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  • Writer's pictureLaurie A Pearsall

Puberty Portrait

This past weekend I spotted a familiar object on my mother-in-law's bookshelf. The acrylic cube picture frame was just like one my mother had on our hutch by the dinner table in our imitation neo-colonial kitchen. The three-dimensional frame holds six photos that you slide into each side of the thick plexiglass walls. I picked my mother in law's photo block up and saw that it encapsulated a set time, holding snapshots from the early '80s of the nuclear family, intact. The photograph facing the bottom was of a random bathing beauty who didn't fit in with the images of my husband's family at that distant partition in time. She must have come with the original packaging because the image had the look of a stock-photo girl in a hip-hugger turquoise bikini standing knee-deep in the sea. I always find it odd when people don't remove the generic photos manufacturers sometimes provide with picture frames. I guess in their house, with fewer family members, the cube could stay in the same position, generic girl facing down. There are seven kids in my family so the numbers didn't work out, someone had to be left out and someone else was always on the bottom. My mother put the annual school portraits in the cube. My oldest brother was already out of college by then, so I'm guessing his photo would have been in a separate easel-back frame standing nearby.

In 1982 I had to check often to make sure my seventh-grade photo was facing down. Invariably one of my brothers would turn it up again so I would get caught off guard, mocked by my puberty portrait. What a horror show. When my daughter was twelve years old, I tacked that gruesome photo on our refrigerator to give her hope. The bridge between pubescence and adolescence can be a grim crossing. I would point to ugly twelve-year-old me to remind her that, even on her toughest days, things could be worse.

In September of that year, I was making the wary switch from my small elementary school to the grand junior/senior high school and was to be the last of us children to rush the corridors. The day my school portrait was taken I was to end up on the bottom of the heap. I thought I was well-prepared for that day, having conspired with my mother about my hair and outfit. On the school photography studio's form, she had elected the option of a wispy background the color and texture of dry raked autumn leaves. A few weeks later, I paused between the mailbox and the front door, paralyzed as my eyes made contact with the contents of my manila envelope from the studio. My mother had chosen the standard portrait collection: one 8.5"x11", a standard letter size sheet, two 5"x7", and six wallet size portraits. The quantity of the faces lurking inside the envelope added insult to injury. It was only September, so how could I have known? I had left sixth grade with a burgeoning ego. I had been granted a heavy bronze medal in a velvety box, the American Legion, the principal called it. My classmates had voted me class clown and most popular girl. I had even garnered enough respect to be asked to draw them all for our sixth-grade yearbook. All of the rules of conduct I had just been getting the hang of were bluntly wiped off the slate when a whole chorus of that unsightly face stared back at me from the envelope. "You look fine" Mom assessed, seized the envelope, and went to the kitchen to begin snipping the sides and making little tape loops that would affix my mugshot into the frame to join my siblings' greedy smirks.

If you think I am being hard on myself, allow me to illustrate this portrait of puberty for you.

I got my hair cut in a new short style like the singers from the Go-Gos. I intended this look to induct me into this next phase of life. I must have got the idea from a fashion magazine to mix the new-wave hairstyle with a cowgirl revival outfit, a la Ralph Lauren. It was unforeseen that the brave haircut would turn what had been a discreet, wavy shoulder-length hairdo into a humid asymmetrical tangle that sat on my head like an old wig from the dress-up drawer, one that lost its label so you couldn’t tell what was the front and what was the back. My face was slick with shine because, as always, my part of the alphabet got called in for picture taking after gym class. Renegade curls were darkened with sweat at the temples and my skin was slick in the T-zone, where freckles and pimples competed for the limelight. My reluctant smile held the hint of a dubious sneer and bore gooey yellow teeth fenced in under braces. I hadn’t discovered the healing powers of hair mousse or cosmetics yet. I looked like one of The Boys, that's what we called my five brothers. Yet this head emerged from a ruffled-neck blouse with a broad bib that buttoned over on one side and puffs built into the shoulders that seemed to rise in mute pity. Nice try they suggested.

I had asked my mother to sew the prairie style blouse for me. She picked out a fabric with a rich design in burnt sienna that suited the McCalls pattern perfectly and even chose navy blue buttons to compliment the orange tones. I completed the look with a broad denim skirt that snapped down the front and lace-up brown boots. Before photo day, I felt lucky that Western looks were in that season because crafting this complicated shirt wasn’t a stretch for a homesteader seamstress like my mother. What was captured in the photo looked more like Laura Ingalls, singed and desperate, in a never seen Little House on the Prairie episode where she has to run and hide in a neighbor's barn after a hot curling iron incident. The photo portrayed a new truth. An objective truth that belied any creative vanity I had dared to forge for myself by then. The other girls were wearing what was in the mall window displays and out of our price range.

I was out, plain and simple. Wrong style. Wrong decade. Wrong genre. I would not fit in, not even as one of the boys.

The afternoon when the photos arrived and my mother refused my pleas to destroy them, I retreated to my room to weep. Later, the others came home and, as we gathered for dinner, my brothers quickly spotted me stuck in the plastic cube and gaped their mouths open in unison at my photo, eyeballs extruding. All they could do was point at the photo and make the open mouth gesture and the soft 'oh - oh - oh' of someone making smoke rings. They passed it around, over my head and out of reach, collapsing in theatrics of joyous damnation, still speechless, until one of them marvelled, ‘...holy shit’.

That was the last time I asked my mother to make me a blouse. I didn’t want her involved in the process anymore, I had to go it alone. I wasn’t even certain it was the shirt that was the problem anyway. It was the girl inside it.

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