Live Through This

The Normalcy Curse

No matter how hard I tried, I was too well-adjusted to ever be cool.

Illustration by Kelly.

Illustration by Kelly.

A few pages into my very first diary (started when I was 10), I decided it was time to reveal my family secrets. The first secret was that my older brother (then 12) had been seeing a shrink after being mugged on his way home from school. The second secret was that my babysitter dyed her hair. The third was that my parents were selling our country house in Connecticut. Four and five were that I had a crush on my older brother’s best friend, and that I was keeping a diary. This was the darkest stuff I could come up with.

I have been extremely lucky. My parents are still together after almost 50 years of marriage, and they always provided me with everything I ever wanted—horseback riding lessons, Betsey Johnson dresses, endless packages of frozen pizza and Diet Coke. I always did well in school and had lots of friends. My only illnesses were minor and short-lived. My life sailed smoothly, with the occasional bump provided by altercations with my brother and pop quizzes in math class. Sounds pretty good, right? I think so too. I look back at my childhood with incredulity—what I wouldn’t give now for someone to make sure I never ran out of pizza! So I know my problems were very small in comparison to what a lot of other people deal with, but back then, they felt big to me. I didn’t realize that worrying about being cool was in fact a privilege. No, I was convinced that all of my privileges and comforts were ruining my life.

My main anxiety, though, was pretty universal for all teenage girls: my looks. Maybe if I’d been born 15 years later and grown up in the 2000s, when the radio was dominated by Destiny’s Child and Britney Spears and other girls who looked like they showered regularly, I would have felt a different set of appearance-based societal pressures—perhaps I would have felt compelled to learn to blow-dry my hair, or to walk in high heels. But I was a teenager in the ’90s, when Courtney Love was on the cover of Sassy and Kate Moss looked gorgeously bored in ads for Calvin Klein. The goal was not to look glossy and perfect—it was the complete opposite. The goal was to appear as fucked-up as possible. The look was literally called “heroin chic”—seriously, you were supposed to try to look like a junkie. Suddenly, my orthodontia seemed like a complete waste of tiny little rubber bands.

My friends were mostly rich kids trying their best to look poor. We all shopped at the Salvation Army and out of our fathers’ closets. The hems of our pants dragged on the ground until they were shredded and filthy. If Mean Girls had taken place at my high school, Lizzy Caplan would have been the popular one, and Rachel McAdams would have been the freak.

Today, when I look at photos of myself as a teenager, I think I looked amazing. My dewy skin! My thrift-store bellbottoms! I was adorable! But I didn’t feel adorable. I wanted to be the kind of girl who didn’t wash off her makeup and walked into school looking like a sexy raccoon after a bender, but instead I was the kind of girl who didn’t wear makeup in the first place. I always felt squeaky-clean and too freshly shampooed, which obviously wasn’t cool. I vividly remember a beautiful, cool girl in the grade above me coming into school with what she called “sex-head,” her hair frictioned into a rat’s nest. If being cool was about mystery, sex, and nonchalance—and it was—she was acing it, and I was failing. I had dark blond hair that hung perfectly straight despite my attempts to mess it up, rosy cheeks, the aforementioned braces, a goofy smile. I was friendly, virginal, and eager, as wholesome as a glass of buttermilk.

My father was a writer, and my mother ran a non-profit with teen moms—two totally interesting jobs. But I conducted myself like the child of two accountants. I did my homework promptly. I came home at my curfew. That was not what cool was made of. Cool was my friend who smoked so much pot in her room that the hallway outside her door looked like a fog machine was going. Cool was my friend who lived in a hotel while her parents were moving apartments. Cool were all my friends whose parents were divorced, and who therefore had two phone numbers, two addresses, two bedrooms, and two sets of rules. Cool were my friends who hated their parents. Normal may not really exist, but boring does, and my normal seemed so monumentally boring that I thought I might die.

My house was always a hangout spot for me and my friends—my parents were interested in them, and friendly, and so even though they were occasionally embarrassing (like when my father said to a diminutive male friend of mine with long blond skater hair, “Peter’s a funny name for a girl”), and all my friends liked them too. Some friends stayed over so many nights in a row that I forgot they had their own parents, invisible adults I’d never seen. When my then best friend drank too much, she didn’t go home—she came to my house, because she trusted that my parents wouldn’t scream at her the way her own mother would.

At some point it dawned on me that my friends who had more complicated home lives than mine probably loved being at my house because it was (what I would describe as) boring. Another word would be stable. I started to realize how lucky I was to have parents who were interested in what I was doing and thinking and feeling. And yet my anxiety about being cool took me another decade to shed.

It happened when I was in college. My junior year, The Royal Tenenbaums came out, and Gwyneth Paltrow’s character, Margot, had pin-straight dark-blond hair, like mine, held back with a red plastic barrette. She wore polo dresses and loafers—the uniform of preppy normies—every day. And she was undeniably cool: sophisticated, sexy, full of secrets. I don’t know why it took me so long to understand that how I dressed or wore my hair didn’t determine how people might think of me as a person—that most people are willing and able to look beyond appearances. After seeing that movie, I gathered up the courage to nervously tell my friend Nina that I feared everyone knew how boring I really was, but was too polite to tell me. She laughed, the best possible response.

Back then, I believed a lot of things that weren’t true—for example, that I’d die a virgin. But even though it seemed like it would never happen, I eventually lost my virginity, and I eventually figured out that worrying about my straight hair and my married parents and being punctual with homework assignments was easier than worrying about my future or falling in love or the reality of my friendships and art and all the things that really mattered. I spent so much time fretting about the little things that I wasted years (years!) skating along the surface of my own brain.

Nowadays, I think the only thing that is deeply, undeniably cool is confidence. The only people who are really, actually cool are the ones who couldn’t care less what other people think. Am I there yet? Maybe. Maybe not. But I think I’m getting closer. Is that boring? ♦

37 Comments

  • mangointhesky January 13th, 2014 3:25 PM

    The normalcy curse. I love this. In a way, being normal is both good and bad.

    http://perfectlittledaisy.blogspot.com

  • honorarygilmoregal January 13th, 2014 4:24 PM

    I can totally relate to this! In high school, I worried that I was too boring, but I’m a college freshman now and learning to love myself more and not dwell on what others might think of me.

    http://perkstobeinginfinite. tumblr.com

  • amelia3 January 13th, 2014 4:26 PM

    Totally identify with this. I had a pretty startling moment of realization last year, when several of my friends revealed that they traveled on far rockier paths and it actually wasn’t fun or edgy or whatnot.

  • krevlorneswath January 13th, 2014 4:32 PM

    thankyou so much for writing this. I feel like, because I do have a really good life, I feel a lot of guilt, but then I feel guilty for even having that guilt. And even typing this here makes me feel bad. I don’t know. Great piece.

  • elliecp January 13th, 2014 4:56 PM

    this is so relevant omg
    I have always felt so different and on the edge however looking back or in comparison to others I don’t seem to have it anywhere near as badly as I first thought…you can’t see yourself at the time but when you look back you tend to see the positives more. Loved this.

    http://roseandvintage.blogspot.com/

  • j.d. January 13th, 2014 5:00 PM

    god this really hits the nail on the head. i feel like so many hardships in life lead to the lesson that you should just be yourself. the key to many things in life.

    http://girlcommaworld.wordpress.com

  • tangratoe January 13th, 2014 5:03 PM

    I relate to this so much!! Really put into words my feelings from the past few years, but its so true that what is truly cool is confidence :)

  • loopdeshor January 13th, 2014 5:16 PM

    confidence is key

    http://delightfuldreaming.blogspot.com/

  • Kelly K January 13th, 2014 5:41 PM

    Personally, I’ve never worried about being cool or conventionally attractive, but I have had worries about how decidedly normal I am. A lot of people surrounding me have struggled with plenty of big issues and I’m not going to fully understand them. I don’t think I’ll ever know how my friend felt that year her family was too poor to eat much other than rice and canned beans. Nor will I know how my friend from GSA feels when she goes home to a family that doesn’t accept her identity as a woman. It pains me because I don’t know how to help anyone around me but I feel like I should most of the time.

  • peonies January 13th, 2014 5:47 PM

    I remember that one of my main problems with my appearance during my teens was that my hair WOULD NOT tangle – like it was super straight and even though i never brushed it, it would just lay flat and be a dead giveaway for how boring I was.

  • Monroe January 13th, 2014 5:52 PM

    Lol now this is one article I can’t exactly relate to haha
    I feel like actually though I sort of lived the same thing in reverse-my family would draw people to us just because we were so weird.

  • reginasdirt January 13th, 2014 5:52 PM

    you kind of remind me of angela chase in the 90′s and also I would’ve probably been like you if I would’ve been a teenager in the 90′s I still think so, im so into looking homeless and acting dope but maybe it’s just not for me

  • MarySadi January 13th, 2014 6:02 PM

    Music to read this to:

    Accept Yourself – The Smiths
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r0svHXrsCbE

  • Roz G. January 13th, 2014 6:20 PM

    OMG this is totally me! I used to think that everything in my life was lame and boring from the big wholesome suburb to my prep school plaid skirt. I knew I was lucky and I still thought I was boring. Thank you so much for this, it made my day :)

  • painting_the_roses_pink January 13th, 2014 6:28 PM

    I thought I was going to roll my eyes at this; a person complaining that their life is too stable and positive and loving, but I’m glad she’s worked through those feelings and has come to the conclusion she did. As a kid having to grow up fast and a teen currently living in an environment of instability and chaos and dealing with shit people twice my age cant deal with, a happy “normal” two parent household would be my candy land.
    However the hardships and just daily life I’ve lived and experienced so far have given me unique perspectives on things that others might not have, and I wouldn’t be the Rosemarie I am today without them.

    http://aroseofadiffrentcolor.tumblr.com/

  • LaurenMichele January 13th, 2014 8:14 PM

    I totally relate to this! I mean, I didn’t grow up in the 90′s, but growing up I was never really under the definition of “cool” nor did I have a rebellious streak. I literally can’t think of anything that bad or traumatizing happening to me as a child, which is surely not a bad thing, but it’s sort of the same feeling Emma described in her article. I still struggle with this now, especially because I’m in a creative writing class and we’re writing poems. I’m struggling so much because I just can’t figure out what to say. Not a whole lot has happened to me for me to write about. Does anyone else feel like this? I mean, I have interests and lots of ideas but I don’t have a big bucket full of interesting life events for me to pull out ideas from. I try to be imaginative and make things up but it doesn’t really feel authentic.

    • Erin. January 18th, 2014 12:33 PM

      I entirely get what you mean. I majored in Creative writing in uni, and people are always saying that you should “write what you know,” to write what you’ve experienced. And I just sat there like “I’ve never experienced anything!” And everyone else seems to pull stuff from their lives or family histories; they come up with interesting stuff. It’s especially true with poems, ’cause they are allegedly supposed to be more personal. Which is why I liked to write “anti-poems” – rants about the literary world in the form of poems. Like, I once wrote a poem about wanting to kill and bury irony where no one would ever find it again. So, it’s like, even if you don’t think anything interesting has happened to you, you still have feelings and emotions, you still have a certain perspective on life, and you can bring all that into your writing.

  • Gabby January 13th, 2014 8:17 PM

    <3

  • Jayme January 13th, 2014 8:33 PM

    I don’t relate to this, but I wish I did.
    Most of my friends are the ones with the stable homes and I’m the one that’s quote-unquote ‘interesting’- my parents are divorced, I live with my dad, I don’t have a curfew at all, I’m home alone most days, I have a half-brother who’s twice my age…. etc., etc.
    And, just like your friends, I am drawn to the stable households where there is two loving parents and a sense of normalcy.

  • Faith January 13th, 2014 8:59 PM

    Gurrl, I love your honesty. What I’d do to see how high school was like in the 90′s! However, I do like my wifi and Tumblr, heehee

    http://quirkyconfetti.tumblr.com/

  • RatioRae January 13th, 2014 10:15 PM

    Not a boring article at all, loved it. :)

    http://thegirlwhodrankstars.blogspot.com

  • diniada13 January 14th, 2014 1:35 AM

    I love this. Somehow I could relate to this, because I went through a very normal upbringing, and my parents are very awesome and supportive and I’m a good kid through and through. My friends are also sickeningly normal, and that’s good, but I have this constant urge to rebel and fuck up just to make things more interesting. The last lines hit me hard. Thank you for this article, Emma♡

    http://sorryimoutofgoodurls.blogspot.com

  • P.catherine January 14th, 2014 5:02 AM

    I feel quite carefree in myself but then realise that I do worry about looks and stuff. Thanks Emma, great piece.

  • monalisa January 14th, 2014 7:04 AM

    heroin chic is coming back i’ve noticed. black, white and grey, ill fitting and from “not even trying” brands like nike and adidas.

  • iamrachii January 14th, 2014 8:59 AM

    When I was in high school I was always the one friend who didn’t self-harm (or claim to) or the one who didn’t drink so I get where you’re coming from. A couple of years back when I was travelling to various cities round the country to see my favourite band, I noticed that all the other fans I’d made friends with had dead parents or mental health issues some other traumatic issue while I had nothing like that and it made me wonder whether obsessive fandom was a thing for people who had other issues and whether it was really me that was wrong for still being so into it despite having a normal upbringing?
    On a sidenote I just rewatched the BH90210 episode where Brenda wishes she had a cool mom like Kelly’s and Kelly loved going and having dinner with Brenda’s family because they were normal and not hiding addictions like her mom was. Come to think of it they were 90s icons who never really did the heroin chic grunge thing either!

  • maxrey January 14th, 2014 1:11 PM

    I relate to this SO MUCH! <3

  • Paola January 14th, 2014 1:47 PM

    yayy Confidence is cooooooool

  • Isil January 14th, 2014 2:00 PM

    I totally get you, sometimes I feel like that, too. I’m in college but I’m living with my parents because my college is in the same city with where we live, therefore I kind of envied people who are staying in the dorms or in their own flat. It’s my third year in college, and seeing people getting away from their parents and family, not having a planned life etc. those things are actually some kind of things that I couldn’t live with. Some friends of mine haven’t seen their parents in 3 years, just phone calls. It’s insane. Food, worrying about rent.. It’s really hard, and I’m glad to be with my parents. But sometimes I still think that if I would struggle with things like that, I would be more powerful, not cool, but powerful.

    And is it just me but does everybody felt like reading Angela’s life from “my so-called life”? :)

    http://isilnoir.wordpress.com
    http://isilmonika.tumblr.com

  • velvetqueen January 14th, 2014 8:27 PM

    This is probably going to sound cliche as fuck, but at the end of the day, the only cool people are those who aren’t afraid to be themselves, and don’t give a fuck whether they are too mainstream or too lol “alternative”.

    lol like fuck that if I wanna be a massive Wipers fan and still appreciate the Spice Girls or One Direction or whatever, leave me in peace. Haha

  • velvetqueen January 14th, 2014 8:30 PM

    Correction: People who are afraid to be themselves are cool too, I think it’s normal for some people to worry what others think, whereas others naturally could care less. But yeah nobody should care what anyone thinks. Do you.

  • LenoraLikes January 14th, 2014 8:38 PM

    I really related to this article, Emma. I live in a rather affluent area, and my home life has been stable to the point of almost being boring– I actually get along with my parents, and don’t often break the casual rules that they set for me. I used to feel almost guilty of this and their generosity towards me, like I was spoiled and had no right to be. I’m getting used to feeling grateful instead of guilty about the circumstances that I grew up with. However, I feel like I can never talk about this type of thing with people, especially with people who have less grounded, stress-free home lives. I think that your piece captures this perfectly, so thank you!

  • nana January 15th, 2014 4:04 AM

    Would you believe me if I said ‘soml’?

    So relevant, much appreciated, and well-written — bravo!

    http://sagelliv.blogspot.com/

  • lexilikes January 15th, 2014 12:52 PM

    I can relate to this so much. I think a lot of Rookie stories are about things that went wrong/were bad and what was learnt in that situation (in fairness they do make the best stories) but I do sometimes feel that I’m boring because none of those things happen to me. You’re right, I should and I do feel lucky because of that though. <3

    http://www.lexilikes.com/

  • flocha January 15th, 2014 1:23 PM

    I totally relate to this. I always used to be annoyed that my life and family were so boring, that I wished something dramatic would happen. Ironically, when something did, I didn’t magically become cooler I just withdrew into myself even more.

    http://whimsicalprocrastination.blogspot.co.uk

  • Cola January 15th, 2014 5:49 PM

    It’s funny because I’ve always had the opposite of this problem- no matter how hard I try, I never ever have the high polished glossy look that other girls have, I always look a little ‘i decided to come here last minute and now my eye make-up is smudged’. It use to really bother me and it was exhausting trying to look va va voom all the time. Now I embrace it, I think the older you get the easier it is to say ‘this is me- take it or leave it’.

    Yes, how you dress is to some extent a reflection of your personality, but unless you go out with a list of your favourite things and personality traits pinned onto your top, nobody can know every faucet of your personality just by the way you dress.

  • Erin. January 18th, 2014 1:02 PM

    The idea of normalcy is kinda interesting to me. Growing up, I thought my family was fairly normal, in that I had two parents, two siblings, a detached house in the suburbs, pets, a tree house. I did well in school, had a few friends, got along with my teachers. Those types of things. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to see how it wasn’t/isn’t at all normal. There’s always been a lot of verbal abuse at home (it’s been pretty much a daily occurrence for as long as I can remember), which at one point seemed normal to me, and I still can’t imagine it not happening. But it isn’t normal to feel like you have to tip-toe around your dad at all times, in attempt to avoid the next outburst (which happens anyways). Or to be insulted more than encouraged. We all live fairly joylessly because anything we might find joy in gets ruined somehow (usually by my dad). Example: I’ve gotten yelled at for reading books. I’m 23 and I’ve never done drugs, never drank alcohol, never failed at anything in school, don’t talk back (don’t even swear!), never rebelled, I help my mom clean the house and I cook when she asks me to — and my dad yells at me for reading books. I’m a writer! I’ve never known anyone more confused about what constitutes the real world/real life than my father. And that he tries to take us all down with him, it’s just sad, really.

    Sorry for ranting. I just don’t have many people to talk to in real life.

  • Khristine January 25th, 2014 10:36 AM

    I totally love this! I used to feel the same.