We all have those memories from middle school that make our skin crawl. You know the ones that I’m talking about (or at least, I hope you do)—those moments when we thought that our life was literally over—those moments full of self-doubt, self-consciousness, complete embarrassment, public humiliation, or just misery over our current state of being.
Sometimes these moments were brought on by others, like the time that my “so-called-friend” told my current boyfriend that I hated the bracelet that he had given me for Christmas, and in retaliation, he told everyone that he didn’t care (“Because it was a hand-me-down from my mom, anyways”), and then broke up with me at my birthday party. [Ouch.]
Sometimes we brought these moments on ourselves, like the time that I had my first kiss in a movie theatre, in front of all of my friends (I knew they were sitting behind me), and they then called me “Lizard” for weeks, because they saw my boyfriend’s tongue. [Eek!]
And sometimes, these moments were caused by forces of nature and were completely out of our control, like the time that I got my period while sleeping on the bus on a field trip, and bled through my white shorts, my sweatshirt (which was around my waist, obviously!), and on the seat cushion.
But, I think that out of all of these types of events, the worst, or the most scarring, are the really nasty things that young people to do one another.
We’ve all fallen prey to a mean middle school (or high school, or college, or dare I even say, office?) prank or rumor, or if we haven’t, we’ve participated in inflicting these types of things on others. There’s just something scary about the need to fit in that drives people to act horribly towards each other, and middle school is often the time that this comes up the most.
When reminiscing about these moments as adults they may sound silly or trivial, but often, we carry these experiences around with us throughout our lives, allowing them to color our personality without even realizing it.
For instance, one of my most scarring experiences from growing up had to do with my very favorite pair of jeans from 7th grade; It may not sound like a devastating story, but trust me, the experience was just that.
As a middle schooler, and later, as a high schooler, I was crazy obsessed with my body. Not in a cute or healthy way (Is there a cute or healthy way to be “obsessed with your body?”), but in a national-body-image-and-eating-disorder-epidemic sort of way.
I was never happy with my appearance--any of it. I hated the shape of my body, my height, the way my clothes fit, the way my freckles darkened in the sun, the way that my pale skin glowed against black fabric, and the way that my hair curled when it was raining outside. I hid behind a shield of happiness and smiles, but inside, I hated myself.
In 7th grade, these feelings of self-loathing were just beginning to take root inside of me. As a consequence of this inner turmoil, I became extremely picky about how I presented myself to the world.
I began wearing make-up, spending hours on my hair, watching what I ate, and shopping for the perfect clothes. Because my parents didn’t have tons of money to spend on clothing for three very active kids, I would do the best that I could to find stylish outfits at TJ Maxx, Marshalls, and the like. When I found something that I thought was cute, I would wear it out, often locating just one pair of shorts or one pair of jeans that I felt actually looked okay on my body, and then settling on them for the season.
In 7th grade, it was one pair of jeans that did it for me. Actually, to be clear, it was 2 pairs of jeans—but they were the same jeans, just in a slightly different wash, and if I remember correctly, I got them for about $20 each at TJ Maxx.
I would do laundry every other night (drove my mom crazy!), I would plan my outfits around these jeans, and if they weren’t clean for some impossible reason, my world would feel like it was crumbling. That’s how fragile I was in those days.
One day, some of the guys in my class—guys who I was “friends” with, in the flirty-hatey-disgusted-funny way that only middle school boys and girls can be friends—decided that they would play a trick on me.
Evidently, as I found out later, they thought that I wore the same pair of jeans every day. [Keep in mind that I kind of did, but also didn’t, really…]. Either way, these guys thought that there was only one way to find out if they were the same jeans or not: They would mark my jeans with a permanent marker and see if the mark was still there the next day. Funny, right?
That day, as I walked across the classroom to take my seat, the ringleader (George, who would later get kicked out of school, I think?) stuck out a Sharpee and swiped a huge black streak across the butt of my jeans.
I felt the tip of the marker as it raked across my backside, I heard the low scratching sound of the ink meeting the fabric, as it bumped across the grooves of the denim, and I was horrified.
As all of the guys died laughing in their corner of the room, I was melting inside. I didn’t understand why they had done what they’d done, but it hurt. Not only had they ruined one of my two pairs of jeans—the only jeans in which I actually felt not completely ugly and fat—they had also embarrassed me in front of everyone.
I hid my horror in anger, and acted really mad at these guys, “my friends.” A day or two later, one of them admitted that it was George’s idea, and explained why they had done it—to see if I actually wore the same jeans or not.
Upon finding out that their prank was caused by this belief about my clothing, I was even more shamed. I tried to defend myself—“I have more than one pair of these jeans!!!!”—but, the damage had been done: They’d created a clothing-conscious monster.
In the weeks leading up to 9th grade—the first year of high school--my best friend and I planned out our outfits for the first 2 months of school. That’s right, I said months. We would write down the clothing items by day and by week, and plan out our timely clothing swaps, to ensure that neither of us would EVER repeat an outfit, (or even a similar item), during this time period.
Looking back on this, I know it’s crazy. I cannot believe that we had enough clothing to not repeat a single item for 60 days, but I also cannot believe how self-conscious we were. Appearance simply mattered so much more than anything else at that time.
As many have said before me, I wish I could tell that young girl that she looked great in any pair of jeans she tried on—that she was perfect as she was (braces and freckles or not)—and that although she would have a tough relationship with her body for few years in there, she should hold on, because eventually, she would find peace with it.
I know those guys didn’t mean any harm, and I know that they were all just as self-conscious as I was, but it still doesn’t make the memory of how I felt in that moment any more comfortable, and it doesn’t erase the bruise that their silly prank left on my young, fragile psyche.
However, these days, when I wear my favorite pair of jeans (I only have one pair that I love, and I wear them often), I walk tall for the memory of my younger self.
When I use a Sharpee to label a package or the back of a painting, I take in the scratching sound of the tip as it moves across the surface, I breathe in the scent, and I relish my many years of growth, and the peace that has come with those years.
Although I know that my 28-year-old body isn’t perfect, I give it thanks almost every day—in honor of all of the young, self-conscious girls who are out there, still trying to find comfort inside of their middle school jeans.