The summer I turned eleven, I was in Oklahoma visiting family and we were at a mall having an unexpected shopping trip. Growing up poor, going shopping for the fun of it was a serious treat. I was the pinnacle of fifth grade fashion in a khaki Tweety Bird skort and my little white Keds. It was a beautiful summer day. My cousin and brother had decided to include me — the annoying kid sister of the equation — in their activities all morning. Needless to say, I was feeling really well adjusted and happy.
As we headed across the parking lot, I ran ahead to open the door for everyone else. Just as I was adding my natural politeness to the list of things to feel good about, my mother walked past me, stopped dead in her tracks, and made a terrible face.
‘Phew! Is that you? You smell like B.O.’
I had no idea what B.O. was. All I knew was that I was supposed to be mortified by the accusation. I stood there in abject horror, well aware that my brother and cousin were in easy hearing. The likelihood of me being welcomed into the fold any longer had just left the building. My mother barreled on.
‘Don’t you wear deodorant? You’re really ripe!’
We went to buy my first stick of antiperspirant that very day. I dreaded our return to my aunt’s farm and the subsequent teasing that lay in wait for me.
Keep in mind, my mother was raised in a very different environment than I was. A lot of stock was put into appearance and proper etiquette. For the most part, my mum accepted the fact that I was a hopeless tomboy and much more likely to come home covered in dirt than swathed in perfume. I will give her a great deal of credit: my mother has always been quick to tell me I look pretty when I was dress up and I never faced the fat-shaming that some of my peers suffered. I feel that the criticism about my body that I did receive was made in a genuine effort to bring out the best in me. Unfortunately, it had its repercussions.
This was the first time my mum called me out for my biological functions, but it wouldn’t be the last.
A year later, we were preparing for our first and only family trip to Disney World. Again, we would be travelling with my aunt and cousin, who were no strangers to the wonderland we were headed for. It was to be my first ride in an airplane and I could not be more thrilled. Mum and I made a trip to K-Mart to buy me a brand new swimsuit and I had found the perfect one. In the changing room, I drank myself in. I looked cool. I looked girly. This was weird. I turned to my mother with my arms flung wide and saw proud tears at the corners of her eyes. She told me I looked great and we would definitely be taking the suit home with us. And then she told me that it was time I start shaving my armpits, ‘So your brother and cousin won’t make fun of you.’
Again, I didn’t understand. Weren’t those supposed to be there? I wasn’t sure; they’d just shown up in the middle of the night. It’s not like I’d been hanging out behind the school and picking up pubes with the bad kids.
I know that my stories aren’t unique. The number of girlfriends I have with similar anecdotes up their sleeves is too high to keep track. And like them, so much of Personal Lady Hygiene was thrust upon me without explanation; it was all a matter of Ladies Don’t or Ladies Do. Ladies don’t have body hair or unibrows or torn cuticles. Ladies always smell nice and act composed. They weren’t realistic, but these were the expectations.
The real crux of the matter was that no one seemed to be willing to teach me the skills I apparently needed. Both of my parents worked full-time, and there were no older girls nearby to take me under their wing and teach me the ways of Woman. The kids I hung around with were mostly like me: scrappy, poor, and disinterested. Once puberty was in full swing, a lot of concern was placed on the secondary changes my body was going through, but no one seemed to know how to treat, prevent, and cure the problems. I stole turns with my mother’s make-up, trying to find the right amount of Under Eye Concealer that would deter the public’s ability to see my myriad pimples (spoiler alert: there isn’t one). While my mum was happy to curl and style my hair for shows and Homecoming alike, there was never enough time to teach me how to take care of these things myself. And when it came to more sensitive topics — underwear, periods, and family planning — I wasn’t so much ill equipped as set adrift without ever having seen a body of water.
Once in high school, I bought my first tube of concealer. I started wearing proper bras. And I further discovered that I was not the only girl trying to figure out this whole Girl thing. We learned to pool our resources. I was lousy at make-up, but Laura wasn’t. And Sarah was ace at baking. And Addi and Felicia knew about boys. And Paige and I, we could work up papers so air tight, they were bound to be accepted by the college application boards. My senior year lunch hour became a coalition board, a chance to swap stories and compare notes. This is where my real education took place. Word got out, and more and more girls joined us, bringing their own questions and expertise to the table. It was safe to bring up those things you always wondered, safe to ask the table Is it just me? In the hallways and at class we may never meet eyes, but we were united once we plopped down for lunch.
I learned something vitally important in those lunch table sessions, something that I to this day find that not many women are ever told. Being one of the informed, I feel I should impart this knowledge on all of you: We’re all gross. We all do gross things. We all have weird, gross problems. And, most important of all, that’s okay.
You’re thirty years old and have pimples in unbelievable places? You’re not alone.
You wake up to find you’ve grown an impressive beard in the night? Join the club.
You can’t understand why your stomach/butt/nose/period are/is behaving so irrationally?
Me too. Don’t you hate that?
Let’s hang out. Let’s talk about it. If we can’t celebrate our grossness, let’s at least commiserate.
After all, misery loves company. So do weird pimples.