What You Can Tell from My Childhood Heroes

Sophie Haigney

I thumb through a pocket-sized pink book, rediscovered amongst multiplication tables and half-finished watercolor still-lifes from art class in fourth grade. I can see that it used to have a lock but doesn’t anymore, this dime-store diary that must have been a party favor. I turn the pages slowly, mesmerized by the loops of my h’s and my cursive b’s, by handwriting that is both mine and not mine simultaneously. Handwriting, like a rediscovered childhood photograph can seem at once distant and startlingly familiar. I recognize my letters on the page, but are they really my letters? I still slant my lower-case l’s like that. How strange—I used to cross my z’s.

As a bizarre and bookish eleven-year-old, I had addressed my diary entries to my heroes. In my world, where girls walked through wardrobes into enchanted forests, it was easy to imagine that my idols (living and dead) could somehow peek at my most private thoughts. “Dear Mrs. Roosevelt” began the first. I begged her to forgive my meanness to my younger brother. “Dear Ingrid,” I had written, in another. “If only I were as pretty as you were in Casablanca.” I complained to Alice Paul that I was not very good at soccer. I confessed to Jennifer Aniston that I was worried no one would ask me to dance next year at cotillion—had she ever been afraid of that?

It went on. Clearly, I had changed heroes like most middle-school girls change nail polish colors. People say you can tell a lot about someone from who their heroes are, but what, from these pages, can you tell about me? What do sitcom actresses have to do with militant women’s rights leaders, and what do either have to do with me? They are all women, yes, but only some, it seems, are women’s heroes. Eleanor Roosevelt is a fine role model for a young girl, but Ingrid Bergman played Ilsa Lund in Casablanca, perhaps one of the weakest female characters in cinematic history. What the hell had I been doing, dreaming of being her?

Feminism was not a word I learned, consciously, until my 20th century history elective in ninth grade. It was strange to discuss its definition, to think of it as a movement—and a controversial one—because it was something that for so long I had taken for granted. I think the definition my history class agreed upon was something vague and open-ended, like “a celebration of womanhood.” I remember wondering then who did not celebrate womanhood.

My eight years at an all-girls school had been a zealous celebration. Each year, we took women’s history. In April we dressed up as various women’s rights pioneers for the annual “Famous American Women’s Tea.” No one offered us dolls in kindergarten. We read books starring female heroines, beginning in kindergarten with reworked fairy tales with titles like The Real Cinderella (in which she doesn’t even need a fairy godmother!). We analyzed Elizabeth Bennett’s defiance of social norms and admired Jo March’s pluck. In later years, we attended workshops that focused on “The Female Experience,” intended to demonstrate the ways in which women were objectified and oversexed. We watched Covergirl advertisements and then tore them apart. We wore uniforms that included ties. Make-up was not permitted under any circumstances.

It was only when I was in my fall term of coed high school that I came to understand that this was not part of a “typical education.” Indeed, my grade school’s philosophy was part of a movement, an ism just like communism or atheism. I had been schooled as a feminist, though no one had ever asked me if I wanted to be one.

The history class where I discovered all of this was also the class where, for the first time, I was tested as a woman. There were twelve of us: me, one quiet dark-haired girl, and ten boys. These were the boys I had been told I was as smart as, or smarter than, throughout my childhood. And I was. I liked the sound of my own voice. Overeager and a little vicious, I said what I thought. I learned how to lean back in my chair and move my hands in such a way that people would listen. I learned how to say, “No, I disagree with that,” rapidly but quietly, and how to wade through lines of text for that one word I wanted. But I learned other things in that class as well.

I learned, for example, that when talking to boys, I ought to lean in just a little bit and run my fingers through the ends of hair. I learned how to arch my back just so. I learned how to laugh so that boys would laugh with me, a little higher than usual and a little softer. I learned how to walk out of class, with my hips, and what to wear to dances (not a dress, but tight, colored jeans) and what to wear the rest of the time (button-downs undone to the third button). I learned how to smile with a kind of half-smirk.

Most of it was subconscious, these strange shifts in attitude and dress and manner, picked up from girls around me, or the result of some kind of natural instinct I never knew I had. I recognize it now as a desire to charm and be adored and even objectified. I liked to hear that boys were talking about my body, or that so-and-so thought I was “hot,” or, even better, “banging.” I began to underline my eyes with soft black pencil.

I liked the way eyeliner smelled, waxy and synthetic and a little bit like wood. It reminded me of my mother. There had been no occasion for me to wear makeup throughout my younger years, so I associated make-up only with her as she prepared for parties, evening light splattering her mirror like white fire. I used to think it was the light that tasted like violets, but it must have been her perfume. She would dab it with two fingers on the back of her neck, twisting her back to smile at me. Her blonde hair was usually swept up so that her cheekbones jutted out, and the pins must have dug into her scalp, hard, but I remember someone (her?) saying that pain was beauty and beauty was pain. I liked to watch her reflection, distorted, warped by refracted rainbows.

When she was gone, out dancing, I would copy her sometimes. The light was purple and I would smear on bright red lipstick, missing my lips most of the time, and licking them repeatedly. It tasted like chalk and chemicals and my mother’s kisses. I felt like a lady.

Feminists speak of the moment when one becomes a woman. Simone de Beauvoir said it first, perhaps. I vividly remember a quote of hers from The Second Sex that I read on a pink Post-It note in my sixth grade French teacher’s classroom. On ne naît pas femme, on le devient. One is not born a woman, but becomes one. When, though? Did I become a woman in front of my mother’s mirror, trying on her face and feeling feminine, without even knowing the word for it? Or was it in my fourth grade class when I starred as Victoria Woodhull in a play, declaring my intentions to run for president in 1872, and feeling something like proud?

It seemed, that ninth grade year, that despite my education in feminism, it was still the early moment that had shaped me more, that moment when I felt for the first time the raw physical desire to be beautiful. It began to define me, the pursuit of beauty. I ate less. I became obsessed with the “Hot Lists” I knew were being made in the basements of boys’ dorms. Where would I fall? Would I be picked at all? Always the competitor, I compared my legs to my friends’. I compared my eyes and hair and lips and butt and cheeks and smile. I burned through a series of boys, quickly and without much success. No one seemed to like me quite as much as I liked them. Always, when it didn’t work out, I blamed it on my looks. I was too pale. I was too fat. I cried in front of the mirror, and then cried harder at the sight of my blotchy cheeks. I wrote a lot of bad poetry. I still talked in class, perhaps too much, and did my homework diligently, but my mind was consumed by thoughts of boys and, as a result, my body.

In tenth grade, an older dark-haired boy broke my heart. I use the cliché of a broken heart because that is what it was. Everything I thought and did might have been a scene from a bad movie, or lines from a Taylor Swift song. I refused to understand, as usual, why he had rejected me, attributing it to my freckles and bumpy nose. But this time, for some reason, as I stuffed myself sick with ice cream (and then squeezed my stomach, self-conscious) I got bored. I couldn’t stand myself any longer. I resolved that I wouldn’t cry any more, and I didn’t. I began to hide in the library, even skipping meals and dances to work on papers. I swore off boys. I didn’t brush my hair, some mornings, and I started wearing my thick glasses to class other days. It wasn’t that I stopped caring about my appearance that winter. It was simply that I tried a new approach, or an old one. I made an art of not trying. I tried to, anyway. I woke up and buttoned my flannel shirt and told myself, to hell with it. I don’t care.

I don’t care. It’s still the first lie I tell myself in the morning, and often the last as I climb into bed. I bend like a broken lily in front of the mirror, trying to find some shape of my body that pleases me, and then I shake my head and tell myself that it doesn’t matter. I don’t care.

These days, I wear no make-up and I like saying that out loud. It’s the truth, strictly speaking. Mornings, I run my fingers through my hair, yanking at knots, before stumbling naked-faced out of my room. I guess I take some kind of pride in the purple circles that underline my eyes, the blackhead blooming near the corner of my unpainted lips. Look at me. I don’t care. Not about what dress I’m wearing or the curve of my hips. Not about whether she looks better than me in those jeans (she does) and not about whether he notices that she does (he must). I don’t care about who whispers what when I walk by, or my place on this list or that. I don’t care. Look at me.

I like watching girls sweep bronzer onto their cheeks with butterfly hands. I like watching them straightening their hair, strand by glossy strand. I like half-smiling in my superiority. I am a strong woman, and this is “The Female Experience.” I’ve read de Beauvoir and Nancy Cott and even some Virginia Woolf (though I didn’t understand much of it). They haven’t.

Meanwhile, I’m sneaking sidelong glances in the mirror. The truth is that not caring is as thick a mask as two pounds of La Mer foundation. The truth is that I do care, that I am confined by my body as much as any other girl. I’m trying desperately not to try. And there is still a guilty part of me that is obsessed. I google fad diets and natural ways to lighten my hair. I like to stare at pictures of 50’s movie stars. I buy Cosmopolitan and I devour articles with titles like “How to Make Him Fall in Love.” Then I shove the magazine behind piles of paper, or under back issues of The Paris Review.

I am not the exemplary graduate of the Sarah Dix Hamlin School for girls. I am not a pure feminist in the spirit of de Beauvoir, but I suppose that I would still consider myself a feminist of some kind. I can think of no overarching definition of the movement, and perhaps my history class was right to be ambiguous. I celebrate my womanhood as much as I struggle with it, but in any case my womanhood extends beyond my intellectual achievements and convictions. It includes my femininity, and my body, the very thing that makes me female. I want sometimes to dance provocatively, to lean on a boy’s shoulder with all my weight. I want to eat Ben & Jerry’s and watch Mean Girls just as much as I want to flip through volumes of Carolyn Forché. I want to win prizes for my history papers, but I also want to be on the top of whatever “Hot List” is being made. Sometimes, I do like the empowerment of pulling on my sweatpants and leaving my hair limp. Other times, I think that beauty is worth endless pain.

These are a few of the things that I would never say out loud. I like my mask of intellect and haughtiness; it’s less messy than make-up, and more consistent with the woman I was taught to be. If I were ten years old, though, I would record these small and bothersome truths in my diary, and try to make some sense of these inconsistencies and conflicting desires that plague me and define me. Depending on the day, I might address the entry to Dianne Feinstein, my living example of feminine power. Or perhaps I would write to my mother, a blonde beauty with smooth skin and wide eyes, the first woman who I ever tried to be.

Dear Mom, I might write. The smell of your perfume makes me both giddy and nauseous. I feel compelled to hate it, but I am drawn to it now just as much as when I was six years old. I can still taste the light in your dressing room. Did you know, Mom, that I tried on your lipstick and then rejected it? Everything’s a paradox as far as I can tell. I am trying desperately to be like you and not like you at the same time. I wish you could just tell me if I should dress up or down, whether or not I should read fashion magazines, how I should smile at boys. I wish you would tell me what to do, though I’m not sure if I would listen if you did. I love you.


An excellent essay on gender empowerment, conflicting expectations and the natural adolescent preoccupation with fitting in. The diary to heroes would be an intriguing device to develop into a novel or larger collection of essays.
—Cynthia Leitich Smith, 2011 Hunger Mountain Prize for Young Writers Judge

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