The Junk In My Trunk
Gradually unpacking a lifetime of negative body messaging, from the bottom up.
Who wears short shorts? Well, normally, not me.
Growing up, I didn’t dare, for a whole host of reasons. My family had strong opinions of what was considered ladylike, and my middle and high school’s dress codes used the Fingertip Rule to determine whether an item of clothing was “appropriate” for the classroom.
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For those who may be unfamiliar, the Fingertip Rule goes like this:
Single out the girls, especially those who are tall, curvy, or non-white.
Make them stand with their feet together and arms straight down, fingers extended flat against the sides of their legs. (Bonus points awarded for making them do this at the front of the classroom or out in the hallway during class change for maximum public shaming in front of their peers.)
Ensure that the hemline of all shorts, skirts, or dresses, including any slits, falls below the tip of their longest finger on all sides.
If the dress code allows leggings, yoga pants, etc., they must be worn under a garment that meets the fingertip rule.
Any rips or holes in jeans (if allowed at all) must also be located below the fingertip line.
Students who violate the fingertip rule are often removed from class and required to change clothes, cover up with a loaned garment, or else be sent home for the rest of the day to avoid further “disruptions to the learning environment.” Repeat violations could result in detentions or suspensions.
Even as someone who secretly liked girls and boys, I never thought seeing any of my classmates’ legs was distracting. The locker room bullies, lack of air conditioning, and the assumption that I clearly just wasn’t trying hard enough to get above a C in Algebra because Gifted Kids Are Automatically Good at Everything and Couldn’t Possibly Need Tutoring ™ were far more disruptive to my particular learning environment. But alas, what did my opinion or GPA matter when the sight of an underage thigh might just be the stone that caused a grown man to stumble or the rock that caused some otherwise promising young lad to pitch an ill-timed trouser tent?
I never got dress coded at school. I also avoided wearing shorts if I possibly could.
Those of you who were around during the Baywatch era may recall that for white people in the 80s and early 90s, tanning was practically a professional sport. Pretty much everyone except infants and natural redheads was expected to maintain a deep(ly racist and oddly sexualized) Coppertone glow from Easter until Halloween. If you were dedicated and/or impatient enough and could afford it, you sprang for some storebought UV light at tanning salon. Otherwise, you “laid out” in your back yard on a foldable lounge chair made of aluminum tubing and plastic straps. You also learned right quickish to cover that sucker with a beach towel, lest you start melting into the webbing and have to be peeled off like a cocoa-butter-and-sweat-scented window cling come dinnertime.
As you might could tell from the cover photo, I am of the, shall we say, porcelain persuasion. A MayoSapien, if you will. The downside to having extremely fair, sensitive skin is that not only can I sunburn practically by candlelight, I also turn a mottled, blotchy shade of purple when I’m cold.
One of my 6th grade classmates once told me my bare legs looked like raw chicken meat. For the next four years, I brought sweatpants to gym class even on the days we had to do the Presidential Physical Fitness Test or run a timed mile. I didn’t often wear dresses or skirts, but when I did, I always made sure I had tights on underneath. I even tried wearing sheer, nude pantyhose under my shorts during the first week of marching band practice in late August one year. The resulting yeast infection was highly instructive, if rather unpleasant.
My Celtic ancestors may not have bequeathed me much in the way of melanin, but they certainly blessed me with body hair. The thickest and darkest areas of it grow in the exact places that modern society expects to be bald as an egg on people of my gender expression. Anything else would be unhygienic and downright unladylike, at least according to Mr. King Camp Gillette, who really just wanted to sell more razor blades by marketing them to flapper girls a century ago.
When puberty hit and my legs started looking like patchy shag carpets, I taught myself to shave with Granddaddy’s metal safety razor. “Safety” in this context is a word rather more flexible than my shin and ankle bones. Gillette’s invention might have been marginally less deadly than a straight razor, but I still managed to fillet the almighty shit out of myself a few times before I learned to change the blade more often and not press down so hard.
Triple-Layer Irony Alert: Flapper girls were considered outrageously indelicate in their day even with smooth legs and armpits. When my parents, who mandated traditional femininity in all kinds of other ways, saw that 12-year-old me had shaved her legs for the first time, I got in trouble for “acting too grown.” Now that I’m an actual adult, I just so happen to live in King Camp Gillette’s hometown.
Despite my hirsute genes, razor companies don’t make very much money from me. My skin doesn’t tolerate shaving with a blade more than once a week unless I want to go from “Glow-in-the-Dark Hedgehog” to “Rashy the 8th Dwarf.” Thank goodness for the rise of grunge, which let me pass off my typical uniform of DIY-distressed jeans, rock band T-shirts, oversized flannel shirts, and Doc Martens as a fashion choice instead of a coping mechanism.
Fast forward 30 years, 20 pounds, three kids, just a smidgen of cellulite, and one varicose vein I’ve decided to call Dolores. I’ve swapped out my acne control facial cleanser for a daily moisturizer with built-in SPF 30, which I supplement with a waterproof SPF 50 sunblock in the summer and never, ever skip my ears or the part line in my hair. I still wear Doc Martens, though I now find them more comfortable when paired with their esteemed colleague, Dr. Scholls. I’ve also taken to wearing shorts more often, albeit under certain updated terms and conditions.
There’s a type of native Midwesterner who will wear shorts with a parka in January if the sun is out and the thermometer reads above zero. I’ve even seen a barefoot Dear Spouse take the kitchen trash out with a dusting of snow on the ground. Meanwhile, my transplanted Southern self forms a protective cocoon of quilted goose down from December through April. For me, shorts weather doesn’t start until the outdoor temperature is at least 70°F in the shade. If it’s warm outside but I know I’m going to be indoors someplace where the air conditioning is set on “Menopause in a Meat Locker,” I’ll either wear pants or bring something I can put over my legs. Mostly, I’m just a little on the cold-natured side and want to make sure I stay comfortable. There’s also still a part of me that doesn’t ever want anyone to compare my skin to uncooked poultry again, even if they are polite enough not to say it within earshot.
If it’s been more than three days since I last shaved, I will not wear shorts in public no matter how hot it is. Maxi dresses were designed to fashionably avoid heat exhaustion while still hiding a multitude of sins, and upon that poly-cotton blended mercy I shall rely. I know I’m a clean person who showers regularly and washes my legs while I’m in there. I know humans are mammals and that body hair is normal. But like Mammaw always said, “If it doesn’t look good, don’t stick it out on your front porch.”
This past weekend I bought a new pair of olive-green cargo shorts. When I tried them on in the dressing room, the first thing I did after getting them buttoned and zipped was slap my hands flat against the sides of my thighs like some kind of Pavlovian prude, testing for compliance with the Fingertip Rule.
On my body, that means a standing hemline that stops right at those two freckles on my right thigh. The cargo shorts pass. The pink denim ones in the cover photo do not, by one anxiety-inducing inch.
Those off-the-rack pink shorts fit me like they were made-to-measure. The fabric is soft, breathable, and flexible. I even like the color, which is saying something, since I own only one other item of pink clothing. They don’t ride up in the legs when I walk or gap in the waistband when I bend forward or squat down. Miracle of miracles, they have actual, functional pockets.
I almost didn’t buy them. I seriously considered taking them back. I dithered until the return period expired, then shoved them in the back of my dresser drawer for a solid month while I worked up enough nerve to actually wear them. Every time I put them on, I catch myself thinking things like:
“These are way too short, and you know better.”
“You’re not acting too grown. You’ve gotten too old.”
“What kind of example are you setting with this?”
”Nobody wants to see a woman your age showing that much skin.”
What I say out loud to myself, though very quietly, is: “I’m also old enough to do it anyway, and if somebody doesn’t like it, they don’t have to look.”
The kind of person I want to be is one who keeps rebelling against her internalized body shame until two leg holes, a button, and a zipper don’t constitute a calamity, and an inch of fabric isn’t a moral crisis. The kind of example I want to set is one where I don’t pass down a similar set of mental blocks to my kids.
Nobody needs that kind of junk in their trunk.
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