Photograph (1974)

I am thirteen, wearing my brother’s long denim shirt with the pearly snaps over my gymnastics leotard, and my red elephant bell-bottom pants with the low waist and thick buckle. In this photograph, my surprised look has been fading for decades, the blonde hair wisps across my face, turning white. It was taken outside the middle school doors where we congregated before the bell rang. The photograph was blurry to begin with and over time has lost the edges of who I once was.

Seventh grade was a mess. I wanted to be popular but also invisible, fading into the gray-locker hallways. I was changing, my friends were changing. Our bodies were in revolt. I got my first period around my 13th birthday and though I knew I needed products—both from sex ed class the year before and because my friend’s father worked for Kimberly-Clark (we had seen the stacks of Kotex pads among the samples of Scott paper towels and Kleenex in the basement)—I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into. Shame crept into the vernacular of my inner dialogue: I didn’t have a mother to tell me what to do. So, for months, I stole the tampons that my sister kept in our closet on the floor.

My sister and I shared a bedroom. I sat at my desk, writing in my diary, listening to the radio, as she complained about whatever it was I was doing that annoyed her. At that time, my mere existence annoyed her, unlike just a year before when we would stay up talking in our bunk bed, which intersected the window that looked out onto a walnut tree in the side of the yard, and we spelled Mississippi, sing-songy, because it was fun: M-i-ss-i-ss-i-pp-i.

She had a book about “becoming a young woman” that was written in the early 1960s. I was fascinated by the illustrated fallopian tubes with their monkey arms holding eggs, but I still didn’t understand how to handle all that blood during my period. Shame was a sweater wrapped around my waist to disguise my lack of preparation. Shame was hiding tampons in my knee socks and hearing the packaging crinkle each time I walked.

Shame = not talking to anyone about any of this. Not even my girlfriends.

In seventh grade, I dated boys for a few weeks and then found a reason to let go. Usually, it was because they wanted sex, a subject so far off the scales of shame that I couldn’t allow myself to go there. The longest lasted three months and was my first interracial dating experience. It would have lasted longer but he, B., was moving to another part of town. B. made me laugh, swooned over me, told me I had beautiful legs, called me on the phone every night—I twisted the telephone cord around my finger until it turned white and then I let it unwind. We walked everywhere together, holding hands. White girl, black boy. I mistakenly thought we were making a positive, fearless statement that others would appreciate in 1974.

And then my father sat me down to tell me I needed to be careful. People were talking. Or, at least, people were talking to him about me and B. My dad never said we should break up and he never said it was wrong that we held hands, but our town wasn’t ready and, in truth, it still isn’t in 2016. I remember wanting to throw up and it was around that time that the photograph began to fade, stuck in the corner of my dresser mirror, lit by the sun coming in the bedroom window.

I had heard the snickers behind my back from some classmates – the ones who didn’t know B., the ones who were raised as racists. The ones I see on Facebook today, spitting on Black Lives Matter and President Obama and raising that fucking Confederate flag.

One such woman I have known since 6th grade; she was stunningly beautiful at 13. I envied her height and proportioned body, her gleaming smile, her sculpted cheekbones. We shared a circle of friends but I avoided her out of instinct. Self-preservation. I imagined she was an enormous patch of quicksand. One step and I would be swallowed in shame. I would become like her—the woman whose comment I read on a friend’s post two weeks ago, in defense of Donald Trump: Just wait [sic] assholes. The one who called President Obama a “fucktard” and wished that his daughters would be shipped to the Middle East. That one.

By the end of seventh grade, I had gotten past the alien changes to my body, had stuck with B. and he with me until he moved, resisted becoming someone I didn’t respect. Shame has hovered throughout my life, triggered in predictable ways.

And though this photograph has faded, the core of me is still there. I’m still surprised.

9 Comments Photograph (1974)

  1. Beeray August 31, 2016 at 9:40 pm

    This takes me back to that awkward time when I was learning to deal with the changes happening around me and was so envious at how some girls had it so simple, or I thought they did. I’m glad that phase is over but you’re right, one thing that stuck is the way I felt about certain issues then stayed

    Reply
  2. Danielle Dayney August 31, 2016 at 10:00 pm

    Makes me think of the time I wanted to go to prom with my black, gay best friend. My stepdad pretty much forbade it. I was so confused, because I didn’t see anything wrong with it.

    How long will it take? It’s so insane that this still happens today.

    Reply
  3. d3athlily September 1, 2016 at 2:42 am

    Wow, Meg! This really took me back. In a lot of ways, my sister was much like you. I was the horrible sister that went from super chatty to hating the way she breathed. She was the girl who broke social norms and lost her virginity to a nice black boy.
    And the racists… they surely do still abound. Trump gives them the power to use their voices and it is deafening.

    Reply
  4. Lisa Shaw September 1, 2016 at 11:33 am

    I have a “friend” from high school like yours on Facebook. She is the leader of the Virginia Flaggers, those responsible for erecting enormous Confederate flag all along I-95. It’s hard to watch the hate parade, especially when raising a black child. What’s especially disheartening is that she can see a picture of my son and like and comment in such loving ways and then turn back to her page and collude with her supporters for where to errect the next flowing monument of hate. I want to unfriend her, but it just doesn’t seem like enough. Nothing seems like enough, especially nowadays. I like how you tied all of this together with shame as the overarching theme. My favorite? “I wanted to be popular but also invisible, fading into the gray-locker hallways.”

    Reply
  5. Julie Henahan September 1, 2016 at 6:00 pm

    Evocative and moving. Thanks, Meg.

    Reply
  6. c2avilez September 1, 2016 at 7:43 pm

    I love how you use the photograph to describe who you were, how it lost the sharp edges and began fading at the same time your dad had the little chat with you. To me that spoke of insecurity and the complexities of being your authentic self without becoming an outcast. Such a tumultuous age.

    Reply
  7. Kay September 2, 2016 at 10:10 am

    You used the photo throughout your essay really nicely – it wasn’t just a starting point, but also a piece of the story. I also like how you blend memories and commentary on the past and present throughout the essay via the photo. I really enjoyed reading it!

    Reply
  8. Belladonna Took September 3, 2016 at 10:40 pm

    I love how you told this. And oh, oh, oh … I remember that shame.

    Reply

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