I was maybe 8 or 9, my chubby self stuffed into a brand new pink leotard and tights. I was not happy in this outfit, largely because my little body did not “fit” the ballet-body type–a fact my older brother’s very tall, very thin girlfriend pointed out regularly.
When I got out of the car, rather than going to my room to change, I headed to my backyard easel and began to smear bright orange paint across a blank canvas. Problem was, I was not very neat–another thing I had been hearing girls should be. Just as I remembered my mom warning me to change out of my new dance clothes before I got them dirty, I dropped a large glop of orange paint across my middle, highlighting that part of my body that I knew barred me from ever performing in the Nutcracker like my brother’s girlfriend.
Panicked, I headed to the laundry room, whose window-paned door I had inadvertently cracked a few days before in a rush to move my book-laden backpack. It was the bottom window pane, a teeny-tiny crack. I didn’t think anyone would notice, and they hadn’t. So maybe I could pull a similar ruse with my orange-stained leotard.
I snuck to my room, changed, and surreptitiously crept back to the laundry room to hide my balled-up leotard at the bottom of the laundry basket. My dad stormed in, angered. I assumed he had caught my act of deception. He headed toward s the kitchen, shouting at my mother, “Ms, have you seen this?” (I realized years later that my father called my mom “Ms” not to honor the feminist concept that a woman should not be defined by her marital status, but in mockery of the idea of feminism.)
“Oh no,” I thought. I am in for it.
“That damn worker has broken the window! That’ll teach me to hire those Mexicans!”
Standing in the laundry room, I was reminded of my birthday party the year before–the one where my mother complained in my dad’s ear that “all her little friends are Mexican.” Shortly thereafter, I was moved to private school.
I didn’t have a word for these prejudiced comments I often heard my parents and others say against Mexicans. I was not quite sure why they were good enough to serve as ranch-hands and cleaners, but not good enough to be my friends. I suddenly felt I had to come clean about the window–that I could not let one of the Mexican ranch-hands take the blame.
At the time, I did not know that this was my birth as a feminist. But, looking back, it was a first important “click” among many–the one where I realized that the way my father treated the migrant workers that made his ranching wealth possible was unfair. That the way I was treated because I was not thin or blonde was not fair. That me being one of those chubby kids hurt me in a way similar to how hearing things like “those Mexicans” might hurt people that didn’t have white skin like mine.
It was an early lesson in intersectionality, one that I remember as vividly as that bright orange paint staining my protruding, ballet-pink belly. When I am hard on myself for being the sneaky kid who didn’t immediately ‘fess up to breaking the window or ruining her leotard, I try to send love back to my young self, realizing that I was being taught to hide so as to better fit into the “good girl” mold. Thanks to feminism, I no longer have to hide.