A Broken Bridge: Slumber Parties and Grade School Bullies

We belonged to each other if only through proximity.
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Marianne
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We belonged to each other if only through proximity.
Sleeping is always intimate, I think.

Sleeping is always intimate, I think.

Have you ever been in love with an article? Have you ever wanted to share it not casually but with love and import with specific people who will get it, who will get you and understand why this thing spoke to you? I feel that right now, about this article "A Bridge Between Love and Lipstick" over on BuzzFeed. It's about queering the beauty industry, about the push and pull of makeup as transformative tool (but why do we need to transform?), and about the femmes who are missing from beauty history.

It's also, at the beginning, about slumber parties.

It probably comes as a surprise to exactly no one that I was a weird kid, prone to awkwardness and uncertainty. I was a fat nerd and home was not particularly peaceful. I spent a lot of time hiding in whatever book I could find and avoiding interaction because that was, in general, safer.

But even so, there were two girls in the neighborhood who would not, could not be avoided. They were on the bus, but they were also just down the street, and we were supposed to be friends, sort of, the way girls are always supposed to be friends. Michelle and Alicia. Those are their real names because it's been all these years and I have no idea who they are now but that's who they were then and I'm not particularly interested in hiding their identities. 

Let's be real: They were bullies. But who else was there to hang out with? No one. No matter what they said to me at school, no matter what names they called me, in the neighborhood there were just the three of us and that meant we belonged to each other if only through proximity.

We had slumber parties at my house every now and then, the three of us and a couple of other girls from school all bundled into the big king size bed in the back room. But even then I was wary of people in my spaces and I didn't know what to do with them, how to be welcoming when I wasn't sure I really wanted them there to begin with. My own room was arranged very precisely, couldn't they tell that and just not touch things? Apparently not, which is one reason I was a weird kid who got pushed around at school.

The slumber parties at Michelle's house were a different matter. Were we in the basement? I think we were in the basement, and there were sleeping bags and a radio and we had dance offs where each person had to perform for the others who were part of an audience.

We didn't do each other's makeup, we weren't old enough to take it that seriously enough yet. But we braided each other's hair and we danced, and even when I was embarrassed about everything else going on in my life, even when I knew I was probably just giving them more fodder for making me miserable the rest of the time, I took my turn in the dance party.

It felt good. It felt good when we danced together and then collapsed back into our sleeping bags, then watched movies when I would rather have been reading. It felt good until it became the tension of going back to school on the bus on a Monday morning, when it became the certainty of whispers behind my back and mockery to my face as the day went on.

We played Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board. We played Bloody Mary, which, I mean, that's an effed up thing to play. It's not even a game so much as it's a horror show waiting to happen — what were we really hoping to have happen with that? I think we tried a Ouija Board once, but it was harder to suspend our disbelief for that one.

No matter what else went on, we were together in these moments of vulnerability. And that's what complicated everything. Because as much as my mother told me I didn't have to be friends with them, who else understood? Who else was there to stand in front of the mirror in the candle-lit bathroom, pushing at the boundaries of what we were told was safe?

What other girls were there to learn from about what it meant to be a girl but also a girl in relation to other girls? I learned about my lack, about the unacceptability of my body, but I learned, too, that if I were funny and accommodating then there would be people who made fun of me in public but cheered on my dancing in private. I learned that people, that the girls around me, lied. For a lot of different reasons and to a lot of different people, including themselves.

I wanted to be with other girls, around them and comfortable with them and part of the swelling energy of them. But I couldn't trust them either, couldn't reach out and cross that bridge between love and lipstick, didn't even know such a bridge existed. 

It wasn't until high school and college that I better learned how to build any sort of bridge between me and other people, but those old lessons were there underpinning it all. The same desire was there, to be with other girls, around them and comfortable with them; I learned new ways and even though some people still were like Michelle and Alicia, too embarrassed to be friends with me in public, I learned to be less tolerant of that. I found female friends and female lovers as an adult — but I wondered then and now what it would have been like to trust the girls around me, to form those friendships early.

When we talk about compulsory yet arbitrary beauty standards, when we talk about exploding the beauty paradigm rather than just expanding it to make it a little more inclusive of acceptable *fill in the blank*, these are the things I think about. Because it's not like Michelle and Alicia grew up in a vacuum any more than I did. They learned their boundaries, who to torment and who to tolerate and how to blend the two groups, just like I learned how to hide at the back of the bus and walk slowly home so that they couldn't shout things at my back. What are the limits of the things we lost? Should other girls have to lose in the same fashion?

Now, in the absence of slumber parties, I go to the makeup counter and I give my face into the control of the makeup artist. I close my eyes and turn over the power of my appearance to a stranger when it could have been a friend. It's still its own kind of magic, some shade of intimacy, fingers on cheek tilting you into the light.