I can remember the shame washing over me like a hot blanket, but not the yummy kind you want when you’re cold – more like the warm blanket when you’ve wet the bed and you know the heat will soon give way to cold, stark, lonely humiliation: perfect for a 15 year old on a large stage in front of several classmates.
It was sophomore year. I had scored my first big part in a school play, Rosie in Bye, Bye, Birdie. I quickly discovered, much to my delight, that I not only got to sing a solo number, but that it required a solo dance as well. Yay! I asked if I could choreograph it; at least that’s how I remember all that happening through the mists of time. So I went to work at it. And over some amount of time that I can no longer recall, but feel comfortable guessing was not insignificant, put together a dance to show to our director, who was on loan from a prestigious local theater.
The time came in rehearsal and I did my dance number for the director’s approval. I was really proud; proud to have the part, proud to have been allowed to handle the dance myself, and proud of having done it and performed it the way I wanted to. When I finished, as I caught my breath, I realized that it was pretty quiet. I looked up at the director, who was sitting on a folding chair at the front of the stage. She looked at me with obvious discomfort and said a few words that I don’t remember and then she said the thing I will always remember: “Girls like us can’t leap.” There was then some elaboration about my size, a vague reference to bustiness, and the way all of that looks in the air to other people. She even demonstrated how she looked leaping so I would really understand, made fun of herself, drew parallels to large animals. And there I stood. Not so proud anymore.
So I reworked my dance, took the leap out. I certainly didn’t want to look like picture my director had painted in our discussion. Nobody would want that, particularly not any 15 year old girl. I performed the resulting dance as well as I could. I loved that show, but not as much as I would have if it hadn’t ushered in the era of thinking my body was in a special category. My body was one that required me to be careful or I would look foolish, oafish, clumsy, ridiculous. My body was in the group of bodies that needed to be covered up, hidden in loose clothes, oversized sweatshirts, baggy pants. My body became difficult to shop for, impossible to dress. My body was in the group that needed altering in order to be okay, to be graceful, to be beautiful. The evidence to support my newfound shame was everywhere.
I was inducted into two clubs that day: the first was the pretty but big club. The pretty but big club had a lot of rules, the first of which was to recognize first and foremost that you were big, bigger than your peers, bigger than you should be, just bigger. The next rule was that you do something about it. And so, I embarked on a series of eating experiments (grapefruit and diet Coke for lunch anyone?), all of which predictably failed, and all of which served to solidify my belief that I was just big, would always be big, and therefore less worthy, less beautiful, less able, less accepted, LESS everything despite my MORE.
The other club I joined that day was a quieter club. Perhaps less exclusive, but with recruitment methods that were far more subtle. This club, the club of CAN’T has a diverse membership. It includes everyone who is told by a friend, a family member, a magazine layout, an admission policy, a job application, an interview, an audition, sorority rush that they will NEVER be the right kind. Remember, she didn’t say “I think the leap is out of place for this dance (which would have been an artful and slightly kinder dodge with the same outcome for the show),” she said: “GIRLS LIKE US CAN’T LEAP.” There is no temporal or situational limit to this lesson. The lesson is that because of who you are (and are inherently/permanently), you are constrained. You will not reach the level you are aiming for. You will not be able to break out of this cage, so it’s best to accept it and make the best of it, starting with this dance that you’re going to do in front of the whole school and many of their families. Welcome.
It has taken a LONG time to leave these clubs I joined, and I confess to joining them as I accepted those invitations; I bought into the version of me that was sold that day. It took a long time to stop punishing my body for the invitation it received for me. It took me a long time to stop referring to myself as big, or the nice version “big boned.” It took me longer to realize most people didn’t see me that way at all, even when I was at my “biggest.” It took years to recreate my relationship with my body with a move in stages from punishment, to neglect, to strict discipline, to finally, acceptance and now love. It took still more time to see how I accepted limitations others offered me and used them to construct better cages for myself than they could have dreamed of.
I am freer now, at least within myself, which puts me in a much better place to challenge the big cages we build for ourselves, for our girls, and for our men and boys as well, the clubs we invent and agree to. Now, I’ll be in your club, sure, so long as your club is people who love. Yep, that’s my club. You can join too.
Girls like us, in the love club, we CAN leap. We can break free from the ridiculous language that attempts to confine us and make us small. Girls like us can see through “tradition” as explanation and “natural order” as justification. Girls like us admire our physical strength and our tremendous courage. Girls like us know we are more than enough in all the best ways. Girls like us are brave, are whole, and are so powerful that sometimes we make other people uncomfortable. Girls like us hold each other up in the face of haters and hug each other through the tears. Girls like us won’t be joining the old clubs anymore. We’ve got important dreams to accomplish.