Going through middle school in Alta Loma was a destined failure from the first day I arrived—as a scared and semi- ethnic 6th grader. I had grown up in Fontana and Rialto, went to elementary school dancing at recess with all the black and Mexican girls. I had a wiggle in my neck and high bangs. I had wild hair and that was cool. I dressed uniquely, but all the ethnic girls did…so I was accepted, loved, and respected. But Alta Loma was the complete opposite. A rich white town, with rich white kids, all with enough money to follow the rich white trends the stores and magazines told them was cool. Anything varying from those rules would cast a teenage girl into a world of teasing, judgment, and ridicule. And by the time I stood a 13-year-old girl in 8th grade I had already suffered a little over a year of this ridicule and wanted desperately to get out. Little did I know that the decision I made would send me further into that dark world than I ever realized, but also taught me how to endure my further growth into womanhood with a little more grace.
At Alta Loma Jr. High , the annual lip sync contest was the ultimate expression of beauty and popularity. Mostly girls performed and those who did either made an amazing performance that earned them instant approval and acceptance by the popular kids who controlled the dynamics of social acceptance on campus. Those who made fools of themselves were most likely already fools and so no one expected any less of them and in effect, no one seemed to get hurt.
I was one of those “fool” teenagers who truly believed in my own beauty and personality. I believed so deeply that if I could just prove it to others, I would finally get the respect I deserved. So I talked with my girlfriends Melissa, Bekah, and Melanie and we all agreed that we should try out. We were all very similar. Smart, potentially pretty, under developed, unappreciated by the popular kids, and all wanting to be cool. With that, we made this lip sync contest our mission impossible. We were going to win—not only the 100 dollar prize, but the ultimate prize–popularity.
We practiced every day after school at my house. We chose En Vogue’s “Givin’ him something he can feel” and Bekah and Melanie, who were allowed to watch MTV took meticulous notes and paid close attention to the way the girls danced in the video. We were all in dance PE as it was and so had the basic skills necessary to give a dazzling portrayal of these beautiful Oakland black females. Melanie, the shy one of the group, surprisingly took the lead singing position. Perhaps, she too, felt as strongly as I in amazing the crowd. Bekah, Melissa, and I would play back up with the dance moves. Each practice, we added more moves, kicks, circle eight hip rotations, all the while making up hypothetical fantasies of our successful effect on our unattainable crushes like Jeff Goldman, Nick Howard, Kyle Sussex, or our competition girls like Jessica Richards and Shelly Bowman. We were certain they would fully accept us. That is until as we were trying on our red spandex tank dresses with the ruffled hem and shelf bra and I looked at my profile of my face and body—I had frizzy, curly hair I tried to tame with mouse, a small chin, lips pushed out by big silver braces, a flat chest, no bottom, and scrawny legs. I realized I had nothing any one could feel as the song suggested. I knew I couldn’t get the acceptance and approval I deserved with this body. I had to do something. I knew I couldn’t stuff my bra without my teammates noticing and so I settled on manipulating them to do it with me. They were as flat chested as I was and I knew I could use that to hold back their popularity. And I did—well at least Bekah and Melissa. We decided shoulder pads would work best since they already had a smooth surface and fit easily into our Double A cup bras. We placed them in to make sure, and instantly, we transformed ourselves into something closer to what we thought beauty meant. And beauty in Alta Loma was everything.
The day of the performance came more quickly then expected. I had practiced my “I must, I must, I must increase my bust” exercises with no success and so knew for certain, my shoulder pads would have to be the rescuer. I was giddy with anticipation as we dressed in the back stage area with all the other girls. Slowly putting my frizzy hair into a smooth French twist, applying my dark red lipstick, and already having my pads in place so no one would see me put them in, I felt beautiful. The dressing room was a swarm of competitive, fakely nice, teenage girls—ready to manipulate and attack any one who might one up her in the competition. Full breasted, long-legged, longhaired popular girls with permed hair. Chubby, pimply faced girls and scrawny ugly ducklings like myself and team. So many young girls of varied shapes and sizes, all so eager to be women. All so competitive, none of us realizing or accepting that regardless of where we were in the evolution of beauty and womanhood, we were all the same.
Jessica Richards, the most popular girl in school. She was beautiful with tan skin, dimples, long brown permed hair that she toppled wildly in a careless bun above her head or let down full and sexy—she was a natural beauty and knew it very well with long, lean legs that she stretched in crazy directions because of her years of dance classes and Pop Warner cheerleading. She walked by us girls as we were putting on our dresses and looked right at my body up and down, smiled and said—”I wish I were as skinny as you.” I glowed in excitement. Jessica Richards wishes she had something I had? Wow!! I was almost one of them. So close to popularity and it was only a matter of an hour or two before all the boys would have crushes on me and Jessica Richards and I could be friends.
The popular girls had just finished performing Madonna’s “Vogue.” They did a spectacular job of dancing and singing. The Greece Lightening girls would follow us and after seeing them during try outs, we knew they would also be tough competition. Our turn was up. We walked out on the stage and the song turned on loudly, crisply, and very much real. Everything seemed so to be going well. We were in unison in our dance moves, our dresses looked fabulous and we were getting really into it. I did my best to really exaggerate my mouth movements as I had learned through drama practice. But a problem happened. During the part where we were supposed to pull off our left glove and throw it onto the floor, my hands, sweaty from nervousness made the glove stick and I couldn’t pull it off. We had practiced this a hundred times. It sounded funny but it looked fabulous, extenuating the attitude and the confidence in En Vogue’s story. Taking the glove off should have taken two seconds, but as we were walking over to pick the glove back up, I was still tugging on its finger tips to get it off my left hand. No use, now the crowd could see that something was out of unison. And it was me.
This mistake only increased my nervousness and so, it also turned up the sweat. I got so sweaty that my strapless bra, having nothing to hold on to, started sliding down my chest. All my upper body movements were not helping the strapless bra stay put. I was too young and a novice to bras to have known that no matter what size you are, strapless bras don’t stay put during exercise, especially if you sweat. If I had not stuffed my bra, no one would have probably noticed. But when there are one-inch thick shoulder pads filling out the bra and that bra slides down—it turns a 13-year-old teenager into an old lady with breasts around her belly button. Oh no” I thought—“Do I pull it up here? No, I’ll mess up the dance if my hands do something out of unison. Maybe no one will notice?” And so I let it fall, further and further down until the lumps were around my lower rib cage. Drawing more eyes toward me and more people noticing that it was more than my glove not in the correct place. I wanted the opposite. I wanted to run and hide, but I couldn’t let anyone know I was embarrassed. I had to stay strong, confident—how else could I be accepted?
All the popular kids who were in the contest and standing backstage watching us, got an even closer view of the two lumps migrating toward my waist. And Kimmy Rios—class president was eye-balling my chest and her eyes widened and then her thin lips curved up into a disgusted smirk. It didn’t take long before all I could hear were the snickers.
While we did actually win 4th place and 25 dollars to split with the team by the merciful judgment of the teachers on the panel, my peers were very unhappy about our place and very unforgiving for the embarrassing bra fall. We beat the other popular girls who did “Grease Lightening” and they had put a lot of work into the costumes and stage props. Perhaps this fueled the ridicule and snickering between classes but by the time lunch came, everyone on campus heard about the “costume malfunction” and everyone wanted to know if I stuffed my bra regularly. I kept insisting that it was part of the idea for the costume and that I wasn’t the only one who did it. Such a friend—selling out my friends to share the burden of embarrassment with me. Cool, tough girls like Valerie Pright asked me if I could touch my elbows behind my back and in my attempt to see if I could, the snickers proved quickly to me that they really didn’t want to know that as much as make fun of my proud and loud flat chest.
And so began my ever falling decline of possible popularity that plummeted into a dark pit of absolute dork. But it was also the beginning of a journey through womanhood and ideology that I would continue to toy with through high school, experiment and discovering my role in its wide spectrum—the facets of which I would excel in and the facets in which I failed. As was the same for everyone else. Some of the popular kids continued to be popular. And some fell behind into the world of the little people. Some dropped out, some got into drugs, some got fat, some just got strange. And slowly, I blossomed into a decent looking teenager and made friends and survived high school. I was never the popular girl at school, but I wasn’t always the dork. In high school, I was very social and made some quality friends who liked me because of me, not because of what I looked like.
Looking back, there is no doubt in my mind that I was severely embarrassed at that time in my life. How I would have rather died that moment than endure the teasing, but eventually that teasing passed. And the people whom I admired and who I wanted to be so much like, eventually proved to be normal people just like myself. Those people are also those who I never talk to. They mean nothing to me. Even out of my team, I still only talk to Bekah. Things change. I’ve heard through the grape vine that some went to college and grew successful, others got married and had kids, some died, some became alcoholics, and others like Rebecca Richards, who I thought was perfect just the way she was, got breast implants and became a stripper. All of us have taken different paths that never depended on who was who in Jr. High or High School. And apparently, many of us who seemed to have it all during that time have very little now or hurt themselves to compensated for what they themselves felt they lacked.
We were all the same and I know the experience built in me character as well as taught me that the ideology of womanhood and what we consider beauty is set at a ridiculously high and unattainable level—a level that only a handful in the world could ever possibly come close to, and that handful were discovered and put into Victoria’s Secret magazine and Sports Illustrated and continue fueling this vicious cycle that makes girls like I once was do silly things to reach. Now I am well aware of how the media can control my perception and try my best to stay above it. I have come to take pride in my strengths and accept my weaknesses. I do not pretend to be anything I am not because I know I would only be failing myself if I did otherwise. I am happy to be just me now and I think that had I had it all as a jr high girl, I would be a lot different now. Girls need to grow into womanhood—that way they slowly learn about its power, its beauty, and its danger. Girls who are children one day and women the next go into womanhood still as children and do not learn how to handle a woman’s power until often times it is too late—they are dating older boys, doing drugs, having sex, and getting pregnant or STD’s—and in so many cases, suffer incredibly from depression and lack of self-worth. Not all of course, but as a teacher I have seen this. As for my personal experience with growing up—-the entire time I thought God was cursing me with such a slow development; I look back now and think that instead, he blessed me.