It started with a family trip to Cancun over spring break. I loved, loved, loved those cornrows/hair braids with the beads and shells at the end that kids were getting in the resort “salon.” That episode of Friends when Monica got cornrows hadn’t come out yet but I needed them.
I begged my parents to get them and after what felt like an eternity to me as an 11 year old (but was probably, like, a single day) they let me. On the last day of vacation, I gleefully sat in the chair while a woman pulled my braids too tight. We exchanged a bit of conversation in Spanish but mostly I just pictured how cool I’d look with my beaded braids.
When I returned to school on Monday, the braids were still in. I was in the band, so my first stop every day was to the band hall to drop off my clarinet. As I walked in, three of my friends saw me, stared, and then basically fell through a door laughing at me.
My face heated, and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. All I could think was, I must look so stupid. I ducked into the bathroom, locked the door, and started ripping the braids out. It took so long I skipped my first period class—the first time I ever cut class (sorry Mom). I put my head under the running faucet to get rid of the kinks from the braids, then locked myself in a stall and cried.
I stayed in that stall and skipped second period too, because the boys that laughed at me were in that class and I didn’t want to face them again. I showed up to third period with my hair still wet and my pride still shattered. The shame, which felt both like wearing a too-tight corset and like my guts were catching on fire, didn’t fade.
I’m sure I had been teased before, and was certainly teased again after. This was sixth grade, when everyone was waking up to puberty and pecking orders. The halcyon days of hanging out with whoever you wanted to because you liked them had been left behind in elementary school, and we all learned to care about who was popular and what it took to be popular. In a word: Conformity.
That spring break hairstyle was one of the last times I did something expressive because it was fun or because I just wanted to. For years. I conformed very quickly after that: Jeans and t-shirts were the standard outfit for girls at my school in the early 2000s? Hair should only be straightened or pulled back? Got it. Check, check, check. I wore some variation on that outfit every day until I was well into college.
There were moments when I did things because I thought they were cool—in 2004, when Avril Lavigne wearing heavy eye make up and a checkered tie was cool I wore something similar to the Homecoming football game (we didn’t have a dance). But I also got teased for that too, and more often than not kept myself “in line” with whatever was as close to “normal” at my school.
At some point, it got boring though. Conformity isn’t all that fun (big surprise) and the older I get the less I want to do things because they’re the least common denominator. I’ve been trying lately to find that little girl again, the one who loved those (admittedly ridiculous and to some extent offensive) braids with the beads; the girl who wore whatever because clothes didn’t matter, having fun did. I’m trying to remember how to do things because I like them, how to be expressive instead of keeping myself “in line.”