I guess I was supposed to be flattered because people said I was pretty. But it felt like a liability to me. A dangerous burden. Something that could go wrong.
By the first day of fifth grade, I was 5’5″. My almost painfully skinny body made my A cup breasts look much larger than they actually were. In a photograph in the local paper, I was in a dance costume with some other girls. “Wilhelmina had the biggest boobs in the paper,” a classmate said during recess. I got my period in fifth grade at age 11. I didn’t tell any of my friends.
I could feel a shift starting in fourth grade. Strangers asked me if I was in middle school. Other girls loved and related to Shirley Temple. I couldn’t relate to Shirley Temple at all. In upper elementary school I loved Isadora Duncan, Gypsy Rose Lee, Etta Place, Josephine Baker. I loved modern dance and studying Duncan was a gentle guide toward womanhood. With my dark hair, pale skin, and loose fitting dresses, I could have been mistaken for a 1990s version of one of the Isadorables.
Gypsy Rose Lee felt like an archetypal role model for a physically mature young girl. Right away, I could identify that I was not a Baby June type. Baby June was Lee’s younger sister and a Shirley Temple type in Vaudeville before Shirley Temple actually existed. Maybe it was odd for a young girl to relate to a Burlesque stripper and read so much about her, but at least I learned to embrace the womanhood that was thrust upon me.
Growing up in a college town was a source of relief. In a sea of college students, I was just another attractive young woman, not the spectacle I was around kids my own age. Especially when dancing, in costumes, made-up. People would say things to my parents like, “Better lock up your daughter. She’s too tall and too pretty,” and “They broke the mold when they made her.” I overheard some of these comments, while my mom told me about others. I guess I was supposed to be flattered because people said I was pretty. But it felt like a liability to me. A dangerous burden. Something that could go wrong. A toddler with a loaded gun.
Some of my friends played orphans in a production of Annie. Backstage, I walked by Miss Hannigan, who was significantly shorter than me. “Why didn’t you audition, Wilhelmina?” someone’s mother asked me.
I tried not to think about attention I received from grown men. When a teenage boy would hit on me, it was intimidating, but at least it was less perverted. I could almost feel normal. I had an elementary school teacher who would call me at home like the boys in my grade, among other strange behavior. If my parents hadn’t been so involved, I might not have been protected from this man who continually tried to force his way into my life until I physically left the state after high school.
At age 11, I was staying at a hotel with my family for a relative’s wedding. Walking through the hotel with my mother trailing behind me, a group of bikers leered at me. One separated from the group and moved toward me, saying “Hey. How are you doing?” My mother audibly gasped, and rushed forward to clutch me by the shoulders. “Who are you? Her bodyguard?!” the biker said to my mother, not concealing his anger. We walked past them (quickly, silently) with my mother still gripping my shoulders even though I was taller than her. My mother was 40 at the time, possibly younger than the biker. Now that I’m over 30, I realize that my mother wasn’t that old herself.
My mother later told me about getting her period at age 10. Before that, she said, she could run faster than all the boys in her grade. Maybe she still could have outrun them. We’ll never know. But given the realities of menstrual products in the 60s, who would want to try?
My childhood was over before I even knew it was ending. I watched many of my peers enjoy a certain freedom until high school. A childhood friend of mine didn’t get her period until she was 14. I wondered what it was like for those girls. To have those additional years under the radar. I still wonder.
Wilhelmina Jane White is a pen name of an American writer born in the 80s. Under her real name she has been published widely. As Wilhelmina Jane White she has previously written for The Good Men Project. She is a drag enthusiast and her favorite person to follow on Twitter is Creme Fatale.