It was early September and I was 7 years old. A group of MIT students came to my after school and volunteered to make Halloween costumes for the kids that year. For what reason the students decided to do this, I don’t know, and frankly I didn’t care. I was excited because not only was I going to have a legitimate outfit made specifically for me, but was going to be spared from the CVS makeshift plastic costume and mask. Yes!
My friends and I threw out ideas as to what we should dress up as until we finally decided to be mermaids because mermaids were always pretty and aside from cheerleaders and princesses, that’s what little girls dressed as. Measurements were taken and for the next couple of weeks we talked about how we would do our hair, what accessories we would wear, how to convince our parents to allow us to wear makeup and how we would keep warm because after all, it was October in New England. With the time and dedication put into the planning of our look, we were going to be the coolest group of mermaids that Halloween.
The day finally came and when I went up to get my costume, I quickly became confused as I was not being handed the sequined number I envisioned in my mind, but a bunny costume instead. Before I could ask the obvious question, the woman who handed me the rabbit suit kneeled down, touched my stomach and said, “Sorry sweetie, but big girls can’t be mermaids.”
I laugh about it now as I tell the story, but I still remember that moment like it was yesterday.
Growing up, I often heard comments about my weight. I would see people whisper looking in my direction and although I didn’t know for sure what was being said, my gut told me it was probably something about me. Some of the comments came from family, which wasn’t always meant as insult depending on the tone and context, and other times, they came from peers from school or complete random strangers. Insecurities about myself would grow overnight and by the time I was 12 years old, I found myself questioning, doubting and meticulously inspecting every aspect of my overall being.
I had two choices. One was either to allow myself to be ridiculed and lose my sense of self. The other was to cultivate my strength and not only set an example, but be the example. I chose the latter, which at times has its benefits, but it means that I will always have to struggle.
Image is a concept that supersedes the majority of all other qualities and alters perceptions of people. If you are short, you can’t model or play basketball; if you are disabled, you are sick; if you grow up in the rural south, you are slow and dumb; if you are a woman that dresses provocatively, you are a whore; if you have a curvaceous figure, you are a sex kitten; if you are Latino, you speak Spanish;, and if you don’t, you are a sell-out. It is an unfortunate, but very common and accepted way of allowing the passing of judgment and the placing of labels on one another with little to no information at all.
The experiences we encounter in a lifetime ultimately define who we become as individuals in society. The clichés of “what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger” and “sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me” are cute and appropriate dichos, but barely touch the tip of the iceberg. Everyone will be confronted with obstacles in life and everyone will have methods of coping and dealing. I choose to live my life by standing tall all the while keeping my conscience clear. There is no right or wrong way in handling these situations. It will continue to be one of the constant struggles of our existence, but if all else fails, having and maintaining a clear conscience will be our saving grace.