Some people are guided through life by the model of Jesus Christ. They even wear bracelets reminding them to inquire, What Would Jesus Do?
But my adolescent self was guided by the image of a fantasy me: the hypercharged, ultimate version of myself I believed I was destined to become when I grew up.
I was thirteen years old when I first started pruning and polishing my vision of her. She was like a religious icon, screen-printed on a Santeria bodega candle glowing steadfast, deep within my doughy teenage middle.
My fantasy self was beautiful, because beauty inspired admiration. Ugliness didn’t cut it. Ugliness never won. And since there was no such thing as being beautiful without also being thin, my fantasy self was necessarily slender.
She had unnaturally elongated legs, but with just the right amount of muscle tone. She strode around Manhattan in mini-skirts and heels, taking wide, purposeful strides, flashing toothy grins over her shoulder at her obvious admirers and hailing taxis with energetic flair. She was a walking tampon commercial, or a fast-paced ad for shampoo. At any second she might wipe at her eye in close-up, then show the clean pink pad of her index finger, demonstrating that her mascara wouldn’t smudge.
My fantasy self had the kind of confidence I didn’t have — confidence enough to take charge of her dreams and make them real. And assisting her in the achievement of these dreams would be the entire world, hypnotized by her feminine charms, refusing her nothing. Everyone would willingly rush to her aid. The world would fall in love with her. The world would always say yes. They’d find nothing about her unacceptable.
In my teen daydreams, I liked to project ten or fifteen years into the future. I figured it gave me plenty of time to transform from frumpy teenager into fluffy-haired heroine.
I was always a witness in these daydreams, as though watching my future summed up in one big-budget, epic music video. Sometimes I saw myself through the eyes of an adoring stalker. Other times I pictured myself from the point of view of some specific person, and tried to imagine how they felt about the “me” they were observing. Sometimes the witness was a celebrity crush, sometimes a non-celebrity crush. Other times, it was my mother, and she always felt proud of me.
For a long time I didn’t think about how or when the transition would happen. Almost smugly I enjoyed the carte blanche of being a kid. Penniless, jobless, with a room of my own and a lock on the inside door. I was someone to whom Santa still paid visits, I could still be claimed as a dependent.
I had time yet to be fat and ugly with crooked, gappy teeth, unmanageable hair and social anxiety. Being a teenage misfit is far more bearable when one is confident that her adulthood will be notable, magical. I had time yet to dream of a better future. I had the luxury of trusting that the planets would eventually align and morph me into my superfine self, in plenty of time to spend my entire adult life enjoying it.
It wasn’t until the first day of school in the eighth grade that I felt the true ferocity of my own desire to change.
That day, I was struck by a fever of possibility — smacked by the reality that total transformation can, in fact, occur; that talk show-variety makeovers really did happen to kids my age, in small, inert Tennessee towns without Chinese restaurants, where no one knew what a bagel was.
I realized I could be the proactive sculptor of my life, sooner rather than later. It was an irresistibly promising and powerful thought.
Glory Davis lit the flame.
Glory Davis and I went to junior high school together. In seventh grade, we were not yet friends — still mere acquaintances, although we had things in common. We were both chunky girls, fairly quiet on the whole but less restrained among our friends; polite to our teachers, but never as sugary-sweet as they assumed us to be; always standing just outside the sphere of what was considered fashionable and peering in.
In seventh grade, Glory Davis wore oversized men’s turtlenecks and discount store jeans that were snug around her ample derriere but wide and baggy in the legs. Long after the look was first fashionable, and at least twenty years before its return to vogue.
Her thick chestnut hair was parted simply in the middle and hung exactly as it grew: long, straight and weighty, cascading over her shoulders and obscuring her burgeoning bust.
She had a double chin as her yearbook photo attests, and a little belly that, like mine, formed a roll over the waistband of her jeans when she sat.
Meanwhile, I was doing my best to dress like a London New Waver in little suede ankle boots that had a tendency to collapse above the heel, and outdated men’s clothes I found at the back of my dad’s closet.
You wouldn’t have discerned much about my shape by looking at me, and that was the idea. I was thick in too many places. I had to buy ladies jeans to accommodate my round butt and the little mound of my stomach. Dad’s black-and-red houndstooth overcoat was gigantic on me, but it made the specifics of my figure impossible to see.
Besides, I fancied it looked like the oversized jacket David Byrne from Talking Heads sometimes wore. I rolled up the coat cuffs and clustered glossy pinback buttons on the lapels. I felt I’d struck a perfect pitch halfway between hiding my temporary imperfections and claiming my particular place in the pop culture continuum.
Glory Davis departed the seventh grade with a homely wardrobe and a chubby butt, legs and belly. But after three quiet months, she returned to Vance Junior High School and strutted a new and improved product into the eighth grade.
Wow. Glory Davis.
Her summer transformation was the thing to talk about. The cadence of her name scampered up and down the corridors. It was uttered discreetly from behind shiny new Trapper Keepers. It was whispered from one head to another behind open locker doors, and warbled up from the bottoms of ceramic urinals sounding curdled and profane.
Glory’s metamorphosis from one grade to the next seemed miraculous. It was astounding. Downright inspirational.
Glory would no longer be considered chubby. She was svelte and curvaceous, with a plump but compact rear end and a generous thirteen-year-old bosom, enhanced by a tidy nipped waist.
She’d had her hair cut into a style of the day that flattered her, with glossy waves at the back of her head and soft feathers framing her face. She’d always had a touch of caramel latte in her skin, and over the summer she’d tanned deeply and evenly. It made the green leap from her eyes.
The baby fat around her face melted away and revealed gentle, pretty features, a softly pointed chin, show-stopping dimples. She’d always had strong-looking, straight white teeth, but now she didn’t hesitate to show them.
Glory and I became friends that year, when we landed in the same art class and appreciated one another for refusing to make jokes about flatulence or feces. We considered them base and unsophisticated. “Hillbilly humor,” she used to call it.
Glory Davis never looked back. She didn’t revert to her seventh grade self for any half-baked reason, not even in an emergency. Her mind had been sanitized of all first-hand knowledge of frumpery. She knew nothing of striking a downtrodden pose — how was it done? Her eyes never betrayed a moment of self-doubt. Her backbone seemed incapable of collapse.
Those dumpy clothes must have been set afire. But the new Glory didn’t dress with the desperation of total imitation, either, a fact for which I still have immense respect. Glory had no desire to play a pathetic, wanna-be second fiddle to Bitty Parker, our would-be prom queen and ring leader of the popular girls.
Glory stood apart. She was discriminating about the trends she adopted.
Yes, she wore shapely designer jeans, but instead of a prudish polo, she paired them with wildly ruffled pseudo-Victorian shirts with puffed sleeves (tucked in, and not a belly roll in sight) and matching low-heeled pumps. She looked more like a guest star on Hart to Hart than some country club fruit salad. She was better than this place.
And Glory was kind to everyone. She didn’t turn her nose up at the shoeless kids with dirt-smudged faces that the school district brought down from the mountains and forced to go to school. She didn’t withhold her smile from a snorting flock of prep queens, even if their greeting was insincere and only to be followed by a hushed insult and a group cackle as Glory passed.
And somehow, over the course of just one summer, Glory had learned how to flirt. I don’t know who taught her how to giggle and swat at our art teacher Mr. Logan without causing a major incident. The new Glory was a skillful schmoozer, and I mean that in the most complimentary way. She made small talk sound like honey and mercy, delivered center stage from beneath a spotlight. She endeared herself to administrators and parents alike, even my own mother who took to Glory instantly.
And the boys — well, they absolutely adored Glory. They bumbled after her like hounds. Unadoptable shelter hounds with ever-so-slight brain damage, and drooling problems.
Boys didn’t look at me once, let alone twice.
Me, the walking overcoat.
Glory Davis was the very first person to demonstrate to me that radical personal refashioning really could happen, and the way she sported that change made me want it for myself.
I wanted that kind of complete turn-around that gave people whiplash: “Oh my God…Kim, is that you?”
How could I do what Glory had done? Glory, who at our junior high graduation ceremony, made everyone gasp in unison. Even parents. She made the in-crowd look positively dowdy that day in their uniform of madras plaid calf-length skirts, penny loafers and oxford shirts; the girls from the “right” housing developments, the Melissas, the Kristins and Pams. Glory flashed a toothpaste-commercial smile and kept her gaze on a point just an inch or two above the horizon, then sashayed down the center aisle of folding chairs on our gymnasium floor, wearing a fire engine red dress with fluttering sleeves and a skirt made of six tiers of georgette. A simple pendant rested against her tan décolleté. She was the only girl in our class who could have worn that dress so well, and she knew it, and the world forgave her for it.
* * *
One night that autumn, I lay on my twin bed, on my stomach, up on my elbows, with a clean notebook page before me and a blue ballpoint pen in one hand. I began taking a thorough inventory of my flaws, literally from head to toe. Hair, eyebrows, skin, nose, ears, lips, teeth, arms, belly, hips, hands, thighs, heels. I scribbled a long list of everything that needed to be perfected physically, then added “wardrobe” and “personality” at the bottom.
Then, to the side of each physical feature on the list, I made a smaller checklist of steps I could take to improve it. I tore other pages from the notebook and created daily and weekly schedules incorporating these steps — hundreds of steps — working them into time slots before and after school, and after dinner. It was a rigid, full and unforgiving regimen.
I was developing a personal boot camp on my way to total transformation.
When I was in the thick of boot camp, revved-up with fervid determination, I exercised every day of the week for at least two hours. It wasn’t fun, but my will to be thin sustained me.
I did twists at the waist and leg lifts. I jogged in place. I planned a week in advance every crumb I’d put into my mouth. Foods I loathed. Carrot sticks. Yogurt, which smelled of vomit.
I was determined to lose as much weight as quickly as possible. So fast, people would positively marvel at me.
I brushed my hair every evening, one hundred strokes on each side and two hundred strokes in back, to stimulate natural oils and combat my tendency to frizz.
I applied a growth formula to my eyelashes before bed.
I rubbed a skin lightening cream into my finger joints, because they were a shade darker than the rest of my hands and I thought they looked funny.
I steamed my pores wide open and cleansed my face raw.
I exfoliated my heels, whether I needed to or not.
I practiced sculpting my nose to appear more narrow, using different shades of brown and beige eye shadow.
I rearranged my closet and drawers and made an exhaustive record of every possible combination of separates. Every night I wrote down what I would wear the next day, right down to the earrings, and tacked it to the back of my bedroom door.
I checked books out of the library on etiquette and the art of conversation, and copied the information by hand into spiral notebooks, as a way to better assimilate the data.
I was afraid of dentists, but I had a gap between my two front teeth wide enough to fit a third tooth, and I was self-conscious about it. I felt as long as I had this gap, my chances of being pretty were nil. So I fashioned home-made braces out of a paper clip, curling two hooked ends of a crooked length of metal around my teeth to urge them together. I wore them in the privacy of my bedroom for as long as I could stand the pressure.
And oh, how I felt the passion! I wanted to show myself and the world that I was a winner. A gal who had it all together, worthy of singing the Enjoli perfume jingle:
I can bring home the bacon
Fry it up in a pan
And never let you forget you’re a man,
’Cause I’m a woman…Enjoli!
I also drew before-and-after pictures of myself, as a motivator.
I drew the “after” me thinner — much thinner than I could ever humanly be. I drew myself as stick-like figure without curves of any kind. Like a popsicle stick with a head, dressed in Vivienne Westwood leather. And I wasn’t a child with limited artistic ability, either. You’d realize this immediately if you’d seen the “before” picture. But somehow, I knew what a proper “after” picture should look like, and it more closely resembled the classic stick-person than realism.
Smaller was virtuous. Smaller was pretty. Smaller was everything a girl should want to be. A better body was one lacking in all bumps and bulges, whittled clean of protrusions and humps.
I recognized the difference between the “before” and “after” pictures of dieters in my mother’s women’s magazines. Before and after pictures were plastered on the walls of her Weight Watchers meeting place. Richard Simmons was always going on television with his most successful disciples, and their “before” photos were usually projected onto the back wall of a talk show set — morbidly obese people with hands folded on top of giant bellies. But then the “after” would come strolling out from backstage, holding his or her former fat jeans between two wide outstretched hands, and the audience would roar with approval. The host predictably laughed, “You can fit your whole body into one leg of your old jeans now!”
Make-overs got great ratings. New hair, the right rouge, a blouse from the appropriate Color Me Beautiful palette (“Louise here is a summer, but her entire life she was wearing autumn colors that made her look sallow”), tied up in a bow the happy shade of twenty pounds lighter.
I saw it everywhere. It could be done. People could change themselves entirely.
I didn’t hang my before-and-after drawing out in the open. I kept it tucked in the back of my Snoopy wallet, next to the group picture of Duran Duran and a TV Guide clipping of a youthful Timothy Hutton. I didn’t want other people knowing what my plans were. I cringed at the thought of anyone else realizing my secret wish to be thin and pretty. If they knew, they might crush my dream, tell me before I even tried that I would never, ever win.
They might convince me that no matter what I wore or weighed, I would never be good enough for widespread acceptance.
I was unwilling to hear it.
I was determined to summon all my strength, all that remarkable raw human will that made desperate mothers lift cars to free their pinned offspring, that made soldiers turn back and dart through the crossfire to save a baby-faced, fallen Oklahoman in fatigues. I was feverish with possibility. Yes, I vowed. I’ll tap that power! I had a noble goal and I would achieve it. I would become so smart, charming, disciplined and wise, that I would maintain perfection in every area of my life.
Before drifting off to sleep, I thought very hard about the fantasy me, thinking so hard that my eye sockets felt sore. I made up mantras and whispered them over and over again, in case some god-like entity was listening and might come to my aid. Be the perfect me. Make the dream real. Transformation happens.
Inevitably, though, my rigid boot camp lifestyle started breaking down. I couldn’t sustain it.
I started eating things outside of my plan, succumbing to intense cravings for all the foods I wasn’t allowed to have, like Ring Dings, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and those crispy shoestring potato sticks that came in the peel-back can.
One good wheezing attack and I was scared away from exercise.
I was bitterly disappointed in myself for failing.
Looking back, I find it sad that I was so eager for positive attention from boys. Sad that I couldn’t recognize that I was adorable just the way I was. That I was unable to appreciate my own quirky flair. That TV and movies had taught me that beauty only looked one way and blinded me to the unique, inherent beauty in everyone. That I misdirected so much crackling energy trying to conform to a narrow beauty standard, when I could have used it to create amazing things that reflected my truest self.
Glory and I were standing in the lunch line in the school cafeteria. I’d brought my “diet lunch” from home, having relocated my will of steel and recommitted to boot camp, but I always bought my skim milk at school. I looked over Glory’s shoulder, at the pink melamine tray she held in her hands. A rectangular, cardboard-like slice of institutional pizza lay at its center, and its upper corners were balanced by a paper cup of grapes and a carton of milk, respectively. She turned to me and glanced at the tiny milk carton in my hand, and the brown bag I clutched in the other.
“You bring your lunch on Pizza Friday?” she questioned.
“I didn’t used to,” I sighed. “But I’ve been trying to lose weight and I’m not doing so great. I brought half a turkey-and-mustard sandwich. Glory, tell me something. What did you do to get so skinny? And how are you not getting fat again eating like that?” I nodded in the direction of her pizza.
She gave me a strange, blank look, then slowly turned her gaze on the pizza.
“I don’t know,” she shrugged. And just like that, it seemed the conversation was over.
But I didn’t want it to be. No. I was standing there, waiting for answers. In fact, when we eventually got to our table, I intended to whip out a pen and paper and take notes.
I prompted her again. “No, I mean, what did you eat over the summer? Every day?”
We approached the cashier and Glory put her tray down and began digging into her change purse. As she placed the silvery coins into the lunch lady’s raw, waiting hand, she gave me a quick glance, her eyebrows furrowed in confusion and her mouth kinked up on one side.
“Every day?” she repeated. “Kimberly Anne, how in the world do you expect me to remember that?”
“In general,” I corrected, quickly handing the lunch lady my dime and scurrying after her. “I just need to know what worked for you,” I lowered my voice as we approached the matrix of lunch tables crowded with jawing eighth graders.
When we were finally tucked neatly in at our own table, with our lunches laid out before us, Glory shrugged and shook her head. “I didn’t do nothin’.”
And that really was the end of the conversation.
She doesn’t want to share the secret, I thought. She wants it all to herself.
I was disappointed, but not bitter.
For a long time, the fact that Glory Davis hadn’t purposely gone on a diet or attended charm school that summer was completely lost on me. I don’t think she engineered her own transformation as tooth-gnashingly as I tried to engineer mine.
Maybe all that happened was that someone told her she was beautiful. And maybe for once, she believed it.