I was in sixth grade when the first suggestion of change occurred to my body. I stood in a hallway mirror that hung between the three bedrooms in our house, staring at my bare chest. I was afraid someone would catch me inspecting myself, but as with any gruesome discovery, I couldn’t stop looking. The permanence of the change upon me altered how I felt about my bathing suit. That summer, on vacation in Georgia and Florida, I started to wear a T-shirt over my one-piece. When asked why, I claimed I was cold. I devised ways to get in and out of pools and the ocean quickly and then plant myself belly down on the towel stretched next to my younger cousins. I hated how exposed I felt on the crowded beach while my mom rubbed sunscreen onto my back. My vulnerability and shame made me curl my shoulders.
That same summer I found myself unable to turn away from the older girls who lay out confidently in their bikinis near our family’s cluster of deck chairs. I was nervous that one of them might catch me looking in their direction, so I squinted and played dead when their eyes occasionally met mine. These roots of attraction didn’t yet register as sexual. Instead, I became obsessed with trying to look like them.
I stopped wearing my hair up in a ponytail and let my curled ends fall past my chin. I stood for long periods at the bathroom mirror and wondered if I was pretty. It was clear to me that neither Tegan nor I looked or acted like those girls from the beach, but at night on the pullout couch that we shared, I never dared to ask if Tegan was scrutinizing them as carefully as I was. The physical intimacy between our aunt and her daughters that summer seemed like a language I’d forgotten between childhood and adolescence. Longing to be comforted, I watched Tegan and Mom embrace on the beach at dusk and found I could no longer close the gap between us. My body had become a stranger, and so had my mind.
During those early adolescent years, Mom’s bathroom was littered with makeup and electronics. Before classes at the college where she was earning her bachelor’s degree in social work, she doubled the size of her perm with a flat iron and rollers. Tegan and I perched on the closed toilet lid and watched as she painted her face brilliant pinks and…