I was in 7th grade and wearing a new Pearl Jam t-shirt (even though all I knew of Pearl Jam at the time was what I’d heard on MTV). It had a little girl with paper and crayons on the front and on the back it said “9 out of 10 kids prefer crayons to guns.” Super edgy and smart, right? I was so excited to show off my alternativeness (hipsters didn’t have anything on 90’s grunge attitude). No one anything to me about the shirt until I left math class later that morning. We had just been dismissed and were flowing out of the room into a crowded hallway when I heard two guys laughing behind me.
It was Derek and Richard, both of whom were usually up to something. This time, that something involved my shirt. They asked me about the back and what it was supposed to mean. I guess I said something either pithy or nerdy (or didn’t say anything at all – I wasn’t the bravest of girls when it came to my own defense). And then Richard made fun of my posture. It was something about me walking like a soldier. Out of all the teasing or ugly things people have said to me at school (and there were more than a few – I was a fat girl so I was literally a big walking target) that one stays with me to this day. It wasn’t the most cutting remark either. Just that I walked with my shoulders too far back or my head up or I was too stiff. So I don’t know if it was the weirdness of the remark that kept it in my head or not but it’s still in there. I don’t think I wore that shirt back to school again after that.
Cut to (mumble) years later and I think of this after a conversation with my mom. She was remembering conversations with my grandparents (on both sides of the family) and said she understood my Grandma Jane better now that she was older. Specifically when it came to bathing suits and going out in public. My Grandma Jane was a slender lady (not the Creepypasta kind) and my mom is a thin lady too. So in my plus-sized mindset, I was thinking “RIIIIIIGHT. Sure thing, string bean.” Mom continued on and mentioned her underarms and the loose skin that happens as you get older and I knew exactly what she was talking about. Not because of my arms (although I see it coming down the pike and I am NOT pleased) but because I’ve heard other ladies change their dress, living in fear of having a witness to their arm flap. I had never, not once, thought of my mom as the kind of person who worried about what other people thought of her looks. Not only that, I always thought she was beautiful. So to hear her say that she was afraid of what other people thought of her in a bathing suit sort of rocked my world.
Conceptually, I had always been aware of the thought that we’re all insecure about something. I guess hearing it vocalized by someone I thought was impervious to such things opened my eyes a bit. Even the most seemingly self-assured people have a “thing.” Maybe it’s the backs of your arms, your weight, your height, shoe size, hair line, teeth, pores, stretch marks, etc, etc, etc. Even if you haven’t been the outright target of bullying or teasing, your own brain has probably tried to self-shame on your looks. How many of us are walking through the world right now with at least part of our thoughts occupied by fixing all of our little flaws? How often are we caught up in someone else’s perception of who we are? It seems like such a waste of brain power but I do it WAY more often than I should.
The other day, instead of writing, I was busy watching two middle aged guys at Starbucks eyeball young girls as they walked by and then do that all-too-classic move of trying not to call attention to the fact that they’re talking about someone. I knew their moves because earlier in the day they had done the same thing about a t-shirt I was wearing. It wasn’t a polite t-shirt and it was political so I knew the score. It was meant to get discussed, much like the Pearl Jam shirt. But it still took up more of my time than it should have, thinking about those guys and what they were talking about. Maybe I should interject the next time I see them doing that same thing, or at the very least just say hello and see what happens. This time, the shirt is staying in rotation.