I don’t necessarily remember the first time I felt invisible, but these 2 early incidents are burned into my brain…
Memory #1: I’m 14 and my family has just moved back to our hometown of Bozeman, Montana after having spent the last 6 years overseas where my parents taught at an international school in Saudi Arabia.
It’s my first day of 8th grade. As the teacher’s calling roll, I hear names I recognize from my 1st grade class — before we went overseas. When she calls a name I recognize, I casually glance to the person who answers and have a bizarre flash of who they were at 7, and who they’ve become at 14. I remember them all. But, as I embarrassingly find out in the weeks to come, they don’t remember me.
At 7 — the last time my peers saw or knew me — I was an overweight little girl. “Such a pretty face” my mom and other well meaning adults would comment, leaving me with the early impression that while my pretty face had value, my big body had no worth.
At 14, I am startlingly thin. My once “pretty face” is now gaunt and tired looking. It’s no wonder no one recognizes or remembers me. I am a shadow of my former self. On the brink of disappearing all together.
Only I’m “skinny” now. Which in junior high terms qualifies me to be popular.
I try “skinny” and “popular” on for size, but find the labels don’t fit. I may look the part in my size zero Espirit-everything wardrobe, but I don’t feel the part.
At some point during junior high, my home ec teacher – who went to college with my mother – calls my mom to express her concern that I might be anorexic. My mother, always image conscious and battling her own lifelong struggle with weight, insists her Pretty Thin Girl is just right. Pretty AND thin.
She is wrong. I am silently terrified of food and weight gain. I calorie count and binge exercise daily, celebrating the days I can see my hip bones jutting out in the mirror. I go to bed at night hungry and fantasizing about food I don’t allow myself to eat. When I go clothes shopping with my older sister and look in the dressing room mirror with disgust, bemoaning my “hideous thighs”, her return expression is just like the look I’m expecting from people today if I were to confess I feel invisible…
Are you KIDDING me?
It dawns on me that I might need help. But when I go to my mom for help, she tells me I’m fine. And so I turn to my former bestie for comfort and reassurance – food. And soon, Pretty Thin Girl disappears all together…
Memory #2: I’m 18 and I’ve just returned to Montana from California where I finished high school. I’m spending the summer living with my best friend before we go off to college on opposite coasts.
At 18, I’m back to being Pretty Big Girl. I’m at least 40 pounds heavier, my pretty round face covered in dramatic makeup – pale face, dark lips, black lined eyes – part of my late 80s new wave costume to cover up my inner shame that I am overweight and feel unlovable.
With little work experience, I land an unusual summer job – delivering concert tickets to people’s offices and homes, collecting money for the tickets to a police fundraiser.
I’ve just rung the doorbell of a house down the street from my childhood home. I’ve got a big smile plastered on my face as my former neighbor, a woman whose home I spent summers playing Barbie with her daughter in, answers.
“Hi!” I say brightly, as the familiar scent of cherry air freshener – just like I remember from childhood – wafts over me from inside the house.
My former neighbor smiles blankly at me.
She doesn’t recognize me.