When I was about seven or eight, my best friend and I used to make fun of what we called “girly-girls”. I’m not really sure where we picked the term up, or why we were so intent in our hatred. We were angry, yes, in some indefinable strange seven-year-olds-who-read-Tamora-Pierce way, at the fact that every book in the Scholastic catalog geared towards girls was pink and sparkly and full of curly writing, and that to get the dragons and knights and heroes we wanted, we had to read “boy books”; we were angry that when the boys on the playground chased us and tried to hit us and pull our hair, the teachers said that boys will be boys, and we had to learn to hit and pinch and punch back if we wanted to be left in peace, and then deal with being scolded for not being nice. We were angry about dresses, we were angry about fluffy things, we were angry about princesses, we were angry about ladylike.
But dresses and fluffy things and princesses and ladylike weren’t the fault of “girly-girls”. They were the fault of the teachers. They were the fault of the Scholastic catalog. They were the fault of the boys.
Nevertheless– it was the girly-girls, and anything girly-girly, that took the brunt of our resentment.
It was around this time that Britney Spears was having a very dramatic and very public breakdown.
She had, I gathered, been a singer, and possibly some kind of TV star before that; I was been too young to remember anything about her career, except maybe singing OOPS, I DID IT AGAIN with my cousins in their basement. (My then-five-year-old cousin Adam had been very happy to make up parodies of the song, most of which involved leading us in repeating the word “fart” to an off-key attempt at a melody until we all ran out of breath.)
But now something had, vaguely and mysteriously, gone wrong; Britney Spears was not singing songs, Britney Spears was not doing whatever it was Britney Spears had done on TV. Britney Spears had shaved her head, or was drinking alcohol, or other bad and terrible things.
My mother took me grocery shopping; I was still small enough to sit in the grocery cart. She pushed me to the check-out aisle, and there was People Magazine, and Us Magazine. My mother and I loved People Magazine; we would buy it for road trips and camping trips, take it to swimming holes. All we ever read it for were the fashion lineups: Oscar Trends! Hot Or Not? Who Wore It Better?
Britney Spears was on the cover of People Magazine. My mother said nothing about it; on the car ride home, though, with me buckled-in in the back seat, sandwiched between cranberry juice and boxes of cereal, she said, “She shouldn’t have been on TV, that young. All those child stars, they all go wrong. They shouldn’t be in the public eye, they shouldn’t have that many people watching them. They can’t grow up like normal people.”
Later, when I was nine or ten, I’d ask her what Paris Hilton was famous for. She said, “She’s only famous for being famous.”
It was around that time that there was a boy in my fourth-grade class named Jeremy. I was a bookish child, and spent a lot of time on the benches by the trees, reading; and, without fail, whenever I was getting to an exciting part, I’d feel someone squeezing me hard around the chest. I’d jerk, flail away, and there would be Jeremy, laughing like a monkey. I’d grab my book and run away. He’d follow me. “I just wanna hug you,” he’d yell. He’d be grinning.
For the winter of fourth grade, I got my teacher to give me lunch library passes for every single lunch recess. None of the other kids ever wanted to do lunch in the library; I could curl up with Beverly Cleary, comfortably alone.
Then, in the winter, during parent-teacher conferences, my parents were informed by my teacher that I hadn’t spent a single recess on the playground since September. The jig was up; I had to go out and make friends. Or stand on top of a bench on the playground, without a book, which was what I did. And then I’d let my gaze drift off, stop paying attention, and Jeremy would be hugging me around the knees, and I’d scream in panic, and he’d laugh and laugh and laugh.
“He’s just doing it because he likes you,” said my teacher.
I wasn’t sure whether or not that was true, but even if it was true, I didn’t see what it had to do with anything.
I think I was thirteen or fourteen when I found out what the phrase “sex tape” meant. I was about fifteen when I found out that it could be released to the public, and sixteen when I realized that could happen without both people in the sex tape agreeing to it. I was seventeen when someone told me that Paris Hilton was famous for a little more than just being famous.
I was fifteen when I dated a boy for the first time. I was pimple-faced, the last girl in the ninth grade with braces, too smart for my own good. I wore the same terrible denim jacket and hat to school every day, and I was the worst dancer in Dance P.E. (the girls’ P.E. class; the boys took regular P.E.), and I had a C in geometry.
It’s not hard to find reasons to hate yourself when you’re fifteen.
In an astonishingly middle-school turn of events, the boy got his friend to tell me that he was into me. I was suitably shocked– a boy, like me? and told the boy that I felt the same.
(Did I? Was that supposed to matter?)
When you’re a teenage girl who hates herself– which is to say, when you’re a teenage girl– you tend to divide other girls into two classes: friends and enemies.
It’s almost as easy to find reasons to hate other girls as it is to find reasons to hate yourself. They’re shallow; they’re vain. They’re bitchy. They’re stupid. They’re airheads. They’re materialistic. They only listen to popular music. They only care about clothes and boys. They dress in fashionable clothes; they put on makeup, and they do it well. They probably go out on Friday nights and get drunk. They’re pretty.
It’s the girly-girls, you know, the ones who buy the books with the curly pink writing, the ones who wear the dresses, the ones who like princesses. It’s all their fault.
I was eighteen when I found out that Kim Kardashian was famous for a little more than being famous, too.
What sticks in my head isn’t the boyfriend. It isn’t Jeremy, who disappeared to France after fifth grade, and who I gratefully put out of my mind. It isn’t even the Scholastic catalog.
It’s my mother.
We hated Britney Spears; I knew that. We were supposed to hate Britney Spears, because she was a sex object, or something, and because she was drinking too much alcohol, and because she had shaved her head and she wasn’t pretty any more, and it was funny and it was awful and she was embarrassing herself. We hated Britney Spears, and we laughed at Britney Spears.
“They shouldn’t have that many people watching them,” said my mother. “It means they can’t be normal people.”
It wasn’t pity in her voice, not really. Just sadness.