I had an intense urge to troll Oprah’s website yesterday, because I happened to stumble across this article that was linked via Huffington Post. In it, a woman about my age bemoans the fact that she has become invisible, and the commenters also bemoan the fact that they have become invisible too. Why? Because they were pretty girls and pretty women, and now that they are older, they are not getting the attention they used to take for granted from men, and other women, that validated their sense of self-worth daily.
Well, boo-effing-hoo. I’ve been invisible all my adult life.
This morning, I had a crazy “back in high school” dream no doubt triggered by pondering my “invizibul girl” life. In it, a guy that I didn’t know well, but had been friendly with, argued with me about being invisible or unattractive. In fact, this dream-guy told me that I was admirable for having “an awesome and world-changing command of goof.”
Yes, my subconscious reminded me that my greatest attribute as a woman is my awesome and world-changing command of goof. It’s not my appearance, but my cock-eyed outlook that makes me stand out. I have to agree with my subconscious that my command of goof has served me well over the years.
So I guess it shouldnt have been shocking to me how difficult it was to be distinctly ignored. I hadnt been aware that the glances Id been accustomed to had been falling off. That afternoon, I felt as if I had been stripped of all color and was the only gray-and-white figure in a richly tinted painting. I was Marion Kerby, one of the ghosts in Topper, all dressed up and nowhere to…be seen.
Welcome to my world, bitchez: I’ve been invisible since high school, except to a select group of males that were more interested in the color of my hair (bright red) than my face (unconventional) and figure (pear-shaped). Thank God, I married one. My husband David thinks I’m beautiful; I can’t see it, but I love him for it.
I pondered this story all day yesterday, remembering how odd it was to go from being intensely, uncomfortably visible in grade school and junior high (I was bullied by both boys and girls for being red-headed and chunky) to being completely socially invisible in high school and college (no dates, few friends, no signs of interest whatsoever).
At first it was a relief not to be bullied or hassled on my way home, or to be cornered by a pack of shrieking girls calling me names and pulling my hair. Fortunately, ALL of them were headed to East High, while I was going to Highland. And the worst ones were a year older, so just as in 6th grade, I had a year off from being bullied in 9th grade (Utah has since changed the grade divisions, but then it was K-6, 7-9, and then 10-12).
They had made fun of my clothes for so long that I strove to blend in when I entered high school, which made for some memorable fights with my mom about what I would (and would NOT) wear. I was a hard shape to fit, as puberty had been cruel to me: no boobs, big hips and thighs, thick stocky legs and cankles. Even with makeup on, I could charitably be called something between “sorta cute” and “unusual.” I didn’t smile, because my smile looked more like a grimace, and I tended to squint because my glasses were always a little behind the prescription I needed for my bad vision.
In my junior year, I started out with contacts, a new haircut, and a cute dress that was the only thing I found on the annual school-shopping screamfest that was flattering to my shape. It followed “the rules” which I had instinctively worked out for myself: it added interest to my top and deemphasised my big bottom, and it wasn’t a light fabric so it didn’t cling to “problem areas.” I still wish I had that dress, just for comparison: it was a denim pullover shirtwaist with a wrap collar/neckline that had colorful Mexican poncho fabric insets (also on the rolled cuffs). It was the 70’s, and it was the only thing I could convince my mom to buy at a real department store, and not a Kmart or Sears or Penney’s knockoff of a “name brand.” Money was a problem, and a complete lack of style was another.
I walked in the first day, feeling terrific, to get my photo taken for that year’s student ID card, which was taken by the male cheerleaders for some reason. For a brief moment, as I smiled happily, I thought “This is going to be MY YEAR. One of the most popular guys in school is taking MY PICTURE. He can’t help but notice me, and the other boys are going to notice me, too.”
He took the picture, said something like “What are you so happy about, sunshine?” and encouraged the girl cheerleaders to join in making fun of the way I looked. I don’t recall if they did anything other than smirk prettily; they were too busy cutting down the Polaroids and laminating the little pictures for everybody. I liked the picture, and thought I actually looked cute. But soon enough, I found that I was still invisible in class, in the hallways, and at games, and people talked around me rather than to me.
I went to exactly one school dance that year (or any year). It was the “Hello Dance,” not long after registration. It was one of those ones where people weren’t expected to have a “date,” though the girls felt they did anyway, and tended to come in packs in order to avoid the shame of not having a male escort. I went with some girls I was friendly with, one of which had a car. I stood around waiting for something to happen; I danced with one friend from church, and then the head cheerleader guy pretended to greet me like a long-lost girlfriend, and walked past me to a group of giggling girls. They looked at me like “Yeah, you’re ridiculous, we’re laughing at you.”
That was it, I was done with standing around being alternately ignored or laughed at at the Hello Dance, so I said “goodbye, dance” and went home. I never went to another dance, other than “girls choice” events I had to attend as a member of Job’s Daughters. Most of those, I ended up signing up to serve refreshments; I managed to ask dates to two, and the experiences both turned out to be disappointing or embarassing. I gave up on even that and hoped that college, in liberal non-religious Oregon and not conservative religious Utah, would be more fun.
I was worried after the ID badge and “Hello Dance” incidents that I was about to become “that ugly fat girl that everybody teases” as a junior and senior, but fortunately that didn’t happen. Unfortunately, I became “that red-headed girl that’s kind of weird, don’t talk to her.” I was never asked out. I never dared to “be myself,” I ignored girlfriends who urged me to be more outgoing or “be bubbly.” I hung back for the rest of high school and waited for others to make the first move, because experience had taught me in junior high NOT to be outgoing; that way always led to rejection and sometimes public humiliation.
I became, in fact, completely invisible wherever I went.
The rest of my high school years were spent going to and from school, sometimes going to basketball and football games, but not going to any social events at all outside of church. When the big seasonal dances and prom season rolled around, I was baffled. It seemed people were going, but I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to wait to be asked, or try to arrange some kind of fixup. I sat home and wondered why people said high school was supposed to be this magical time of dates, parties, and socializing. I just didn’t get it.
My poor mom tried to deal with my mopiness; I was a wet mess. She gave me all kinds of good advice about “being a friend to make a friend,” and she’d say “You’re such a pretty girl, if you’d just try.” That would just make me shriek with frustration and have door-slamming tantrums, because I knew it was all lies, lies lies: I was ugly, and fat, and life was not fair to girls like me. I wish I’d gotten some kind of counseling, but Mom didn’t believe in that.
A boy called me once, apparently, but didn’t leave a message. I accused my mother of making it up to make me feel better for being the kind of girl that sat home every weekend. I also think she orchestrated a fake “Valentine’s Day” message that was taped to the front door one year in junior high. Thank God, my husband David has given me some cute and funny Valentines over the years; it helped me get over a lot of that stupid self-imposed “not pretty enough to have a Valentine” bullshit.
I spent a lot of time in my room, daydreaming and feeling sorry for myself. Like I said, I was a wet mess, but I didn’t have much to work with other than my sense of humor (best described as “quirky”) and the accident of my bright red hair, something that only about 1% of the general population actually have without resorting to hair dye.
Actually, my hair wasn’t that big an asset, as it was limp and wouldn’t hold a curl, and a disastrous perm my mom gave me junior year didn’t help.
So I became “the goofy fat redhead girl;” one handsome football player sometimes greeted me with “Hi, Goofy!” in choir class, and his spectacularly good looking younger brother called me “Copper Bottom.” I didn’t think they even knew my name: nobody knew my name. So I was shocked and kind of annoyed when they both signed my yearbook on the last day of senior year in the right place, near my name, but with my unflattering nicknames. Thanks guys; 35 years later, I’m still kind of irked about that. But I left them both cranky, goofy messages in return, so maybe we’re even.
I think I was flirted with exactly… twice in high school, not sure. Again, it was someone from senior-junior choir. That seemed to be the only class where I was at least a little bit visible (or maybe audible). The rest of my time in school, I had a boyfriend (someone from church) but that ended without any of the fun “going to the dance” moments.
I actually browbeat him into taking me to the Homecoming Dance that year; we got all dressed up, I ordered him to get me flowers, and we were driven to the door of the school gym by his dad. At that point he balked, refused to walk in and be seen by all the popular kids wearing a suit, and we left to go to a movie. I was crushed; I wanted to be seen (and possibly admired), but my boyfriend refused to go along with my stupid pretty-girl fantasy. The movie was in French, with subtitles. It started out with an ambulance and devolved into some kind of complicated love-triangle murder-suicide; my boyfriend was impossibly bored because he didn’t like reading. It was a date that decades later would be described as EPIC FAIL. Mom had made me a peacock green silk granny dress; maybe this was actually a kindness that nobody saw me in it.
A few months later, he broke up with me (which was probably a relief for both of us and our families). I was assured by my Jobie girlfriends that the rest of the year, I would be asked out and get lots of attention from the boy-men that were the dating pool. At that time, you could not be both LDS and a Masonic group member in Utah, so it was one social group where I felt I belonged. I hoped my Jobie friends were right.
However, none of the guys from school showed the least amount of interest, and neither did the guys at my church; the breakup apparently left me “off limits” afterwards to both groups because my ex-boyfriend was kind of a hood by Utah standards. The rest of the time, I was like a ghost in the hallways. I went everywhere by myself, and had no sense of belonging to any one clique although I hovered on the edges of one or two. I fell in with a group of girls from PE who were also weird, quirky misfits. None of us dated or went to dances. We waited high school out.
I had tried out for Pep Club and was one of the few that didn’t make the cut; my “cheer sisters” had come to the house to give me a homemade, oversized card that featured a weeping “Ramette” with long eyelashes and a poem about keeping school spirit alive “from the stands” and not from out “in the field or on the floor” in drill formation.
I had tried out for a musical small group for senior year, but found out I hadn’t made the cut early one morning, because some of the popular kids who made it in were on the air at the local radio station as part of their initiation prank. I was again one of the few that didn’t make the cut, though some of my friends had. Aside from my choir activities, that was it for extra-curricular involvement for me. I had done a fairly half-assed job at the goofy “school spirit” projects I had to submit for Pep Club all that one heady week of being a girl who belonged; I hadn’t really prepared carefully for the music audition. Still, I was disappointed, and lonely.
One childhood girlfriend went on to social and academic success, but we weren’t as close then as we’d been in grade school; that was partly different interests, and partly the cruel way things worked for non-LDS kids. Our friends tended to “drift away” whenever they were under intense pressure to socialize only with other LDS kids, at specific stages in their lives. I lost friends when they went through baptism at age 8, I lost friends in junior high when their “released time” LDS seminary classes covered dating and socializing only with other LDS young people. It happened again in high school, apparently, when the seminary classes across the street were working on the more mature “dating LDS” sections that supposedly encouraged people to proselytize their non-Mormon friends, and drop them if they weren’t receptive.
Yeah, I was socially invisible, AND a religious pariah! FUN!
If I had done things differently, if I had forced myself to be more outgoing and organize things to do with friends rather than them let them do all the work, maybe my brilliant high school career would have been more fun. But maybe it would have turned out pretty much the same, because of the social and religious pressures I was up against. Sometimes I tell myself it wasn’t my fault, the way I looked, though I could have dealt with it better.
I used my invisibility and anonymity to great comic effect at one of the 2 reunions I attended – I went to the 10 year reunion at a Salt Lake hotel, and hung out with people I didn’t know who had gravitated to the tables that featured minibottles of liquor (a delightful shock in Utah!).
That was actually fun. I had to first run the gauntlet of the namebadge table, staffed by some of the same girls that had been working on student IDs. They had no idea who I was, then when I gave my (still maiden) last name, they cut their eyes to the “Lonely Rams” poster they’d set up next to the table. It was on an easel, a posterboard that actually listed all the people who were not yet married – welcome back to Utah, indeed. The badge table women were ex-cheerleaders and Pep Club types, they had made cutesy posters with cartoon rams all during school, and here was one more example of their work.
Yes, my name was on it, and I was one of very, very few females on a list that represented about 5% of the people in my graduating class.
I was therefore irked to be singled out for public sympathy as a failed adult woman, and walked into the ballroom with a glint in my eye and a determination to make mischief. After meeting up with people I’d known, I set about mingling at the other “fun tables,” finally settling at the one that defiantly displayed the most mini-bottles. The people sitting there had gathered them from all the other tables around (the reunion package apparently included liquor at about half the tables, but the prissy LDS types didn’t want to even touch them). I greeted one girl as an old pal – she was also a Jobie, but from Bethel 1 (I was from Bethel #5) and we dragged some guy along with us on a horse-drawn carriage ride to “sober him up” at the end of the night.
I was at least partially visible that night, by dint of being pretty loud and “out” about not being like anyone else there. So at one point I found myself upstairs in a hospitality suite with a bunch of the “popular kids who were also the canyon party kegger kids” that I hadn’t known well. This was where I amused myself by going up to the most good-looking ex-jocks in the room, covering my badge, and challenging them to remember my name. The drunker they were, the funnier it got. One of them, Garth, earnestly tried to tell me he remembered me, the invisible girl.
“Oh, no, you don’t! You don’t know me from Adam. What’s my name?”
“Oh, you’re that redhead girl, I knew who you were! Umm…”
“Come on, Garth, what’s my name? You’d don’t know. We were in choir and you were on the football team (this was NOT the guy that called me ‘Goofy,’ either).”
“Yeah, I do, I saw you around, um….”
It was funny, it was gratifying. The other reunion I went to, 5 years later, was held at a country club, there was NO booze, and all the “fun” (translation: non-churchy) people stayed home. I ended up tangling with a kid who’d tried his best to proselytize me in high school. I had a satisfying time refuting him point by point, backed up by my extensive reading in books like Fawn Brodie’s “No Man Knows My History.” I finally left, since it was no fun arguing my right to be vocal about not being Mormon, and all the men in attendance were married (the divorced people apparently stayed home too). Almost everyone there were the parents of teenagers, and pretty stodgy parents, too.
Maybe it was partly the fact that I wasn’t LDS, (and outspoken about it) and that made me an untouchable. Maybe it was my own attitude, which was a mixture of “do you like me?” and “please don’t be mean to me” that made me unapproachable. Maybe there were tons of blond, pretty, toned girls and so anybody that didn’t fit that very specific mold was just not worth the effort.
Even with my own friends in school, church, and Jobies, I wasn’t just sort of invislble, I was sort of inaudible as well. I sensed that nobody paid much attention to me; I probably made a fool of myself by being clownish, because THAT was the only thing that seemed to get their attention.
I thought it would change in college, but it didn’t, not really. I did become partially visible at frat parties, but only near the end of the evening. I began to have a pretty good idea that my stock on the dating market was never going to rise.
No matter what my actual weight was, I was always a flat-chested, bottom-heavy pear shape. Males usually paid me no attention, but I did notice something odd: if I was standing or sitting behind something, where my lower half couldn’t be seen, they’d banter with me or make comic “lookit you and your flaming red hair! Hey, red!” comments. But if I walked out from behind a counter, or got out of a car, the eyes would drop away, the faces would lose expression.
During and after college, the only socializing I did was going to the bars to hear music, or going to the occasional dorm or house party. As far as I could tell, I was completely invisible in daylight, and mostly invisible at all other times. After moving to Seattle, I occasionally saw college friends, but as far as dating? Forget it. I lived there 10 years, dated very rarely (and briefly), and eventually went 7 years without even making eye contact with a male, unless he was a waiter.
I was so used to being invisible, in fact, that I was shocked when one of my adult niece’s male friends spoke to me directly on a beach and hking outing. My niece had more friends in Seattle than I did – and she’d never been there before, so there was that “social isolation” thing working against me. One of the unattached guys came up to me as we were exploring an old wrecked wooden dock on the beach at Magnolia Park:
“How come you never married?” he asked.
I was sort of surprised into a churlish answer, and wasn’t exactly happy about my apparent transition to tomboy-spinster-aunt status. I felt sort of bristly.
“I dunno, I always thought I’d have to be actually DATING somebody first.”
I remained invisible to almost all males right up until that fateful day in October 1994 when I became fully visible to just one man.
I’m a lucky girl, that I was finally in the right place at the right time – but I still struggle with negative self-image, especially when shopping for clothes in rooms with mirrors.
I don’t know, but to this day I still resent that as a young woman I was ridiculed for the way I looked, or completely invisible because of it. I envied girls that effortlessly sailed through life getting all the positive attention, dates, and opportunities they wanted just because they were decorative. I wasted a lot of money struggling with my appearance, and even now the prospect of “dressing up” – and still looking like a frumpy, pear-shaped lump – makes me want to spit and snarl. Even when I lost weight a couple of years ago (it’s come back), I couldn’t find a lot of clothes to fit, and I hate, hate, hate looking at myself in the mirror. I rarely bother with makeup, for that reason, though I like the way it looks when I do. I’m comfortable in my invisibility.
I know that people can say very cruel things to the morbidly obese, or passively agressively utter them within their hearing. I’m not in that league and so, thankfully, I’m also invisible to the sorts of jerks who make fat jokes in elevators.
So there’s that.
I guess I am okay with this, now. I got my hair cut the other day, my hair is still quite red and now sports some bright silver streaks in the front. The hairstylists are the only ones that give me compliments now other than my husband David; they marvel that it’s my natural color. That’s about as much attention I want or need from relative strangers, any more makes me extremely uncomfortable. Maybe I actively avoided visibility as a girl and woman, because getting attention usually led to heartache and humiliation.
Still, I don’t have much sympathy for this woman in the Oprah article, or the other women who posted comments wailing about their new-found invisibility. Most of them sound like nice women who’re at a loss at finding themselves without something they’ve counted on all their lives: their beauty and self-esteem (I could care less about their loss of “femininity,” being a lifelong tomboy).
But I can’t help feeling quite a bit of schadenfreude, when I think of some of the girls that hassled me in grade school and junior high.
Welcome to my world at last, all you ex-pretty mean girls. Now you’re as ugly on the outside as you always were on the inside. Enjoy your invisibility.