I was eleven. I was at a slumber party. Remember those? It was for my friend Amy’s birthday. She’d invited a bunch of girls over, and there were going to be games and punch and cookies and sleeping bags.
She lived in the biggest house of anyone I knew—with bricks on the front and fancy things like porcelain figurines and sculptures of horses inside. I thought her mom was fancy, too. She was very, very thin, with an air of sadness about her, and she always had her hair up, with a few wisps escaping. She had a long, elegant neck, and she wore slim, matching clothes. Amy’s dad had left her mom for one of his college students. I thought the student would be terrible—an empty-eyed girl with round breasts popping out of her pink lacey shirt. I imagined her as a sort of ill-intentioned Barbie. But once they dropped Amy off at my house together and she was confusingly earthy and friendly, wearing cargo pants and Birkenstocks, with a gap-toothed smile. And Amy’s dad was chubby and bashful. I thought he looked ashamed, standing in front of my parents with his girl, who was only nineteen.
I was already nervous in Amy’s house, because I had seen her dad with the girl. And because I felt sorry for her elegant mother, who I imagined was British, even though she didn’t have a British accent, just because I thought that British people were all elegant and liked sculptures of horses. I felt awkward, feeling sorry for someone’s mom. I knew it wasn’t my place.
I didn’t want to be alone in any of the rooms of the cavernous house, because I felt like an intruder. I didn’t want to touch anything, because everything was so clean and in its place. Not like in my house, where there were toys everywhere—makeshift guns, rigged from paper towel rolls and tape and rubber bands, that my brothers were always trying to shoot at each other with. Mom had a “no guns” policy that had never stopped them.
The other girls at Amy’s party seemed really cool. I could tell they were the girls at school who people wanted to hang out with. There was something faintly vicious about the way they clustered and then turned their heads swiftly, like birds of prey. I was homeschooled, of course, and I knew Amy from 4-H, where we grew plants together and I entered the art contests and she entered the riding contests. Her best friend, another girl in 4-H, was one of my best friends, too, and I was relieved that she was at the party. She was nice and got along with everyone.
It’s taking me a long time to tell this story, because I’m remembering so much about that house, and how it felt to be inside it, and all of the drama that family was enduring as the other families stood silently around, helpless and fascinated, watching. But the story is not about infidelity or professors who sleep with their students or elegant houses. It’s about toe hair. Because something happened at that party that changed the way I thought about my body forever. And it started with my toes.
Amy’s mom brought us snacks and hovered for a while in the background of the expansive carpeted living room while we set up our pink and purple sleeping bags (mine was olive green, hearty, and grownup-sized—it looked like it had been in the military before arriving at my parents’ house. They had gone camping a bunch before I was born). The girls giggled about some boys they knew from school and I put in a giggle or two. I was worried that it would be a long night. But within an hour, everyone was getting along, the way you still can when you’re eleven and then can’t for some reason, a little later, when you’re fourteen or so. I was the outsider, but the girls were being nice enough, and Amy was a gracious hostess.
And then we got to the games. We played Ouija board. We asked it if there was a ghost in the house and it confirmed that there was. Her name was Gertrude. We asked it if various boys liked us, and they mostly did.
There were presents, and ice cream cake, and as we all snuggled into our sleeping bags, we played a game with lots of little square cards. I can’t remember how it went, but the basic idea is that whoever stood out from the group in some way, according to what the card said, would have to do something.
“Whichever of you is the tallest, run around the table three times.”
There was more to it, I’m sure.
“Whoever has eaten pizza today, yell your name five times.”
Sometimes it was a bunch of people. We’d all eaten cake, of course!
Everyone thought the game was great, and we kept playing for a while.
Then Amy was reading the card, “Whoever has the hairiest big toe…”
And everyone burst out laughing. “No one even HAS hair on their big toe!” cried one of the girls. “They’re making that up!”
“We should check,” said someone else.
“I don’t have any,” said someone, looking. “That would be so gross!”
You can probably sense where this is going.
Furtively, I pulled a foot out of the sleeping bag and glanced down, shielding it under the glass-topped coffee table. Oh my god. There was a tuft of hair. I froze. My heart was pounding. How had I never known that I had hair on my toes before?! How was this happening? I looked quickly around. Everyone was busy inspecting their toes. Terror rose in my throat. Soon they would begin inspecting one another’s toes, and then they would discover that mine were the hairiest, and I’d have to stand up in front of the group and do something ridiculous, as punishment for my disgusting flaw. I felt as though my body had betrayed me. Had secretly sprouted toe hair just to shame me and make other girls laugh at me.
“This one’s weird,” I said in a choked voice. “Let’s just do another one instead. This one is so gross. No one even has toe hair.” I was taking a desperate gamble. What if someone called my bluff? I swallowed hard. Everyone looked at me, and I could feel my face heating up. Could they tell from my face that there was hair on my toes?
“Yeah, whatever,” said one of the girls suddenly. “Let’s do the next one!”
And we moved on. I kept my feet inside the sleeping bag for the rest of the evening, and in the morning, I quickly pulled my socks on. No one could know. No one could ever know.
I don’t know what happened to Amy’s mother and her father who left for the gap-toothed girl in the Birkenstocks. I don’t even know what happened to Amy. She and my other friend stayed close, I know that much. But about a year later, my family moved to a town about an hour away, and I didn’t go to 4-H (which had been kind of lame anyway) anymore. We talked on the phone a few times, but we didn’t have Facebook yet, and soon I had new friends, and that was that.
But something changed for me that night, in Amy’s high-ceilinged living room with the grand fireplace. I learned that my body could be gross to other people. To me, even. I learned that it could have things that were wrong with it. That weren’t supposed to be there. That were a mistake. I learned that I would have to do something about those mistakes, if I wanted to make friends and be cool and pretty and not be laughed at. I’d have to start shaving the hair off my toes, maybe. (OK, it’s true. I’ve done that.)
That was the first time. There would be many other times. Like when I learned that my nose was too big, at another slumber party, actually, when a girl told me she could tell I was Jewish from my nose, because it was big. And then again, when a girl told me I should get a nose job. When I learned that my breasts were small. And much, much, later, when I learned that I had too much pubic hair. And during the process of being fitted for a wedding gown, it seemed like there was something wrong with my weight, and that my waist was perhaps not tiny enough. Those lessons are learned everywhere, all the time.
I try to pay attention these days, because I am also always learning other lessons. Lessons about how good I look, how naturally my body does its own beauty, how successful it is, and how few mistakes have actually been made. Sometimes I don’t even mind the toe hair. Most times, actually, now. But it’s been a long road from that birthday party. Because once things fall apart and break, whether a porcelain figurine, a marriage, or a sense of one’s own inherent loveliness, they can be complicated to rebuild.
* * *
When did you realize you stood out in a bad way? What happened next?
Unroast: Today I love the way I look in a clingy maxi skirt because I finally found one and bought it and I am so, so ridiculously excited about that.
Reader cake pic! She says I inspired her to shave her head. She looks amazing and I am just about bursting with pride right now
Here’s her unroast: Today I love how my curvy and petite body looks in the jeans I’m “not supposed” to wear – skinnies!
Feel free to share yours any time!
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