When I was seventeen, I was hideous. My skin was awful, my hair was a frizzy nightmare. No boy would or could ever find me attractive because I was so vile. Every other girl in my class was beautiful, cool and self-assured and used to laugh at me for my repugnant awkwardness, lack of social graces and inability to sing all the words of “Her name is Rio” correctly. And was I fat? Was I? I was vast. Like a whale-shaped continent. Enormous.
Here’s a picture of me on the beach, aged 17.
Yes, I was an idiot. That picture, in all its fuzzy glory, captures me at my brief physical peak. I will never look like that again. I will never weigh that again, unless I have a limb amputated. And did I enjoy it while I had it? Did I bollocks. I spent my time being loud and theatrical to hide my fear and loneliness, agonising over imaginary slights and arguments, wearing enormous baggy jumpers and writing some of the world’s most tortured, self-indulgent, middle-class-girl-with-no-real-problems-to-speak-of poetry. It’s enough to make you yawn.
You probably don’t need me to tell you about this stuff, because unless you were exceptionally lucky, or freakishly egotistical, you probably also experienced that acidic self-doubt at some point in your teenage years. It takes years to wear off, if at all. I remember my thirtieth birthday as a day when, with a sigh of enormous relief, I realised I had made it through the horrors of my teens and twenties, and I could relax and stop taking myself so damned seriously. If I may misquote the cliché, youth and beauty are entirely wasted on the young. They’re generally far too angst-ridden to notice they have them.
Which brings me to the story in the news of the 42-year-old divorced mum who, against all odds, has become an NFL cheerleader. Hollywood is slavering at her door to turn her story into a movie, and everyone, from Oprah down, wants a piece of her. So why is it that her story makes me profoundly uncomfortable and a little bit sad?
The story in brief, is that her husband left her for a younger woman, and she was out with friends at a football game when someone asked her what she wanted to do to make herself happy again. She looked at the cheerleaders on the field and found her goal, as it were.
Don’t get me wrong, what she’s achieved is amazing. In a highly competitive field, she’s won out over girls half her age and worked her body into peak physical condition and, as a woman exactly her age, who has also had two children, I know how hard that must have been to do. She clearly has vision, determination and extraordinary will-power. She could achieve anything she set her mind to, it seems to me. What makes me sad about the story is that of all the goals she could have set herself, this is what she chose.
What felt so wrong for me was the fact that she had teenage daughters (who it seems are also cheerleaders). Of all the things in the world this woman could have chosen as a goal, Laura Vikmanis has chosen to compete against her own daughters. She is also saying to them that after living three more decades than they have, she has found nothing more desirable than fulfilling a young girl’s dream of becoming magically beautiful and popular through cheerleading.
Now I’ve never been to school in America, but I’ve seen the movies. We all have. We all watch Glee. We know that cheerleaders are incandescently, mythically beautiful, powerful creatures. That donning that tiny white skirt is the route out of hideous obscurity and into being the Prom Queen and dating the quarterback.
But that’s the movies. I have no doubt real cheerleaders are as plagued with self-doubt and body image issues as all young people, if not more, because they’re so in the public eye. It’s also a very fleeting dream, even for the twenty-somethings. I’ve got news for Laura, she may be a cheerleader at 42, but she’s unlikely to be one at 45. She’s definitely not going to be one at 50.
Let’s face it people, you can change a lot of things about yourself. You can lose weight, gain weight, get an education, learn manners or gain self-awareness. But you can’t change your age. You can hide it, fight it, lie about it and have surgery, but time doesn’t stop, and the days and years add up relentlessly. What are you going to do about it? Yearn for a golden moment of youth that you once had… or never had? Or consign those moments to the world of fuzzy photographs where I believe they belong, and live with passion, happiness and intent in the absolute present, relishing the lasting and more concrete joys that growing up can bring?
One monkey, one typewriter, seldom Hamlet.