August 5, 2020

I am a Borrowed Woman.

I’ve borrowed a lot, but also no-thing at all.

I didn’t want to take my friend’s shirt in the sixth grade out of fear I’d forget to return it to her. She insisted I wear it. “It’ll look good.” It felt like an inquisition to take off my raggedy T-shirt and put on something nicer so she’d feel more comfortable being seen with me in public. She lined my eyes and put red on my lips. I looked at myself in the mirror and didn’t recognize the person staring back at me.

I didn’t want to take her things, but by shedding my raggedy T-shirt, I borrowed the idea that I needed to be someone different.

I borrowed the waist of a 16-year-old girl when I was 10. I remember sitting on the pool deck getting ready for swim practice and noticing the way her suit fit her. It fit differently from mine. I was pudgy, so I swam harder. I got recognition for my swimming ability, but my waist still wasn’t like hers.

I borrowed the looks women flaunted on the cover of magazines because those women were noticed. I wanted to be noticed.

I liked the way women swayed like trees on television, bending at the hips. I was repulsed by my boxy exterior and inability to bend gracefully. I looked like a robot, so I borrowed their movements.

I borrowed the idea that a woman was meant to be desirous, and I studied the way Disney princes courted the princesses sitting in the tower. I longed for that desire, so I borrowed the Disney characters’ lovers and filled my dreams with them.

I borrowed the phrase “natural beauty.” I thought I could be beautiful on my own without the help of liquids and liners and paintbrushes for my face. Many years later, I painted my face for the first time and a mother from my childhood approached me. For the first time in 20 years, she called me beautiful.

I borrowed the way other girls painted their eyes and shrunk their bodies to fit properly beside their Southern men. I watched these girls as they got ready in the locker room. I went home and gathered some similar supplies so I could get ready before school in a similar fashion. I borrowed their “getting ready” routines.

I borrowed the idea that beauty is unblemished. I poked, washed, and prodded at my face, but in my attempts to meet this invisible goal, I blemished my face forever.

I borrowed the idea that chemicals packed into my pores would make my face better, forgetting that if they would actually help my skin heal, the spas and beauty companies would go out of business.

I went to get a manicure with my friend and the manicurist said she could wash the red blisters off of my face. “Make it better.” I looked at her, tears brimming my eyes, knowing I had already tried. I scrubbed my face every night hoping to rub myself away. But I borrowed the idea that I needed to do more to be better, to be beautiful.

I learned I was never doing enough.

I borrowed the idea that my legs needed to be smooth and soft—that I needed to be smooth and soft and sweet and agreeable in order to be noticed—to be feminine.

I borrowed the idea of femininity before I even knew the word itself. I didn’t really borrow it; it was given to me. I noticed when I was more or less desired by men and changed accordingly. Perhaps biology.

I borrowed the idea that I needed to please a man rather than be pleased by a man. I was taught my pleasure was more complicated and difficult. I found it easier to make others happier anyway.

I borrowed the idea from the men on the pool deck that women are sexual beings, objects, and I accepted that.

I borrowed the idea that from the dumb blonde jokes I heard beauty and intelligence are mutually exclusive.

Perhaps, I was right to fear borrowing other’s things in the sixth grade. Now that I’ve borrowed many things, I find they rest heavily and unreturnable on my body. It’s not as simple as taking them off and throwing them into the laundry hamper. Returning them would mean tracking down the girl I saw on the pool deck 18 years ago. I don’t remember her name, I don’t have her address, I don’t know how she fills her days anymore, and I don’t remember who I was before I put her things on.

So I’m still wearing her things, and they’re constricting my life.

But sometimes I wonder if her waist is still trim and proper.


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