Wednesday, November 14, 2007


I was one of the last girls in our grade to get the green light from her mother to go ahead and shave her legs.

If you are a guy reading this, chances are you probably just thought, So what? But if you're a girl reading this, chances are you just thought, I am so sorry.

The shaving ritual was not taken lightly in middle school, that turbulent time when everyone was sprouting hair and zits and strange new lumps and bumps everywhere on their body.

Somehow--and I'm not exactly sure how this works--but the popular girls were the first to shave. It's like they all got together after school at a meeting held specifically for girls with the cutest crocheted vests, the brightest scrunchies, and the most experience (they knew intimately, for example, the ways a kiss was made French). At these meetings the popular girls decided that it was high time they did away with the fur on their legs. They cleverly presented themselves as a united front to their parents.

Krista told her mother Laura's mother had let her, and Laura told her mother that Danielle's mother had let her, and Danielle told her mother that Krista had let her, and so the circle turned and turned and turned.

Soon after, Krista and Laura and Danielle and all their lip-glossed friends pranced into gym class with gleaming white legs that flashed smooth and clear from under their Umbros like mirrors--mirrors in which the rest of us girls could clearly see ourselves: less cool, less sophisticated, decidedly hairier versions of the popular girls. Oh, how it burned us. Oh, how we wanted that same thing. Oh, how we hated them for doing this to us. It was, after all, another shift, another thing we had to catch up on, another thing that set us apart from them. And it wasn't just us who was noticing it. It was the boys, too.

It wouldn't have been so bad for me if only Pat had never noticed. Pat was a boy who'd caused me considerable stress and strife a few months earlier when he'd asked, during our class's walk back from lunch, if I had any interest in being his girlfriend. I didn't know what to say, really. He was a mildly popular boy despite the fact that he had a condition that caused him to walk with a pronounced limp--a detail that, in other boys, could've been the nail in their popularity coffin. But Pat turned his limp into a charming little tic, something that made everyone else marvel because even with the bum leg, the kid could run. It was an interesting run, a loping run that seemed to defy the laws of both logic and physics, but he did it anyway, and for awhile there in middle school he was a very nice boy. It was during his nice period that he asked me to be his girlfriend.

I was flattered and terrified. I had to make up my mind and quick because we were almost back to our classroom, and once there we would be separated. I could see on his face he needed an answer immediately, that there was no room for waffling. I said yes, and the details of our brief fling are interesting but not immediately relevant to this story, so I'll save it for another time. Suffice it to say that Pat and I were boyfriend-girlfriend for a short period of time--short because, as always, I was a social moron incapable of normal boy-girl interaction. After I told him I could no longer be his girlfriend--because I wasn't ready to be anyone's girlfriend--Pat got a little angry. Pat got a little mean. Now, I'm not saying I was the person who created Beasty Mean Pat, but I probably didn't help matters any.

Shortly after I loosed myself from Pat's boyfriend-y grip, there was a particularly traumatic episode in gym class. It was during the volleyball unit--a co-ed volleyball unit, which was horrible. Anything co-ed was horrible, but this was really bad because the boys got angry when the girls wouldn't call anything in the air. Any time the ball came near a set of girls, chances were they'd both step backward, and when the ball thudded to the floor they would shoot accusatory glances at each other and shriek, "That was so yours!"

That stuff drove the boys nuts.

So they were already prickly at us to begin with, but after our parting of ways Pat had extra reasons to be prickly with me. And when the popular cheerleader types suddenly showed up to co-ed volleyball with hairless, glittering legs, Pat was the sudden beneficiary of a whole bunch of ammo.

One day, after a really rotten volleyball loss, Pat marched up to me as the class sorted itself out toward the appropriate locker room: the boys marched off with their whistle-toting, track suit-wearing gym teacher, and the girls marched off with their lesbian, engaged-to-the-music-teacher gym teacher. I started marching, but that's when Pat caught me with a quick blow to the self-esteem.

"Nice legs, Jess," he mumbled as he passed me, knocking into me like it was some big mistake.

I should've just kept going. I should've just trained my eyes to the floor and kept on walking, pretending like the world did not contain a limpy boy named Pat who was seconds away from destroying me.

But I didn't keep going. Like an idiot, like a moron, I stopped. I turned and glared at Pat. "What did you say?" I asked.

"Nice legs," he said. "You look like a dog down there."

Inside, I was boiling. I felt like maybe my body would split open then and there, in the middle of the gym, right at the top of the key, and all my molten insides would spill out onto the varnished floor. I wanted to wash onto Pat's own hairy legs, burn him straight up to his knees. I wanted him to cry and scream and try to run when his limbs were on fire.

None of that would happen, of course, so I turned to leave, and he laughed as I left. He kept laughing, and that's all I heard for the rest of the day: that boy's voice bouncing off the sides of my skull. I went straight home and asked my mother if I could shave my legs. Her answer came quick. Her answer was absolute. No. No, no, no. Absolutely not. No chance. Forget about it.

I did the whole But, Mom! routine. I did the crying and the whining and the stomping. I said Danielle and Krista and Laura and everyone was doing it. This did not impress my mother. In fact, she seemed even less moved to give me the okay when I told her about the popular girls. Maybe there was just something in her motherly sense that knew it was a bad idea to let me do anything that those girls were doing. Maybe she knew that in a few years those would be the girls who would be at the center of mini-sex scandals way before they should've even been having sex. Maybe she knew anything that got me closer to who they were could be dangerous, could change who I was, who I would become.

Still, I continued to beg because I continued to be taunted by Pat, by his friends, by other boys. My mother would not relent, and I had to show up to gym class each day with legs that were becoming more and more different from the other girls'. Slowly but surely each girl in my gym class shed her protective coating, learned the nuances of the razor, and came to school with bare, beautiful legs.

Eventually, eventually, long after the other girls had gotten to pass over into that next stage of their girlhood, I was granted access in the form of an electric razor because my mother thought I was too young for real razors. And even though I got that electric razor, I still had rules I needed to follow--mainly, I could not shave above the knee. I'm not sure why, and I'm not even sure my mother knew why she thought that was important. Maybe it had something to do with what she heard when she eavesdropped on my friends and I gossiping about the popular girl at school--how they were dashing around the bases like pros, dragging the cutest, most beautiful boys through the dirt with them. Maybe she thought that shaving above the knee would make me feel free, too free, and that I'd be likely to let a boy test his own base-hopping ability. But back then my wants were more simple than all that: I didn't want bases and naked skin and wet kisses falling down the length of my body; what I wanted was to play Barbies late into the night with my best friends, and I wanted Ryan McLean--the cutest, the most beautiful of all the boys--to maybe give me a call sometime just to see what I was up to. I also wanted Pat and his friends to stop squawking at me, teasing me, telling me why I wasn't good or pretty or interesting to them. Simple wants.

And yesterday when I was standing in front of the bathroom mirror at school--leaning in to make sure I hadn't snapped bubble gum all over my mouth in the moments before my class--a girl breezed into the room with impossibly high, impossibly naked-for-November legs. She was proud of them, that was for sure, and she was going to make sure everyone saw them, no matter how cold it was outside. As she disappeared into a stall, I fluffed at my hair and realized I probably knew her whole story. I knew why she was hanging on until snowfall, her legs peeking out from under short skirts and bermudas. I could see in her past a little boy who stood in the corner of the gym with his best friends, whispering, pointing, laughing, saying, Gross! Sick! Disgusting! I understood the girl and her cold, bare legs. I understood, and I was impressed by the both of us. How any of us ever make it out of middle school is beyond me. It really is.

1 comment:

Jason said...

I was able to get through middle school because I was:

a. Not a physical threat--I was skinnier than dental floss.

b. Not combative.

So even though I was really weird, I didn't get picked on.

But that's a guy thing. I don't know what drives guys to pick on girls. That seems counterproductive.