Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A Girl- by Definiton

Hi, guys! This is my final essay as an undergraduate student! I wanted to share for a couple of reasons - this is a blog and that's the point, right? ;) Also- this was a long, long, loooong process of examination and study and reflection. I don't think I've ever put so much of myself into a piece or writing, fiction or non-fiction.
I hope you all enjoy this and I hope, in some way, it may help some of you.

Lots of love -
Stephi D.

A Girl – by Definition
by Stephani Duff

Melanoma is a type of skin cancer . . . It is potentially dangerous because it can invade nearby tissues and spread to the lung, liver, bone, or brain. Often the first sign of melanoma is a change in the shape, color, size, or feel of an existing mole.

It was a clear, warm day outside and I was at my usual spot on the swings at Miami East South Elementary playground. I was sitting stationary next to a blonde haired girl I was becoming friends with.
“What’s that on your leg?”
            I felt my breath catch in my throat and I quickly tried to come up with an acceptable answer. “It’s, uh, well it’s my birthmark. You have one, too.”
            “That’s not a birthmark. It’s too round – see? Look at mine compared to yours. That’s not a birthmark, so, what is it?”
I had been caught; it wasn’t a birthmark, at all. I actually don’t have a birthmark. It was a mole in the center of the side of my right thigh and it plagued me.
It’s still there, that mole. But now I don’t wear shorts and rarely do I wear short skirts so people don’t get to see it. I suppose in my embarrassment of, what I’ve come to realize in my age, a relatively small, harmless mole, I decided to say it was a birthmark because somehow that would make it easier to deal with and more acceptable to others who saw it. In hindsight I often wonder what the big issue was about this small mole on my thigh; it is not oddly shaped or oddly colored. It is, in fact, quite normal and inoffensive as far as moles go. And what’s more, it was on a location of my body that was easily hidden. I find myself thinking of that conversation often, of that girl with whom I no longer have contact, and the shame that I felt at a piece of my body I had been born with. That mole doesn’t bring me disdain like it used to; no, as I’ve grown older I have left behind that mole on my thigh and brought my focus to other body parts, brought my self-loathing to new and unparalleled heights. That mole would never bring me fame or fortune like Cindy Crawford, but it wouldn’t hold me back much longer, either.

Many illnesses, contaminants, and injuries can be water, sanitation, or hygiene-related. Waterborne diseases are caused by organisms that are directly spread through water. Water-related illnesses can be acquired due to a lack of water for good hygiene, lack of sanitation, or increasing insect populations that breed in water and then spread disease.

When I look back at pictures of myself before anxiety gripped at my insides like hooks in a fish’s mouth, before my hair became a daily issue, before I realized what a gift it was to act, speak, and live without abandon, I find myself saddened at the loss of that child. I swipe stray tears from the corners of my eyes at the loss of the olive skinned little girl who would sing “You Make Me Feel Like a Magical Woman” into the handles of her mom’s Nordic Trak, at the loss of the little girl who thought her daddy had all the answers, at the loss of the little girl who thought she would always have forever to play lion tamer with her two cousins and her brother.
There is a picture of me at around three; I am in an unbelievably tiny swimsuit standing next to those blue “kiddie” pools that define every farm-raised kid’s childhood with the garden hose held up to my mouth for a cool drink. My hair is in pigtails; my mom often remarks on how that was a day I kept the pigtails in for a particularly long time. At twenty-four I look at the picture and think of all the ways I have removed myself from that young girl; I would never, in a thousand years, be caught drinking out of a garden hose. Water is something I must make myself drink nowadays and it is always bottled – when you’re raised in a farm county and your well is likely to include small, cut off legs of insects that end up in your glass of water, you learn that bottled water is your best friend. I’m rarely seen in a swimsuit by the eyes of anyone not related to me, let alone allowing myself to be photographed in one for historical purposes, and although I have tried it recently, pig tails just no longer suit me as I have hit puberty. Where along the way did I lose my carefree ways? When did I go from being free to being restrained by my own dislike? When did that mole become more important than the freedom to show my imperfections and tell people to take me as I am? At what point did I loosen my fast grip on my childhood? Just when did I let that final string linking me to childhood break?

Puberty, usually occurring during adolescence, is when kids develop physically and emotionally into young men and women. Usually, this starts to happen no earlier than about 7 to 8 years of age for girls and 9 years of age for boys (the average age is about 10 for girls and 12 for boys). But what if a younger child — for example, a 5-year-old girl — begins showing the signs of puberty? How would it affect her? Precocious puberty — the onset of signs of puberty before age 7 or 8 in girls and age 9 in boys — can be physically and emotionally difficult for kids and can sometimes be the sign of an underlying health problem.

At the young age of six I was diagnosed with Precocious Puberty, which is essentially a fancy way to say that my hormones were growing at a speed of light rate and they were pressuring my body to develop much before the “due date.” As a result of this, in the second grade I was the only young girl required to wear a sports bra to hide the odd voluptuousness of my breasts. While the mole on my thigh still pained me, my chest became the forefront of my obsession. I recall asking my mom if I could wear two sports bras so that I might appear to be the same size as the rest of the girls in my class.
Once I went to a friend’s house and she showed me the new “bras” her mom had bought her; they were elegant and girly and impossibly feminine with pink rosebuds and cream colored lace on the edges. I distinctly remember her look of disgust when I showed her my bras – there was nothing dainty about my Champion undergarments. I went home from that weekend getaway hideously devastated and feeling entirely “un-girl.”
My boobs continued to be problematic throughout my adolescence; girls never did really “catch up” with me as far as cup sizes go and my chest is often the butt of jokes in bars now. At this time in my life, though, I am happy to say I am a busty woman who has come to terms with her two best “girls.”

Approximately 7 million girls and women struggle with eating disorder. The average American woman is 5'4" tall and weighs 140 pounds. The average American model is 5'11" tall and weighs 117 pounds. Most fashion models are thinner than 98% of American women. 42% of elementary school students between the 1st and 3rd grades want to be thinner. 80% of children who are ten years old are afraid of being fat.80% of women are dissatisfied with their appearance. 51% of 9 and 10 year old girls feel better about themselves if they are on a diet.

There have been many conversations in which my mom has begged me to tell her when the severe self-consciousness I harbor all began; the sad thing is, I don’t know that I have an answer. I suppose I could blame it on a handsome boy from my painfully awkward “pre-teen” years; he loved me, or so he said so – and I believed him. But what I’ve come to find is that there is nothing within the confines of a defined love that includes hateful words, demeaning names, and sexual pressure. There’s a chance these body image issues began in a second grade classroom when I was the only one in a bra and my particular bras weren’t ‘nice’ enough. I am sure that self image issues are a common feat to overcome for many adolescent females – I recall sitting across from a new girl in my sixth grade classroom; we were allowed to bring in bottles of water at the end of the school year because of how hot our classrooms go. Many of the boys in the class would bring in cans of soda, but wrap them in foil so the teacher didn’t know. One day the no longer new, new girl came in with a can wrapped in foil; we all assumed it was soda, but she revealed her secret to me at recess later that day. It was Slim Fast. We were in sixth grade and this very thin girl was consuming Slim Fast. I was not, am not, alone in this battle against my own head, but somehow I still feel like the only girl in the room, in the bar, on the campus that is consistently tugging at her shirt to cover the small pooch of her stomach, doing neck stretches so she doesn’t get more of a double chin, and going to the bathroom obsessively to check her hair. It would appear my self-loathing was sewn in a pocket of my soul from birth and I’ve slowly untethered those laces and stitches with alarming precision.
The average cost of a haircut in the 1960s was $5.00. The average cost for a haircut and color in 2012 is between $30.00 and $50.00.

At a young age my eldest cousin learned how to French braid her own hair; I still don’t know how to do this and I distinctly remember Jenna having trouble braiding my hair because of how thick and heavy my hair was. There were many nights I would sob on my mom’s shoulder, “I just want thin, wispy hair like Jenna.” To this day, Jenna can curl her hair into perfection, zap some hairspray onto it and be set for the day; my hair has to be teased, whipped, curled, and bobby-pinned into submission and then at least ¾ of a can of hairspray is required for me to make it to lunch time. Many mornings I wake up, take a shower, eat breakfast, brush my teeth, do my make-up and then stand in front of the mirror fretting. I slowly remove the towel from my just washed hair and slowly comb out the tangles that seem to always be appearing and reappearing. Once I have it to a smooth consistency I pull out the blow dryer – this is when the true devastation begins. Many mornings I wake up and think that today will be the day I will  brush my hair a certain way or blow dry it a different way and BAM! It will be everything I’ve always wanted it to be. Many mornings I wake up with wishful thinking and leave for school thinking – this is just gonna have to work. Many mornings I wake up and realize my hair is bullshit only to be complimented on its thickness, its color, the neon extensions I have in them. Every day of my life I’m underestimating what might be worthy of compliment and the mop I carry on my head is at the top of the list.

Baby ducks will need their mothers for up to four weeks after birth, for heat. After those initial weeks, the family may very well break up and disperse.

It was a dark night; we were going to visit Uncle Mike. He was a man that was not an actual uncle to Zack and me, but a close enough friend that he earned that title. A couple weeks prior my mom had received enveloped coupons and in with the coupons was a Gerber magnet. I remember it being cream colored, with the Gerber in a nice, light, pastel blue. Beneath the brand name were baby ducks in the warmest, most pleasant sunshine yellow imaginable. I carried that magnet with me everywhere – I realize, in my adulthood, how ridiculous this sounds. I had plenty of stuffed animals, but it was that small magnet I needed with me at all times. On our way to Uncle Mike’s house I held that magnet tightly in my dainty hands, but somewhere along the six minute drive from our home to his, I lost it. I recall arriving at his house, the dome light in our maroon GMC Jimmy coming on and I found the magnet to have disappeared. At twenty- four I still think about that night, about that magnet – it was never found.
The mole, my breasts, and the God forsaken thickness of my hair – they seem to all be representing things I must have some magnetic obsession with. Did this seed of panic develop at the loss of that Gerber baby magnet? Did the dwindling of that final thread linking me to the wildly carefree girl begin with the loss of this magnet? It was a dark night – perhaps far darker than I could have ever imagined.
Long-term exposure to stress can lead to serious health problems. Chronic stress disrupts nearly every system in your body. It can raise blood pressure, suppress the immune system, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, contribute to infertility, and speed up the aging process. Long-term stress can even rewire the brain, leaving you more vulnerable to anxiety and depression.

In a moment of weakness I will admit to you I enjoyed the movie Knocked Up featuring Seth Rogan and Katherine Heigl. I enjoy its raunchy, inappropriate humor, but what has stayed with me from that movie is not raunchy or inappropriate at all; Katherine’s character has gone into labor, her sister is out of town, and she can’t reach her doctor. Seth’s character arrives at the house to find her in a warm bath, with candles lit and soft music playing in the background. She quietly mentions something along the lines of “I must stay calm. If a baby is born into a stressful situation, they are wired for stress for the rest of their life.” No words can ring truer for my brother and my’s entrances into the world.
My mom often reminisces about my birth; she hadn’t felt me kick or move for about twelve hours so she called her doctor; she was instructed to come in so they could examine the situation at hand. As it turns out, I had gone number two inside my dear mother; I also had a blood clot an inch from my umbilical cord. Mom and I were sent into an emergency C-section. This sounds like a stressful situation to me; does it you? My beloved brother took a nice, easy 28 hours to come into the world. In a situation in which plans are trying to be made or times of arrival are being worked out I closely resemble a gerbil on one of those toy wheels – ever running my ass off to never really reach the end of that forsaken 360 degrees. My brother would resemble the happy turtle – merrily taking his time from point A to point B and furiously pissing off the hare living its entire life in a hurry. From birth my brother has been taking his fucking time with life. If a baby is born into a stressful situation, they are wired for stress for the rest of their life; all too true, Ms. Heigl - all too true.
The average age that an American moves out of their parents’ home is seventeen to nineteen years of age.
            Whenever questioned about my anxious tendencies and their birth, I was quick to pinpoint them to the end of high school and the beginning of college. I realize, now, how completely wrong I’ve been all along. My fourth grade year was relatively uneventful as far as school years go, but I recall being deeply terrified at the idea of having to leave the building I had been educated in for five years to move to a different one. Many a night in those final weeks of summer between fourth and fifth grade were spent crying on my mom’s shoulder. Questions, ever prevalent in the course of my life, whirl pooled in the air and in my head – what if the teachers didn’t like me? What if I got lost going from the classroom to the cafeteria? Were they going to let me keep library books out as long as they did in elementary? Always the patient, understanding woman, my Mom was quick to reassure me I would find my way, I would find friendships, and I would find a friendly librarian just as I had in the K-4 building I was leaving behind. She was right. She was right between fourth and fifth grade, between sixth and seventh grade, between eight and ninth grade, and between senior year and freshman year.
And here I am, on the precipice of finishing an entire life of education and stepping off into the world of professionalism and attempted publication and my knees shake and knock like loose, crisp leaves in the autumn night; just this morning I was discussing moving out of my childhood home with my mom.
            “No one is kicking you out, Steph.”
So many conversations have began and ended just this way – and I know no one is kicking me out, but there will come a time in my life when saying “I still live with my parents” will no longer be acceptable and will begin to be creepy, unbecoming, disapprovable. And what will become of me then? That mole, this hair, the boobs? Miniscule in comparison with the big move. How might I ever have a sleep-over with a man if I am still living with Mommy and Daddy? The horror of bringing a man here and having to decide if sex is an option just about does me in. There will be no sex – because there will be no childhood bedroom at my new place. Oh, a new place – that distant, far off dream. But who will cook my meals? Will I gain weight due to my culinary capabilities being confined to Mac-n-cheese and grilled cheese? What curd of cheese will my cellulite begin to resemble after such meals? No one is kicking you out, Steph.
Every two minutes in American, someone is sexually assaulted. One out of six American women have been victims of attempted or completed rape. 80% of rape victims are under thirty years of age.

            Twenty-one found me fresh out of a four year relationship, never having dated a 20-something-year old guy, and terrified at the “college experience” lying before me. Unlike many of my female confidantes, twenty-one did not bring me to points of drunken oblivion, twenty-one did not find me dancing in the closest club in town, and twenty-one did not see me out, anywhere, period, at all. Twenty-one found me making every excuse possible to not leave my home.
I was convinced that if I went out and there were people I didn’t know at whatever location I was, I would be abducted, raped, and left for death. It froze me in my tracks, it prevented me from experiencing a couple of years that are, I suppose, geared as rites of passage in a young woman’s life. As I type this out, I realize how terribly morbid I must have sounded when I braved voicing this fear aloud – what kind of vibrant, young woman thought this way? It is with painful certainty I answer you – one whom, long ago, lost grip on the little girl she should have been grasping to with clingy desperation.
Night-time no longer finds me inside my home, living, and barely breathing, in fear, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t always finishing my drinks before setting them down, stepping forward from strange men that come too near, waiting with bated breath.
Panic disorder is different from the normal fear and anxiety reactions to stressful events in our lives. Panic disorder is a serious condition that strikes without reason or warning. Symptoms of panic disorder include sudden attacks of fear and nervousness, as well as physical symptoms such as sweating and a racing heart. During a panic attack, the fear response is out of proportion for the situation, which often is not threatening. Over time, a person with panic disorder develops a constant fear of having another panic attack, which can affect daily functioning and general quality of life.

            Recently I have convinced my parents it’s time to seek medical attention for the recurring panic attacks I’ve been succumbing to. I went to a doctor recommended by my boss; I sat waiting nervously in her office – the tension of the wait was quickly increasing as I had been waiting for approximately thirty minutes. She finally came in. She was attractive, older, and had long, graying hair. She was a young, hippie girl’s dream, as far as doctor’s go. I was asked to describe my attacks to her, asked about my medical history, asked what medications I was currently taking for my disorder. “None,” I answered. She stops mid-word on the page she’s filling out. “None?” she questioned. “How have you handled this without medication?” I glanced up, shrugged my shoulders, and let a stray tear escape the corner of my eye. As I type this I realize I left the doctor’s office feeling gratification at the fact that I had not been imagining pain and symptoms for most of my life; I do, in fact, have a panic disorder. I am riddled with a disorder of panic.
            As I type this I realize that the idea of losing my anxiety, having it lessened by some degree, or not waking, walking, and sleeping with it every day is, in fact, giving me a great amount of anxiety. In her essay “One Nation, Under the Weather” Lauren Slater talks about her illness memoir: “My illness memoir has now become ill itself.” Never has someone put into words what I am feeling over losing my anxiety as Slater does in this quick moment. As I see it, my life has been very much about dealing with having larger breasts than every other girl in the room, about dealing with not really having much control over my hair, about dealing with having a mole and being shamed by it. As I see it, my life has been about obsessive tendencies – only drinking water from bottles, needing a magnet in my hand, crying on Mom’s shoulder over any big change. As I see it, I am a busty woman with a mole carrying around an anxiety disorder that has unnatural attachments with a magnet.
            And what of the magnet? It is still in that maroon GMC Jimmy? Did it fall in the ditch next to my home? Does it miss me? Has it lost its magnetic nature? Like this missing magnet I find myself lost, in the bottom of a ditch, perhaps having been cultivated by large, green, combines in the cornfield across the road from my bedroom window. I hear roots tearing when I think about no longer waking with the anxiety that has come to define me over the last twenty odd years. If I am no longer anxious, if I no longer live with the possibility of panic being on the cusp of my existence, if I don’t have roots any longer to this facet of my life – who have I let myself become? I look at the green eyed little girl with her hair in pigtails, drinking out of that water hose; she is still within me, still breathing and dancing and singing. Granted she no longer sings into the Nordic Trak handles and she realizes that it is a “Natural Woman” that Aretha sings about being, not a “Magical Woman” – she’s still there.
            The mole, these boobs, this hair? They’re with me in the quiet spaces of writing and they’re with me in the agitation that follows the panic. No one is kicking you out, Steph . . . this anxiety over not having anxiety may remain long after the anxiety itself has left the building. Maybe then I’ll reacquaint myself with that olive skinned little girl.


  1. Wow!! Lovely and strong, Steph. And I love that you wrote your body! I like how you begin it with the definition and then take us back to this time (what should have been a simple time for all of us, but rarely was) when you were little and someone made a big deal about something physical. I oftentimes wonder why more people don't teach their children common manners, but moments like these (though they stay with us sometimes in a negative way) give us something to write about, right? I digress...

    I absolutely love this line: "When I look back at pictures of myself before anxiety gripped at my insides like hooks in a fish’s mouth, before my hair became a daily issue, before I realized what a gift it was to act, speak, and live without abandon, I find myself saddened at the loss of that child."

    I love the "bra" part too, especially: "At this time in my life, though, I am happy to say I am a busty woman who has come to terms with her two best “girls.” So many quotable lines! You end each section with great power and poignance: "It would appear my self-loathing was sewn in a pocket of my soul from birth and I’ve slowly untethered those laces and stitches with alarming precision" - love!

    I really related to your birth story - very similar to mine and my brother's - I came out kicking and screaming (and mom says I haven't shut up since) and my brother came out peacefully, lying on his back, wanting to be left alone (and that's pretty much his personality). Isn't that strange that our births can say so much about us?

    I love how you connect everything, bringing it back to this magnetism and the lost magnet that might have started it all - and who knows if it didn't? We can think back and remember key details, I think, that were monumental in making us who we are. You've done a great job here, Steph, and I'm sorry it took me so long to read it!

  2. Jade, thank you so much for taking the time to read my blog posts. I thoroughly enjoyed workshopping with you this past quarter and I hope that one day we will both be able to find each other's names on bookshelves in book stores. It truly touches me that you find my writing quotable - it means a great more than I can properly express. I hope we stay in touch and I wish you well in everything!