I was a hairy infant. Partial mustache. Knuckle-fuzz. Sideburns (as was the fashion of the time).
Basically, a good candidate for laser hair removal.
For a time, I was a fat baby, too. Not when I was born, but eventually. I had rolls and lumps and, according to my dad, would get the meat sweats after meals.
At age 12 I moved, with my parents, from Canada to Saudi Arabia. Here, I attended junior high, where I was teased for three consecutive years (see above). This was an American school, for expatriates. We had pretty little cheerleaders, and softball tournaments under the desert sun. Our school mascot was the bald eagle.
The school was co-ed, but only went until the ninth grade. After that, most families enrolled their kids in boarding school abroad. Not mine, though. My parents sent me to M.A.R.S., an all-girls academy on the other side of town.
As a student at M.A.R.S., I was required to cover, head to toe, in a black veil and cloak. Underneath was a uniform: gray, loose-fitting, down to the ankles. The aesthetic was very "Victorian nightie." When I wore the nightie, together with my homemade crew cut, I looked like a symbol of colonialism headed to a skateboarding convention.
But the uniform was so comfy, I didn't mind it. Didn't mind veiling so much, either. I remember the end of my first day of school as a martian; how I had wrapped myself tight like a human burrito, and walked to where my dad was supposed to pick me up.
Outside, a stranger had approached me. He looked like Orlando Bloom.
Bloom and I made eye contact through the thin black gauze of my face cover. Then, he extended his hand. I stared at it, bewildered, before taking it into my own, and giving it a professional shake.
"Pleased to meet you," I said, surprised that I hadn't combusted on contact. Was this the first time I had ever touched a boy, not by accident?
Yes, dear readers, it was.
The exchange was over as abruptly as it began. When he left, I looked down at my hand, clasping a tiny piece of paper, folded into fours. I lifted my veil, and examined it closely. A number. A phone number. And a name.
I brought the piece of paper to school with me the next day, and shared it with my new friends.
What had happened to me wasn't unusual, they said. In fact, it was kind of a rite of passage.
"But why me?" I said. "Why did he pick me?"
"It's difficult to know for sure," my Saudi friend, Gigi, said. "Boys are so mysterious."
I nodded, like I understood.
"It could be anything. Your walk. A glimpse of your face. Did you have a purse with you?"
I shook my head.
"Your hands, then," she said. "Your hands are alright."
I hadn't noticed.
That night at home, I studied myself in the mirror. I brushed my growing hair carefully, groomed my eyebrows, and practiced throwing sultry looks at my reflection. After a lifetime of feeling ugly, suddenly, in a singular, slow-motion instant, everything had shifted.
I understand there were larger issues at play here, most importantly perhaps, the fact that it was a male gaze that led to the shift (and that it was a gaze at all as opposed to a conversation, for instance). I also understand that falling in love in Saudi Arabia can be dangerous business; literally dangerous in that you could get stoned for going on a date -- and not in a good way. But 15-year-old me didn't think about that. She was just happy to be seen. Or partially seen, I guess.
Before bed that night, I put Bloom's phone number in my diary. I would return to it repeatedly, for confirmation. I never did call him or anything, but that didn't matter. The paper came to hold within its creases, the possibility of love. It told me that I, too, was deserving. The sight of it alone, taped onto a page, was validating enough.
It's important to remember that the girls of the Muslim world are more than what they're wearing. Most of these girls, like Gigi, live in countries ruled by despotic, misogynistic, old men. That's fact. But this fact doesn't make them any "less." They do not feel less. They do not think less. They do not live less.
Of course they don't.
And yet we forget that. We get so caught up in the appearance of stuff we neglect the heart of it. The mechanics of teenage love might be different in, say, Saudi Arabia, but the ethos of it is the same.
Certain things are universal. Puberty. Love. Hope. Lipgloss. Scrolling through the news today, though, we don't always see those universalities being attended to. How often do we get to hear stories that humanize a people? Not often enough.
So we disconnect. Separate. We end up in clubs and camps with rules and uniforms, forgetting that the ground we tread on as people; as women, as girls especially, is beautiful and connected. We forget that puppy love is still puppy love, even if it's wearing a burka.