He rolls down the window and stares right at me, eyes going up and down my face, small breasts, and legs. “Hey, baby.” He says it softly, like he is talking to a kitten. The boy in the back has strong, muscular arms, a man’s body, not like the boys my age. He blows out his breath and says, “God damn.”
I am twelve years old, wearing cutoff jeans rolled up just above the knees, a pair of Michael Jordan sneakers, and a white tank top. It’s summertime on San Juan Island. My young, Spanish-looking mom and I are waiting to cross the street when this car full of boy-men in their twenties stops for us.
Mom grabs my hand and yanks me out of a trance and across the street. I look back; now they are all looking at me, at my body. I am aware of the way my backside looks for the first time and how I move when I’m walking. A wave of electricity tingles its way through every cell, changing me in one moment.
Mom looks as if they were about to steal her purse. “Natalie, turn around,” she says. “Don’t give them any sign that they can continue.” She is still glaring.
“Are you mad?” I ask.
“Really,” she says, shaking her head and tightening her lips, “they should know better. You are twelve years old, for God’s sake.”
Last year this body skipped, did cartwheels, played in the sand and mud, entirely unaware of itself. A year later I understand that I can take the focus of boys and men with this body.
Last year I was packing picnics and going on bicycle rides with my best friend in search of fun in the sun on the beach; I was overturning rocks and collecting crabs. Now I am sitting in the bathroom studying a Victoria’s Secret magazine. The boys like this kind of girl, I tell myself. I am going to try to look just like her.
I liked the way the attention felt, like a door was opening for me and my world was becoming larger. The desire for this attention grew. In middle school, my older brother talked about his friends to me. I waited for him to tell me that they liked me, noticed me. That’s all I was listening for.
I am spending hours in the mirror, trying to find ways to get more of that attention. It charges my battery. It’s better than my favorite desserts, like Mom’s no-bake chocolate peanut butter cookies or chocolate cake with chocolate cream cheese frosting. Actually, it’s just that type of enjoyment that I soon forbid myself, all my favorite foods.
By the time I’m fifteen, I am anorexic. If I am really skinny, I will look good in almost anything. If I can achieve the weight I am aiming for, I will have more control over the other things in my life. If I am skinny, really skinny, everything will be better.
Being attractive feels like survival, but it starts to take more than it gives. Spontaneous laughter just up and leaves, and I become very serious. Sharing who I am with others—especially all the things that I think are unattractive, like my eating disorder, fear of failure, fear that I am unlikable, all these things—become too unattractive to utter.
I develop an extreme case of anxiety. At times I could be so self-conscious that walking normally seemed like advanced dance choreography. I became self-conscious at the expense of self-expression. The parameters of behaviors that I would allow myself started to crowd me into a little box.
Once I’m in college, I simply don’t know how to have relationships. I am terrified of people and rejection. I feel lonely and unlovable. Only the attention from men makes me feel worthy, appreciated, and visible, but it’s a balloon that quickly pops. And each time I’m at the bottom, I need more to fill up. The effort I have put into being attractive has made me uncomfortable in my skin.
I no longer want to be this person. Being this person is lonely. I need to learn to be someone else. Out of desperation, I state that I am going to do the impossible: I am going to study acting.
On folding chairs in a group of five, the teacher asks me what I intend to get out of the class. I have to get it out in one breath, otherwise I will start to sound like I’m underwater. I want to learn how to be someone else, I say, and then, to my horror, I start crying.
“Get on the stage,” she says, “and sit in the folding chair. Natalie, close your eyes and show us how you feel with one arm.” She gives an example of moving the arm in a circle from the shoulder. I close my eyes and start to move my arm. “Stop,” she says, “you are orchestrating. Your arm will move as an instrument to convey feeling. Right now you are disconnected from your body. You have to feel your feelings and let your body convey them if you wish to live freely again. Hiding from everything that you are will shrink you down until you no longer exist,” she says, and I know what she’s talking about.
Over the course of a year, I learn how to be at home in my body again. Most of all she helps me understand vulnerability as something that I should run toward, not avoid at all costs. I learn to be more vulnerable through sharing the good, the bad, and the ugly with my classmates. I dance out my feelings, I scream, I do monologues that force me to disclose truths about myself that I’ve had locked up for a long time.
I still want to be seen, heard, admired, loved, and wanted. But now I get to experience these things through sharing my whole self with people, not just a façade that I think is likable and attractive. The study of acting made me comfortable in my body again.
For the past three years, Natalie King has attended the Write Doe Bay retreat, and has studied with Shelley Mitchell. She is a former professional actor, she lives in the San Juan Islands, and she loves to snowboard. She has a YouTube channel where she presents a new essay every Thursday called, NATALIE KING LIT. Her work is forthcoming in Carbon Culture Review, Entropy, GNU Journal, Penmen Review and Punctuate.