There is nothing more terrifying to me than a pack of twelve year-old girls.
In spite of all my feminist training and getting to know my inner child, there is a visceral animal inside me that drives me to a fight or flight reaction.
A pack of teenage girls is my boogeyman, my monster in the closet.
In spite of this, I recently led a yoga class for a group of young girls at a community center. I’ve taught a wide variety of genders, ages and ethnicities down through the years. So why does this particular population make me feel like the junior high kid who sits alone at lunch? I’m an adult. Shouldn’t I be over this shit by now?
It took me over an hour to pick out an outfit to teach in. I wanted to A) cover up my tattoos, and B) not look fat. The first was so that I wouldn’t get an e-mail from an angry parent saying “My child got a Weezer tattoo because of you, yoga freak.” The second was so I wouldn’t hear a giggle from the front row when I had my rotund ass skyward in Down Dog.
I wanted them to like me.
I’m 34 years old, but I still feel like that fat girl in gym class, and it’s rope climbing day.
They didn’t call them “tweens” when I was growing up, but the name fits. They’re in an in-between stage of development— half-formed and clumsy. While the boys are busy trying to hide their impromptu erections from the universe, girls get something often referred to as a “special friend.” An odd name for something that causes physical pain and a sadness so overwhelming it leaves you in a sweatpants stupor for days. Sometimes my friends forget to return my phone calls, but none of them have ever made me bleed.
But that’s what it was— a friend. This very special guest visited me for the first time during summer vacation. I was twelve. By this time I had read Are you There God? It’s Me, Margaret. I had also spent hours rifling through my mother’s blue box of pads under the bathroom sink. It was something I wanted desperately. I was bookish and lonely and badly in need of a friend.
For the first time the girls in my class were jealous of me. I would have preferred it was over my excellent verbal skills or my New Kids on the Block bedroom slippers, but it was the period that did it. I was the first girl in my class to get it, and my trips to the bathroom became heavily attended. The other girls would stand outside my closed stall and ask me what it looked like and if it hurt and if I knew how lucky I was. I felt like the great and powerful Wizard of OZ.
But there was so much happening inside my body that I didn’t have answers for. My body changed daily; flat became round, smooth became rough, red, and pimply. I don’t recall spending much time crying as a child, but suddenly I had a soap opera’s worth of tears and dramatic monologues for all to hear. I was the Susan Lucci of Shelburne Junior High. Where’s my Emmy, dammit?
With this reconstruction of me, by what I could only assume was a vengeful and cruel male god, came a self-doubt so crippling that I literally stopped— stopped running and biking and writing terrible plays and laughing and living.
The loss of self-esteem is a common disease among adolescent girls, as anyone who’s read Reviving Ophelia knows. I wish someone had told me that then. From where I sat, it seemed that all the other girls were maturing into boyfriends and booty shorts with grace. They wielded hair curlers and razors and hot wax like they’d been doing it all their lives. These were the tools of womanhood and they left me with burnt patches in my hair and a rash of razor cuts on my legs that made it look like I’d been brawling with rosebushes.
And there was the fact that all of the girls I knew were accumulating French kisses and post-dinner phone calls from their “boyfriends.” You could be as pretty and smart and accomplished as hell, but if you didn’t have a boyfriend it was assumed there was something wrong with you. Having a boyfriend meant that you had been approved by nine out of ten doctors. You were healthy and safe— you were progressing along like a good little girl. I was unapproved. I was alone. I was failing at being a woman-in-training.
To state the obvious, my fear of adolescent girls is a fear of myself— the self that I dread seeing pictures of, the self I’ve tried to forget. When I look at them I can feel the old me, heavy with an armful of Bronte novels and the thirty extra pounds I packed on during junior high school. I thought I had buried that Sara, but it was a very shallow grave.
The day of the class I laid out the mats and turned on some Beyonce. I sat in lotus and waited for the girls to arrive. They entered the gym in huge packs— laughing and yawning and loud as a locomotive whistle.
I told them to spread out on their mats and let their limbs go limp. We went through a tense and release relaxation where I told them to breathe out anger, fear, stress, anything that that disturbed their peace had to go. There were giggles and eye rolls and exaggerated breaths by the girls in the front row. As I walked to the back row, I noticed a chubby girl with those same sad eyes I find in pictures of myself at that time. As I knelt down over her for an adjustment, the girls from the front row turned toward us and starting snickering. Suddenly, this poor child was craning her head and covering her belly.
“I can’t do this,” the sad girl said to me.
“This. Lay like this. It hurts.”
I put my hands under her knees and bent them so that her lower back would be flush against the mat.
I walked away from her and that was it. After class, she made her way toward me and gave me her mat.
“Thank you, she said, for the knee-bending thing.”
Sometimes, that’s all it takes.
Bending this child’s knees is not going to save her life or make her tween world any easier. I have no illusions about that. I do believe, though, that it’s our job as yoga instructors to provide comfort whenever and however we can. One moment of ease is one less moment of suffering.
And as yoga instructors we often encourage our students to embrace the concept of the oneness of the universe. We are all— plants, dogs, trees, even Mitt Romney (still working on it)—one blessed body and soul. And sometimes we find that even the pieces of ourselves we thought we had buried so skillfully will rise to meet us along this path. We can, if we are brave and willing, love even the selves we worked so hard to erase.
Are you there, Shiva? It’s me, Sara. Thank you for allowing me to teach. Thank you for allowing me to learn. Namaste.
Editor: Kate Bartolotta
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