Whenever anyone holds up a camera, the inevitable phrase passes from their lips: "Smile!"
Behind the photographer's enthusiastic tone lies a command, because without the evidence of happiness the photo would not be "good". It would not be like all the other staged photos. An expression that matches one's emotion would show that the subject isn't content with the situation. Among a gallery of whitened teeth and squinting eyes, this particular photo would become a flaw for its lack of ingenuity.
In a perfect world the photographer puts away the camera after it has taken its perfect pictures, your smile fades, and you carry on the rest of your day free of restriction. But the glaring eye of society never blinks.
Lowell Park is a baseball field surrounded by evergreen trees. Only a six foot wire fence and a caretaker's diligent housekeeping prevent any foliage from seeping into its carefully groomed grass. From ground level the field seems to nestle quite well within this natural encasement, carrying with it a sense of rightness, a sense that it belongs. But an aerial view reveals an unnatural bright sheen in the grass, and how out of place the park is among a world of trees. A social construct, it is an eyesore to a lover of the natural state of things. If left to its own devices nature could easily swallow up this artificial work until it was no longer recognizable.
And then there's me. Ten years old, tiny for my age even then, my hair mutilated into a messy style that in later years I now shudder thinking about. When I smile, it is for my own enjoyment. I am sensitive and unstablea little firecracker who skyrockets from activity to activity in bursts of explosive emotion.
I go to these baseball games because my friends, all of them boys, invite me. Rather than watch the actual game, we run around the outside of the field, beg our parents to buy us snacks, and watch in vain for foul balls. At this age, we actively seek out entertainment.
One of my friends, roughly two years older than myself, pulls out a tennis ball. We're intrigued. I follow him, my little heart simmering with curiosity, as he leads us to the pitcher's net behind the food stand. It stretches about a telephone pole in length, encased end to end in layers of protective netting. He goes inside and motions all of my friends to do the same, but when I try to scamper in myself, he musters up all the authority his older age permits and shakes his head.
"No girls. Throw-Ball is a boy's game."
I go in anyway, but he refuses to play until I leave. He is adamant, intimidating. His confidence in the statement shakes my resolve, and I stare with growing discomfort at my impatient friends. They want to play, even if it means I can't. Defeated and outraged, I leave them to their game and find my mother in the stands to tell her of the deep injustice with the expectation that she would make them let me join. I feel punished for something out of my control, and reach out to her for a solution. But she just stares at me and says, "That's a boy's game."
A year later I am growing taller, my hair is longer, my wardrobe is more sophisticated. My voice no longer bounces up and down with the shrillness of childhood impulse. I still come to these ball games with my old friends, but new ones follow in tow. They are girls.
Because we are not so easily entertained anymore, my friends and I mill around the food bar. It is a simple wooden shack, its modest white and green paint chipping at the corners. Two windows serve food and ice cream with a wonderful, seductive display of snacks lining its walls. Behind the stand billows clouds of white smoke.
The crushed money I pull from my pants pocket is not mine; sympathetic to my boredom, my mother provides me with enough for two pieces of pizza and a drink. At first I am happy and eager, staring with glee at the glistening grease and pepperoni. But then I notice one of my girl friends staring at my plate. With merciless accusation, she points to the slices and says, "If you eat two pieces, you're going to get fat."
'Fat' has only recently become a nightmare for me. I have noticed the social trend; fat means isolation, fat means ridicule, fat is a result of flawed character. I don't want any of these consequences, and to be told by one of my friends that the risk is real shakes me to the core. There is no response for that.
I laugh and smile, to hide my horror.
In the broadest sense of the word I have become a woman. In a matter of months my chest was no longer flat, and my body curved with new plumpness. I am eye level with boys of the same age. It is an awkward stage in the life of a girl because 'puberty' is a word you whisper under your breath in conversation, full of mystery and nervous giggles.
I am at Lowell Park out of habit now. The boys I had originally gone with no longer talk to me, but the distancing is mutual. I have come to realize that my life holds less confusion if I distance myself from reminders of my role in their group. Now I have my friends, who are girls. They have their friends, who are boys. And since that I have broken from my tomboyish nature, they no longer see me as familiar.
We sit, a group of five 6th grade women, in the yawning space underneath the bleachers. On a whim of girlish unity we all had decided to wear skirts, and in my heart I feel the first stirrings of pride. I feel pretty. It is a new, delicious concept.
As I stand up a middle aged man who had been lingering near us approaches me, his face warm with the beginning of a smile. His eyes meet mine; they seem kind. He pulls a folded up piece of cardboard from his pocket and a 5 dollar bill, holds them both out to me, and I take them without hesitation.
"Wait thirty seconds, and then open it," he instructs. Grinning still, he melts into the rest of the crowd. Unwise and innocent, I do as I am told and then unfold the cardboard. Scrawled in tiny, black ink is a note: I'm in my car right now pretending I'm fucking the shit out of you.
P.S You're verry pretty.
I flinch as I read the words, feeling violated, disturbed, punished.
And grip the sides of my skirt with a new shame.
Years later, I sit in the same spot underneath the bleachers. With defeated indifference, I watch the younger boys in the pitcher's net and the tiny throng of girls circling outside of it. My stomach is beautiful and flat and hollow with hunger pangs. My clothing hugs every contour of my slender body, cut short to expose my neckbut not my chest. I do not want the attention. I know the rules now.
Many aspects of my gender have been shaped by the expectations in my society. They follow me like crowds of paparazzi, documenting my every move to make sure that it's the one they want me to make. Do not eat too much, do not expose yourself, do not play what the boys play. Dutifully, I have done my part by bending to these demands, to mold myself into the perfect picture as they hold up their cameras. And I have to wonder, as I observe these thin, nervous, confused girls, how many other ball parks are like this one. How many girls have been told, all their lives, to act and think in ways they don't want to? Thoughtfully, I look down at myself, at their creation.
And I smile.