Before the Reputation tour, before 1989 overtook the airwaves, Taylor Swift was a rising country-pop star. Sugary tunes like “Tim McGraw” and “Teardrops on my Guitar” drew the young Swift to prominence. In her video to “You belong with me” Taylor plays a nerdy band geek as signified by some Harry Potter-looking glasses she wears. But then SWITCHAROO because she throws on a brown wig that she def had just pulled outta the bag to become the mean, popular girl. The imagery echoes a longtime dichotomy: that there are the cool girls and that not-cool girl. There is an in-crowd and an out crowd. Lady Gaga also utilized this narrative when calling her fans “little monsters”– they the cafeteria freaks were finally getting theirs by retitling the narrative through the Gaga figurehead. But it still plays into that idea.
I have always felt like an outcast. As a little girl, I towered over my peers (only to become average height in adulthood). I rocked two gray teeth as the result of nerve damage from crashing my mouth into a wet steel slide. My hair, wild and firey, refused me any subtlety. Everything about me felt like too much– too loud, opinionated, too big, to not pretty. I was told, “Your hair is big. Your brain is big. Your butt is big” to my face and called “thunder thighs” behind my back. Strangely, none of my peers were compelled to discuss The Golden Girls or Gender Roles and Sexuality in Antigone and Macbeth (I know, super weird)!
High school heightened my status as a social pariah. I literally had garbage thrown at my face in the cafeteria– intentionally. Some peers encouraged me to to the world a favor and complete suicide. Another time, a fellow student knowingly knocked all of my books off of a seat and onto the wet floor to damage them. Kids called my house phone and asked me to hang out as a joke. No matter what I did, whether positive or negative, an accusation of promiscuity would follow. I was a harlot for getting good grades, for being too loud, too confident, for the shape of my body and my success at speech and debate (I know, try not to act too impressed). I prayed to be normal. I prayed to be accepted by my peer group, or at the very least, not vilified. Neither occurred. I muddled through those four years, believing I was alone in that struggle.
This summer, I caught up with two high school classmates. We exchanged stories. I heard about what they experienced at CHS, how hard it was for them. So entrenched in my personal peril, it did not occur to me that the person sitting next to me in class was hurting just as much. My hometown is a traditional community. That isn’t to discount that my childhood was relatively safe. I had a roof over my head and food to eat every night. However, I don’t think it was the best place for young women. I believe this because social media has shown me the incredible, badass people my female classmates became when they left Canfield.
I left one C-town in Ohio for another. Columbus, Ohio was the setting for my undergraduate career at The Ohio State University. College was the answer to my high school questions. One of those being–what is it like to be the popular girl?
One of my friends early on, Macy, was a popular girl. She was and still is, beautiful, with a lithe figure and tan complexion. She is cool in the fact that she cares, but never too much. Like magnetic pieces, all the Macys of my dorm flocked together. Their clothes were trendy, their vernacular punctuated with all the latest cultural notes. They partied and their social media profiles glistened with all their glossy pictures. Boys liked them. The Macys got what they wanted, and secretly, I wanted to be like them.
I lost 15 pounds my freshman year. You know how much I tied my feelings of attractiveness to weight, Reader. So, I was feelin’ myself. I joined a sorority, and even those mine wasn’t chalked full of Macy’s, I was around them. I began to notice things– how much they cared about what other people thought, the investment in social connections. Once, Macy lamented eating a carb. Another friend and I chattered about how thin she is. Macy snapped, “yeah, and I wanna stay that way”. My appearance was never my social currency, and while gaining weight had impacted my self-esteem, it was never a blow to my identity.
Around Macy’s sorority sisters, I calculated how much they had to lose. They had to say yes to more boys and there seemed to be a social tax to self-advocacy. As if their “no” was not enough as if the social stakes outweighed personal health. I also saw how social pedigree cannot shield you from life. Even the perfect girls have problems. The glossy pictures hid the divorced parents and family ordeals and many pains these women carried. Hardship does not discriminate.
If life is a Taylor Swift video, we’re all the weirdo with Harry Potter-lookin’ glasses. Everyone is insecure. Nobody feels like he or she completely belongs. It’s soothing to believe that someone else has it all. But no one does. That is a lie. The truth is that everyone feels a little like an outcast, and that is why we huddle together. For as complex as people are, we crave the same things– affirmation, connection, understanding. I’ve learned that people soften toward you when you welcome them with those things. I am the least cool, most extra-flamboyant, emotional, oversharing person around. I am not trying to be cool. I will text you first. I will shoot my shot and get rejected. I remind my loved ones how much I love them because even when I’m hurting, I know I’m not the only one who hurts.
Inside every person is this trembling child who has been wounded in some way. We’re all the brace-clad band geeks hoping that someone asks us to sit at the lunch table. When we interact with people, we’re also engaging with all the experiences who have brought them to this point. So, the most healing thing to do is acknowledge that, celebrate that without expectation of reciprocity. Being a person is hard enough without us projecting unfounded narratives onto one another. Reader, you’re not mean Taylor Swift with the bad brown wig. Neither is the person next to you. We’re all Little Monsters, freaks, and geeks, losers and weirdos. There is no in-crowd or out-crowd– just humanity– a messy slur of people walking each other home.