She was just an adult-shaped blob with brown hair and a pocket book.
Out of nowhere, she just walked up to me. Unprovoked. Unwelcomed. Uninvited. A complete stranger. Someone I’d never seen before and have never seen again. Someone whose face I don’t remember. Someone whose name I never needed to learn.
I was 7 years old—what I know now was the prime of my life—at my Aunt Laura’s company picnic, playing with a bunch of kids. Specifically, boys. I was almost always playing with a bunch of boys because given the choice between conventional “girl stuff”—dolls, dress-up, and dancing—and “boy stuff”—sprinting, sports, and spitting—I would choose the boy stuff 100 out of 100 times.
I was probably wearing Umbro shorts and an oversized cotton t-shirt with an unused pocket. That was pretty much all I wore through elementary school aside from picture day, where I’d fight with my mom about not wanting to dress up. She’d reiterate that looking presentable doesn’t mean dressing up. She was right, but I was indefatigable. We’d finally agree on me wearing something neon, probably with buttons. Everybody wins, everybody loses.
My aunt’s summer picnic was an outdoor bonanza with bouncy houses, face painting, carnival games, and all the sunshine my skin would allow. It was paradise. I was living in the moment, which is the only place and time a kid should have to live.
The boys and I had been racing each other, tearing around an open field in the late afternoon. I’m sure we were yelling rules to the next game or race or competition, because kids that age always seem to be yelling and making shit up to entertain themselves.
When you’re 7, you don’t really sweat much, but we were all damp and red-faced, and my blonde bangs were caked to my forehead.
“My niece was a tomboy just like you,” she said, tilting her head and looking in my eyes empathetically, like she was some kind of sage or holy figure. And then she said those words I still can’t shake.
“You do me a favor. Tell your mom not to worry. Someday you’ll grow out of it.”
I was only 7, so there’s a good chance it was the first time I’d ever been taken aback by anything. I don’t remember whether I said anything back to her. Maybe I just went back to playing with my new friends. Or maybe I walked back to my aunt and sister feeling embarrassed and vulnerable, like I had done something wrong. I really don’t remember. But I sure do remember her words and how they made me feel. How they still make me feel.
You know, when they say rude, invasive things, like, “You do me a favor. Tell your mom not to worry. Someday you’ll grow out of it.”
Oh, I knew what she meant. To this villainous Trunchbull, I was just a wretched, slimy tadpole when I should have been sugar and spice. Girls shouldn’t wear clunky high tops and roll up their sleeves. They shouldn’t be dirty and loud. They shouldn’t beat the boys at their own games.
My poor mother! She must have been beside herself that her daughter would rather catch toads than be a princess. How could this homely little tomboy ever live a happy life?
This woman. This stranger. This nosy, presumptuous monster. Instead of seeing me for what I was—a happy, whip smart, confident kid who never asked her opinion—she saw a rough-and-tumble little hoyden and the opportunity to intervene in the name of girlishness and femininity.
She thought it was a good idea to have a 7 year-old relay a message to her mom, the contents of which were—to put it in my own words, “Your daughter is a disgrace to girls everywhere, but with years of judgment and invective from myopic harpies like me, she will conform. We will break her. So, don’t worry.”
This stranger—who didn’t know me from Adam or Eve—felt so moved and emboldened by her own unimaginative view of femininity, that she felt pity. Not for me, even. For my mother, whom she also did not know. My poor mother, who had to deal with me: an unsightly little tree-climbing monkey girl with dirt under her fingernails and who had spent the past 7 years shaming the family, in her own subversive way.
I don’t know if it was deliberate, manipulative meanness or just ignorance. I don’t know if this stranger was intentionally trying to undermine my sense of self or just couldn’t help herself. But this busybody was the first person—of many to come—who couldn’t keep her thoughts to herself about my clothing, my behavior, and my voice.
Maybe, in her ugly little mind, my life would be one of heartbreak and sadness. Intentional or not, she planted a seed of doubt—am I wrong? should I change? am I enough?—that maybe, with enough watering, someday I would sprout flowers and not be a spiny, green cactus. Maybe someday I’d become not who I am, but who she wanted me to be.
There was still time. There was still hope. I could still change. Cue the dramatic violin, the soft lighting, the weepy eyes staring in the mirror. The moment of realization.
The good news is I knew me. Because we all know how this story ends: same as it ever was. I’m still in clunky high tops, still running, still sweating. Still too loud. Still not dressed up for anything but picture day, and, ehhhh, it’s still a battle.
But lucky for me, I was sure of myself. This lady’s words were such an affront to me that I still remember them, some 30 years later, because I knew who I was. I was Kelaine. But this stranger, spouting her unwelcome words? She was a fucking NOBODY.