“If I see you fiddling with your hair one more time Dahlia, I’m going to tell your mother when I see her this afternoon to chop it all off!” I didn’t fiddle with my hair again that day. My fourth grade teacher, Mr Osborne, didn’t need to speak to my mother. My mother’s eyes widened and her jaw dropped when she saw me walking across the schoolyard towards her, pigtails lopsided, liked Medusa emerging from a playground scuffle, snakes strangled to death and limp on either side of my head. I couldn’t stop tears streaming from my eyes as I desperately tried to force words from my choking throat to explain that, once again, the hair bands at the top of my pigtails kept sagging and coming loose and the ones at the ends holding my braids intact kept sliding off. I kept trying to fix them but the more I tried, the worse it got. My hair just kept unraveling till I couldn’t keep it from falling over my eyes, or sticking to the back of my sweaty neck, or from being the target of ridicule and roaring laughter from the reed-straight blonde-haired, easily coiffed boys and girls around me.
There seemed to be so many shades of blonde. Black was black; maybe dark, dark brown in the middle of the day directly under the highlighting rays of the Australian sun. All the blonde hair around me seemed so soft and silky smooth, compliant and easy-on-the-nerves. My hair was thick, curly and unruly. And there was a lot of it. There was not one of the dozens of hair accessories at everyone else’s disposal that was of any help to me. Clips and bobby pins couldn’t hold enough hair without me having to litter my head with them. Claws couldn’t catch enough hair without breaking apart. Barrettes couldn’t close. Teeth on hair combs would break. Ponytail holders would slacken and give up. The sheer volume of my hair would push off headbands. I would use ones so small and tight and force them onto my head, smarting from the ends burrowing into the bones behind my ears, and then, abruptly, my hair would rise up in protest, shirking the headband, causing it to spring off my head.
That afternoon my mother chopped off all my hair. I sat in the bathroom wincing at the harsh scrape of the scissors as they shed my locks and wept as I saw clumps of hair fall onto the cold tile floor. I was shorn and looked like a boy. My mother tried to fashion some sort of style out of it all, but with thick, unruly hair, the shorter it is without any length weighing it down, the freer it is to form on its own. My mother was perplexed. Her own hair betrayed something Turkish or Persian in her bloodline – dark, thick, with a soft lustrous wave – which unfortunately had not been passed down to me. The only bloodline my hair betrayed was Egyptian and my mother had no idea what to do with it. The walls of Egypt’s ancient temples are lined with images of beautiful women with perfectly coiffed hair – thick, jet-black, braided or curled, decorated with gold diadems, and turquoise and malachite beads. Yeah, … my mother wasn’t going to do any of that.
I was for the most part a compliant daughter, but I could see from the look in my mother’s eyes that she wondered whether this was my body’s rebellion in disguise. And what better way to deal with rebellion than to chop it off at its roots? Or close to its roots. I think she left me with about an inch and a half.
Soon after the shearing of my head, my feet began to grow, very quickly. I was only nine years old, but I could fit into my mother’s shoes. All the shoes at the other kids’ disposal in all the shoe stores in Brisbane, Australia, were of no use to me. And yes, we searched each and every one of them. My mother was confounded. Where did these big feet come from? It was too late to bind my feet and she couldn’t trim them down as she did my mop of hair. There was no choice: I had to start wearing women’s shoes. The problem was, though, that this was the time when kitten heels were all the rage. Kitten heels are low and thin, with little that gripped my hind-foot to any surface without making me wobble as I walked, unless I took my heels to the beach. A nine-year old’s feet are not made for pointy heels. Nor are her legs, her hips or her spinal chord. Her feet are made for flats, with rubber soles and a little traction to help, so she can run and climb, twist and turn, fall and get back up again with nothing to worry about except maybe retying her laces once in a while. Sneakers were ok for school, but they were not ok for our neighbor’s daughter’s wedding or our other neighbor’s son’s baptism. I had to wear heals. And I went through so many.
I struggled not to drag my feet till the heels wore down, and often lost my balance, scuffing my shoes beyond recognition. No sooner would I walk out of a store wearing a new pair, I would be back in again for another – often the exact same pair. And they were not pairs that my mother liked – red patent sling-bags with crystal bows, or black lace-covered pink satin with disconcertingly long, sharp, pointy toes. Thank you 1983 and thank you Madonna. So my mother had to teach me how to walk, all over again. She developed an instinct and impulse making her notice and correct every misstep until I managed to fashion a walk so I could wear my new shoes.
My hips started to expand, rapidly. I developed a sharp curve into my waistline and out again, down my side to cap my protruding hipbone. The same expansion saw my buttocks take the opposite dramatic slope, out from the small of my back, around, and in again. So all of a sudden my booty left the room after the rest of me was gone, and moved into the size “women’s petite.”
My breasts started to grow. At this point my mother began to sweat. My body was getting out of control. Where did all of this come from? When I asked her what was that smear of blood, she was embarrassed. “You’re maturing,” she said. “What does that mean?” I asked. “You’re maturing.” I was too young, wasn’t I? No, I wasn’t, the doctor said. It was unusual, but not unknown. The feet, the hips, the breasts – my mother panicked. Now I would need to wear a training bra, keep a supply of sanitary napkins (no tampons, absolutely no tampons! “Why?” “Because. Not until you’re married.” “Why” “Because!”), learn how to be discrete, and stay away from boys. That last one was confusing. But there was something about the piercing, slicing looks my parents would give me whenever I even looked at a boy that made me think there was something about boys that would get me into big trouble.
At nine years old I had to learn how to be a girl in a woman’s body. Or was it a woman in a girl’s body? At least my top half could now move in with my bottom half, though the challenge for my mother was even greater. She did not want her daughter to have to dress a woman’s body at such an early age. My mother took out her old sewing machine, found that it no longer worked, bought a new one, and relearned how to sew. She altered women’s patterns to make clothes less grown up, less dressy, and much less sexy. Even the simplest styles were aged down with butterfly prints, lots of whites and bright colors, and embellished with cute ribbon trimming, cute buttons, and cute felt appliqués of florals straight from the pages of Better Homes and Gardens. Cute with the white patent sling-back kitten heels my mother managed to alter by snipping off the crystal bow and gluing on a big, bright red button. I was set. My mother was preoccupied with my dress so I wouldn’t be, she said. She wanted to make sure there were no misunderstandings and no embarrassments. I was a girl in a woman’s body. She trusted me, she said out aloud, but she didn’t trust people around me.
There was that mishap when I forgot to cross off the days of my menstrual cycle and lost track of how many days until the next one. I wore a pretty buttercup yellow dress to the neighbor’s son’s baptism. At the end of the ceremony I stood up and turned to follow my mother out the cathedral doors. The boy behind me noticed a dark smear on my dress and started laughing hysterically. He announced to everyone in the congregation that I had pooped in my pants. I was mortified. My mother whisked me away to the washroom, chastising me for losing count of my days, berating me for soiling my clothes, and scolding me for humiliating myself. I begged her to tell everyone that I hadn’t soiled myself, but that I had my period, which was perfectly normal, perfectly beyond my control, and perfectly not dirty and disgusting. My mother would not. This would teach me a lesson. My mother was worried I was not taking the responsibility I now needed to take for myself. I would have to grow up and not embarrass myself like that again.
At five feet, I was the tallest girl in my class. So my body’s new shape didn’t look odd for my height, just odd for my age. With my head of dark, thick, cropped hair, my kitten heels, full bust and derriere, grown men would leer and whistle at me and teenage boys would ask me out on dates. One boy at the beach asked if he could finger me. I had no idea what he wanted, but thought I should say no. I could swear though that I felt his fingers between my legs when the surf knocked me over and I tried to come up for air.
My necklines became higher and my hemlines lower. My bust-line was hidden under dark solids, diminished by eye-catching embellished collars, and my waistline ceased to exist. My mother became an expert at altering patterns. She knew how to take a template, modify it, and then cut, assemble, stitch, button, fasten, and zip an outfit to suit my body. I became newly fashioned, in control of my appearance, and, as a result, in control of the men around me and their behavior towards me. They knew there was no kidding around.
I began to feel confident in my clothes, but not so confident in my skin. I couldn’t figure out why, but I felt awkward and embarrassed, because no matter what I was wearing I couldn’t for the life of me find that spot that was sullying the rest of me. No one my age looked the way I did and I wondered whether people thought my parents had an intellectually and emotionally retarded, physically adult daughter in their charge. Like the children parents want to “fix” in case they get themselves into trouble. But I really didn’t know what “fix” was or what that kind of trouble was. All I knew was that my spirit started to dull, and my father started to distance himself from me. Well, I was in a woman’s body and couldn’t expect my father to play with me as though I was a little girl anymore. My body was getting in the way. My clothes helped cover it, but not curtail it, so I tried to do that myself. For almost a year I starved and purged my body to try to curb the shape it was taking, but to little avail. In fact, it backfired. The whole episode stunted me. I didn’t grow an inch taller from then on. I was soon the shortest girl in the class. But I didn’t care. I exacted so much from my body and my self that I was high on control. Or maybe it was lightheadedness from so little food. Whatever it was, I suppressed cravings, desires, and cut myself off from all worldly pleasures. Despite what felt like my shrinking stature, my own austerity measures pushed my shoulders back and my chin up. I became determined, righteous, and strident. Who cared if I was short when I had learned how to repel both boys and food? I felt awesome. But imagine how tall I would be had I not done this to my body? Ah, but I have so many metaphors at my disposal instead!
Oh, I almost forgot. The other thing that happened to my body was more hair! – on my arms, my legs, my upper lip, and, yes, down there. Picture this – gym class, swimsuit, hairy legs, protruding nipples, unkempt bikini line, swim cap that wouldn’t stay on, very uncomfortable male swim coach. Everyone was relieved when once a month I would skip gym class for a few days (absolutely no tampons!!! remember). I was subjected to endless taunts from the girls and boys at school, until one day at home I hid in the bathroom, took my father’s disposable razor, and went to work on my legs.
I shaved off every hair I could find, nicking both ankles, the back of one knee, and all around the other. I rinsed myself off, put on a few band-aids, hoisted back on one of my long skirts of the cloisters, and left the bathroom. I managed to do this a couple of times a week and no one knew until my father began to notice that his razors were losing their edge much quicker than usual. On closer inspection one morning he noticed a longer strand of hair caught between the double edges that bore no resemblance to the graying stubble on his beard. He called my mother into the bathroom, who had waxed and tweezed for so long that there was nothing left for her to shave, and told her that she needed to conduct a closer inspection of her daughter.
My mother stormed into my bedroom, found me lying on my bed reading a book, and yanked up my skirt to reveal smooth, hairless legs, with a scattering of small scabs and three or four band-aids. I started crying. I couldn’t take it anymore, I told her, the teasing, the strange looks, the swim coach who didn’t know where to look when he was talking to me. The pleading and howling were enough to make my mother relent, and introduce me to the one feminine ritual she was willing to include me in – halawa. I LOVED halawa. I had watched her for years warming the mixture of water, sugar and lemon. She would stir it until it popped golden bubbles, then pour it onto a plate to let it cool. I always wanted her to make more than she needed so I could scrape what was left and suck on a spoon full of toffee for the rest of the afternoon. She would then sit on the kitchen floor in front of a fan to keep her skin cool, take a spoon full, and knead it with her fingers. The sticky gold translucence would give way to milky and opaque. Then she would stick a piece to her thumb, and with a slow, firm motion, smear a thick strip down her arms and legs, then rip it off to reveal hairless, supple flesh. Then she would shower and smother herself in lotion. For days her skin would be lustrous. It took me a while to master halawa and I spent years getting blisters on my thumbs from the constant kneading, pressing and pulling. But I knew if I was religious enough with this ritual, it would get easier, less painful, and eventually my hair would disappear.
Once I started halawa, and stopped starving myself (I came across an article about a girl who died from bulimia and it scared the shit out of me) I started to think that maybe I just needed to pay less attention to my body. Maybe I could extract my ‘self’ from it, and not really inhabit it. My clothes made me comfortable, giving me plenty of room to move without feeling too self-conscious and awkward. And kids at school would no longer taunt me. But I decided from then on that no one would see anything of me, other than my face, my hands and my feet. What you would hear was my voice. You would see my action. What was underneath had nothing to do with who I was. And a woman’s body comes with so many expectations in a world where it can easily eclipse everything else about her. So I tried to make my body irrelevant. I thought it would make everything so much easier – to separate myself from men and join women; to shield my body from my eyes and the eyes of others; to rely on the securities of my mind and deny the insecurities of my body.
I still wasn’t dressing for my age, but my mother was able to alter that template too. My entry into biological adulthood was quickly followed by my entry into emotional, intellectual and social adulthood. But the missteps in those kitten heals still lingered and I always felt I was stumbling. My trimmed locks still left me feeling there was something I needed to tame. My so-called voice, my so-called action, could just have easily been cut out of one of my mother’s altered New Look sewing patterns. And while I was a feminist who aligned herself with women, I felt uncomfortable around women.
I’ve spent 25 years trying to undress that nine-year old girl. Some of the layers have come off easily, some begrudgingly, and some to this day seem as painful to tear off as halawa when it first touched my skin so many years ago. I thought I was doing really well up until four and a half years ago. While I was as self-conscious as the next woman, I tried at least to stop reaching for layers simply because I was a woman in a woman’s body. No country or culture has a monopoly on sexual repression. I’m simply talking about my experience. And for all those who want to wail at me that eastern cultures respect women’s bodies by not stripping them bare to sell sports cars and pornography, that’s just bullshit. Women are still being objectified when you say they have to cover up otherwise men will lose their minds because they can’t control their erections. As far as I’m concerned, sexual repression is just another form of sexual exploitation – you think you have a right to control, because you think you own. And to that I have only one response – take that erection and go fuck yourself (Women included. And don’t tell me that you can’t, because you can. And you do).
But I have regressed. Four and a half years ago I was diagnosed with scleroderma, a progressive autoimmune disease that causes the hardening and tightening of skin and connective tissue. It is painful, debilitating, and deforming. I look at myself once again and do not feel as though I inhabit this body. In my head I am trying to detach my self from it, refusing to acknowledge it as my new home, wounded from the war my body is waging with itself. My feet and legs are swollen and scarred. My jaw has contracted, giving me an overbite and fine lines in perfect parallel above my upper lip. My hair has thinned and if my skin is not pink from hypo-pigmentation, it is mottled brown from hyper-pigmentation. My hands have contracted and my fingers are swollen. I cannot open bottles of anything and I can no longer eat with chopsticks. My reasons for hiding are different, but they have resurrected the nine-year old who wants to reach for her long skirts of the cloisters and her turtleneck sweaters. Now she even wants gloves and to slab on mounds of concealer. Often I’m not sure what to do – to wrench them from her hands in protest, or to retreat and join her in the familiar isolation that is shrouded in quiet confusion and shame. Once again I feel diminished, stumbling, shorn, changing the sound of my voice, and the force of my action. Every day I look at my body, and the last thing I want to do is embrace it. But every day my choice is critical: whether I become once more that nine-year-old girl in a woman’s body.