I was just turning fifteen when Janis Ian hit my radio waves with the song, At Seventeen:
I learned the truth at seventeen
That love was meant for beauty queens
And high school girls with clear skinned smiles
Who married young and then retired
The valentines I never knew
The Friday night charades of youth
Were spent on one more beautiful
At seventeen I learned the truth.
I was a teen during a time of narrowly defined female beauty. Blond, blue eyed, busty women were the ideal. Gals with brown eyes distorted behind thick glasses, brown hair, flat chests, thick lips, and silver braced teeth complete with head gear were not the ideal.
And those of us with ravaged faces
Lacking in the social graces
Desperately remained at home
Inventing lovers on the phone
Who called to say come dance with me
And murmured vague obscenities
It isn’t all it seems at seventeen.
I had no sisters to guide me through the horror that is high school. I knew my mother was doing all she could to simply put food on the table and keep up with the mortgage, electricity and phone service were, at times, expendable. Yet I still burned with longing for Levi jeans and Clairol Herbal Essence Shampoo. I wanted friends, but years of physically and mentally hiding from my father’s verbal and physical abuse had left me a quiet mouse of a girl, desperately torn between wanting to be noticed and just wanting to slip away in to invisibility. If only, if only, if only. If only I could figure out what was wrong with me, I could fix it and be popular and be pretty and be happy and loved. I scoured the pages of Seventeen magazine, looking for clues, only to realize how impossible it was.
A brown eyed girl in hand me downs
Whose name I never could pronounce
Said – Pity please the ones who serve
They only get what they deserve
The rich relationed hometown queen
Marries into what she needs
With a guarantee of company
And haven for the elderly.
And like millions of love starved girls before me, when a facsimile of love appeared before me, I grabbed at it, at first just merely grateful that I wasn’t alone any longer. But like those before me, I soon realized that there was a high price to pay for under valuing yourself in love. After spending too many years in a loveless marriage, I somehow managed to break free. And still, I am unsure exactly how I feel about those “wasted” years. A small part, a very small part, is bitter about the loss of my youthful years. A bigger part of me is grateful for all I learned about myself during those years. That by having had my faults and fears and weaknesses used against me for so long, I became inoculated against them. I had to, for my own sanity; really look at these perceived faults. And I had to reconcile them in my mind in order to gain power over them. And somewhere in that process, I began to shed many of my preconceived notions of just who and what I was.
Remember those who win the game
Lose the love they sought to gain
In debentures of quality and dubious integrity
Their small-town eyes will gape at you
In dull surprise when payment due
Exceeds accounts received at seventeen.
If I did one thing right after those loveless years, it was that I didn’t repeat my mistakes. I knew that I could not trust my judgment and refrained from entering any more relationships. I began to understand that I was all I had in this world. No matter how close family and friends may be, ultimately, it is just you and your thoughts moving through the world. It is no coincidence that once I was truly able and happy to be on my own, once I was truly and completely happy with myself, that I entered into the best relationship I’ve ever been in.
To those of us who knew the pain
Of valentines that never came
And those whose names were never called
When choosing sides for basketball
It was long ago and far away
The world was younger than today
When dreams were all they gave for free
To ugly duckling girls like me.
This song still makes me cry. Then, I cried because it was true and it hurt. I also cried with a tinge of relief, knowing that I wasn’t alone. Today I cry because I feel sorry for that girl I used to be, but know that I wouldn’t really change it if I could. I wouldn’t be me without her. Pain is a powerful motivator and I like where I’ve ended up. It could have turned out much worse, I’ve seen women repeat abusive cycles over and over again. Somehow, I got off the merry-go-round.
We all play the game, and when we dare
We cheat ourselves at solitaire
Inventing lovers on the phone
Repenting other lives unknown
That call and say – come dance with me
And murmur vague obscenities
At ugly girls like me, at seventeen.
At the end of the movie Napolean Dynamite, when Napolean does his dance and everyone in the audience, except the few popular kids, explodes in cheers and applause, I wondered, “Why did we never understand this? That there are more of us outside the circle looking in?” But I guess it didn’t matter how many ‘outs’ there were, we all just wanted to be ‘in’. Inside where everyone was happy, everyone was pretty, everyone was smart and confident and heading for a life of success and happiness. If we could only just get inside that circle, we’d be magically transformed.
But it doesn’t really happen that way. Transformation, real transformation, is a long, hard, painful process. It doesn’t come from anything outside yourself. It’s all internal. I’ve tried to explain it, but I can’t. I think it’s because everyone’s journey is different.
That I know. Now. Thirty years later.
And what of that hard-won knowledge would I share with a teen today? That I’m sorry it has to hurt. But it does. To try to find something, anything to make yours and hold on to in the worst of times. To just keep moving forward, no matter what.
Just keep moving.