(137): An Ugly Duckling from Outer Space Hangs Out With Swans

Me at age 11 or 12. Frumpy but making an effort. The hair was achieved with a LOT of help from Mom.

You remember those cheesy, naively straightforward dramas that used to air right around 4 p.m. to catch the after school adolescent crowd? Afterschool Specials — all about the difficulties of kids and young adults with social interaction, drugs, dieting, dysfunctional families…you know, all that stuff that goes on that TV producers think they can solve with a simple video bromide. I watched a few of them but gave them up after they showed themselves to be too predictable and not really applicable in real life (or at least MY real life). At least that’s my memory of them.

I don’t think I could actually name one of them, except for the one everyone remembers with a teenage Helen Hunt hurling herself out a window on a PCP jag. Even then, that’s the only thing I remember about that particular episode. Nevertheless, I’m sure these stiff dramas are drawn from a kernel of real life experience of someone, somewhere.

I found myself sitting in a situation that reminded me inexorably of one of these ‘specials’ one day when I was 13. It was 1978, and I had a slightly older stepsister who had taken up smoking and was fashionably thin. She had honey blonde hair and that defiant “cool girl” attitude. She had a stable of friends who were straight out of Central Casting for a clique of appearance-obsessed girls, aged about 14–16. One day, when I was visiting my stepsister’s house, she was scheduled to hang out with her friends, and I said I’d like to come along if it was all right.

This was me at 13 or 14. I’ve definitely grown taller…

She told me it would be ok under one ironclad rule: I was not to speak or say anything that would embarrass her in front of her friends. She pointed out that they were all thin girls, and it was already embarrassing to have me there because I was “fat.” That was a revelation to me. I had no idea I was fat. I was about 5’3” and weighed no more than 105 lbs.; but I put it down to my stepsister not realizing what normal weight was, since she was about 5’ even and probably weighed 85 lbs. soaking wet.

When I got there, all the girls were talking about the next diet they were going to try. I goggled; none of these girls looked remotely overweight. The one that was bemoaning how fat she was probably weighed less than I did and was taller! It was all I could do to stay silent. All I could think was, “Her friends are insane! I’ve stepped into a frickin’ cult!” (I don’t think I thought the word “frickin’” at age 13 though; I was terribly straightlaced.)

I could just as easily have gone the other way and felt the stab of inadequacy and the drive to lose weight; I could have slid into anorexia then. But I was too much of a defiant, nerdy, free spirit. All I wanted to do was play sports and be good at it. Or be an astronaut. I was a real tomboy at that age. (Unfortunately for me, I wasn’t too good at the sports I tried, but I guess that’s another story).

I always wonder if one or more of those girls who sat there that day in 1978 comparing diet notes ended up falling into the anorexia trap. They seemed cut out to be the young lead players in an Afterschool Special on the subject. I did not envy them. To my adolescent mind, they were all thin and attractive, but they were all utterly blind to it. It sounded like an awful life, and I wanted nothing to do with it.

Don’t think that, just because I wasn’t self-conscious about my body then that I escaped that bugaboo of teenage girls the world over. It just took a little bit longer to seep in through the cracks of my thick head through that ever-present media influence, as well as peer pressure. I was lucky to escape the curse of anorexia, but I can’t help thinking that it seems more likely that one or more of that group of constantly dieting girls developed it. And I’m willing to bet more than one of them knew the anguish of yo-yo dieting, something I’m all too familiar with as an adult.

Back then though, I felt like a bit of an outcast — an ugly duckling sitting around with the fashionable swans. I was from another planet but ok with it. That was my shtick back then. I’d pick a planet in the United Federation of Planets and say I was from there. Of course, the same sexism and body image problems seemed to be rampant on the 1960’s Star Trek show too. I just didn’t notice them because, well, outer space! Unfortunately, I learned all about body image problems and not feeling good enough in due time. But that’s a story for another day. Anyway, that’s all folks! ‘Night y’all!

Endnote: This post formed in my tiny little brain as I was reading a thoughtful post about perfectionism by Shweta Bhat, who just owns the whole subject. It’s a great read, try it!

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