In 1968, at 16, I was a “fox.” With my All-American-Girl looks and bedroom-blue eyes I wanted to be the Marilyn Monroe of my neighborhood. Or maybe, Goldie Hawn with a bosom. Or perhaps Miss America, only short. I could picture myself walking the dais in my high heels, turning my derriere to just the right angle, smiling and waving, making up for all those years as a freckled, skinny, ugly duckling squinting into the sun as the camera invited me in for what I’d feel later was a false reading.
Until I was 15, something wasn’t right. From grade six to grade eight I’d cringe at my school pictures. My dishwater blonde hair didn’t fall like rain from my crown like Jean Shrimpton’s golden bangs, but squiggled over my forehead like worms, stopping short of hiding scraggly eyebrows. Since vanity required I take my glasses off for a picture, I’d squinch my eyes to see straight, and smiled a crooked smile.
I’d look at those school pictures and object. I was meant to be a beauty. This destiny I could feel in my bones as they stretched from four feet, nine inches at age 10 to five-foot-one at 15. Since my own mother — who had borne eight children in ten years — had no figure to speak of, this destiny was must have been foretold by photos of her when she was young.
They called her “Brick,” as in built like a brick outhouse. She had legs up to here, and face and hair like Hepburn — Katherine, that is. She posed in those 30’s short shorts, and the photographer caught her curves, from cheekbones to chin, and breasts and hips to shapely calves and well-turned ankles. I would be like her.
In the ‘60’s short-shorts were not popular. Bermuda shorts were the trend. Indian madras, from which the shorts were made, not only disguised the thigh, but also discouraged showing any shape. Even if you got them wet enough to reveal the thigh, the madras would bleed an awful mess of colors down your legs. Not that I would ever get wet anyway when I was a teen. I never went into the pool at a party, never mind the ocean, for fear of the effect of water on the straight-haired look into which I had literally ironed my naturally curly hair.
Peering down at those pictures of my mother in her old albums, I’d think: If I could get my hands on a pair of those short shorts, I’d wear them! I experimented with blue jeans, pulling the woof from the warp until I had denim fringes hanging from two inches below my crotch to my upper thigh, like Daisy Mae in the L’il Abner cartoons. When granny dresses came into vogue in the early 70’s, I protested with mini-mini skirts. I had legs and, go Betty Grable, I was gonna show ‘em.
Who knew where this exhibitionism came from? I knew by 16 if I could control my unruly hair, and make it a shade or two blonder, I would fit so snugly into a playboy bunny outfit that you’d have to pull the staple out of her belly button to separate me from the fantasy girl. I would have power like I never did when I was 10, and I caught my Dad staring at 16-year old Nanette down the street. Once invisible like me, Nanette had recently grown into her pulchritudinous young maidenhood. She oozed some power that made my father gawk.
I learned pulchritudinous for a spelling bee that I won in the ninth grade.
As a playboy bunny I would have that same power over men — but I would use it discreetly and mainly for the betterment of society, like Mata Hari. I devoured the playboy bunny bios for some sense of politics and found none. I didn’t see how they could influence history without some kind of political platform. I mean, what was it all about? There had to be some point to winning a beauty competition! Weren’t women the moral power behind men? Wasn’t the influence of their beauty how the power was transferred? How would they know how to influence the guy to vote if they didn’t have a wide scope of information about Vietnam, or didn’t have their own moral values and passions?
At 14, when nature hadn’t taken her course, using the age-old art of glamour, I induced in myself a likeness to Cheryl Tiegs, a model whose picture I carried in my wallet, as though it were a picture of myself walking out of a plane waving to the camera. I began with ironing my hair, first the bangs. I plucked my eyebrows and lengthened my lashes with Baby Oil. Instead of pancake makeup, I kept a California model’s color using Instant Tanning Lotion by Coppertone– except for the time I used too much and streaked my face orange.
Around 15 I started being noticed. The motor heads down the street cat- called from their garage assessing my build — “Hey, small chassis, wide ovals.” I knew that was a compliment. It seemed I grew into that valued status overnight; one day I was transparent, the next I couldn’t cross the street without some truck driver whistling at me. It was several years before the attention got old. When you’ve been starved for attention, for affection, you take it where you can get it. When you’ve had enough, you move on to something new.
At 18 something new awaited. At college I basked in the glow of ideas and knowledge. As a sociology student at UMass Amherst, I loved my studies. I still enjoyed male attention — when polite — but I hated the meat markets of the barrooms and fraternities where women were invited in to commingle like sheep led to slaughter. I liked being appreciated for my mind, my wit, my political passions, my ideas and the way I looked; at 18 this was new for me. This was how my friend Mark was attracted to me, through this combination.
But then came that fateful day in May 1971. For several years afterwards, I craved that kind of obnoxious male attention I had learned to despise. I longed to be ogled, whistled at, lusted after like a sex kitten. I longed to be a lamb led to slaughter, lavished with any kind of notice other than sympathy, pity or mere curiosity.
Those days passed, too, though with certain reservations. By 20, I began to love myself again, and learned to make the best of what I had. But at times, I have stood in the shadow of that other girl’s might-have-been.
Facing the mirror as an older woman, feeling the loss of power that comes with age and diluted beauty, in my 40’s I’m taking honest stock of my girlhood dreams, and struggle to know what matters now.
I ask myself, what did I miss during those years of male attention that feed a young woman’s self esteem? After age 19, I designed and sewed my own clothing, hiding my body from the waist down with empire dresses and jumpers that went to my ankle.
Though I lost the option to run, jump, and tumble as a cheerleader, a role to which I aspired for years in high school, I did find a sport to express myself. As a competitive skier I won ground on more than one lost front.
To what extent did my accident restrict my options for love and marriage? I never got the man of my dreams after my dreams were shattered; I had boyfriends, but I never married. Arms reserved for crutches, romantic fantasies of walking the beach hand-in-hand stayed just that — fantasies. With a body violated by radical surgery, I lost the chance to have children, while never losing my virginity properly. I am only now consciously grieving the girl I never was.
When a friend who knew me when remarked, “I could never have survived what you went through,” I surprised myself, telling her: “I didn’t. That girl had to die, and someone new grew in her place.” The words of Don McLean’s song once brought me a recognition of my lost self and what had happened that day. “Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie. Drove my Chevy to the levy, but the levy was dry. Them good ole boys were drinking whisky and rye, singin’: “This will be the day that I die.” Again. “This will be the day that I die.”
For most of us there does come a day the music dies, and we are forced to say goodbye. At 19, on May 24, 1971 this was the day I died.