Middle school is a very specific kind of hell. I've never met a person who had a positive middle school experience. We all come hurling out of those three years, and we're thrown out into the real world as more scarred, weathered version of ourselves.
And you know why it's so harrowing? Because of sex, darling.
It's the first time sexuality rears its complex head in our lives, and suddenly, our worlds harshly transition from simple to complicated as hell. We go from being carefree kids to pimply horndogs, seemingly overnight.
The worst part is, we're all on different tracks of horniness. Some boys can't help but get visible erections the moment Ms. History Teacher slaps the ruler against the dry erase board in that low-cut blouse. Other boys can't even cum yet (poor things).
Some girls are pouty vixens in training, exuding a palpable sexual prowess from their newly enlarged pores. Some girls are still playing with dolls.
Our hormones are recklessly flying around on varying frequencies, but we've been all been tossed into the same hellacious cesspool and are forced to coexist. Shit is intense, shit is dark and shit is recipe for disaster.
My middle school experience was on the rough end of the spectrum. In fifth and sixth grade, I was a braless tomboy sporting rainbow braces, baggy JNCO jeans (BTW, did you know JNCO stands for, "Judge None, Choose One?" I always knew JNCO had depth) and zero sexual desires.
Cut to seventh grade, and I suddenly have these impressive tits that show up out of nowhere. The braces come off. The contact lenses come in. The sex drive is ignited, and baby, it's wild. It's irrepressible, and I just want to try it all.
I knew I was a low-key lesbian, but I also knew I was only 12 and that I had to at least give the boy creatures a shot. I had to give it the old college try because liking boys meant fitting in, and fitting in would surely make this cruel, cold world a bit easier, right?
Plus, I had a slew of older, sexually active sisters, and I would listen to them talk about "hooking up" all the time. I hungrily devoured their Cosmo magazines. I found out what a blowjob was and told everyone and anyone who would listen that I knew everything about oral sex.
I would initiate practice make-out sessions with my female friends (such a lesbian predator, I know). I had a hot, coveted boyfriend. I was unstoppable with my big, round-brush bangs, long eyelashes, fiercely glossed lips and a never-ending supply of Cosmo at my disposal. Life was shiny, new and exciting.
I was pretty interested in trying things with boys, even though I wasn't attracted to them. But, at least in that stage of the game, sex wasn't even a possibility. So, it was all pretty sweet and innocent.
It was the era of the occasional feel-up. It was the age of making out with my "hot" boyfriend in the school hallway and getting lunchtime detention when busted by the newly divorced dean. "Hot," popular boyfriend and I eventually broke up because we wanted to expand our horizons, so I made out with his best friend, a cute, pale blonde with twinkly girl-pretty eyes, in the dog park by my parent's house. We went to ~second base~ in the woods the spring of seventh grade.
It was all good. It was all fun. It wasn't a big deal. We were just curious kids teeming with a surplus of newfound hormones and having a fucking blast ... until my reputation got completely and totally smashed by a pimply little fuckboy. My 12-year-old life was suddenly broken into a million little pieces.
The fuckboy in question, who I'm going to call Matt*, was a 13-year-old skinny little white boy, who had questionable hygiene habits and buck teeth. He also had a greasy forehead and a high-pitched voice.
After a year of being friends, Matt decided to tell everyone at our little suburban middle school that I, Zara Barrie, was a "dirty slut."
The new trend was to accuse girls of being "slutty." Girls like me — girls with boobs and an interest in talking about sex — were vulnerable to this label. Once you were deemed a slut, your pretty female friends with their matching silver Tiffany Bean necklaces would quickly neglect you. The boys would then make your life a living hell by incessantly bullying you.
So when it happened to me, my army of dutiful girlfriends unanimously decided I could no longer sit with them at lunch. I went from being popular and chummy with everyone in school to a social defect.
Kids at school didn't want anything to do with me because a slutty reputation was madly contagious, like gayness. I went from holding court at the popular table to spending lunch alone in the library. I was serial reading Sylvia Plath because I was unhappy in my reality, and she was unhappy in her reality. But, I thought it was probably better to be unhappy in someone else's reality than my own.
Matt taunted me when I walked through the halls. "Slut," he would whisper through gritted teeth when I walked by. I would stare at him, my large, warm eyes pressing into his cold snake eyes.
"We used to be friends," I would whisper back to him, incredulous and heartbroken.
Eighth grade was a painful year. I was harassed endlessly by friends I had once trusted and even sort of loved.
But you know what? I'm so thankful that Matt decided to ruin my middle school reputation. I should probably look him up and send him flowers.
Being a social outcast in the seventh grade was the first time I realized the greatest gifts come from the times when you're deeply alienated and forced to only rely on yourself. Heartbreak, middle school bullying and traveling alone are all experiences that teach you that you don't really need anyone.
Being called a slut at a young age also made me a passionate, early feminist. Being exposed to feminism at an impressionable age rooted it deeply into my core.
Every time Matt's dry, peeling lips called me a slut, I felt a piece of my sexuality being taken from me. And the empty spaces were replaced with shame. Sexuality is such a huge part of who we are, so when sexuality is replaced with shame, you're no longer a complete person. You become a shell.
I began to research what "slut" meant on the slow, dial-up Internet in my dad's office. One thing led to another, and pretty soon, I discovered these cool, all-girl punk bands like Bikini Kill. I became obsessed with listening to these badass riot grrrls rail against fuckboys like Matt.
I discovered underground feminist zines that were full of original artwork and photographs of cool girls with fierce, individual styles. They were girls who didn't care about being called a slut. They were girls who just did their own thing and didn't care about being accepted by anyone, let alone tween boys.
Most of them identified as bisexual or lesbian. Some of them even reclaimed the word "slut," which was incredibly empowering to 12-year-old little me. I was called that word every day of my life for an entire year, but suddenly, the word lost its power. The boys lost their power. I found my power.
Pretty soon, the boys stopped harassing me, and they even sort of welcomed me back into the fold. But, I had grown strong that year. I was far more interested in this underground subculture made up of other strong girl creatures.
These babes might not have been "middle school popular," but they were something so much better. These girls were cool. They made me realize it's so much better to be cool than it is to be popular. No one cool is popular (at least at first). Being cast away by the army of popular girls I aligned myself with just might have been the best thing that ever happened to me.
Because you know what? I was never one of them. I will never be one of them. I don't want to be one of them.
See, I always had this wild creativity inside myself. It's this irrepressible urge to create, create, create. These girls didn't have that. They felt safe looking exactly alike, mimicking each other's fashion and taste in everything, from music to boys.
I pretended to be one of them because I thought it was a life raft I needed to keep me afloat. But once I lost that life raft, I realized I didn't actually need it. When we lose the crutches we think we need (drugs, friends, acceptance etc.), we find out who we really are. We get real confidence because we know we can swim without that shit.
I lost my crew, and I found myself. I found out that I'm a creative person, and that's the thing I value the most about myself. I can't imagine my life without it. I don't want to.
I think maybe Matt picked on me because he sort of knew I wasn't really one of them, anyway. As I've gotten older, I've met a handful of dangerous characters like Matt. They have a unique gifts for seeing things as they are, but they use that power negatively.
When I was actually outed almost a decade later, I had the tools to handle it.
So, kittens, if people are bullying you, don't let it destroy you. Let it set you free instead. You are different, and thank God. You don't want to be like them.
When you break free, you might feel alienated for awhile, but that's OK. Periods of alienation teach you that you're actually not going to die from loneliness, and that uncomfortable feelings are temporary.
I don't fear being alone at all. That autonomy has given me amazing opportunities that I wouldn't have experienced if I was afraid of being alone. It's what has compelled me to take a risks, live all over the world and own it.
So, fuckboy, thank you. Because of you, I didn't waste my precious time trying to please people like you. Instead, I pleased myself and did whatever I wanted to do.
* Name has been changed.