1. America the Beautiful
The first thing I know with any certainty about my body is that I hate my hair. When I stand on my toes to look into the bathroom mirror, there are long eyelashes. There are heart-shaped cheeks and a pointed chin. There is a scar from the next-door neighbor who pushed a plastic swing into my mouth and ruptured the skin. But standing in my hand-me-down overalls and the sandals from my sister that are still a little too big, all I can see is the irrefutable problem. My dark curls rise like an unruly shrub from my head.
My older sister has been graced with white-blonde hair, each strand straight, sleek, and perfectly contained. When she wears it up in a ponytail, I have to restrain myself from reaching out to touch the length. Her braids are always neat and glossy, her ballerina buns secured with an elegant twist. At the age of eight, she already seems to recognize that I am envious. She brushes her hair out at the kitchen table before collecting all of the shed strands in her fist.
“Mom says my hair is soft,” she tells me. “But yours is a tangled mess.”
I hide out in my bedroom closet and try to pull a wide-toothed comb through my frizzy ringlets. I yank, and I push, and I attack from the bottom, but my curls refuse to give. I take out my favorite doll with the wavy brown hair and rat up her scalp until her head resembles a nest.
Now , I think, kicking her under my bed, You’re a mess. You’re a mess. You’re a mess .
It is July in coastal Alabama and the humidity hovers near 90 percent. My father comes in from the backyard smelling of pollen, magnolia, and the Old Spice he rubs under his armpits. Red mud speckles the back of his calves and his T-shirt is droopy and translucent with sweat.
In the kitchen, my hair is a halo of frizz, and I watch him drop ice cubes into a glass. He pours the milk too full, like he always does, and the white drops slide down the front of the cabinet. Up close, my father’s scent is pungent and distinctly metallic. He gathers my hair in his one free hand, his palm still damp and covered in grass, and pretends to chop the ends off.
“Snip, snip, snip,” he gruffly teases.
I swat at his arm, and he laughs and he laughs.
My father is forever wielding his fingers like a pair of sewing scissors, my curls his intended target. He calls me his Shirley Temple, Little Colonel, and Curly Top. He sits across the kitchen table from me, pinches my arm, and says, “Now give me your rendition of ‘On the Good Ship Lollipop.’”
I sing while he drains the rest of the milk from his glass.
My mom is nine months pregnant and makes us sandwiches with American cheese, Sunbeam bread, and an unconscionable amount of margarine. She puts on Pollyanna, collapses onto the couch, and rests her back against a heating pad. I waltz around the living room, pirouetting on my unsteady legs, while my sister braids red, white, and blue floss bracelets to celebrate Independence Day. My sister is a mirror of Hayley Mills, all soft hair and a pale-as-milk complexion. Compared to her, I am coarse and unkempt. I am the mean, pinch-faced Agnes Moorehead with her fiery head of ringlets.
When Pollyanna belts out “America the Beautiful,” I stand up to sing along, but my sister cries out, “No! That’s not your song! That’s not your song!”
2. American Girl
I know that my hair is ugly because my schoolmates routinely remind me. Out on the elementary school playground, they call me “Poodle Girl.” In between the Presidential Fitness Test and line-dancing lessons in the gym, I am “Frizz Witch” and “Triangle Head.” In the classroom, the boys raise their hands and laugh as they try to reach their arms around my gravity-defying strands.
“Miss Andrews,” they complain. “We can’t see past her head.”
I am moved to the back of the classroom next to the George Wallace poster that persists despite the two new governors we have had since his retirement.
“Tell your mom she needs to tie your hair back from now on,” my teacher reprimands me. I am ashamed and spend the rest of the day pinching red, crescent-shaped bruises into my legs.
At home, my mother fills up the bathtub while my brother is down for a nap in the nursery. She pours in pink-tinged bubble bath, and my sister and I strip off our stiff school uniforms and slide beneath the foamy surface. We are both long-limbed and toothpick thin, our bellies hollowed out beneath our ribs. Everything we know about a woman’s body comes from family sitcoms, drug store magazines, and the Barbies we undress when our mother isn’t looking. We are each convinced that it is only a matter of time before our round waists and hard plastic breasts will begin to take shape. We don’t think to question the smooth, shiny spaces between our Barbies’ unbending legs.
When the bath grows cold, we call our mother back in to wash our hair. She dunks our heads beneath the water, lathers the shampoo in her palms, and claps her hands together before scrubbing in the suds. Her fingernails are short but ragged. She washes our scalps as if she is taking steel wool to a cast-iron pan, as if she is worried that some missed streak of grease will take up permanent residence and turn rancid. We close our eyes, hunch our shoulders, and bow our heads, submitting to the assault until all signs of dirt and sand are gone.
Afterward, my mother wraps me in a bleached-out towel. She puffs baby powder over my skin, sits me on the side of the tub, and tries to comb out my strands. She sprays on No More Tangles! but my curls still mat and dread. I brace my feet against the bottom of the tub and hold my bath towel tight beneath my freshly-powdered armpits. My mother tugs and pulls, each stroke painfully snapping back my neck.
“It’s time to be a big girl,” she reminds me. “No more tears,” she softly says. “Name all those states and capitals you’re learning at school,” she suggests in an attempt to distract me from the pain.
I start with Montgomery, Alabama and work my way to Cheyenne, Wyoming while the plastic comb repeatedly rips through my curls.
At school, my classmates unanimously dub me “Messy Jessie.” During lunch, they grind dirt and mulch into my hair as I sit alone, eating around the slimy ham in my sandwich. They dance a circle around the live oak at the center of our campus and call out “Frizz Witch” and “Velcro Head.”
I spend a large portion of each afternoon in the nurse’s office. I fake sick so I can lie on the cot in the backroom and read my way through all of the nurse’s American Girl Doll books. I travel from Colonial Williamsburg to a plantation in North Carolina to the Minnesota frontier, then back again. I wonder when I will begin to feel brave like Felicity, Addy, and Kirsten.
I think no more tears , no more tears , no more tears until the words finally start to make sense.
When I can’t tame my hair, I take my father’s advice, and cut off my curls. In the beauty parlor, I watch my ringlets collect like dark, bushy tumbleweeds on the checkered floor. I force myself to sit absolutely still and not cry throughout the ordeal. With each snip, I tell myself that a new, more beautiful girl is coming to the forefront. I imagine that beneath all my tangled hair, there is the graceful princess that so many books and TV shows have promised. That I will emerge from the barber chair with shiny, tamable strands. That I will look like my sister and all the other straight-haired girls at school: clean, neat, and properly feminine.
I close my eyes and channel Neve Campbell and Jackie Onassis. I envision Katie Holmes and Audrey Hepburn. I pray for Christina Ricci, Brooke Shields, or the sharp-tongued Vivien Leigh.
Instead, I emerge from the flashing scissors, handfuls of mousse, and clouds of hair spray as a dark-haired Little Orphan Annie. The stylist sighs and grows frustrated as she tries to smooth down my butchered strands over and over again.
At school, I purposely get in trouble so I won’t have to go to recess. I pry a piece of bark off the live oak at the center of campus. I write rude words on slips of paper I leave scattered around the science and computer classrooms. I sneak out of the locker room while I am supposed to be changing, walk across campus, and hide out between the short shelves in the library. I read The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin and brainstorm ways I can trick my classmates into leaving me alone. Unlike the squirrel protagonist, I no longer have to fear losing my bushy tail to Old Owl Brown. I slick back what is left of my curls with the one regulation headband or clip-on bow that the school dress code allows.
At home, I watch The Trouble with Angels while my sister calls in radio requests and my brother eats spilled Cheerios off the dirty laminate. For the first time, I imagine that my sister and I can overcome our differences and become compatriots, the two of us akin to Hayley Mills and June Harding defying the Catholic nuns at St. Francis. I picture us giggling as we smoke and drink beer up in the boarding school’s attic, as we purposely flout proper etiquette and plot our next big prank.
My sister puts down the phone after a lengthy conversation with WABB’s forty-five-year-old deejay.
“Your hair looks like the bottom of an old broom,” she tells me.
I go it alone until my constant misbehavior lands me in the principal’s office. Kyle Macey and I stand accused of creating a disturbance during our art enrichment class. The principal threatens us with marks on our permanent records, calls to our parents, and five whacks with the paddle he keeps displayed on the wall behind his desk.
“You know, the state of Alabama fully condones corporal punishment,” he says gravely. “Is that what the two of you need to get your act together and stop goofing off in class?”
He tells Kyle Macey that he is disappointed by his recent conduct. That the hundred-pound, pre-pubescent fourth grader has a bright future ahead of him. That if he keeps up his football training, he could be all-American one day.
When the principal turns to me, he snaps that my behavior isn’t befitting of a stray dog, let alone a young lady.
Back in the classroom, I pinch one bruise into my leg for each whack the principal said I deserved to receive. Out on the playground, I pretend that I don’t understand when the girls step on my toes, scuff up my saddle shoes, and chant, “Ugly, ugly, ugly.” In my bedroom, I spend hours in front of the mirror, attempting to brush my curls straight. I rip through mats and tangles and corkscrew ringlets until my head resembles a scrub bush in the drought-ridden Serengeti.
I find my father in the kitchen filling his milk glass up too high again. His arms are red-leather tan, with fresh grease spots on the base of his T-shirt and the palms of his hands. He points to my hair and asks, “Do I need to take a weed whacker to that?” My father smiles, his teeth white beneath his mustache, but I don’t laugh.
4. Miss America
More hair comes, this time wiry and black, and there are no regulation headbands or clip-on bows I can use to hold it back. In the locker room, the girls call me “Monkey Woman,” “Gorilla,” and “Sasquatch.” They laugh as they pinch my thighs and shove their sweaty palms against the small of my back.
They taunt, “Come on. Lift up your arms! Show everyone the bushes you’ve got growing under there!”
I grit my teeth and clamp my hands beneath my armpits. I sit on the wooden bench, my eyes hot, until everyone else has left. Afterward, my P.E. teacher orders me to run extra laps around the gym to make up for my tardiness.
At the pediatrician’s office, the doctor directs me to take off my school uniform and climb onto the examination table. He peers beneath the waistband of my underwear, makes a sound of displeasure, and takes a measured step back. The paper that covers the table is thin, and I concentrate on the crinkles and rips rather than look up at my mother or him. The pediatrician is wearing the same type of loafers my father does, the leather dry and irreversibly cracked. I hold my breath as his weight shifts uncertainly from his left to right foot.
“Well,” the doctor ultimately concludes. “You’re right. She’s awfully young for this kind of development.”
His voice holds the same note of disdain I have heard from my sister, teachers, and schoolmates. Stranded up on the examination table in my yellowed underwear and cheap cotton training bra, I wish more than anything that I could disappear. I focus on a poster behind the pediatrician’s head that reads, “Don’t Play Dirty: Your Germs are Contagious!” I stare at the image until the letters begin to blur and the words cease to make sense. I think, evaporate , evaporate , evaporate, but my body is stubborn. My legs, arms, and torso all refuse to cooperate.
It is summer in Alabama again, and I travel with a neighborhood friend to her family’s beach house on Dauphin Island. We use barbecue tongs to sort through tangled mermaid purses, stranded horseshoe crabs, and dead jellyfish while my friend’s older brother watches us from a distance. When we climb onto the wooden deck covered in a mixture of sand and sweat, her mother insists that the three of us wash up together. I stand in front of the outdoor shower, my limbs paralyzed with fear and embarrassment. I refuse to remove my shoes—let alone my T-shirt or one-piece bathing suit—in front of an audience.
“Come on,” my friend’s mother says as she attempts to pull the wet shirt over my head. “You need to wash all that sand off before you come inside for dinner.”
In the shower, I turn my body toward the wall and do my best to cover myself up with my hands.
Hours later, my friend’s brother leads us both into the narrow garage beneath the old, stilted beach house. The cinderblock walls are covered in glossy Playboy and Hustler posters, the edges curled and wrinkled from years coexisting alongside the Gulf. The women stare down at us with their thick hair, round breasts, and red, pouty lips. I am fascinated by the gold, brown, and black hair that sprouts from each of their crotches.
“This one’s my favorite,” my friend’s brother says, pointing up to a blonde woman clad in red-striped tank top, star-spangled socks, and a white sailor’s cap. “My dad calls her Miss America, but the poster says she’s Miss July. See? It’s right here.”
I watch his finger smear a grease print over the woman’s right breast as he points out the script, and I can’t help but wonder if this is what happens after the end of The Trouble with Angels and Pollyanna , the next logical step in an endless game of dress-up.
5. American Woman
In time, I learn how to tame my hair, but my shame and self-loathing still linger. In the bathroom, I smooth down my curls with copious amounts of mousse, hair gel, and water. I slick back my ringlets in ponytails and braids so tight they give me a constant headache. I sleep in wide curlers and tautly wound buns each night in an attempt to pull my hair sleek and straight. In the mornings, I spray on layer after layer of hair spray but my bangs are still a frizzy mess by the end of the school day.
When my body hair grows in too dark and thick for my mother to ignore, she takes out her old electric razor and teaches me how to shave. She plugs in the cord, spends a few minutes unsticking the rusty switch, and shows me the fast, buzzing blade. The sensation on my skin is new and pleasant and strange. I take off all of my underarm hair and then the brown fuzz growing upward from my lower legs. I stand with one foot on the edge of the tub as my sister watches the entire process from the doorway.
“Jesus,” she says. “I didn’t know we had another boy in the family.” I slam the door and scream at her to go away.
In the morning, my father piles his plate high with canned biscuits, buttered grits, and grease-soaked sausage patties. He sits at the table in his threadbare navy bathrobe, a patch of his gray chest hair poking out of the opening. He reads through the sports section of the local paper, his damp fingers smearing the headline across the front page. When my sister mocks my need to shave, he drops his fork, casts the paper aside, and slaps his palm down so hard that the motion nearly unseats his plate.
“Enough!” he yells. “We’re not going to talk about that sort of stuff at the breakfast table!”
My sister rolls her eyes while my mother tends to my crying brother. I drink down the rest of my milk, the liquid suddenly thin and sour.
After breakfast, I crawl under the back deck and search through local radio stations on my boombox. When Lenny Kravitz croons “American Woman,” I pretend that the musician is singing directly to me. That Kravitz can sense the hidden, dangerous beauty lurking within my gawky mess of a teenage body. That one day, my lips, chest, and hips really will “hypnotize” and “sparkle someone else’s eyes,” even if only for a moment.
In the locker room at school, I tell the other girls that I am simply more “mature” than them. That, sometime soon, they will also have new hair sprouting from their legs, privates, and armpits. That I have seen verifiable proof of this in the form of Miss June, July, and August.
I repeat all of the explanations I have heard from my mother, the pediatrician, and even the brother of my neighborhood friend, but my schoolmates don’t listen. They shake their heads and double-down. They stick out their chests, pull their pigtails under their armpits, and mock, “Look at me! I’m a woman. A wo- man !”
At the house of my neighborhood friend, her brother shows us another collection of Playboy magazines hidden beneath the bathroom sink. We flip through the glossy centerfolds as we sit spread out on the cool bathroom tiles. I discover Miss November posed in front of an open fridge, a pair of white knee socks contrasting with her big, curly hair and dark skin. She holds a full glass of milk in her hand, her head cocked to one side and a small smile on her lips as if she knows some secret the three of us do not yet understand.
Days later, I am at the house of a different friend. We sit side by side in her parents’ over-sized garden tub, the two of us cutting up our shins as we attempt to shave with a disposable Bic razor we found in the pantry. The bathroom is all laughter and steam-dampened skin until her father walks in. He stands in the doorway in his work button-down and pants, his cheeks flushing red. He looks from his daughter to me and back again as if he can’t figure out where his eyes are supposed to land. When he grabs my arm and wrenches me up from the tub, I am too stunned to respond. In the hallway, he swears and throws a towel at my chest. I open my mouth but he won’t stop repeating, “Get dressed. Get dressed. Get dressed.”