February 17, 2013

You Are Perfect The Way You Are


When we first received the packages of tights, I silently recoiled in horror. Stamped across the front was “Skin tone” which was nothing, if not a joke. As one of three black girls on my high school’s dance team, I thought that, yes, we would all stand up and protest this joke, this abomination, and complain.

Junior year began terribly enough and despite all of my best efforts, the dance team became more of a curse than a blessing, a chore rather than an extracurricular.

I already quit twice before, writing long letters explaining each and every reason why I did not want to dance, to pirouette or switch leap, as well as the problems of the team, the characters who lived within a world of gossip, rumors and backstabbing.

But then I rejoined against better judgment.

“What are these?” I asked as we separated our uniforms.

“Your dance tights,” my coach responded.

“This is not my skin tone.”

“Well, of course, Brittany. But I want all of the girls to look the same.”

At the other schools, the girls did look the same. Their waif-ish frames, their perfectly coiffed hair styles and porcelain-esque skin. At my school, with its mix of students — rich and poor, black and white — didn’t allow for such homogeneous expectations.

I stopped complaining, although on frequent occasions I “forgot” my tights and had to make due with bare legs. Even now, this is how I protest: passively, secretly, with regard for what my parents might think.

This was our trip to determine placement at state. Our journey began earlier than normal.

“What do you mean you don’t have the tights?” my coach asked, angrily.

I didn’t say anything. I looked around at the girls before me, dabbing pots of eye shadow and ruby red lipstick on each others faces.

I sat out along the perimeter of the gymnasium floor and watched as my teammates performed. Without those tights I would cause the team harm, stand out, be something different, other, wrong.

As we prepared for the next routine, this time providing pants, I could not avoid the one thing that I had done before hand. I knew this, and yet, hid in the stalls of the bathroom with a discman and body foundation.

Oak Park River Forest High School only offers 5 minutes between classes as a passing period. Many students rushed between floors, trying to stop at their locker and relieve their arms of their books. And if this couldn’t be done, they would carry it all with them during the day, choosing instead to spend their time conversing with friends during the passing period.

I didn’t do this. In fact, I rarely carried books to class. I stopped carrying a backpack during 5th grade, finding the style a nuisance to my outfits and to my persona. I was 10, and yes, these were the things that ran through my mind.

The throngs of students, like tourists on the street, were an obstacle to my ultimate goal, that being one of the girls’ bathrooms. I liked to hole up in a stall and listen to my CD player for a minute or two or maybe even three if my two classes were on the same floor: to Jeff Buckley if it was junior year and I hated the world and quit the dance team three times and only had one or two true friends; to Le Tigre if it was my senior year and I was questioning everything and everyone around me, trying to accept my physical form as something other than what was sculpted as the dancer ideal.

Scars from my childhood that haunted me for years did not heal. Our halter tops only accented the flaws, the scars, the burns, the discoloration and so, as I listened to my music, with only a few minutes to spare before we stretched and prepped, I cried about what was to come. I did not wear a tank top in public until the spring before my senior year of college, four years later, after months of medicine and years of treatment. The scars were gone. I cried the first time I walked outside bare-armed. But that is another story.

A teammate knocked on the door and I left, begrudgingly. When we are young, we find excuses to cower away from our secrets, our fears. At sixteen years old, it was much more fathomable to dislike my teammates, to question their morals and values than face my problems, unfortunately, built upon my body.

I began to sweat. I was not nervous, just anxious for it all to end and so, as we moved through formations and steps, I began to sweat. What I wanted to believe, at least at that moment, was that my teammates would prove me wrong.

In line we stood, fidgeting with our aesthetics to better please the judges. Some girls cried, our team already plagued with penalty points for belly button rings and glitter in our eyeshadow.

“I don’t want to touch her,” I heard Ashley, a senior say. Our fingers would lock on the shoulders of teammates. Perhaps I could have feigned missing pants earlier, I thought to myself.

She turned to me. “I don’t want to touch you,” she said again.

“That’s okay,” I said. “I don’t want to catch what you’ve got either.” TC mark