By Melissa Carroll
When I was little I had an armada of Barbie dolls: Princess Ice Skater Barbie, Safari Barbie, Bikini Beach Barbie. My childhood bedroom was filled with legions of busty blondes. When I was little I was a nerdy girl with a big nose, a girl who got picked last in kickball and faked headaches to miss gym class. At home, when I chopped Barbie’s hair off, I loved the chunked slice of kitchen scissors against her plastic strands. Sometimes I stabbed my Papermate pens into her face to give her blue freckles. Sometimes I curiously examined her, took her pink Velcro dress off, and rotated her stiff limbs in their sockets, plucking out a leg or popping off her head to inspect the plastic bulb holding her impossibly beautiful rubber body together.
Certain women in Burma coil brass rings around their necks: slender, braced. The rings weigh down their collarbones, which gives the illusion of an elongated neck. It’s a delicate deformation, the hush of bone and blood.
In Mauritania women are force fed camel’s milk, they are fattened like calves for slaughter. Each brimming calabash promises a man.
Women of North America slice their faces open, peel back skin like almonds boiled in milk—thin, slimy, translucent. They cut their nipples open and insert bags of saline, they paint their faces, bleach their hair, they stick their fingers down their throats.
I’m in sixth grade, playing in my backyard with my best friend Carly. We’re inventing a rain dance, clucking our tongues, which looks very much like the chicken dance. This time I’m the shaman, pumping my fists in the air, howling vowels at the sky. We laugh wild, unbroken little girl laughs, loud and crackling.
This is before we learn to laugh while trying to look thin, to laugh and pose for anyone who might be watching. This is when our games are simple and our hair is tangled. We are on the cusp of puberty, when our bodies still belong to us. We have no idea that soon, any minute now, we’ll be fed to the American Pretty Machine, like a wood chipper, arms and legs and brains and hearts on the glittering conveyor belt.
The Pretty Machine materializes into plastic surgeries and celebrity gossip rags and eating disorders and an oil slick of self loathing. It pumps young girls with the idea that being sexy is the most important thing in the world, that looking good equals feeling good. Girls are sent, completely unaware, through the machine and come out the other side shellacked and lacquered, shell-shocked and pretty.
Carly and I are shopping with our new college roommate, Maria, at Forever 21. Pop music blasts through speakers. Carly makes a beeline to a rack of shimmering fabric. She snatches up a hot pink corset with black rhinestones on the boning and the ribbons laced up the back. A 21st century slut-tastic revamp of the Victorian style—the ladies would piss their petticoats if they could see us now.
Carly holds the corset over her torso. Maria plucks one from the rack for herself.
There is no denying it: Carly is dazzling. She’s assaulted her naturally dark, wavy hair with the most violent of salon-strength melees, bleaching and straightening and buying reams of blond extensions with her parents’ money. She’s so skinny people often think she’s anorexic, but that summer in 2003, the Fates of Hotness decide to bless her with perfect boobs and hips. A size 0 waist with C cups and legs propped up on five-inch stilettos. When my father asks if she got implants, I almost throw up to think of him noticing her. As a male friend will put it when she returns to campus in August, “Since when did Carly’s body turn into a Coke bottle?”
Carly, however, has no idea how gorgeous she is, and so she is humble. She’s kind. A triple whammy. In a few weeks she’ll begin suffering panic attacks. She won’t be able to leave her dorm room. Her mind will roil against her and transfigure her beautiful face into something so grotesque that her jaw will solder shut and her body will want to detonate, bones flying out and clattering down to the ground. She’ll be diagnosed with body dysmorphic disorder and leave school for the semester, and she’ll come back in a few months, heavily medicated and not entirely happy.
But for now, in Forever 21, we head to the collection of black nylon. I believe my life is finally stitching together, this must be it, and a future of adoration wildly tickles my brain as we try on heaps of chintzy clothes that make us look like call girls. Excitement surges up my thighs. I am desperate to be happy, to stamp out the anxiety and depression quickly shattering me, and the jeweled eye of the Pretty Machine is irresistible.
It’s as if the mall mirrors are two-way with a laboratory full of scientists and advertising execs on the other side, studying us like strange birds. Beneath white coats they rub their palms together, hiss buy more glitter girls, glitter makes you happy, glitter makes everyone love you.
Every day Maria makes herself throw up in our dorm room shower. When Carly and I are in the living area we can hear Maria hurling through the running water. We don’t know what to say to her, so we don’t say anything. We shrug, whisper, measure our own stomachs in the mirror.We take markers to our food in the fridge and the pantry, labeling what we buy so Maria won’t eat it all in the middle of the night during her binges. She does anyway.
I imagine her at 3am in the quiet kitchen. She’s denied herself food all day. Hunger makes her feral. She grabs whatever she finds in the fridge, its cold light spilling into the room. She tears open Ziploc bags of Carly’s leftover chicken cutlets, palms them whole and chilled in her mouth, delirious as hunks of sinuous meat slide down her throat. I imagine her skin feels raw. She’s nearly shaking. Each bite recalibrates her. Blood sugar balancing. She demolishes whatever is there: a sleeve of chocolate chip cookies, two slices of pizza, a tomato eaten like an apple.
I couldn’t orgasm with a man. I was too worried about how I looked in coital contortions to feel the hot bourbon sensations in my hips. As long as he came I was content. Somewhere a feminist just dropped dead.
Carly counts out graham crackers — one, two, three — she meticulously measures how much ketchup or mayonnaise she can consume. Her diet is rigorous, the same meals every day: yogurt for breakfast, can of tuna for lunch, chicken and spinach for dinner, three graham crackers for dessert. She tells me she is always hungry, that food never leaves her thoughts. Her belly is the center point around which she orbits, her slowly shrinking belly.
Consider the jumping spider: the females are bland as chestnuts but the males, now they are all white speckles, tangerine legs, hairs contour eyes in the most splendid shapes. Sometimes I wish I was an ugly lady jumping spider so I could sit back and have my pick of the pack as the handsome ones claw at each other for my eggs.
Better yet, I’d be a drab female bowerbird. The males, the gorgeous gender, build elaborate stages to impress us girls. I’d let them dance up and down their grass promenades, all flash and blue feather.
Or I could be a green tree frog and listen as the males crank their mating calls into the night, throating a sexual symphony from their pond. It would be like that movie Say Anything where John Cusack holds up the huge boom box over his head to serenade the girl, except it would be hundreds of John Cusacks huddled together, blasting their love songs to sire me.
And secretly I’d pity the men. In my comfortable blandness I’d mock their charades. How terrible, the beautiful males with constant pushpins in their hearts, the whole ridiculous show they make each day.
Barbie is a hard-skinned girl on a metal frame. She can’t swerve and bend like a reed, like I can. She’s not flexible like me. She can’t chicken dance, and surely wouldn’t want to, not with Ken perpetually checking her out from his blinkless blue eyes. No, the only way to get Barbie really moving is to deform her, to rip her arms out, to wrench her tiny plastic torso around.
The summer of 2005 the Pretty Machine works its way through my veins. During our consultation, Dr. Hilroy takes a picture of me with computer software and shows me what I’d look like with my honking schnoloza shaved down. He turns the computer monitor toward me. I see a new identity reshaped as the pixels of my nose are incinerated on the computer. This new face knows all the cleverest things to say, this new girl lets her anxiety and sadness drip off her like water, this girl redone into the confident dynamo of my daydreams. And besides, who doesn’t want to be pretty, who wouldn’t pass up the chance to move through life with the lightness and sheen of the blessed beautiful ones?
Carly and I unroll our yoga mats in the back row. It’s our first class.
The instructor, a tall woman with long, tangled hair, speaks softly. “Breathe deeply, let go of your ideas about your body, what you should look like, how you should move. However you look, however you are, is perfect for right now.”
My body slowly uncoils. I bend and reach, twist and unpeel. Something lodged within me cracks and breaks loose. This feels right.
Why do we pluck and staple our skin, why do we smear $80 gels on our cellulite, why do we suck in our bellies when people snap our picture? Why do we want to be beautiful? Is it to be a little hated? Or is it to be so very much loved, by total strangers, by the bag boy at the grocery store, by the bank teller, by men and women alike, just for a moment, for no good reason other than how we look, which is somehow still, in my heart, a good enough reason?
It’s been fifteen years since I raindanced in my backyard with Carly. Now a roomful of yogis—mostly women in spandex like me—gyrates and swerves to drum music. We’re completely unconcerned with what we look like. We look a little bit wild, a little bit free. All of these women dancing together, not for anyone other than themselves. In this moment we are breath and pulse and fire. We are beautiful.
I close my eyes. Sweat. My limbs undulate spontaneously. The beat throbs. We start clapping and stomping our feet. Some people whoop and yell, so consumed by rhythm, by their own self-consciousness unfurling in tendrils of sound. Tears salt my face.
This is my new raindance. A mellow, blissed out raindance. My ribs unclasp, one by one, pried off the spine like chicken bones. My heart is blown wide open. My breasts are pools of light. My hips petal open, and loves pours in, my breath and body writhe, unhinged, and in this moment I am whole.
Dear Pretty Machinists,
Good work, folks. I’ve got to say after all these years the gears still click and spin. I’ve been trained well under your sharp machinations.
But one day, I promise you, I’ll slip out from beneath the toothed wheels. You won’t even notice me, not with the steel roars of buzz saws into all that bone, not with girls’ ragged tendons snapping like violin necks. I’ll slither between your ingenious maze and come to the edge, staring down the twenty-foot drop of bolted metal sheeting. I’ll jump, land on my beat-up sneakers, and run. I’ll run like fuck through the wild grassy fields that stretch for days beyond the Pretty Machine, the cool air whooshing past my skin; I’ll feel the years of counting calories and hating mirrors and hating other women and hating myself drip out my pores in bright, streaming, multi-hued droplets.
Then I’ll have found what you’ve been hiding from me, from all of us, with the greatest care, because you know the magnitude of this secret. You know if word gets out your whole operation is at risk of shutting down. Which is why you’ve worked so hard to pretend it doesn’t exist. But I’ll know it, I’ll become it when I run away. Stripped of makeup, fancy clothes, delicious-smelling hair creams, with my old bent nose back. And I’ll love myself and this will set me on fire. I’ll be so radiant you’ll scratch your heads and think an oil fire’s started on the machine’s ridge. But it’ll be me and my flesh, imperfect turned perfect through the alchemy of my mind, finally beautiful, the kind of beautiful you don’t let us believe in.