Between the ages of about ten and thirteen, it was hard to tell whether I was a girl or a boy. I felt somewhere in that middle androgynous ground, and if your eyes didn’t gravitate toward my burgeoning breasts (which I deftly hid under oversize sweaters and bib overalls), you could easily have mistaken me for a boy, especially since hormonal fluctuations had made the peach fuzz on my upper lip rather dark.
I had a thick neck too. These days, I count my clavicles and décolletage area among my best features, but at the time I either didn’t have those features or I completely submerged them because of my deep shame of adolescence and anything remotely sexual.
I was also, for a long time, the biggest kid in my class. It wasn’t that I was fat. I was solid and strapping. I was a big boned Mennonite gal with legs like tree trunks and a puberty that came early and with a vengeance, with accompanying breasts and stretch marks.
Just one so-called flaw in adolescence can be enough to make the most well-balanced teenager insecure, but being overly tall, in early puberty, having zero petitieness or grace, and with a negative cuteness factor was tantamount to being a deformed monster. I haven’t even mentioned that I had a shag cut, much like the Justin Bieber of today. When I look at pictures of him, in fact, I think that I wasn’t so bad looking after all. If I had been a boy.
I have to do a double-take because this looks so much like me!
Mercifully, I stopped growing very young, at least in length. I now go to the petite section in department stores in North America, which always makes me laugh. I still see myself as a tall, over-sized man.
In 7th grade I made a reproduction of the Appian Way out of cement and stones (okay, my dad made it and I watched) for a social studies project, and somehow that landed me a prize and an accompanying picture in the local newspaper, The Chilliwack Progress.
I was so excited to be receiving my time in the sun, and I was sure this would catapult me to immediate stardom. I remember dressing up in my finest white polo shirt on the day of the shoot, proud of the little pocket on the right side and the shininess of the buttons. I even got up in the morning to shower and then blow-dried my shag cut hair, something I never did.
I donned my khaki pants and belt and loafers and felt spiffy indeed. I remember going to the girls’ bathroom to run the comb I kept in my back pocket through my hair and noting how particularly good I looked on that day. I was pleased as punch with myself; I was ready for my photo shoot.
It all went swimmingly and I came home that night exhilarated; I was sure I was on my way to becoming a scholar of all things Roman and road-like and that Chilliwack had not seen the last of me.
I couldn’t wait to get home the following Wednesday, the day the local paper came out, to see my photo. I quickly leafed through the sparse paper and didn’t see it. I panicked and flipped through again. Had they left me out? Righteous anger started to flare.
On my third go-through, I saw it. The picture was large enough and glossy enough. In fact, it was shockingly prominent. How could I have missed it? There was a picture of a rather homely boy in a white shirt and a shaggy hair cut, but where was I?
I stopped short. I hadn’t recognized myself. I had thought I was a boy. Not only did others mistake me for a boy; I had too!
I stared in numb shock. I was almost tempted to check the contents of my underpants to be sure I had the right equipment. How could this young woman, bubbling with hormones and unexplored longings, actually look so much like a young man?
Over the years, I have met many people who do not learn from their mistakes. Many women marry the same man again and again. Many teenagers wear pants up to their nipples, get beaten up, and keep wearing those same pants again and again. Many men who continue their reckless affairs and keep tallying up the wives and kids.
I am not one of those people who don’t learn. I am reflective. I find the cause of pain. I narrow in. I fix what I can. Granted, I make many, many mistakes in life. Perhaps I even make more than most. But I do not make the same mistake twice.
Pondering that picture with raw, unexplored pain was a moment of awakening. I looked like a man. I was not a man. I set upon coming up with a solution so this would never happen again….
My journey toward self-improvement started on that day. I started from the top and I went to the bottom. The shag would need to grow out. In the meantime, bandanas and barrettes would do the trick. The face had potential. Astute and clandestine use of mother’s minimal makeup would do the trick until I could launch out and get my own Bonne Bell lip-smackers and turquoise eye liner.
Polo shirt? Had to go. Even at 12, I saw my clavicles had potential and found the shirts in my drawer that would highlight them to their best advantage. Khaki trousers? High cut Seafarer jeans were the way to go. Shoes? I have no idea what I wore back in the day, but feet played a smaller part in the equation than face and boobs so it didn’t matter all that much. (Don’t get me wrong: shoes matter very, very much. Very. I just didn’t know that then.)
And so the new and improved feminine Leah was born.
To this day, though, each morning I wake up and the first thing I do after my morning pee is to go to the mirror and make sure I do not look like a man.