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The Importance of Being Awkward: Time Spent As A Smelly, Flat-Chested Teenager Has Its Advantages

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María Inés Gul
María Inés Gul

By Pixie Casey

“I remember going to my 10-year high school reunion; I was never friends with anybody, and that’s kind of why I went, as a sociological study. What was fascinating was that the people who were deemed antisocial and freaks in high school were now incredibly attractive and well-adjusted. There seemed to be some sort of catharsis about growing up and being alone that made you rely on yourself. What that seems to do, I think, is—the nature of creating, film, painting, whatever—you look to create those things that are lacking in your life. I never used to speak, and all of a sudden you find yourself in an environment where you have to speak to hundreds of people during a day. I’m still not great at that, but I’ve gotten better. We’re weird, hopefully self-healing organisms.”
-- Tim Burton, Film Comment, 1994

Unless you are one of the four people on Earth who put on magic blades and move from childhood to adulthood without hitting a single bump on the ice, it is highly likely that you will go through some type of confusing, in-between phase. This does not necessarily have to be physical -- it can be mental, or emotional -- but for many of us, it’s a darling combination of all three.

Your clothes suddenly look as if they were built for someone three years younger. Your mouth decides to rebel, kicking your straight, perfect baby teeth out and replacing them with what appear to be crooked pieces of Pez. Hair shows up, grease settles in, and you find yourself -- and you are always yourself -- trying to navigate the body of a stranger, pulling internal strings over and over until you get the motions down perfectly, and the outside world connects the spirit with the vessel. Or something.

Celebrities are always going on about their “awkward” phases, whipping out old yearbook photos and recalling stories about looking like goofballs until they miraculously emerged from their shells to become the beautiful people they are today. It is meant to be inspirational and comforting, but it always rings a bit hollow, focusing mainly on external changes rather than the transformation that takes place within and the lessons you can learn from that transformation. So let’s do that, yeah? We won’t start by sitting at a diner together and talking about how one of us is ordering egg whites and looking resplendent in a designer jumper. We’ll start with a serious case of BO.

Empathy for the Stank

In 10th grade, I had an audition for a school production of West Side Story. I can’t dance or sing, but I loved the show so much that I figured I’d show up and a miracle would occur, flashbulbs would go off, and I’d be a star. I wore a polyester blouse that I’d thrifted, because I felt it was my most “professional” piece of clothing at the time. I felt good. I felt ready to go. I felt -- musical theater-nerd alert -- pretty.
And then my boyfriend came up to me between classes and started asking me if I was nervous about something. “I have an audition after school,” I told him. “Oh, OK,” he said, making a face. “That explains it.” I noticed that he was standing at a distance. “Explains what?” I asked. He just shrugged, said “nothing,” and hurried away to class.

Over the course of the day, I learned that “it” was the fact that I stunk to high heaven. The polyester blouse had apparently rubbed up against my hormonally raging skin and produced an odor akin to old shoes that a dog had urinated in. It was bad. I smelled. And the person I liked more than anyone was the one to point it out. It was humiliating. I felt embarrassed, dirty, and gross, when in reality I was just sweating inside of a cheaply-made blouse. Such is life, as my mother always says.

I became so sensitive about smelling bad that I started taking two showers a day, keeping extra deodorant in my locker, and wearing way, way too much perfume. I still smelled, but like the cosmetics counter at Macy’s as opposed to a gym sock worn by a ninth grade boy for eight straight days. Eventually I found a combination of solid personal hygiene and cotton clothes that eliminated the problem altogether, but I never forgot the way my boyfriend stood away from me, as if my smell made me someone different.

There are all sorts of reasons why someone may not smell like gingerbread when they leave the house, and some people either don’t realize it or, likeGordon on Freaks and Geeks, they realize it but can’t help it due to a genetic condition. Guess what? We are living things and not robots. And there is an entire industry built on tapping into the insecurity that comes with having -- gasp -- a scent attached to your body that doesn’t come from a bottle. It’s why that demented Glade woman can’t have friends over to her house until she lights a scented candle and why that poor woman runs out to buy Vagisil after finding out “the hard way” that she has vaginal odor.

Nobody wants to be the stinky kid in school, especially during a time in your life when all you want to do is crawl on top of someone else. But all of my girlfriends had ignored the smell that day (to my face, anyway), and the person who supposedly loved me the most just acted confused and repulsed. Nobody had the courtesy to say, “Pix, you kind of stink,” which is understandable, because how do you do that? But if someone had gently pulled me aside, I would have appreciated it. What I’m saying is this: a little kindness, a little empathy, and the knowledge that bodies, in general, are stank factories, can go a long way.

Also: avoid polyester on hot days.

Bright Lights in Humiliation Nation

If there was any doubt that I was developmentally two years behind everyone else, it was erased at the first two boy/girl parties that I was invited to. The first was a Halloween party, where I showed up dressed as a giant bee while everyone else was dressed either in the standard form-fitting cat get-up, or as something sleek and stylish, like my best friend, the Equestrian. The second was a pool party. My one-piece suit, which clung to my body like a book cover, stood out in a sea of two-pieces, all of which appeared to be filled out with bodies that I had no idea my girlfriends were hiding underneath their school clothes. Boys were swarming around one girl in particular -- she was the kind who seemed to change from a shy 12-year-old to a full-fledged teenager in the span of two weeks. I spent the party practicing flip turns and wiping the fog from my goggles.

The great Temple Grandin once told Oliver Sacks that she felt like “an anthropologist on Mars,” a description so marvelous that he actually used it as the title for one of his books. It is also fitting for how I felt at these parties and at school dances, watching my classmates move their bodies around in ways that mine just didn’t seem to want to go. I felt as if everyone had received an instruction manual and a new set of body parts and that mine had somehow gotten lost in the mail. All I wanted to do was make out -- with anybody -- and nobody was interested.

To compensate, I bought all of the teen magazines and tried to follow their instructions, haplessly applying cheap eye shadow and flipping my hair behind my ears. When I tried flirting with the boy I had a mad crush on in seventh grade, he asked me what was wrong with my teeth and said it looked like someone had thrown a cinder block at my face. Another crush lifted a hat I’d been wearing for school spirit day and asked me why my hair was so greasy. “They’re teasing you because they like you,” my mother said. Nope. They were teasing me because my hair was greasy and my teeth were crooked. But thanks, Mom.

Realizing that these fine upstanding gentlemen weren’t going to shove their tongues down my throat anytime soon, and that my copy of How to Be Normal and Beautiful (Promotional C-cups Included) wasn’t on the way, I decided to do two things: accept and adapt. The next time a boy made fun of my teeth or my hair or my pleated shorts (middle school was rough, all right?), it didn’t necessarily hurt any less, but I was armed with a new identity: professional smartass.

“Nice teeth.”

“Yeah, well keep staring at me and maybe your face will scare them straight.”

I refused to let people make me feel shitty for the stuff I was already feeling shitty about. Yes, I know my teeth are crooked, asshole. I also know that you are short for your age, that you haven’t grown any facial hair, and that you peed your pants in fourth grade, but I’m not going to bring that up, because I know how much it hurts. I decided that I could crack a joke to break the tension, but I’d never be as personal as people had been with me. I could play the clown, but I wouldn’t be the bully. I found that the more I made people laugh, the less likely they were to make fun of me. Unkindness had taught me to be kind.

I also started taking a different view of the beautiful girl in the pool. Maybe things weren’t perfect for her, either. Maybe she didn’t like the fact that her two-piece had filled out and that people’s eyes tended to drift downward when they were talking to her. Maybe she wanted to learn how to do a flip turn. Everyone moves at a different speed. You can’t be a sexy cat if you’re really a bumblebee at heart.
Oh, and this one time, a boy in my SAT prep class started talking about how gross periods are and how he didn’t want to hear about them, so I took a wrapped tampon out of my book bag and threw it on his desk. “This is a tampon,” I yelled. “Girls bleed. You want to date one someday? Deal with it.” Not quite L7 levels of rebellion, but I think he got the point. I believe he is married now, and I hope his wife keeps a Costco-size pack in their house.

Practice Makes Perfect

If you have ever French-kissed someone, you are aware that the process involves two mouths, two tongues, and an ideal amount of spit. My first French kiss, in the back of a movie theater (so cliché, but we had snuck in to see The Craft, so it balances out, no?) involved lots of teeth and forehead. In short: we totally missed. We tried again, and we missed again. This went on for maybe an hour. It was horrible. It was like two blowfish, all puffy cheeks and goofy mouths.

“It’s OK,” I told the dude I’d been blowfishing, “we’ll just have to practice.” I think I was trying to sound cute, but I desperately meant it. We would have to practice! If we didn’t get this down, nobody would ever love us, and we’d be doomed to blow popcorn-scented air up each other’s noses forever.

And so we practiced, a few days later, at his house. We missed again. We spent two hours kissing with our lips closed, trying every five minutes or so to slip in a little tongue, only to end up in blowfish territory again. Older people, more experienced people, had told me not to worry about it, that it was “totally instinctual,” which is great advice, I guess, if the instinct in question isn’t total panic. Would this be like dancing, I wondered? Would I have to sit on the sidelines and watch everyone else have fun while I drank Dr. Pepper and mouthed the words to Tupac’s “Dear Mama”?

After hours of trying, it was time for me to leave. “Let’s just try one more time,” I said, already defeated. We leaned in. And just like in the movies, or at least a decently-funded public access program, we did it. And then we kept practicing.

Practice is the key to everything: you have to be willing to keep experimenting, to keep trying, to open yourself up to the unknown. You have to be willing to suck -- at kissing, at dancing, at making friends, at finding your own style, at writing, at singing, at speaking in front of crowds, at sports, at everything -- in order to get better. You’re in a state of constant flux -- mentally, physically, and emotionally -- and you have to be prepared to shed skin and start over. Fear is a jerk and a bully and it will do whatever it can to stop you. So you need to stomp it out and continue down the path you’ve been carving out since the day you were born.

You Are Not Alone, For Real

I used to hate when people said this because it forced me to pull myself out of my own head and face the fact that, despite the case I’d built, I was not the only one dealing with being a late bloomer. I liked to wallow because I was good at it (and because it was a nice excuse to listen to the Smiths). But eventually I realized that 99% of the people I knew were in the same exact position I was. They weren’t necessarily dealing with it in the same way, but they were insecure, and they felt as if they, too, were the only ones who didn’t belong.

I once told my sister that I didn’t want to wear a tight dress to a dance because I thought everyone would make fun of my body (or what I considered a lack thereof). She laughed and said, “You think anyone cares? Every single person at that party is going to be worried about the same thing.” Sure enough, everyone at the party -- dudes included -- kept pulling on their clothes, checking their hair, and popping mints. Everyone just wanted to be accepted, but we were all trying to be the versions of ourselves that we thought our peers expected us to be. Years later, we’d start to find out what we were really made of.

The awkward phase is tough. Ask anyone who has been through it and they’ll probably say something like, “I’d never go back” or “I couldn’t do it again.” But they’ll probably also say that it was the time in their lives when they figured out who they were and how to navigate the trickier parts of life. I learned how to empathize, how to adapt, how to improve, how to dig deep down inside of myself for the answers, how to survive.

I learned how to become a self-healing organism, to put on those magic blades, fall down a billion times, and keep on skating.


- Absolute Beginners
- On Taking Yourself Seriously
- Freak Like Me
- Let It Out
- Ask a Grown Man with Dave Hill