“The difference between shame and guilt is the difference between ‘I am bad’ and ‘I did something bad.’”
- Brene Brown
When I think back to childhood I think of shame.
For as far back as I can remember, I always knew I was different. I preferred a Barbie to a ball. Having a sister who was is less than a year older than me made access simple and infinite.
Being born in 1990 in a post-industrial, blue-collar environment, gender-neutral parenting had not caught on yet; if it had, it was sure as hell not in Syracuse. I’m pretty sure it still isn’t.
Tonka trucks, baseballs and NERF guns were for boys. Barbies, Easy-Bake ovens and jump ropes were for girls. Boys should play football in the street; girls should go to ballet class.
This was well before I’d heard of the gender-based wage inequality, menstrual cycles and perineal tears during birth, and I couldn’t help but feel that girls had gotten the better end of the stick.
I was stubborn and unwavering. Having access to Sarah’s “girl” toys wasn’t enough; I wanted my own. I had post-hippie parents. My dad was a thoughtful, well-liked writer, an artist really, who spent half his days with his head in the clouds, and my mom was a social worker. Her rough childhood with alcoholic parents made her committed to ensuring our days of youth were more joyous.
So, it was not hard to convince my parents that, though I had an X and a Y chromosome and penis between my legs, I too needed dolls to be happy. If my parents ever tried to dissuade me, I certainly don’t recall.
Our house was a democracy; moving forward, I was indulged. When Sarah got a Barbie, I got one, too. When Sarah got Samantha from the American Girls Doll catalogue, I got Molly.
If anything, I took the doll obsession a step further. I read all of the American Girl Doll books. I had small scale Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast castles in my bedroom; I spent hours moving the almost microscopic characters around the castle grounds, lost in my own dreams that one day, like Snow White and Cinderella, I too would find a romantic partner who would provide me with immeasurable wealth, incomparable real estate and unending emotional validation.
My little brother was always such a boy, in the traditional sense. His first word was “ball.” He was a natural athlete, excelling at baseball, basketball and football from the time he could walk.
Every year, for birthdays and holidays, I would ask for dolls or princess castles, and most every year, that was what I was given.
It was an act of rebellion. I saw how grown men looked at my presents, and my stomach would tense inside as I would feel embarrassed; I would want to cry. I could have just waited to get them at home on my birthday or Christmas morning, in the privacy and safety of my immediate family. But, something in my early childhood head wanted to protest societal expectations.
Why shouldn’t I be able to get a new princess castle? Why should I have to hide it?
I kept asking to get those presents, and my parents – who I’m sure could see reactions just as well as me – kept giving them.
As I grew older, the rebellious spirit within me died down; I became more self-conscious about playing with “girl toys.”
You get so sick of hearing, “Why do you talk like a girl?” so you make conscious efforts to deepen your voice, to not let your sentences go up at the end.
You get so sick of hearing, “Why do you walk like a girl?” so you make sure your hips aren’t switching, you walk slower, more controlled.
You get so sick of hearing, “Why are you playing with girls’ toys?” so you just start doing it out of sight, on your own, secretly.
Other children vocalize their opinions; their preconceived notions and expectations as to what you should be, how you should behave. Adults are subtler, their judgment more discretely implied. I was so tuned into quiet, even unspoken, adult opinions.
I wanted their approval. I wanted everyone’s approval.
So, when visible, I morphed myself into what they wanted me to be; what I thought I should be.
My favorite Barbie was “Holiday Princess Belle,” the doll was based on Disney’s Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas – a VHS I also owned and loved. Belle came with a dark maroon lip and a velvet ball gown with gold detailing. I played with her all the time.
I eventually grew tired of her extravagant ball gown, and switched her to a cloth blue dress that I bought from Amish people at a farmer’s market. When I played with her I would hold her by the hair and spin her so the skirt of her bucolic gown ballooned out. I did this so often that her hair began coming off, revealing small bald spots. Luscious locks or receding hairline, I still loved her just the same.
For a while, Sarah, Liam and I all lived in the same room, filled with all of our toys. When Sarah moved across the hall to her own room, I let her take most of the dolls and the trunk we kept filled with Barbies and their accessories with her.
The bunk bed that I used to share with Sarah became just my own. I moved from the top bunk to the bottom, and I filled the former with a huge pile of stuffed animals.
Stuffed animals are for boys and girls, so those are fine. I can let those show.
Unbeknownst to anyone but me, I kept Belle on the top bunk, buried beneath the stuffed animals. I always knew exactly where she was.
Today she is under the Pikachu, next to the Mickey, just above the Tweety.
I was ashamed. By now, I was in second grade. I had been made more than well aware of what was boxed off as being made for girls and what was fair game to be used by boys. I was getting older and still wanted to play with a Barbie. An intense secretiveness shrouded my playing with Belle. Sarah had mostly stopped playing with Barbies, and I announced to my parents that I had too. It was time for me to grow up.
But, in my heart, all I wanted to do was play with Belle.
One morning, before school, I thought I was upstairs alone. I sat on my bed, humming and twirling Belle by her hair.
I heard a rustling in the hall. My heart dropped. I peered out.
Who is that?
The door to my room started creaking open, and I quickly tried to stash Belle in between the bed and the wall. It was too late. My mom had seen me.
“Honey, I saw you playing with that Barbie,” she said. “Why do you feel like you have to hide it?”
I had been tranquil just a moment before. I immediately burst into tears, the kind of uncontrollable sobbing where you can’t even form a sentence.
“I d-d-d-on’t…I d-d-d-on’t want to talk about it,” I cried. “Why were you spying on me? Can’t you just pretend you didn’t see?”
“I wasn’t spying on you. I could see into your room as I walked up the stairs,” she explained softly. “Why are you so upset?”
“I know it’s a girl toy,” I said. “ Sometimes I just wish I had been born a girl; my life would be so much easier.”
“Do you think you are a girl on the inside?” she asked gently, concerned.
“NO!” I shouted. “I want to play with girls’ toys, but I don’t want to be a girl!”
I continued to cry harder and harder; I was having a panic attack, an identity crisis. I couldn’t wrap my head around why everything and everyone has to stay so tightly boxed-in.
She started crying too.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I was just trying to help.”
With my room no longer feeling like a safe space, I began hiding Belle even deeper amongst the jumbled heap of stuffed animals.
After careful scouting to absolutely make sure no one was proximate or observing, I would pull her out and stuff her into my armpit, shielding her beneath my billowy t-shirt. I would lock her head into my sweaty crevice and quickly creep to the bathroom. I would lock the door and play with her without anyone watching.
I took Belle into the bath with me, letting her stand beneath the spout as I imagined it was some beautiful waterfall in the fantasyland that I created for her in my mind.
Afterwards, I would towel her off, stick her back into my armpit and bring her back to my room where I put her back beneath my stuffed animals.
This secret playing went on for months. Then, one day, I heard my mom say hi from outside of the bathroom. I was taking a bath and thought I was home alone and had forgotten to bring anything in besides a towel.
Where can I hide her where no one can see? Can I keep her beneath between my thighs and still walk normally? No. Can I hide her in here?
Our bathroom was rather small, and there was not a hiding spot where I didn’t fear my mom might see her again. I really didn’t want to have to have another conversation about why I was secretive about Belle. Even if she didn’t bring it up, I hated that sense of awareness that there was something another person wanted to talk to you about. That it was in their mind and on the tip of their tongue.
I had a plan.
“I’ll be right out!” I shouted to my mom. I took Belle and brought her over to the roll of toilet paper. I began slowly unrolling it and wrapping her up; I mummified her. What better disguise? When I was done, I emptied the wastebasket and jammed her into the bottom. I covered her with the empty toilet paper rolls that had been sitting there from before.
I flushed the toilet washed my hands and scurried out.
That afternoon, I got distracted playing Sega. An hour passed, and I suddenly remembered Belle.
I darted up the stairs to the wastebasket. It was empty!
I hurried downstairs to check the kitchen trashcan. It was empty too! The trash had been brought outside.
I opened the back door and sprinted across the yard to where the garbage cans were lined up in between the garage and the fence.
There were four garbage cans, and they were all filled near to the brim with giant white trash bags.
I can rummage through these, I thought. I can find Belle. I can save her.
But something within me made me hold back.
No, I thought. It’s over; Belle’s gone.
I turned around and walked back to the house. I felt like I had lost a friend, but sometimes losing a friend can also be a relief. I didn’t get to say goodbye, but in a way I did.
Did I mean to hide her, or did I mean to throw her out?
I mummified her and put her in the wastebasket. I disposed of her like trash, and like trash she was taken away to rot in some landfill.
Well, actually, she was plastic, so like the dog toys in the bushes that were still there after Autumn had passed, I knew she might not ever rot. She’d rather just sit there forever, melting beneath the summer sun’s glare, and becoming ever frigid in the winter’s biting winds. Fading from the light, the rain, and the melting snow. She would become just a faceless, balding, piece of plastic.
That was her fate, the fate I had delivered to her. Should I feel guilty now? Should I feel guilty that it felt like a weight had been lifted?
Should I feel sorry for her, or should I feel sorry for me? Should I feel sorry that Belle was now just a part of my past?
In retrospect, it is undeniable how my behaviors surrounding Belle foreshadowed my later struggles with alcohol, drugs and sex. The way I hid Belle paralleled the bottle of vodka I kept hidden beneath a floorboard in my parent’s attic, the bottles of wine I hid in my closet at school, the prescription pills I kept in crumpled up Ziploc bags in my underwear drawer. The absolute secrecy, emotional reclusion and anxiety mirrored my sexual encounters that I later would feel in my heart were wrong, unhealthy, but would continue to have anyways. The emotional volatility with which I reacted to being confronted looked a lot like a countless conversations I had from ages fifteen to twenty two.
And the way I cried so much that my mom would never bring it up again, well, that defense repeated itself with many people, regarding many matters, for many, many years.