The Pencil Test

July 2nd, 2011

Hanging around Peoria has been good for gaining perspective. While so many of us leave it because it’s “boring” and “average,” and… and…, it’s funny to see how things here can be so similar to other parts of the world. What I mean is, that some of us (I, guilty), treat Peoria (P-town) like a dead-end place. Like, we’ve got better things to do… But, what I’m realizing more and more is that issues span continents and cities. So, what I find in Beirut, say, to be an “issue” that I end up complaining/musing about on this here blog, is an issue I find right back where I started, in P-town. It’s just dressed up differently.

It was a hot day. And the humidity was thick. Indoors or the pool were the only places to be. Although, the golfers were out today – but they seem to have a different set of rules for when they shouldn’t be on the course (stop only for tornadoes, floods, nuclear war). Anyway, the pool was teeming with kids, parents, teens. I was captured by the teens. Their colorful bikinis, only partly-covert flirtations, the hues of their adolescent voices. The last time I lived in P-town, I was a teen. I have little idea of what I looked and seemed like to the 30-something observer, but I’m sure, now, that I at least was loud and obnoxious. I keenly remember that I surely never thought about what the 30-something’s thought of me, if they thought of me at all. But today, on the other side of the fence, as a 30-something, I found that teens are an endlessly entertaining object of study – in this case, in front of the mirrors in the girl’s bathroom.

There were three of them posing in front of the same mirror. Their bodies were taut, tanned, and supple. They couldn’t be older than 15. And none of them could be bigger than a size 0.

“Oh my god, look at my belly!” She wore a sequined bikini top that was largely covered with her long straight chestnut hair. She pushed her abdomen “out.”

“Shut up! You are so skinny! Look at mine!” This one was equally as thin, but not as tall. She wore a yellow crocheted bikini and had strawberry blond hair. She tried to grab at her skin where her “belly” was.

I sat in the stall and strained my ears. What were they saying about “ribs”? Who was “fat”? And what about this “pencil test”? When I stepped out, I had to ask.

“What were you saying about a ‘pencil test’?”

It was the girl with the glittery bikini who answered. She combed a hand through her hair. She was suddenly not as confident as when she was explaining to her friends in the mirror.

“Oh, I don’t know, it’s this test where if you put a pencil here,” she said as she pushed her tanned feet together and pointed above her knees, “and it falls to your knees, it means that your thighs are thin.” Her thigh was as thick as one of the teen boy’s biceps I’d seen playing pool basketball. She would pass the pencil test.

One of the other girls made a half-dismissive snort, as if she was embarrassed by her friend’s explanation, even though she had just been part of the detailed mirror dissection. I thought that was confusing. As if now that it were being explained to someone older, there was a realization of its silliness? Or, maybe she couldn’t pass the test.

I was thinking: things haven’t changed much since I’d been a teen in P-town. In high school, girls were obsessed with their weight and the thinner you were, the better your body. Bulimia and anorexia made you more beautiful. Meanwhile, make-up and hair were subtle, clothes were uniform, and naturalness was more appropriate.  In Lebanon, we are regularly incredulous at the faces that have been reworked with plastic surgery or layers of make-up. You cannot count the bandaged noses on campus after Christmas break. While most Lebanese girls are thin, it doesn’t seem to be as much of an obsession – but more of a given.

As I sat by the pool, my feet splashing about, I watched the bathroom-girls play pool games in a circle of boys and girls and later run away screaming from a queen bee.

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