Baby, Don't Hurt Me
I swore I would never write about this.
In fact, if there weren't pictures of this moment in my life, I am absolutely certain I would believe that it was all just a weird bad dream, no different than the strange recurring ones I have about being on airplanes that are gliding precariously close to mountains or the ones where tidal waves are coming in and I'm on top of a building somewhere, witnessing the flood.
I'll begin this by saying that I have no idea how factual this all is, that is, the part leading up to how this happened- but it IS how I remember it. And perception is everything.
We arrived in Gaeta, Italy, sometime in October or November. I remember this because that was the year I attended three middle schools. Rumble Jr. High in Warner Robins, Georgia, had me for three or four weeks before my mom moved us down to Jacksonville to stay with family until our orders had us in our new home in Italy. I attended a middle school I don't even remember the name of for six weeks, and then we moved abroad. I recall feeling like a side-show freak at that school- these kids weren't military, didn't really know anyone who was in the military, and thought it was pretty awesome that I was moving to a foreign country. Some of them wanted to stay in touch with me and became pen pals, and wouldn't you know for the first time in my life- that was the year I thought kids actually liked me and thought I was interesting- and it was because I was leaving.
The eighth grade is the worst, regardless of being the new kid twice... that's the year all the girls are taller than the boys, the year your boobs show up and you have no idea how to hide them, and the year you draw a line in the sand between elementary school and HIGH SCHOOL, which promises to be a much more dramatically fulfilling experience based on The Breakfast Club and Saved By The Bell.
When I finished the eighth grade, we'd been in Gaeta for maybe six months. That summer, there was a "Host Nation" class for the kids heading to High School the following year. Again, my perception of this was that whomever runs the show between the American community abroad and the local communities we were integrating with did something to make our parents make us believe that this was not optional.
There were probably only eight or ten kids in the class, almost equal boys and girls. After what I remember as a full day learning about similarities and differences in Italian culture, the woman teaching the class announced they had quite the surprise. She was going to draw three boys names from a hat, and those lucky ducks were going to get some kind of ticket to an event. (Maybe it was racing? Or boating?). Then she was going to draw the names of three girls. Those girls would receive entrance to the preliminary round of the Miss Ondina pageant- a swimsuit competition held annually every summer in the resort town we all now called home.
It's been a long thirty years but I don't know that there's any place on the planet that three random girls straight outta eighth grade would feel like winning entrance into a swimsuit competition was a good thing.
I recall protesting, which probably, back then, looked something like politely asking that Host Nation lady if we really had to. It would take me many decades to learn the art of the ability to disappoint other people in order to do what's right for myself. I recall being told that it was a big deal, that "you" Americans were given this opportunity... and when you're fourteen and conditioned to just doing what people tell you to do, go where they tell you to go...
No one ever asked how I felt about this.
Three of us American young women 'competed' in the preliminary round held at the Hotel Mirasole. I was so unprepared for this life event that my bathing suit was borrowed and I had tan lines from the tank tops and shorts that I lived in that summer. Two of the three of us made the cut into the real show, and my memory of that is quite blurry.
I know that there was a stage erected in the town center, and that when I showed up they put me in a hot-pink one piece bathing suit and teased my hair mercilessly. Someone came and put make-up on me, which I was promptly scolded at in Italian for trying to wipe off. There were a couple of other girls there who, I think, tried to be nice to me. But they only really spoke Italian and the language barrier at this event was horrifying.
The first time I was called on stage, the announcer said my name as "CHIS-TEENA BOAH-TA-wright-A", proving that introducing me was also challenging for him.
I knew my family was out there in the crowd somewhere, but the lights were bright and all I can remember is that the producers of the event played Haddaway's song What is Love (Baby Don't Hurt Me) over and over again, occasionally mixed in with Ace of Base's All That She Wants - which I'll admit, I found a little funny.
The first time I walked out, I marched to the end of the stage as I had been instructed, then turned around and marched back. As soon as I turned my back to the crowd, I heard it.
They were booing me.
I was being booed.
The girl who was next to me gave me a hug and said something to me in Italian, and I waited for further instruction... I remember thinking I was done, that should've been it. But then the guy said may name again, and I had to walk out on stage again.
This time the booing started before I even reached the end of the runway. There were lights all around me, flashing, and I remember feeling dizzy.
I'm pretty sure I was crying by the third time I had to appear, and I really don't remember what happened then. I barely recall leaving the stage, and having the girl who'd been next to me, who'd been so nice, trying to explain to me that I did a good job.
In that moment, I was so self-conscious and utterly completely confused about what was happening, that I could have spontaneously combusted.
Finding my parents after the event, they relayed to me that there was a section of hecklers who didn't like that The American was getting decent scores. They also said there was a large group of women who kept admonishing the hecklers, but I had know way of knowing that I was being defended from where I stood.
During my trip to Italy last month, I went back to the scene of this crime; the place where merely existing in the world robbed me of confidence; where my desire to 'do what was expected of me' trumped what I was comfortable with and for that, I paid a price. Little did I know back then how much interest this inadvertent trauma would collect.
I'm glad I kept this photograph; for had I not, as I mentioned before, I might
have just convinced myself it was all a bad dream. I like looking at her now, the version of me back then. The girl who somehow made it into the top tier of a meaningless swimsuit pageant with 'f-u' look on her face; the girl who did not hide what she was feeling and still managed to make it through. The girl who kept doing what she was told to do, and cried about it later. The girl who didn't stop because people were booing, even though it hurt like hell.
I'm also glad I went back. I had the opportunity to put myself in this place again, and take back my power; I'm a big fan of revisiting a memory as many times as needed until it can't hurt you anymore.
It was just a dumb bathing-suit contest, I'm pretty sure that's what I told myself for years. It was just a dumb contest, and three decades of learning how to deal with it.