As a new school year started, teachers debuted new haircuts and new curricula, leaves changed in the recess field, and in seventh grade, bra straps showed through diaphanous Ts. It was the pre-Claire Danes era of 1987, yet it was “my so-called life.” I walked up the steps to my new classroom, ramrod straight lest my big plastic secret rear its ugly head.
While former awkward ducklings turned into pre-pubescent swans around me, while retainers and headgears were discarded to the dismay of thriving orthodontists, while Accutane showed promise but still no risk, I remained the Outsider. In an oversized rugby, a cornstarched body underneath a cotton tanktop, to protect me from what was underneath all that — an underarm back brace — I prayed to be invisible.
I had been wearing the brace for a year now, and I never stopped being on high alert, not for one iota of a millisecond.
“Hey Shira, what’s that?” Knock, knock. “Oh, never mind. Ha ha ha!” The blood would rush to my face when I realized that the knocking was on my brace, and then I felt drained of that blood. I couldn’t possibly stand any straighter to hide it. They knew.
The taunts from “the clique” (our terms for the most popular girls and boys of the grade) were few because mostly they left me completely alone. Being seen speaking with me would be the social kiss of death. I was one of the nerds and not worthy of their time, so teasing carried risk to one’s social status.
Then that summer I went to camp. The kids were different there. They thought I had beautiful eyes and told me so, they saw that I was sincere and kind, and they saw me. Still, I couldn’t seem to stand up straighter, and sometimes, I would rebelliously stash the brace under my bed and leave the bunk without it just to be free. A weight was lifted during those times, and I had to remind myself to act free and shake the stiffness.
The other girls my age were wearing their first bras, so I, too, strategically placed my bra straps so that they would show. I was a cool girl now, and I was growing up with the rest of them.
But once fall started again, new teachers came in with new attitudes, and the same students from the year before ignored me. It seemed that the teachers favored them for being pretty and having minds unmuddled by confidence issues. Those minds were the tabula rasa for excellent grades, and those students exuded exclusivity.
Every Friday night, my mother reminded me that I had only one school year to go, that I would be entering high school soon, and, she reminded me, I still had to wear the brace. It was correcting the curvature of my spine — my scoliosis — and I was lucky because I would grow up to have a straight spine and great posture and not be an uncomfortable hunchback (she didn’t actually say the last part, but I knew the implications of wearing the brace through its course).
My grandmother cursed the “stinkin’ rotten children” who were making me cry, and I felt that she alone was my true ally. She knew bad times. After all, she had lived through the Great Depression. I compared my new bully, a male classmate who had begun the ritual of kicking me under the desk (hard!), to Adolf Hitler without worrying about the hyperbole, and we bonded some more.
I chose the high school that was furthest away, the one that nobody from my class was considering. I didn’t pay attention to any other details about it except that it was the most remote and unlikely choice for a fellow classmate. While the new school had an ideology that was furthest from my own, I didn’t care. I made friends, and shortly after starting my first semester, I got great news: I only had to wear the brace at night. My secret could really be my secret now; no one had a chance of seeing it poke out in the rare moment when I forgot to stand robotically erect.
And then I found boys. I was in an all-girls school, but I met members of the opposite gender through friends. I enjoyed flirting and being admired and finding out what the opposite sex really thought of me when they didn’t know. There was definitely “a type” of boy and then, eventually, young man that I liked. In short: a jerk. It was time to make the boy who kicked me under the table sorry; it was time to make him see me for who I really was..
Unsurprisingly, that didn’t work out too well, and in retrospect, it was a short-lived phase.
At 15, the brace was fully off, but I still felt braced, guarded, insecure. I wondered if the popular-seeming people found me interesting enough, and I wondered so much that my thinking was cloudy. I was blocked, and some saw that I was blocked — and distanced themselves. And I did a little dance: withdraw, act free, withdraw, act free. I was inconsistent and puzzling to the people around me. Yet, I did make a few good friends, and eventually, I stopped caring about being popular and just focused on those great friendships. And then, I stopped thinking about how I was acting. And soon it wasn’t acting; it was being.
Eventually, I made many friends and more friendly acquaintances, and I realized that once I had shed my consciousness of social status and being popular, I actually was popular.
I also came to discover what a great relationship with a man consisted of, and although I continued to make mistakes in that department (off and on until prior to meeting my husband), I changed my tune — and my “type.”
I still have dreams about the brace. I threw it out so long ago, in a garbage can outside my parents’ home (I didn’t even wonder if it needed to be in recycling), but as clear as day it shows up some nights.
It is there when I meet new people whom I am unsure about. It is there when my judgement is questioned, when my children’s teachers chastise me for being late to pick-up. It is there when I accentuate my figure and realize that I’m accentuating my figure because I want to show it, because I hid it for so long when I was younger (and later on, in pregnancies). It is there when I question why I haven’t accomplished all my professional goals or why I haven’t published the novel I wrote in 2001. It is there as I write this now and wonder what you’ll think. You see, I can’t stop bracing myself.
Under my arm, cutting into my skin, velcroed behind my back, the memory is vivid.
It is there, but it is also not.
(Photo by Scoliosis Support on Instagram)