, and let me lick the beaters, and once I’d been lulled into a position of complete trust for seven years, one day she pinned me down in the kitchen and gave me a Toni.
A Toni was a home permanent-wave product, and it burned and smelled like toil and trouble. Nothing in my life had prepared me for my mother trying to fry off my head. My straight hair was chopped every couple of months, at mid-ear level, and Mom kept it off my forehead by raking an all-day barrette across my scalp, but I’d gotten used to that. The problem, as she saw it, was that I wasn’t enough like Shirley Temple. There was never a chance I’d be able to tap dance, either. Even when I tried to skip, it just looked like my knees had the hiccups.
The Toni was horrible. It didn’t last long, but I was mortified. It was so girly. I wilted inside whenever the old man next door called me “young lady,” which he always did, thinking himself nice. I hated dolls, and played with stuffed animals and real frogs. Mom would fluff me up once a year for Easter Sunday, but I couldn’t wait to get home and put on tree-climbing duds.
Clothing was strictly utilitarian, to me. In fourth grade, I picked out a drab blue school dress that I liked well enough, and my parents did too, so they bought the exact same dress in brown also, and that was it for the year. It would be several more years before I recognized that the two dresses, and I, were totally inadequate.
Kids today are much more advanced, and pick up on humiliation at a much earlier age. A stroll through any girls’ department these days will reveal aisles of unrelieved pink froth and spandex, and your only choice is spangles or not so many spangles.
Girls are required to look like birthday cupcakes in tights. And apparently they like it. I would have died.
So I guess my aversions made me a tomboy, except that I couldn’t run, throw, catch, or do anything else in the tomboy canon except fall down, scrape skin off myself, and feel squirmy in my Sunday best. I was a happy little girl, Mommy’s sugarplum, and I was fine just the way I was – until I got to junior high school. That’s where I learned that I was not fine just the way I was. In fact, I wouldn’t do at all. There would have to be some big changes made. It was time to be pressed through the grater of adolescence with the rest of my peers, and we all came out diced and shaved and as identical as possible.
I hesitated at the door to adulthood, as though it were a trap. I was only 11, but I could see my future clear as a teardrop: To step forward was to step away from my authentic self. It was going to take pretense, and trickery, and concealment, and more money than I had. I didn’t want to grow up. But I didn’t have to want to do it. I just had to do it.
I wasn’t very good at it. Fortunately, a few years later the flower-child era was ushered in to match my budget, and I got by on jeans and work shirts and too much eye makeup. My parents did not approve.
I carved out a tiny social niche and had just enough self-assurance by my senior year to recognize the opportunity to quit wearing makeup when I left home. So I went to college scrubbed up and clean and haven’t used any cosmetics or hair coloring since. I have, to date, saved perhaps $132,000 in spurned makeup, enough to have bought every child in Bolivia a heifer.
The good news is, I can see my authentic self again from here. It’s a little scuffed up, but it was safe inside the whole time. I should probably buy some heifers.