Written by Emma Glassman-Hughes
It’s 99 degrees in the California sun. It’s Friday, which means it’s running day. I’m 12. I’m gap-toothed. I’m free.
I run the usual mile-and-a-half trail in record time, focusing on nothing but the horizon of red clay dirt and sparse tufts of grass that expands before my feet. Some primal competitive adrenaline propels me past my peers as I sprint the final distance--chin up, ponytail swinging, just-sprouted boobs well secured underneath an unnecessary sports bra. I finish stronger than ever before. I am the Queen of Fourth Period and Seventh Grade Physical Education; I am the Divine Goddess of Exercise.
I high-five my P.E. teacher like the athlete I have just become, and I hustle back to the locker room to get changed. I first spot the spots as I remove my gray “Meadowbrook Middle School Mustangs” P.E. uniform. I run my nervous eyes around the perimeter of the room, assessing the spots on the other girls’ t-shirts. I can’t seem to find any; pristine, crisp, sweatless shirts abound. With my last remaining bit of energy, I charge at the long, horizontal mirror that lines the walls of what is now my prison cell.
I pause. My face like a ripe cherry tomato tossed in a pot to simmer and sweat. I do a cartoonish double-take. Somehow I flush deeper, redder, sudden embarrassment eating its way out of my pigmented face. None of the other girls look like I do. I look disgusting. I am a mess. I am so ashamed.
A fallen empress turned sweaty wallflower.
I hide in the locker room until the bell sounds and then I run, chin down this time, to fifth period math class, where I sit in silence in the back; unable to focus on anything but the pulsing of the heat in my cheeks and the synchronized drips of sweat on my neck.
It’s eighth grade and he asks me through a text message if I will go to the school dance with him. We meet on the dance floor; the smell of tarp, fear, and too much hairspray jolts me awake. He stands behind me--much taller, much thinner. When he dances, he is a giraffe trying to walk on its hind legs. He’s gangly and his hips gyrate and graze against my backside to beats he is clearly making up in his head. He pulls me in closer, and he is the driver and I am the steering wheel and I am 13 and nervous. It’s hard to hear over the Black Eyed Peas booming through the speakers, but I hear him yell something. It’s sudden. The boy to my left stops dancing and laughs. Mine taps my arm and motions that they are going to go get a drink. My best friend looks at me concerned, bashful. “He mouthed that you’re really sweaty and made a face,” she announced, over the music. “That’s really why they left.” My stomach falls as I reach an arm around myself, place a hand on my lower back, finger the stickiness. I feel disgusting. I am a mess. I am so ashamed.
“Let’s all join hands and wish each other a good show!” My drama teacher is trying to make us all feel safe before we go out on stage for the opening night of Oklahoma! my junior year of high school. My heart pounds, my head fogs. I’m too aware of the moisture on my palms and how every time I think about it the moisture intensifies. Two girls in hoop skirts and petticoats close in on me; they flank me and trap me in the circle. They outstretch their hands; I stall. I pretend to crack my knuckles, though I don’t know how. I put my hands on my hips like I’m doing something serious. I stretch my arms up toward the ceiling wondering about a possible escape route. I braid my fingers together. “OK, everyone, let’s close the circle.” It’s too hot under all these layers; I wonder how the farmer and the cowman even survived the Oklahoma heat in 1906. The girls take my hands, though I don’t offer them up. I try to tighten my leaky pipes, to listen meaningfully to my teacher’s words of encouragement, but instead I obsess over the dryness of the hands holding mine, and the gravestone I will lie under when I have died, engraved “Sweatiest Hands in Oklahoma!”
“Break a leg, everyone!” After the long-suffered agony of hand-holding has ended, after I am released, I can’t bare to look either girl in the eye. I am disgusting. I am a mess. I am so ashamed. I walk out on stage to start the show.
Turns out, I’d never know sweat until I got to know humidity. It hits me like a ton of bricks, except being knocked out by any number of bricks would be a more pleasant sensation. My skin turns to wax and threatens melting all over the sidewalk; sticky residue thinly coating my palms and neck and back and the smooth behind my kneecaps. I’m an ant under a magnifying glass and no matter where I turn or how little clothing I wear I will be drowned, boiled alive and turning redder like a lobster. New York City in the summer time. What dreams are made of, where sweaty girls come to die.
I study faces of women on the subways and make mental tallies of how many are soaking through their clothes like I worry I am. The tallies are low; the women here are graceful and poised. Subway ballerinas, doing the hardest thing and making it look easy. They trade their sweat glands for bug-eyed sunglasses meant to block out a whole world of discomfort and animosity. I’d join them if I could. Instead I seep and ooze and am counted among the fat, greasy men riding home for the day; dark gray t-shirt clinging to their bubble guts, darker pools fraying out from the creases where their chests meets their stomachs and their shoulders meet their chests; balding heads shiny with the day’s work, grimy legs spread wide on the bench, unaware or uncaring of their unattractiveness. I imagine I look similar, but less carefree. A single drop of sweat, long and vicious, slides knowingly down my thigh; past the smooth; past the calf and hits the floor with a silent hiss. Who--no, what--have I become.
I spend my summers anxious, eyes jumping from woman to woman, stealing looks; jealous of skin and wanting to jump out of mine. I spend my summers as half an equation of comparison, leaving sweaty fingerprints on desks and dreaming about perfection. I spend my summers resenting my humanity and wishing to be made of plastic, just like they always wanted.
All I want is to sweat in peace; to know that each drop carries with it all the power and might of the female condition, that each drop is one in a sea of sweat and tears shed for the furthering of the women’s movement; that my sweat is revolutionary, that my sweat will change the world.
But at the end of the day, it’s just sweat.