The first time I remember trying to be someone I wasn’t, I was six years old. I was sitting in the back row of my first grade’s “carpet time” rug, staring at the board with a fervor only a six-year-old could have. We were learning about the short ‘o’ sound, and I, pretty much having grown up on the coattails of my book-loving sister, was more than excited. My teacher was forming a list of words with the phonetic sound. Often. Ox. On.
At the sound of the last one, I threw up my hand. I didn’t first expect her to call on me. I was somewhat of a problem student, but I was in the gifted reading circle, so she picked my hand from the bunch. “Off,” I answered.
My teacher’s smile lilted from her face, and I knew I’d done something wrong, even though I couldn’t place it. She had me repeat the word, again, again, and gave up on me after the third. I came from an immigrant family, and even then, one of my biggest insecurities was my accent. I remember what she said next like it had been burned into me: “Maybe that’s a word in your language, but that’s not a word in ours.”
Yours. Ours. I was on the outside. The rest of my class was on the inside. And I desperately, desperately, wanted to be with them. I wanted to be liked.
From then on, I lived in two spheres. On the outside, I cut my accent off at the root. I figured out how to fake an American accent. How to adapt my culture to theirs when I was at school. I never had another “off” moment.
That was not the last time my life was adjusted to fit someone else’s expectations of me/opinion about who or how I should be. Whether it was with my family or at school, I found ways to make others as happy as possible. When my older sister said she didn’t like my shoes, I stopped wearing them. When my best friend told me she didn’t like someone, I suddenly found all their flaws. When I had an opinion, I doused it with the views of others. Any version of the problem child I was, was replaced with a need to be liked, to be exactly as other people wanted. I was constantly wearing masks. The mask for school. The mask for my family. The mask of the person I wanted people to believe I was.
Underneath all that I was—and am—an incredibly messy human being. I could—and sometimes do—spend hours watching youtube videos or scrolling through memes. I laugh at my own jokes. I cry at everything (absolutely no exaggeration there). I read the same parts of books over again and read my favorite quotes out loud if I think they’re funny. But I never told anyone that. Those parts were always hidden.
The problem is, wearing a mask is easier said than done. It’s people-watching 24/7. It’s always running algorithms in your head, trying to find the right thing to say. It’s filtering every opinion, everything you believe, down to the smallest palatable particulate. It’s tiring. Being me, the real me, on the outside, was something I’ve always wanted but never had.
I’ve treated everything in my life as a chance to impress someone. I’ve lived for nearly two decades with an outer and inner life. My birthday is coming up and the only thing I want is to be myself on the outside.
When I sat myself down in the salon chair a few weeks ago, I kept this goal in mind when I showed the hairdresser the style I wanted. Even when she asked me if I was sure, again, again, and gave up on her third try. Everyone in my family has always had long hair, but the real me has always wanted something shorter. I didn’t tell anyone about my desire a more “me” look before the woman started shaving off the back of my hair. After all, I had always been “a problem child”, right?
When she handed me the mirror, I wasn’t even shocked to see the new look. I didn’t cry or scream like the contestants do in America’s Next Top Model. I looked in the mirror, saw my dream pixie cut, and saw me – on the outside.
I won’t say that I’m completely myself. I still want to make people happy. When someone says my face looks “fat” with short hair, or calls me by masculine pronouns, I feel the sting of their disapproval. But just like they will get used to the chop, I’ll get used to the fact that they can find their own happiness without me to create it. I’m not six years old anymore. I’m not raising my hand, trying to find the right answer. I’ve tried that to varying degrees of success. As an, almost twenty-year-old, I know better than to think that’s how the world works. I’m working to embrace my problem child, short hair, “weird” accent self, mask-less, but far less tired.