“Find out who you are, and do it on purpose.” Dolly Parton
I like pictures. Maybe I just like memories. Whatever they are, I keep a lot of them framed in my room. I have the typical pictures of my parents, my friends, my favorite places. I have pictures of children from other countries and pictures of moments that were so artistic that they made me feel like a professional photographer for being able to capture them. There is one particular picture that I see more often than the other ones because it sits on my desk and it’s right at my eye level when I’m sitting down. It’s in a simple black frame that’s cracked on the lower right corner. It broke years ago, but I’ve never fixed it because it clearly says, “perfect, but not.”
In this particular picture, I am about eight years old and it is Halloween night. I am dressed in Belle’s yellow dress from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and I am beside my brother who is three years my junior and dressed as Batman. I guess it's pretty obvious what was popular with little kids in the early 1990s; Disney princesses for girls and superheroes for boys.
My face is shouting elegance as I twirl around in typical eight-year-old fashion, ignoring the very presence of my younger brother who is clearly only serving as a distraction at this point in the photograph. If you look even closer, you can see that my feet are adorned not by shiny slippers, but by my child-size dark green Converse tennis shoes with silver laces: a priceless summation of my wardrobe expertise.
This picture doesn’t show you the epic significance of this Halloween epic for my mother. Every year it seemed that we’d have the same argument.
“Rachel, I just don’t think it’s a good idea for you to be a Power Ranger…again. All the little girls are wearing pretty dresses and you’d rather run around in that outfit all night?” she’d say.
“Yes, mommy. Power Rangers fight people. Princesses don’t do anything.” I’d reply.
“They marry princes,” was always her conclusion.
My childhood wasn’t marked by dress-up clothes or Easy Bake Ovens. I rode my bike every day after school with the neighborhood boys. Every early memory I have includes my brothers or the boys I played with at school. Nothing about the toys catered more toward little girls interested me in the slightest. I remember being told by the girls at school on more than one occasion that I needed to learn to play with Barbies or I could not play with them at all. The choice seemed obvious, but even as I made it something inside my gut felt a little bit weaker. It triggered something within me that has been the thread that’s tied together every epic realization in my life: I am just the way I’m supposed to be.
I carried on my childhood in rollerblades and overalls with a fierce attitude of self-adequacy. I chopped worms in half and watched them grow back, and I ate ants and told my friends it was because they are rich in Vitamin B. For the most part, my behavior didn’t cause me too many problems and I didn’t regret the lack of female friendships in my life. Frankly, I didn’t really care. I was doing fine as a free-spirited little tomboy and I didn't notice how many dolls I didn’t have.
High school came with the inexorability of a freight train, and it shook me to my core. I remember sitting in a pep-rally during my freshman year at Eaglecrest High School and wondering why on earth my legs had so many more scratches and scars than the pair of tanned, toned, flawless legs that sat in a mini-skirt to my right. I noticed the petite curvature of her arms and back and wondered how anyone could possibly sit up that straight – and don’t even get me started on her hair. It was shiny like the bristles on your toothbrush after you rinse it out. Perfectly curled and wavy in every direction, it seemed to bounce when she laughed, or even blinked. I was about to count how many rings she was wearing when the bell rang and I realized I spent an entire 45 minutes observing the physical details of a girl I had never known before. As I left the auditorium, I felt like I was a girl I had never known before, either.
I began to make some changes as I started on the wild ride toward the “wonder years” of my life. My long road to self-discovery was patterned by the likes of acrylic nails and tanning salons and far too much make-up for any 17-year-old girl. But I had the attention of the people – boys in particular – that I wanted. That was enough. It slowly formed this inner ability to hear and sense what people think about me. What’s more, I actually started caring.
I remember lying in my bed after a hard day of “faking it.” I was still not thin enough, still not pretty enough, and another boy had decided I wasn’t worth the trouble. I felt empty and lost. It was like I reached a breaking point and as I took off the day’s makeup and removed my clothes, I was setting the stage for the next Act of my life. I pulled the covers tight over my head and as the tears streamed down my face I thought, “This is literally killing me.”
We take a test at my university called the StrengthsQuest that shows your top five strengths out of a list of 35. My number one strength is three letters: W.O.O. It stands for Winning Others Over. This is both my blessing and my curse. It’s kind of like walking into a room and instantly being aware of how you are viewed. I am excited by the challenge of a room full of soon-to-be-friends, but I am also innately aware of what people think about me. Voices in my head banter back and forth constantly. The hardest part is figuring out who to listen to.
What I find as I stumble across the stage of my life I am blinded by the very spotlight I demanded and it sometimes brings me to an un-choreographed knees-to-the-earth position. It’s both shocking and refreshing as I catch my breath.
Pictures of me now depict me a little bit more accurately. Many things have stayed the same, but there are no more dresses that I don’t want to be wearing; I am me. I’d rather cross my eyes than flash a smile and I’m generally still around boys more often than girls. I like running in the rain and playing cards and I still wouldn’t know what to do with a Barbie. It’s not that I’m running away from being “girly”; I’m running towards my own identity.
Sometimes when I’m in the middle of doing homework for a class to please a professor or writing a letter to someone to express “who I really am” I sit back and breathe in as I see the picture of my brother and me. I’m not sure how I even ended up salvaging this particular memory, but I’m happy I did. The dress reminds me that trying to be who people expect me to be might be fine for one night, but it will slowly turn into a lifetime of torture. The fact that I am blatantly ignoring my brother reminds me that my desire for attention does not only hurt me – it blocks relationships with people who I deeply care about. The frame reminds me that life – our experiences, our talents, our time – can never be boxed up neatly with limits. The limits and the boundaries can be a good source of space, but the freedom is in the parts where you let yourself escape and discover who you really are. I begin each day with a strong sense of self, knowing that confidence and integrity shine brighter than the pinkest of lip-glosses. So I tie my converse extra tight and remember that I’m only going to trip if I let anyone distract me.