I have three boys, and all of them are in awkward, transitional phases in their childhood.
My youngest is 6, and as his teeth are falling out, he is transforming from my sweet youngest baby into a goofy sarcastic boy as the tooth fairy goes broke, and often forgets to visit. He writes letters to her, asking to keep his teeth if she’ll allow it, as though he’s not quite ready to let go of his infancy either.
My middle son is 10 and has met with a speech therapist to continue tackling his “Rs”. He’s athletic and suddenly has the body of Adonis, but when he speaks there’s the reminder that he’s still on training wheels to adulthood.
My oldest is 12 and is obsessed with Harry Potter, often perfecting magic spells in the mirror. But if the light catches his upper lip in a certain way, you’ll witness the beginnings of a downy mustache.
Growing up is weird like that. Your body starts to betray your youth by rearing its ugly head when you least expect it. It’s the same for adults, in my experience. I looked down at my steering wheel today while driving and was shocked to find “Driving Miss Daisy”-esque hands staring back at me.
Growing old, at any age, is quite a sight to be seen.
Like my sons, my childhood years were awkward too.
Take my legs, for instance. Well, any part of me from 1987-2003 was awkward, but I’ll start there.
I started shaving my legs in 6th grade. This new step in feminine hygiene was prompted when my best friend in those formative elementary school years had arrived to the bus line-up for our class field trip, with bare legs beneath her acid washed denim shorts.
I was startled by her freshly shorn gams.
It was time for this?
There hadn’t been an in-person discussion or conference call on our landline phones, or a heads-up message triggering a flickering red light, left on our answering machine.
Her explanation was cloaked in embarrassment- her mother had said it was time and walked her through the process, undoubtedly showing her the correct foam to shaving ratio as they documented this life-moment in a family scrapbook.
My experience wasn’t quite so monumental. When my mom got home from work that night, I brought up the topic of leg-hair removal, and she confirmed that it was a fine idea, providing me with a bottle of Nair and a bid of good luck.
I’ve never understood how Nair works, but a quick google search this evening led me to this: “its depilatories work by breaking the disulfide bonds of the keratin molecules in hair”.
The top search regarding Nair on this late night in January bears the question… is it safe to use on balls? Answer: No.
My memory of Nair starts with the wave of excitement that came over me when I knew that soon I’d have hairless shins, followed by the acidic burning that immediately singed my nostrils upon opening the deceptively innocent bottle. The playful, coy pink packaging implied to the owner that the Nairing experience would be peaceful and quaint, when in reality, you make one wrong turn in the bathroom and your face could end up like Eric Stolz’ in Mask.
The trickiest part of perfecting the leg shave, after getting over those pesky ankle bones and back of the knee cut-magnets, was knowing how far up on the leg to stop the shave.
Some women go up and over their knee, continuing high up on their thighs. Others might stop right below their knee, tackling only the shin and calf region- but when you’re hobbit-height like me, what’s that point of shaving if you only address 4 inches?
It was the great predicament of sixth grade, and I tossed, turned and toiled for the answer, but then- I saw it: A mole on my right thigh. The color of coffee with 2 creams and spanning the width of a pencil eraser, this perfectly placed mole gave me the solution I’d been hoping for. Located a few inches above my knee and more than that below my waistline, it had solved the Nair finish-line riddle.
I survived that fateful night in 1993 as I moved from peach fuzzed legs, to a lifelong commitment, eventually trading out Nair for a real-life disposable razor with soap, then graduating to a blade with a built-in, moisturizing, shaving cream dispenser. By the time I’d hit 8th grade, it was no longer a time consuming endeavor, but an everyday rushed inconvenience that I still practice 2-3 times a month (when it isn’t Winter.)
By middle school though, what began as a convenient shaver’s guideline, turned into a real thorn in my side. I began to obsessively hone in on my right thigh, and that MOLE. That mark, that concentrated melanin forming a circle on my skin became my nemesis.
It became what I imagined it to be.
First, an annoyance. Then, a pesky obsession. And finally, a representation of what I already knew to be true: I was different.
Unlike the other girls with the right hair and spotless skin and answers to everything, I was me: An insecure girl with an outgoing talent. A kid that had an inner spark that, no matter how much I thought should shine, was often dampened by so many around me. Not with malice or intention, but maybe ignorance? Or impatience? Certainly not by my family who welcomed and even encouraged my obnoxious quirks. But to people outside of my family, especially my peers, I was the kind of kid that people just didn’t “get”.
I could go on listing all the ways that I felt excluded or misunderstood in seventh and eighth grade, but anyone who is breathing has felt the way that I did. Even if you were the girl with the perfect hair and skin and answers, I know you’ve felt it too.
Alone. Awkward. Ashamed.
And to my insecure and misguided early teen mind, the “different” that followed me around like PigPen’s cloud, was all wrapped up in that blasted mole on my leg.
I gave that thing endless amounts of my time and created this reality: It was a permanent badge of vulnerability that I wore everywhere I went. But, If no one could ever see it, then I could never be exposed.
I forcefully crossed my left leg over my right, in an attempt to keep it covered- which might explain why I’ve always had a strong eagle pose in my heated yoga practice. When standing, I pulled my shorts and dresses until they were overstretched to hide it. And I perfected “casual hands” that were, to an onlooker’s eye, draped haphazardly over my legs, thoughtlessly shielding my thigh (where only I was privy to what was underneath.)
Choir was the worst- chairs lined up on risers without a desk to hide my legs under, and a teacher who instructed us to keep both feet flat on the floor and often times had us move our arms during warm ups. Choreographed moves prevented my well seasoned casual hand placement- introducing many possibilities of exposure.
It could no longer be tolerated.
And that’s how I ended up in a room with my mom and a man I’ll call Dr. Wax.
It was 1996 when I asked my mom to make an appointment with a dermatologist to have my skin checked. My ancestors, per my sister’s most recent results on a clearance genetic spit test, is a lineage of walking freckles, sunburns and moles, resulting in my skin tone which can be best described as: Elmer’s Glue-ish.
Of course my mother agreed, because what parent, with adequate medical insurance and a daughter verging on albino, would discourage a visit to a skin doctor? A week or so after I’d requested it, an appointment time had been set.
We settled into the waiting room, fully stocked with Highlights magazines piled alongside symmetrically lined chairs, and soon were escorted to the exam room- our steps keeping time to the rhythm of the office’s fish tank pump. I did as instructed and changed into the sandpaper gown, leaving it “open at the front”. I waited, feet freezing, perched on the stiff bench in the center of the room.
When together alone, my mom and I have always had the habit of wearing silence like a warm blanket, where talking is never forced or necessary. We sat in the harshly lit space, Mom, with the companionship of whatever book she’d brought along, and me, accompanied by my thoughts and the ever present teen angst that piggy-backed them.
The memory is hazy after the dermatologist knocked abruptly on the door; I know the doctor was male, with clear, waxy skin serving as his patient’s glowing beacon. His bedside manner seemed as good as it could be, to this fourteen year old girl getting a full body once over like a case at the local delicatessen.
Nothing alarmed him, that much I remember. He wasn’t concerned about my freckle constellations or the bumps on various patches of skin.
Looks Good. Normal Spots. Passed the test. Whatever his catchphrase, I’d earned it, as he moved to leave the room.
But I wasn’t finished with him yet.
We were concerned about a certain area, I told him (I had alerted my mother before our appointment began) The one spot that prompted our call, the reason for our visit: A mole on my right thigh.
Was it a worrisome color, doctor? Could it, to your trained eye, possibly be the wrong shape?
He asked me some questions- had it changed? Was it uncomfortable? Had it appeared recently or grown in size?
My answer was no to all of them, my mom chorusing behind me. I had always had it- as long as I could remember. There wasn’t any change that I noticed and it never caused me any pain.
Still, I think that I would feel more at ease, and wouldn’t we all, if he just removed it while I was there? You know, to put all our worries at rest. Why risk it?
Dr. Wax shrugged his shoulders, turning toward the door to get what I imagined would be a laser, a SkinZap 2000… whatever tool required.
He returned with a needle to numb and a scalpel to slice, and I braced myself for the dissection that followed.
As an aside: If my sons have a question that I don’t have an answer to, they will respond, in unison: “Look it up!” Then, I’ll speak their question into my phone and am usually met with an answer that is good enough to keep the volume of my kids’ voices at a bearable level.
Listen, it’s an immediate gratification world, I’m just living in it.
When I was a kid and had a question that I wanted the answer to (and didn’t have an adult at the ready to oblige) I either flipped through tissue-paper thin pages of an encyclopedia that I could never clearly understand, or waited for the question to drift away until life experience answered it.
So, in 1995 or 1996, the question: “What happens when the top of a mole is removed by a dermatologist with skin like silly putty?” was in my head. And all I could do was wait and see what happened as the doctor went to work.
It was quick, painless and after he’d finished?
It was still there.
Still on my leg.
Because he did what he was supposed to do and just took the surface off for testing. You know what was below it? More of the same.
I hadn’t accounted for this- I couldn’t have guessed it. How was I supposed to know that when he took off the muffin top, there would still be the cylindrical anticlimactic muffin bottom mole below?
After months of waiting, two years of agonizing and then finally plotting the disappearance of this mark of DIFFERENT, there it was.
Taunting me under the fluorescent lights of the doctor’s office.
I hid my disappointment, thanked the doctor, and deflated into the passenger’s seat of my mom’s car as we headed home.
I suppose I could write that after my dermatologist appointment, I realized that being different is what makes me special and that spots on my surface don’t determine what’s in my center. And that the mark on my thigh symbolized that no matter how hard I tried to hide my true self, and chameleon my way into my surroundings, that I would still end up that same weird, different, quirky person I was meant to be.
That covering up (or trying to cut away) my fears and differences and insecurities would just be a bandaid until I could own every part of me while not giving a shit what other people think.
But I didn’t realize any of those things. Not then.
And while I believe that they are all true, up until last week I was still trying to do it- still trying to hide my weirdness and quirks and faults and shame.
I wasn’t casually draping my hands over my leg to hide it, but I was drinking a bottle of wine or more a night to numb it. And the fear of being found out, and having my flaws judged by an outsider looking in, has kept me drinking for the last 20 years. Drinking made me different than I was. It created a filter to soften how hard life can seem.
And it was manageable until I couldn’t manage.
And I was functional until I couldn’t function. Not the way I want to, anyway.
So here I am. 5 days sober. Starting to celebrate my flaws and stake a claim in my weaknesses, trying to remember, every day, that allowing myself to be vulnerable is the path to a life fully lived.
And I’m grateful. Grateful that Dr. Wax left that reminder for me so many years ago. That even though I’ve tried to make parts of me disappear, I’m still that girl I was: flawed, scarred, awkward, but ready to try again.