I know what fat girls look like. There are a few fat girls in our grade, the grades below us, like the round girl who always wins the talent show because her mother is always a judge. I do not categorize myself as a fat girl, not in fifth or sixth grade, but I do know my clothes don’t fit right, have a history of fitting poorly no matter what. Part of the problem, I am convinced, is my mother: she doesn’t understand what the other girls are wearing. She is taking me to the wrong stores. If we went to another store, we’d find it, what the other girls have. But I’m not in control here, as much as I want to be. I know what I’m looking for, and I know we keep missing it. Maybe just one more store. Maybe between the dressing room and home, something magical will happen. Maybe if we buy this and I wear it to school tomorrow, I won’t have the same jokes made at my expense. “Meg’s so hot,” the boys say. Even classmates who don’t know what sarcasm is can hear it dripping from their voices, the exaggeration, the italics. “Meg, will you go out with me?”
My mother and I spend a lot of time in dressing rooms, looking at ridiculous clothes that I insist I will wear but never do. The clothes made for sixth graders are made for skinny, hipless bodies, and I am again and again surprised that each pair of pants refuses to transform me into one of them, into Hannah or Megan B. or Megan C. or Katie O.
The problem is the pants are all khakis. The school dress code is uniforms, a rule that begins sometime around fourth grade, and although we discover at some point in late sixth grade that uniforms can’t be enforced—that the school can’t provide them to students who can’t afford them—my mother has me follow the rules. Khaki pants, with a belt, shirts tucked in. White blouses or otherwise polo shirts (acceptable colors: white, red, navy blue, deep green). As an alternative to pants, pleated skirts (I own one—navy blue, love it, grow out of it) or scratchy skorts in cheap polyester (navy blue or khaki). I wear skorts for a while, but by sixth grade everyone wears pants, khaki pants with flared legs.
The flared leg is not part of dress code, but I desperately search for pants that will work on my body. I tuck in my shirt over and over again, loop my belt through the loops. Tucking my shirt in isn’t negotiable, so I don’t dwell on the soft blob of stomach so much as I notice how it alters the fit of the pants. Hannah’s stomach is flat, her belt buckle perfectly centered on her body.
The real test comes when I sit down on whatever chair, stool, or shelf the dressing room provides. Always I watch the pants gap in the back, awkwardly held aloft with the belt. When Megan C. sits down, the pants stay flat to her back. Everyone else’s pants seem to fit. And if somehow a pair of pants passes the test, not gapping at the back—through finagling, or a tight belt, or sheer force of will based on the way the flares look when I am standing up—they are instantly ruined if I remember to put my shoes back on.
When I start to wear flared pants, the flare creeps up my leg when I sit down. When Katie O. sits down, even though she is taller than the rest of us, her pants still cover her shoes, but my flared khakis almost surely expose not just the tops of my shoes but the white socks I wear with them. This, I have learned, is called “highwaters.” I don’t understand the origin or logic of the term and have to ask what it means, but from the first time I hear it, I know it’s bad. Just when I think I’ve found a pair of pants that aren’t the sad, shapeless polyester uniform pants, they turn out to be highwaters.
Once, I convince my mother to buy me a polo shirt from The Rebel Store—a ramshackle house that is, to our hometown, an institution: the source for all things West Monroe Rebels. High school football, second only to church, is the thing around which my hometown revolves; when the Rebels go to the state championship at the Dome, public school gets cancelled and almost everyone skips town.
A boy in my sixth-grade class has a grandfather who coaches the Rebels, and I get the idea that most people I know seem to think this is both cool and interesting. Though my overwhelming impression of my classmate and most of his friends is that they—like most boys—exist for the purpose of annoying girls, I am forced to sit next to him in several classes due to our names coming after one another in the alphabet; and perhaps this proximity is what spurs me toward looking for a small semblance of belonging. The polo shirt is navy blue and tight against my skin, not loose like the other uniform polos, and the left side is embroidered with the big red and white “WM” logo. Underneath, in red script, “Rebels” is shortened to “Rebs.”
The day I debut my polo shirt, I already feel some percentage “cooler.” Then my classmate gets a look at it. “I bet you don’t even know who the Rebels are,” he scoffs. He is mostly right.
I forget what specifically makes me want to join the pep squad, but I can approximate: I want to be part of the kind of thing that all my peers seem to think is fun, to be almost like a cheerleader. I want to be “cool” in junior high. I want to prove that I have what it takes to climb the ranks and be a “popular” girl, someone boys think is pretty. I want to be like my mother, who was popular in high school and a member of the dance team. I want confidence to magically appear out of the sky and shower upon me. I want to wear a blue pleated skirt because my favorite thing in the entire world probably is the anime Sailor Moon, and Sailor Moon wears a blue pleated skirt.
The girls in Sailor Moon wear school uniforms: long pleated skirts with matching blouses, sailor collars. When I start watching Sailor Moon in the summer after fifth grade, I wish that our uniforms were more like theirs, or that everyone in my hometown dressed that way. The girls in Sailor Moon are all the “misfits” in their classes, but to me they all look pretty, and pretty girls don’t seem like misfits. Serena doesn’t fit in because she’s a bad, lazy student; Amy is too smart; Lita is tall; Rei goes to another school; and there are rumors about Mina. But together they’re more interesting and beautiful than all the girls in the rest of the school, so much that only one of the nonmagical characters has a name—Molly.
Like every girl who watches Sailor Moon, I want to be like the title character, Serena. I want to be a secret superhero and princess, to use magic powers to save the world. In the blow-up kiddy pool we put on the backyard patio for my little brothers, I play Sailor Moon in my swimsuit. In every store, I look for sailor collars. I am stuck with the rounded collar on my white blouse, the shape my mother calls “Peter Pan.”
I am excited the day we drive to the junior high to purchase my pep squad gear—two bushy plastic pompoms (dark red and navy blue), athletic shorts and a t-shirt for practice, and of course the uniform: bright blue with red and white stripes on the chest and hem of the pleated skirt, plus matching blue bloomers like a pair of panties to wear underneath.
My mother is filling out the paperwork to buy my pep squad uniform. We are in a room with other girls, other mothers, and someone in charge of things is presiding over stacked cardboard boxes of uniforms. I don’t remember whether we change clothes right there, making sure we’ve picked the right sizes, or if the pieces of the uniform are held up against my body. The scene is fuzzy, but the details that stick are the boxes, the weird carpet, and the poor start that I feel we are off to when we walk away with my uniform, try as I might to forget it. The women in charge are guessing easily at numbers, handing skirts and tops to the other girls around me, smiling and laughing with their mothers. But no one is smiling or laughing with my mother. I swear the woman who hands me my uniform sets her mouth in a tight line as she wonders aloud if we need the next size up. I read her loud and clear: my body does not belong here.
In seventh grade we are finally free of uniforms. We wear blue jeans, and I find some that fit me alright, but still we tuck our shirts in, so I amass a collection of black belts with various embellishments. One has an oval belt buckle covered in plastic rhinestones. One is lined sparingly in square studs. I wear sandals to school some days, chunky brown things that smell when they get wet or sand-colored cloggy orthopedic sandals from Walmart, a brand called “Earth Shoes.” Sometimes I am allowed to wear to school my platform foam sandals—black with a white stripe, and two wide black bands on top—but mostly not.
When the weather gets cold I start wearing sweaters. My mother chooses ugly ones she calls “classic,” shades of brown and powder blue in cliché sweater patterns and scratchy sweater fabrics, but my favorite sweaters are soft, made of something called chenille. One is a mock turtleneck in solid lime green; the other is deep purple with stripes (pink, lime green, and bright blue). I feel good in these sweaters, happy with the colors and texture.
Other days I wear a light blue zip-up jacket that says “SUPERGIRL” in puffy white letters, divided by the zipper—“SUPER” on one side and “GIRL” on the other. The jacket has a small “S” logo on a pocket, the one shared by Supergirl and Superman, but I wear it because Sailor Moon is a supergirl and she is my idol. It matches exactly none of my other clothes.
I am afraid of a girl in my English class who is pretty and confident but not always great at our English homework. Sometimes we are assigned to work together and I try to help her, explaining the answers but always worrying that she will start asking me about myself or, worse, something I am wearing. The boys think she’s “hot,” and she brags on the first day of school that over the summer she got her name changed legally—from her boring first name to her much more exciting middle name. I am afraid of her because I think she will make fun of me. Mostly she tells me I’m smart, but in the kind of way that means she wants me to give her the answers.
She is in my P.E. class, too, which is a new experience for me—we didn’t have a locker room or change clothes in front of each other in elementary school. While most of us try to change quickly, to spend as little time exposed as possible, she parades around shirtless. She wears silky red-satin push-up bras, and she wants everyone to know it.
One day I think she is complimenting me when she says I remind her of a character in a movie, someone played by Mandy Moore. I don’t know the movie—A Walk to Remember—but I know Mandy Moore is pretty and a pop star, so I am surprised. When I ask really? she responds by asking, “Do you secretly have some, like, horrible disease?” I say no slowly, beginning to get the feeling that she isn’t giving me a compliment. She asks, “Are you sure?”
My mother starts teaching me to wear foundation. I smear it on my face but am poor at blending it all the way in; before school my friend Kristen is always ready to inspect my nose and point out the orange streaks.
My classmates get highlights in their dark hair and lowlights in their blonde hair; they crimp sections and straighten sections and grow out their bangs. I make no plans to dye my hair or grow my bangs. I want my hair to get Sailor Moon-length, long enough to twist into two giant round buns on the top of my head that then hang down in floor-length pigtails. Until then, I insist on wearing my hair in two braids every day with different-colored scrunchies, despite my mother’s suggestion that I pull back just the front from my face. Eventually I start listening to her: I think it makes me look like Sailor Pluto.
On seventh-grade yearbook picture day, this is what I wear: blue jeans with a black belt (plain, braided) and a tucked-in t-shirt displaying, in large black letters with red, blue, and orange embellishments, the Nicene Creed—a Catholic prayer. The scrunchies for my short, fat braids are red with white polka dots and, if I remember right, orange. I have an argument against dressing up for picture day, my argument being, “This is what I normally look like. What’s the point of picture day if that’s not what you don’t normally wear?” My mother gives in.
When we learn our pep squad dances, we are each given a number that corresponds to our spot. I think it’s supposed to make the arrangement seem more fair, but my assigned spot is toward the very back of the long lines of girls. I am good at remembering what comes next in the dance, at always getting the next step, but I feel awkward sitting at football games and cheering. I don’t know what to do with my voice, how to get the shout right.
We attend a camp before school starts to learn everything: a few days in the school gym presided over by girls on the dance team. They are pretty and silly and outgoing and I wonder how they got to be that way, how they look so relaxed and are so well liked, how their t-shirts and shorts and sneakers complement their perfect, athletic bodies so well. One of the pep squad sponsors, a teacher, is also in charge of the dance team and is always nice to them, but in the hallways at school she is mean to everyone else, especially those of us in Gifted and Talented.
I get mastitis, an infection in my breast. I wake up every morning and have to take giant pills I can’t swallow whole; my mother crushes and blends them into chocolate pudding and they taste like eggs smell: sulfur and chalk. Every time I move my arms or my upper body, my breast hurts—even when I cough or laugh too hard. I bring a doctor’s note to pep squad practice and take it to the teacher, explaining it to her since she hasn’t heard of mastitis. She glares at me. “Then what am I supposed to do with you?” she snaps, her mouth a hard, angry line.
What I feel in that moment, I know later, is rage. I am required to attend practice, so I am here, and I believe I can learn the dances by watching. She is supposed to excuse me, to tell me where to sit out, to accept that I am in pain. But what I also feel in that moment is hot tears pricking at my eyes. I don’t answer. I stand in the formation and practice like everyone else, the infection searing through me, white-hot.
My favorite shirt in seventh grade is black on the back, with long black sleeves and a front-side print of neon signs at night. The signs are in Chinese (though of course at the time I’m not sure whether it’s Chinese or Japanese), and down one side of the shirt the print is overlaid with giant Chinese characters in bright blue glitter. I consider it the coolest piece of clothing I have ever owned and wear it carefully, always wanting to save it for special occasions. The shirt is tight to my skin, stretchy, and I like the way it looks—at one time I have the composition of the material memorized (specific percentages of rayon and spandex) so I can check future shirts for it. I love the shirt because it is bright and colorful and reminds me of the scenes of the city in Sailor Moon.
When I move up to eighth grade, I am in a P.E. class with some of the girls from my G.T. classes but can’t keep up with them. They are still effortlessly pretty and members of various sport teams. Sometimes the P.E. teacher has us all run laps and then play softball: whoever gets back first is one team, and the rest of us stragglers are the other. What results are boring, depressing games of softball in which one team can do everything and the other can do nothing. It is a terrible idea.
Still, in my group of stragglers, I make two friends. My first friend is Liz, who is severely overweight but likes to draw and likes anime and in a twisted but honest way makes me feel less self-conscious about my body because at least it isn’t as exaggerated as hers. My other friend is Crystal Chen, who is an exchange student from China. Crystal and I have quiet, hesitant conversations, mostly consisting of her listening to me talk. She gives me a snow globe for Christmas and writes in my yearbook in pink pen—the entire message except for my name unreadable to me, as it isn’t in English. By this time my favorite shirt from seventh grade has gone out of style, and after I meet Crystal, I am glad. I don’t know what the shirt says. Maybe it says something stupid. Maybe it says nothing at all.
When I go to try on my marching band uniform for ninth grade, I put the bib overalls on backwards. I don’t understand how you’re supposed to zip them, and the moms running the uniform room—“the cave,” as it’s called—laugh at me, as if the fact that the zipper goes in the front is obvious. The first pair of bib pants is too big, so I am given the next size down. All of a sudden I can see my stomach, feel tightness at my hips; but the last pants were so obviously huge that I’d rather wear the smaller size. “These are fine,” I lie as they assign the pants to me and drop a shako hat onto my head.
“If you can’t see,” they tell me, “you’re wearing it right.”
It’s something like a year later, after I understand the marching band routine, that I confess to one of the band moms that my pants are too tight. The next size up is too big, so she gives me a different pair of the same size I’d worn before. They don’t pull, don’t feel too tight. They fit.
“These must’ve been altered for someone!” she laughs, holding up my old bib pants, simple as that.