Around the time that I had my first period, I also grew a small, dark beard.
You can imagine how delightful THAT was – I was an overweight tweenager who was constantly bullied for my looks (fat, brace face, too tall, not wearing the right clothing) and my desperate affection for the band Hanson that somehow was enough to warrant near daily physical threats of violence. Even the uncool thought I was uncool.
I admit, I was a tad thrown re: the beard. I’d been to sex ed and I knew all about and expected the period business – but I was not prepared to develop what was a nearly full mustache and beard seemingly overnight, and I did not think the two had any distinct connect (spoiler alert – they totally do). I vividly remember sitting across from a friend at McDonald’s after we saw a movie on a Friday night and she motioned to the mustache and beard with her finger in a way that can only be described as “delicately concerned” and she asked “so … what’s that about?”
Well, I had no clue. I presented it to my mother curiously in its various stages of growth, my panic increasing as the beard threatened to take over both town and country, and she would hand me a pair of tweezers, because what else do you do with your 12 year old’s small beard? I would try to maintain it, but sadly, it grew at such a rate that a pair of tweezers were nothing compared to its ferocity.
Excitingly, not long after the beard appeared, a pair of sideburns started to grow in. You can only imagine my joy! Not only was I suddenly ballooning in size – my weight was more unsteady than the last shambles of a well-played Jenga game – my beard, sideburns, and mustache were well on their way to connecting into a full LEWK. I wore my hair down constantly, tried to avoid fluorescent lighting, and hoped and prayed I would look super fat in my jeans and that would attract more attention from my tormenters than my hairy predicament.
It never really occurred to me to dial up on AOL and ask Jeeves why I was starting to rival a member of ZZ Top, because that’s not really how life worked back then. I just accepted the hand I’d been dealt and that really seemed to work, because for a while, no one really mentioned it (perhaps they were just as stunned as I was and didn’t know how to formulate an insult).
Not you, though. You always noticed everything about me, I SWEAR, I’d come around you and pray beforehand that you wouldn’t notice what I had to hide or what I felt ashamed of, and it’d be the first thing you mentioned, like you could read my mind. We would meet you and the rest of the family and as I grew closer, you’d already be smirking like the cheshire cat, and I would hang my head and wait for whatever you planned to deal out to be over.
Every Friday night, my family met at a restaurant called Pelham Palace, run by the sweetest Greek family that we had grown close to over the years. We always sat at the same table, and we never missed a Friday – it was our time to see each other after the long week and catch up. There was a beautiful boy that worked there and I had the biggest crush on him. You knew that, and it was such a game for you.
In my attempt to try to fit in with what everyone else was wearing, I wore men’s boot cut jeans that I hoped resembled bell bottoms (they so didn’t). Fashionable plus size clothing literally did not exist when I was young, so I had two pairs of men’s jeans that I alternated every day, and each pair had a “hammer” holder on the side of one of the legs. When we would head to the counter to pay each week, you would grab me by the “hammer” and pull me as I tried to walk, and I would stumble, in a blubberly slow motion, with you only stopping when you succeeded in tripping me in front of the boy I had a crush on. I remember struggling to get away from you and what it felt like to be so damn embarrassed like that, with everyone who could see us staring unabashedly at the display.
The jeans tided you over for awhile, but one Friday – you spotted it. The beard. You didn’t outright say anything, that wasn’t your style. You started to call me Billy Goat. You started to call me Beardly. I begged you to stop, to not talk about it, but you would stare at me from down the table and stroke your own beard.
“Soon your sideburns will really come in and you’ll have a beard as good as mine!” You’d say.
“Please let me shave my beard so _____ can’t make fun of me tonight.” I started to beg my mother before dinner. I had been shaving my legs for awhile, so I didn’t understand why I couldn’t shave my beard, too.
“You can’t do that, the hair on your face is different than the hair on your legs, and if you shave it, it will come in darker.” she apologized. Well, the last thing in the world I wanted was a worse beard, so I felt stuck.
After one particularly brutal exit wherein you lead me by my beard out of the restaurant in front of all of the waiting patrons and my crush, mom had an idea – we went right to Wal-Mart to get some Nair. I can still smell it, can still feel it, goopy and cold as I slathered thick coats over my mustache, my sideburns, my beard. It worked, but not for long enough – the hairs would sprout back in almost immediately, and the constant five o’clock shadow was nearly as horrendous as the beard itself.
One night after another core-shaking, humiliating Friday dinner, I snuck in the bathroom, drew water in the sink, and defiantly took the razor to my face. Angry, broad, carless strokes, I didn’t care – it just HAD. TO. GO.
The next Friday night, I felt like I could breathe for the first time in months. But, lo and behold, it didn’t matter that my face was smoother than a baby’s ass now. You still called me Beardly , did so well into my teens, now adding a series of oinks while you did it, as my weight continued to spike. You still stroked your face while looking at mine, like you were telling me that you could still see it: the shame, the embarrassment.
I try not to actively be around you much anymore, because you make us all miserable, you hold us all hostage with your judgement and moods and attitudes, but for some reason, like the literal victims of abuse that we all are, we still try to dance in hopes of making you clap your fat little hands. You came to dinner with the family last night, and I watched you laugh at me when I offered my small, polite, educated response to your question of why I would protest the president when he comes to town. You laughed bodily, your nose in the air, silencing me immediately, my words dead in my throat. You belittled me in front of the whole family while rattling off to me the reasons why I’m not allowed to have valid thoughts, feelings, or deductions regarding our political climate. I felt so small, like me and my sad ole beard did all those years ago, like you were dragging me to hell and back with the hammer pants. I could feel the shame burning in my face as I tried to smile and not let the tears that threatened to spill pour right out, and I turned myself off and agreed with everything you said – and I STILL called you “sir” out of respect as you ripped my little snowflake ass to shreds.
I came home and I felt this overwhelming sense of unrest, of upset, like a dam had burst within me. I thought long and hard about you. I thought about how many times you’ve called me a felon or an inmate, because I have dyed hair and tattoos. I thought of when you told me that you weren’t having “f*gs” over to your house for Thanksgiving, so my best friend wasn’t welcome. I thought about how you still make fun of me to this day for the trouble that I got into when I was SEVENTEEN YEARS OLD. I thought about last fourth of July, when you said in front of the whole family and our guests that I was not even good enough to be raped. I thought about how I’ve been answering to “Asshole” and “Assley” since I was a child. I thought about how you used to brag about seeing my Dad at work, and I’d try to act like I didn’t care that you brought him up, but I’d still casually ask you about him and you’d dummy right up, keep every tidbit to yourself, because you’re so selfish that you can’t even let a child whose father left her have any minor detail about him.
I thought about my fucking beard. My poor, sad beard. And of how scared I was of you then, how I never spoke up because I was confused and it hurt – you used to be someone who was fun, you were my friend – you had a water bed and let me name the cat, you got me my PeeWee Herman doll – and somehow you had instead become the cruelest person who has never once refrained from telling me how wrong or stupid I am. I thought about how what you did to me was abuse. What I endured from you was constant abuse. It isn’t the way you are, the way you joke, any of the excuse the family has offered for you over the years. It is and has always been terrible abuse.
I see you in the mirror every day, when I shave my face. I still have to do that, because I would eventually grow up and find out that I have an ovarian disease that causes facial and body hair growth. You are a man who made fun of a sick child for sport. I grew up to have a phobia of having my face and throat touched that is so intense that I feel immediate nausea whenever any well-intentioned person attempts to brush an eyelash off my cheek. What was it for? What did you gain by doing this to me?
I used to think that family was an obligation, a blood debt that you honored above all things, no matter what. You have taught me otherwise. I asked myself what I would do if a friend of mine had treated me the way you have – and the answer was clear cut. I would remove that person from my life immediately. If I had asked you the same question you asked me last night, if you felt so passionately against something that you wanted to protest it, the difference between you and I is that I’d really want to know why you felt that way, because I would know that you were hurting and I’d want to help. And I would listen to you. Even if I thought it was the stupidest thing in the world, I would listen. I guess the last thing that I have to say about you is what you hurled against me, when I didn’t fold right over immediately, when I tried, for once, to speak up for myself – “there are some people who aren’t even worth talking to because you’ll never change them.”