Cardboard boxes of tampons and pads beckoned from the supermarket shelves. But every time I sat down to pee, I was disappointed by my unstained underwear. I’m dying to get my period, I wrote in my diary. Bleeding would be an initiation, admitting me to an undeclared school that lay ahead: the mysteries of womanhood. Lech lecha, you will leave your father’s house: I was impatient.
Playing a video game upstairs on our family desktop computer, slouched on the wooden chair, my blue and green flowered skirt from the Gap fell around my hips. I could hear my mother sautéing ground beef downstairs. Feet up on the chair, knees splayed, I touched myself over my underwear for a moment, absentmindedly. The fabric felt strange: crusty, hard. I glanced down. A pale brown stain. A hormone lurch in my belly, like looking down from a height.
Not quite the dramatic shift I had hoped for, but still, I was relieved to be done with childhood. When I told my mom, she raised her eyebrows in surprise, nodded, and gave me a hug. The door was open now; I awaited my induction into the school of mysteries.
Some part of me knew that my body was average. A sturdy, healthy, short kid, always ten pounds over the ideal weight listed in the teen magazines.
Years later I would realize the privilege inherent in that average-sized body. But I was still a child and it was the beginning of the 1990’s. Body-positivity would not come around for decades; Jane Fonda’s self-starved body was the feminine ideal, taut shiny leotards and bellies flat as a rubber-band. By age twelve, my revulsion at my own body was simply a part of me. The thought of letting it go was exhilarating.
Later that summer, lying side by side on beach towels, my friend Amanda squinted against the sun and said, “Ugh I feel so fat.” She wasn’t, but I knew she meant it, because she was also a ballerina. Then she sat up and leaned in, close enough that I smelled her sunscreen and bubble gum. But guess what, she whispered. I figured something out. There’s a way to get skinny! All you have to do is…not eat.
We began, together, to refuse. We distanced ourselves from the snack bar, the shiny crinkly packages, the Chips Ahoy and Fritos, the pizza with its orange globules.
I now know this was a step in the wrong direction, the beginning of a sickness, a dark initiation. But it was also a step into my own power: the power to separate from my own desires.
We were taught by American culture to use denial for suffering rather than for good, sickness rather than strength, perfectionism rather than an eye to what truly matters. Still, in order to know ourselves, we must be able to see beyond our desires. And that day at the pool was the first time I separated from what I wanted. Each Yom Kippur when I fast, I remember that initiation, sensing the
power of spiritual practice of restriction, though my first training in it was dangerously misguided.
When I returned to school at the end of summer, all the popular girls squealed over me. “You look so great! What did you do?”
Each suburb had its pool club, its swim team, its snack kiosk, its membership fee, its guest passes. My family swam laps at the university pool instead, but on the last day of seventh grade, my public middle school rented one out and bussed all the kids in.
It was a cloudy June day, and I stood at the edge of the pool wearing my brand new jacket: aqua blue, a fancy lightweight wind-breaker fabric. It was pristine, the color of my dreams for the summer: beaches, first kisses, blonde highlights in the sun. I had saved up my allowance for months to buy this jacket, my first clothes purchase with allowance money. The material was chiffon-y, soft yet stiff; I loved to run my fingertips over it.
I heard the sound of flip flops and chewing gum, and turned to see the popular girls walking towards me. Their hair was exquisitely scrunched, their lips glossed, their skin clear. Finally, I thought, they see me! Samantha—tall, blond, with gold stud earrings—stepped out in front as they approached. Hey, Alicia, she said, too sweetly. She gestured to the brown-haired girl beside her. Lauren’s cold, she said, a hint of challenge in her voice. Can she borrow your jacket? I froze in place. I mean, uh, it’s new… Samantha shook her head. She needs it. Give it to her.
Slowly I handed over the jacket. They ran away, laughing.
When Lauren came back later, wearing my jacket, a dark brown blob disfigured the front. She unzipped the jacket and handed it to me. Sorry about the ketchup stain, she said in a voice that actually sounded sincere. She looked away.
That’s a shitty thing to do, you know, said a voice behind me. I turned, holding the jacket, and saw a girl I barely knew glaring at Lauren, who turned and walked away, looking embarrassed. They’re assholes, why do you hang out with them? the girl said, looking at me in disgust. Come on. She jerked her head towards a picnic table at the far end of the field.
Far from the pool and the snack bar, the table was half-hidden by large, overgrown trees, leaning towards the sun in anticipation of a Maryland summer. Uh…OK, I shrugged. I had nowhere else to be.
Hey, said a laconic chorus as I approached. Six kids were flopped around the table, fiddling with lighters and bottle caps. Floppy skater haircuts, nose rings, lots of black eyeliner; I felt like I’d stepped into an alternate universe, nothing like the sunny, cannonball-diving scene at the pool, where teachers stood with arms crossed, joking with each other, and kids hurled their gleaming bodies into the pool.
I’d seen these kids hanging out but always from a distance. Want a cigarette? asked a girl with thick arms, pale skin, her fingernails painted black. Half invitation, half dare. I suddenly realized why they were holding their hands beneath the table. Oh, no, I reflexively shook my head. And then I thought for a moment. Some calculation carried itself out in my head. Molecules aligned themselves:
Childhood. My love for my mother. My promise to never. The sky. Sun on the grass. Thick black eyeliner. A ketchup stain on a jacket. Distant sound of a cannonball dive from the pool. Unexpected kindness. My body shimmering in the June heat. Curiosity: sharp-edged, exhilarating. The kids at the picnic table, looking at me, waiting.
It was a new feeling: not knowing my answer, forgetting my name for a moment. It felt good, that unknowing.
Actually…yeah. The girl with shiny black nails smiled. She showed me how to light it, the match so close to my face.
Alicia Jo Rabins is a writer, musician and Torah teacher whose projects include the Girls in Trouble song cycle about Biblical women; the indie feature film, A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff; and a feminist spiritual memoir in progress.
Art by Maya Ish-Shalom.