birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.

Idealize/Idolize?

When my brother Jeff was five and learned that our mom was pregnant with me, he confessed that he’d rather have a dog. Eventually he asserted that he could be happy with a little brother. For a consolation prize, Jeff got a baby sister. He treated this baby sister more like a little brother, and sometimes more like a dog.

Growing up, I worshipped Jeff. My family still teases me that my favorite question as a toddler was, “Where Jehh go?” I guess I needed to know all the time because he was, simply, my favorite person to emulate. I wanted to be independent like him, as capable and coordinated. When we got older I idealized (idolized?) how defiant and tough he and his skater friends were, jeering at each other despite their actively bleeding elbows and kneecaps. I wanted him to notice me, be proud of how tough I could be too in front of these friends. He usually just taunted me or ignored me, treating me like the pesky little brother he had only kind of wanted.

So I came up a tomboy who eschewed all things girlie. Commercials on Saturday morning cartoons with beaming blond girls cast to look ecstatic while they preened, or combed glittery pink pony manes with impossibly tiny hairbrushes? I hated those girls and their dumb perfect braids. [What were they trying to look so cute for?] Classmates who wouldn’t play in the dirt cause they didn’t want to mess up new skirts, or who refused to mount the monkey bars in case boys saw their Strawberry Shortcake underwear up from underneath their dresses? I held them in contempt. I didn’t care and I resented that they did. My parents were taken aback as I bristled when strangers or my parents’ friends commented that I was “cute.” Even as a little girl I found this somehow undermining, minimizing. Who cares? I thought, and sometimes even retorted, ungraciously. “Don’t call me cute. I’m ugly!” I didn’t feel ugly but I didn’t want to be typecast with those innocuous girls in the commercials. I wanted people to think I was smart, to see how obviously tough I was! I chased boys I liked to, yes, get a rise out of them, but mostly I wanted to show them how fast I could run.

I guess you could say that my own gender identity has had this dynamic: prove how not conventionally “feminine” I am outwardly, as a means to define it for myself, inwardly. Embrace only the elements I wanted to, not the elements I felt pressured to. As I’m writing this I see that I have always had what my parents would call a “chip on my shoulder” on this topic, probably because even—probably, especially—as a young girl I observed that people were more likely to smile at boys for what they did or made, but smile at girls regardless, just for being pretty and nice. My big brother and his friends didn’t care if people approved; they only cared if they—themselves—approved. Of course I idealized (idolized?) them. Unlike those Mattel or Hasbro girls, I wanted to feel exactly like the way they looked.
 

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