August 1996

I'm a nerd.

I admit it. I'm a nerd. A geek. A bespectacled, mousy, short little stocky girl who would rather write HTML code than eat, and has done so on more than one occasion, for hours. I've always been a nerd, ever since I learned to read at age three and entered first grade at age five. They put me in the gifted program when I was six, and I was branded forever. Not that I'm complaining, mind you.

It's not that I mind being smart. Who would? A nimble intellect is truly a gift from above, and one that I would not part with for any sum of money you care to come up with. But with intelligence comes (hopefully) the knowledge of how to use that three-pound computer to draw your own conclusions about life and its importance, about the nature of your fellow Earth inhabitants, about where you fit in the cosmos: in other words, the ability to think for yourself. This is where the danger begins. When you start to use your brain for something other than a repository of factoids -- when your brain switches from a read-only file to interactive -- then you give up your right to insulate yourself from the world. You start getting ideas, and bouncing them off other people's opinions, preconceived notions and stereotypes. You crash around, awkward, like a gangly prepubescent child, spinning off the walls of societal norms. Before this gets too metaphysical, let me just say that I'm remembering specifically right now being the smart kid in class. I remember junior high as well as anyone. And this is where being a nerd -- a female nerd, no less -- gets sticky.

If you decide, like I did at age ten, to be who you are and not who people want you to be, then you will never look at the world the same way again.

When my family moved to a suburb in 1983, I was in the sixth grade. I wore button-down shirts, hand-me-down boys' jeans, boys' Keds (long before Keds was a fashionable brand), a generic denim jacket, little girls' barrettes in my hair, and not a lick of makeup on my face. I knew of no reason to change my appearance when I walked into the lions' den the first day at Lovett Elementary School. I came in as Myself. I left branded a Nerd.

I remember that year well. The three years of junior high school formed who I am today, through fire and trial and pain. There I learned the superficiality of our world, this world that judges you not on who you are, but what you look like and who you know. I learned survival skills. Children had not yet started carrying guns to school, not in a Mississippi town in the early 1980s, but they slung verbal bullets with the best of them. Survival skills: Walk with your head down, arms clutching textbooks across your chest, drawn into yourself, don't bump into anyone and give them an excuse to hit you (not like they need one), don't meet anybody's eyes, don't speak unless spoken to (and then make it quick and quiet), don't be too smart, don't speak up in class, don't be out of place, don't be noticed. Conform. Conform. Conform.


I didn't conform. I didn't wear their makeup, and I didn't buy their clothes, and I didn't use their Valley-girl vocabulary, and by the seventh grade, I didn't give a damn who knew it. I started lifting my head when I walked (giving John Robert Hillman a fine target to aim at with his bookbag). I started talking back to them. I looked them in the eyeballs. I hit back. I wore off-brand clothes (remember Wrangler jeans?), deliberately this time, just so I wouldn't be like the people that tormented me and the few friends I'd acquired. If they liked it, I didn't. I was a contrary long before it was popular. And I continued to carry the labels, proudly: Nerd. Geek. Bitch. Dyke. Freak. Brain. Weirdo.

So yes, I'm a nerd. I'm a freak. I'm strange, I'm weird, I'm all that. And I like it that way, because at least I'm me. I decided long ago who I was going to be, and it wasn't the way my classmates wanted me. I didn't fit in their nice, neat little box. I took a sledgehammer and kept knocking the supports from under their presuppositions of what teenage girls are supposed to look and act like.

- II -

Which reminds me. At the grocery store the other day I saw one of those magazines that's targeted at adolescent girls -- _Seventeen_ or _YM_ or some such. Flipping through it, I got disgusted and tossed it aside. The whole slant of the magazine seemed to be: how to get a guy. How to look like a model. How to lose weight, where to lose weight, for whom to lose weight, what makeup to wear, what makeup not to wear, how to act around guys, how not to act around guys, the right things to say to "win him over!" In short: how to stop being such a loser and snag the right man. Please. Tell me this, someone: why is it necessary that we all be a Barbie doll? Where is this written? Where is the rulebook that defines beauty in this country? I have taken more garbage from people about what I look like than anything else since I was ten years old. Specifically, about the way I wear my hair and what I put on my face (or, more to the point, what I don't put on it). So let's rant a little about looks. What the hell.

No, I do not wear makeup. No, I have never worn makeup, except for special occasions, and then mostly to please my mother (hi mom!). The reasoning here is relatively straightforward: I just never got around to it. Simple. It wasn't important enough to me to learn, and at the age where most girls bother their moms to teach them the secrets of womanhood (whatever those are), my mother was holding down a full- time job, supervising the house, running four paper routes so we could eat, and putting my dad through school. So I didn't bother her with little things like accessorizing.

Anyway, I didn't think this was a problem until I started junior high. I mean, it's my face, right? I liked it the way it was. Who cared what I put on it.

Everyone except me, apparently.

"Joy, why don't you wear makeup?"

"Joy, you know, just a touch of lipstick and some blush would really enhance your features."

"What are you, a lesbian or a feminist or something?"

"You're ugly, you bitch. Go put some makeup on."

"You know, you'd actually look good if you wore makeup."

(For the record, all of these statements have actually been made to me at some point.)

Now, don't misunderstand: I'm not trying to elicit anyone's sympathy or pity with sob stories about my oh-so-traumatic childhood. I always had my family and my God, two of the anchors of my life. But at age eleven, I started to realize that my choice not to plaster over my young skin with processed animal by-products was not the norm, and was in fact frowned upon. I wasn't allowed to be cute, or good-looking or (God forbid) beautiful if I didn't participate in this strange American ritual. My spine was starting to develop and calcify at this point in my life, as has already been mentioned, so I straightened up a little more and, spurred by the betrayal of a friend in the ninth grade over this very issue, figuratively gave the finger to the world's and society's ideas of 'normal'. I swore then that they would never get me. They would never force me into their mold and make me look like them. I was never going to slather gunk on my face, poke holes in my ears, dress in uncomfortable clothes, or in fact do anything THEY wanted me to do simply because they wanted me to do it. From that point on, I did nothing without having my own reasons for it. Not because it was trendy, not because it was popular, but because I had to live with myself. This was me digging into my soul, digging in my heels and standing up for who I was, and am. Very non-conformist, to coin a much over-used phrase. Very nerd-like.

- III -

Let's talk about fashion for a moment. Someone please tell me the point of wearing high heels, besides doing irreversible damage to your feet. I won't even start on the subject of pantyhose, other than to comment in passing that control top hose was surely invented by the Spanish Inquisition as a torture device.

Please tell me why it's anyone else's business what I cover my body with. Please tell me why it's necessary for me to be "pretty" to be acceptable. Please tell me why I have to jump through hoops like a damned circus animal to look "right". I wear what I wear because I like it, it fits my personality and I feel comfortable in it, regardless of whether or not it's the latest thing in fabulous New York City. For me, this tends to be lots of flannel and denim, Converse and Doc Martens, the occasional backwards baseball cap, and other heights of grunge-wear fashion. Yes, I wear it because I like it, not because I'm so stupid I don't know any better, or I can't afford nice things, or I'm trying to fulfill some Generation X/slacker "image". The occasional stare or rude remark doesn't come along as often any more, but you would not believe the crassness of some people who apparently feel it's their sworn duty to "fix me up" and make me over in their image. Nothing irritates me more than a well-meaning friend (usually female) who starts playing with my hair, which is down to the middle of my back and is nothing special - - it's just kind of there -- and starts talking wistfully about taking me to Dillard's or something and making me up, then going shopping so I can get some new clothes. I grit my teeth and politely attempt to explain that I have no interest in such things, and would they kindly take their hands out of my hair before they draw back a nub. I look and dress like what I am, which is a computer nerd who reads a lot and likes to draw cartoons when she's not working. Excuse me if I'm too busy creating a web page for a church, or patiently attempting to explain the intricacies of the Internet to some computer-illiterate friend who wants to jump on the latest bandwagon, to worry about matching my shoes to my purse. (Another reason I carry a backpack, incidentally.) And please, don't let me interrupt your discussion of the latest hairstyle on "Friends" with my banging around inside the tactical electronics equipment entrusted to my care as an Air Force Reserve staff sergeant, up to my elbows in circuit cards and multimeters. God knows we couldn't have some nerd in your giggling pink, hair-sprayed, sorority chick, Melrose Place-like clique.

- IV -

So call me a nerd. Call me a freak. Call me a geek, a weirdo, whatever. But there's one label you can't apply: don't call me a girl, because I'm not. I'm not that little kid anymore, cowering tearfully in the corner of a hot, too-close sixth grade classroom. I'm a woman. I am fully, unapologetically, simply a woman, and I have my own mind, and (much to your dismay) I use it. And I am passionate, and strong, and weak, and brave, and afraid, and smart, and beautiful all on my own, simply because I am me.

Beauty is not found between the covers of Cosmopolitan. It isn't found on MTV or defined by some 103-pound waif with heavy eyeshadow in a Calvin Klein ad. Beauty comes from knowing who you are, from being able to look at the eyes in the mirror and like what you see there, from realizing that you ARE a woman, beautiful to the God who created you and unique as each star in the sky. Strength comes from not being afraid to stand and scream into the wind, though it cost you your last breath, but at least you know that the shout is from you and nobody else. It comes from finally accepting the uniqueness of who you are... and if that means you'd rather sit glued to a computer screen for nine hours tweaking C++ code instead of bouncing around The Gap with a bunch of mall-hair girls -- and get labeled a nerd because of it -- then do that. Be a nerd.

Redefine beauty. You are more than your skin. Catch the beauty that glows from within and can't be faked by slapping on some mascara and lipstick. Be yourself, for God's sake, and for yours. Change your own life. Don't let them do it for you. Try it; you might like it.

And in the meantime, call me a nerd.