One of my favorite childhood photos is from a camping trip I took with my parents and older brother when I was nine years old. We spent nearly three weeks driving up California’s blissful, varied coast from L.A. to Yosemite, stopping in beach towns like Santa Barbara, Pismo Beach, Santa Cruz and Monterey. We ate fresh seafood and drove across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. We sat too close to the stage for David Copperfield’s show in Lake Tahoe and figured out all the tricks. We visited the Capitol building in Sacramento and soothed our muscles in Grover Hot Springs. And we saw too many awe-inspiring sights to single out the spectacular in Yosemite. Just go there. You’ll see what I mean.
But of all the pictures of me shrouded by giant trees, smiling up at waterfalls, skipping through the waves, the one photo that resonates the most was taken inside the RV, a big beaming smile on my face, my hair awfully permed, wearing a bright orange midriff tee shirt that says in big black letters: BOYS.
When my mom had taken me shopping for vacation clothes, I remember seeing that shirt on the rack of other less provocative tops and needing it immediately. Usually, when shopping with my mom, she did the picking, I did the agreeing, the trying on, the parading around for her to give her stylistic assessment, and then she’d do the purchasing. At nine years old, I couldn’t care less about picking out my own clothes and trusted her input since she was always receiving compliments on her choice of clothes and jewelry.
But there was something important about this tee shirt. Not only did it show off my young skin in such a freeing way, but it also announced to the world that I had an interest in BOYS, big lettered and bold, an unavoidable personal statement. My mom supported any of my enthusiasms, no questions asked, so she bought me the shirt and I wore it all the time.
It’s likely that most of the good feelings I get when I look at the photo have to do with that trip—spending all that time with my parents who were unfettered with work and could finally relax, roasting marshmallows and sitting around campfires, becoming acquainted with the vast beauty of my home state, but the other more poignant reason is what continues to fuel its appeal.
Wearing that shirt announced to the world in my own small way that I was a sexual being. As a child, I loved that I was making such a statement to the world, even if my mom and dad knew nothing about this and wouldn’t believe their baby girl was having raging sexual thoughts at such a young age. It felt much like when I rubbed my Barbies together at home—secretive, taboo, exciting. There were pleasant and mysterious sensations between my legs, and I had enough knowledge to know that the sensations had to do with what happens between girls and BOYS.
This isn’t to say that I didn’t have lesbian inclinations either. I absolutely did. I stared at the breasts and long legs and round asses of women with just as much fascination and early attraction. But nobody ever, ever, ever talked about homosexuality in my younger years. I never heard anyone berate homosexuality, but I never heard anyone praise it either. There was no Ellen DeGeneres on TV. Will & Grace wouldn’t air until I was sixteen. My mom and dad didn’t have any gay friends. So I figured sex was for men and women, BOYS and girls, and I couldn’t wait to have it.
I’m still drawn to that photo because it was one my first memories of daring to be provocative, even when my parents and probably anyone who saw me wear that shirt just thought I was being “cute.” I knew the truth then and I couldn’t wait to say it. Look at me, BOYS. Look at me looking at you.
Though I felt that this statement, just like my Ken and Barbie sessions, was taboo and I hid the taboo from my parents, I was proud. Unfortunately, this is the only time I ever remember feeling proud about these new sexual sensations coursing through my body. It was one of the only times I felt grateful for this gift of sexual curiosity, excitement, desire.
Soon, I’d become ten, eleven, twelve and thirteen. And each year would bring with it a new accumulation of knowledge about the way things were supposed to be, about the way I, a girl, was supposed to feel and behave. So I pushed these feelings deep down inside myself and desperately tried to deny them. Sex was bad. My body was bad. Something awful was happening to me.
I began to associate sexual pleasure with shame, so that the two responses would become irrevocably linked in my mind. I became a bearer of secrets, embarrassed of my curiosities and unsure of myself, burying my interests, my voice and my true self underneath a mask of what I thought normal looked like.
It would take years before I’d begin the process of healing this shame and learn to reclaim that pride that once came effortlessly to me, encapsulated in an old photo of a girl wise beyond her years.
I’m seven months pregnant now and expecting a girl. I look forward to all the trips we’ll take up the coast of California, across the country and beyond. And when I catch my girl picking out a shirt she must have, or a book she must read or gazing a little longer than usual at something (or someone) that catches her eye, I’ll smile her way and snap a photo.
Top image: Band of Outsiders
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