About a year ago, I was sitting in a theater, watching “Eighth Grade” with a friend. Elsie Fisher’s character stood awkwardly with a snug gray Hollister T-shirt in front of the indifferent popular girls with their straightened hair, who didn’t even deign to make eye contact with her.
“By the way, I like your shirt a lot,” Fisher said with a no-teeth smile. “It’s, like, so cool.”
I felt a stomach-wrenching sense that I still related to her grimace-inducing awkwardness. Yes, sir, this is an ode to how I’m 21 years old and only slightly more socially adept than my worst middle school self.
When I started at the blessed John F. Kennedy Middle School back in 2009, times were different; life sounded like “Whatcha Say” by Jason Derulo, smelled like $5 knock-off Chanel perfume and tasted like AriZona green tea and Rips licorice.
A few weeks ago, my friends and I were listening to “Whatcha Say,” a consequence of us arguing over how his last name is pronounced — “Deh-roo-loh” or “Deh-roo-law”? One song from Derulo’s opus sent me back to my sixth grade socials where, at 4 p.m., a group of 300 11-year olds jumped up and down to the likes of Derulo, Flo Rida and Jay Sean.
For these socials, I would follow my “friends” around and try to seem like I was having the time of my life, expressing amazement at the two lanky boys break dancing mediocrely in the middle of the circle.
This was inherently the worst, but if you add school spirit and alcohol to the mix, is it really any different than a college party? Well, it’s not for me. More specifically, the level of cringe of a middle school social was eerily similar to how I felt throughout my freshman year.
You’re dancing with a bunch of strangers, pretending like they’re the best people you’ve met in your life after knowing them for all of one week. Better yet, as a resident of Clark Kerr, I was entrenched in Greek life, surrounded by a sea of athletic white people. In the face of these popular girls of college, I wished I was 11 years old to merit how awkward I felt:
“Your birthday is March 26?? My birthday is March 26! That’s like, so cool … ?”
Ten years is a long time difference. Of course, I’ve matured since then, gaining a more complete sense of who I am and what I want. However, it’s in moments of weakness, such as trying to forge a social life freshman year, that I remember I am still capable of resorting to my worst middle school self.
In sixth grade, I clearly remember my racing thoughts about how many friends I had and whether people liked me and what I should wear to school. Back then, it seemed as though having black Converse shoes and straight hair was going to make or break me.
For Halloween in eighth grade, I had a major meltdown because I had no makeup at home. To calm me down, my mom offered her lipstick from the year I was born and my dad said I could use the ash in the fireplace. I’m pretty sure I tried the ash as eyeliner, showing up to my friend’s house looking like an owl with a toothy grin.
Throughout middle school, I would spend hours sitting in front of my mirror and trying to understand what I looked like. I taught myself how to French braid — a feat that I’m still proud of. I started obsessing over one spot in the back of my head, which I could not visualize, and convinced myself I had a bald spot.
This past summer, in a fit of studying for the MCAT, I decided to start worrying about how I was losing hair and would be bald by the end of the month. Only two weeks ago, I chopped my hair off after taking a bad practice test.
These are a few of many memories in Malini’s saga of “Do I look like a trash fire?”
I’ve noticed that it’s in moments of stress about my life in general that I choose to obsess over the more superficial aspects of myself. When I’m at my wit’s end, I find myself constantly running through two questions: Do I have any friends, and do I look ugly? While these two concepts are seemingly disparate, in the stupidest way, they are completely intertwined. In middle school, it is these two anxieties at the forefront of our mind.
Whether it’s that you weren’t invited to a party or that you feel like a clown, there’s something disconcertingly universal about being an adult and facing fears and anxieties that are categorically “childish,” remnants of your horrible time in middle school.
So as I was sitting in the theater watching Bo Burnham’s awfully relatable creation, I was terrified to realize that yes, I’m still awkward as hell — but the past 10 years have given me the agency to recognize and laugh at my own cringey moments.
Unlike middle school Malini, I’m generally proud and aware of who I am. Every now and then, the goblin that I was 10 years ago crops out, rife with worry and insecurity — but at least I’m not lining my eyes with ashes from the fireplace anymore.