March 8, 2019 | Narrative
from contortionist to woman
From the day I set foot in my first school, I knew what I was.
I was not a woman. I was not a girl.
I was a contortionist: bending my limbs and entangling my arms until I could fit into whatever box felt the snuggest around my hips. The box was like one made of cardboard, so that I could be shuffled around or hidden away, like unwanted items in storage.
When I was thirteen years old, with a rotund stomach and a round face, no box felt big enough to contain me. Girls flitted around me, petite fey folk with tutus wrapped around their waists, laughing and tinkling as they watched my body protruding out of its cardboard prison. As for the boys, they paid no heed unless it was to tip the box over or pull at strands of my hair as they jeered. I watched helplessly as they scribbled across my cardboard home with permanent marker.
I was out of place. Or maybe just out of shape.
When my friend was thirteen, she was crowned Queen of the Fairies. But the boys wouldn’t let her be. They pulled at her frocks, yanked at her crown, mussed up her hair, and leered into her cardboard box until she’d had enough. The day she gave up her crown and joined me on the sidelines, her box was in tatters. She had to find a new one. But the new box was far too spacious for her—loose around her shoulders, too spacious around her chest. The boys didn’t like it either.
When my friend and I rejoined the fairies years later, I befriended a boy for the first time. It was no longer taboo. “It feels so good not to be cooped up anymore,” I told him.
“What do you mean?” he asked, arms perpetually extended in flight.
He and I, we came from difference.
Over the years, I returned to my box less and less. Women around me were retiring their boxes, too. I felt hope. I felt wings sprouting from my back, and I wanted to have the world at my feet.
When I was nineteen though, the world brought me back to my knees.
“What’s a girl like you doing in chemistry?” my friend said, his condescension so sharp and caustic that I immediately retreated to my box.
Months later, he sought me out. He implored me to leave my cardboard box, to join him. Some part of me was tempted by the offer. The other half remembered his condescension.
After I said no, he told me I would die a virgin. “It takes a certain type of girl to go into STEM, you know. You’ll never find a guy. You’re not even pretty. You’re lucky I liked you at all.”
I slapped him so hard, the recoil shot up to my shoulders. Then I ran.
For a few years, I dabbled in arts and music. I thought that maybe I could leave behind my box, if I was doing what girls were “supposed” to.
But it didn’t quite work that way.
When I did what I was supposed to, my teachers told me this meant going back to my box. I had to fit neatly, or not at all. I couldn’t just have one foot in the box, they told me. That was ridiculous.
I couldn’t be a STEM girl who liked art. I couldn’t be an artist who liked physics. I couldn’t be a girly-girl who liked rock, and I couldn’t be a tomboy who liked pink. What sort of box would I inhabit if I did? Surely, I had to have a better understanding of how the world worked. I was a full-grown woman. I had to know it was all or nothing. A simple binary.
Reaching adulthood, I didn’t know whether I wanted life outside the box or in it.
I sensed that the women growing up around me felt the same. I watched my sisters struggle with their boxes. Flap half-open, flap cut off—flap reinforced with two layers of cardboard.
When I look back now, I can’t pinpoint exactly when recycling bins began to overflow with cardboard boxes. I just know that it was the start of an era, an era of revolution.
Today, I stand atop a mountain of flattened boxes. Sisters, mothers, daughters, and lovers, all alike—we stand to reject the boxes that constrained our spirits. No girl, no woman, no human, should have to trap themselves within cardboard walls. Not again. Now I stand hand-in-hand with those around me, a wall of humanity blockading the passage of time, obstructing the way of outdated rites.
Now that I haven’t felt the weight of a box in years, I finally know. Know that I am not a performer.
I am not a contortionist.
I am a woman.