An investigation into the joy and pain of fitting in: With this series, we’re exploring the pathologies, hierarchies, and quirks of female socialization from high school to the workplace and beyond.
When I was 14, I went on a ski trip to West Virginia with my Church youth group. One night during an evening fellowship session in the hotel conference room, I held my hands high above my head, welcoming Christ into my heart, as I sang along to a Christian rock song about “crying mercy”. It was a typical Southern Evangelical excursion, replete with group prayers, Bible studies, and long discussions about building a lasting relationship with God. But while the dozen teenagers I was with were brought to tears by praising the Lord, I didn’t believe any of it.
I realized pretty early on that I wasn’t a religious person. My family attended the United Church of Canada in Toronto and I went along to services as a child, but when I turned 9 and found out how babies were made, all that changed. I just couldn’t understand how an angel supposedly impregnated a woman, when the illustrated children’s guide to the birds and the bees explained that you need sperm and an egg for that to happen. After a couple of awkward comments about the plausibility of immaculate conception in Sunday school, I learned that it was easier to keep my doubts to myself. This lesson turned out to be important a few years later, when my father’s job was transferred, and my family moved from our diverse Toronto suburb to Columbia, South Carolina: the Bible Belt.
In Columbia, religion was a fact of life. There was no room for doubt, or questions about whether Jesus really did walk on water (“But how?” I always wanted to ask). Billboards advertising crisis pregnancy centers and megachurches lined the highway into town and when we moved in, friendly neighbors stopped by our house to introduce themselves with baskets of muffins and an important question: Have you found a church yet? My parents ended up picking a nearby Presbyterian branch, and though I hadn’t attended services since I was 10, we quickly fell back into our routine of going every Sunday. Part of me was annoyed to have to put on a nice dress and sit in the pews pretending to listen each weekend, but we were so far away from home — from our big extended family and the friends I had grown up with — that I decided to give it a shot.
I felt like an outsider at church, and I didn’t exactly fit in at my new middle school either. My classmates spoke with southern accents, and whereas I had grown up with bilingual television stations and easy access to amazing Indian food, they spent their spare time watching college football and eating hearty meals of fried everything. I stood out when I called restrooms “washrooms” and pronounced again as “a-gain,” and turned red with embarrassment every time someone mentioned “Cocks” (an abbreviation for the Gamecocks, the mascot of the University of South Carolina). In Columbia, I felt like — and legally was — an alien. But as a young teen, all I wanted was to feel like I belonged.
It didn’t take long to figure out the cool girls in my class — they walked in a group down the halls, parting the crowds of students before them like Moses. They could regularly be found hanging out in the cafeteria with the popular kids a year above us, and they all worshiped Maggie*, the queen bee of the group. Like their leader, all the girls in the group had perfectly straight blonde or red hair and meticulously tanned skin from the tanning boutiques at strip malls nearby. They wore ribbons in their hair that matched their outfits, and necklaces with prominent gold or silver crosses. These girls were classically beautiful and put-together in a way I’d only seen in movies — and they were true southern belles. Even when they were being mean, they only ever said the sweetest things to your face (“Oh bless your heart, you’re just so funny,” they’d say as they didn’t invite me to their parties).
I was a pale brunette with a penchant for show tunes and a crooked smile that required years of painful orthodontia — but as the months went by, I grew determined to be one of them. I got blonde highlights that looked terrible against my skin tone, and I started experimenting with straightening my curly hair (it didn’t go well). I began shopping at Limited Too and Express — U.S. mall staples that we didn’t have in Canada — and purchased the same colorful polo shirts and shift dresses I’d see them wearing. When I learned they attended youth group at the same Church my family had adopted, I was thrilled. Finally, a way to get them to notice me outside of school. I still didn’t believe Jesus was the son of anyone other than his biological parents, but I figured that was worth swallowing if only to make the cool girls think I was one of them.
I started attending youth group each week. I’d sit near Maggie and the girls and try to emulate what they did — from pretending to sing along with the alt-rock religious tunes (I’d mouth “peas and carrots, peas and carrots,” when I didn’t know the words, like I learned at theater camp) to closing my eyes and bowing my head whenever they prayed. I also went to the Christian bookstore at the mall and picked up the same teen Bible they had, and started carrying it around with me in my purse. I didn’t have a cross necklace, but I did have a necklace with a pendant in the shape of the Olympic rings (my bedroom in Canada had been covered in posters of my true heroes: professional figure skaters), so I started wearing it in the hopes that it could pass for some sort of beacon of Christianity. When our youth-group leader announced we’d be going on a ski trip to West Virginia, I jumped at the chance to spend a few days isolated in the middle of nowhere with the cool girls. I thought my Canadian upbringing would finally be an asset on the slopes and that I would finally impress the girls with my skills, but instead I ended up slipping and rolling down nearly the entirety of a bunny hill in front of all of them. I was embarrassed — and angry at myself for so desperately wanting the approval of a group of girls who clearly couldn’t care less — but later that night when Maggie held up her hands toward the hotel ceiling as a Christian rock band played, I did too.
Eventually, I became such a shell of myself that the girls accepted me — or rather, they tolerated me. As we entered high school, I joined the cheerleading squad with them, even though I hated football, and we’d pray together during practices and before big games. For a while, it felt almost natural. I hung out with my new friends on the weekends, and even hosted the biggest party of the year. But by the end of freshman year, I began to feel like a fraud. Despite my best efforts, I just wasn’t clicking with the girls — and when they didn’t invite me on their coveted spring-break trip to Myrtle Beach, I gave up trying so hard to make them like me. I was sick of pretending. I wasn’t southern. I wasn’t Christian. I was a nerd who liked reading YA novels and watching VHS tapes of Broadway shows. In my sophomore year, I stopped going to youth group. I dropped cheerleading and joined the school newspaper instead. I began to think seriously about college, and plotted a future far away. As I pulled back, the girls did too — and I finally stopped caring about fitting in.
I finally moved out of Columbia in 2005 when I enrolled in a liberal-arts college a couple of hours away. At that point, I didn’t feel the need to pretend I believed something I didn’t anymore. While many of my college classmates proudly showed off their Christianity on Facebook, I listed my religion as “Jude Law.” As the years progressed, I became more comfortable expressing my skepticism with the new friends I was making in college, and realized that some people were happy to be friends with the real me. It wasn’t until a conversation with my favorite philosophy professor that I finally figured out a word to describe my faith: Agnostic. When talking about an Eastern religion lecture from earlier that day, he used the term in regards to an argument I’d made, and it felt right. In the years since I’ve been able to put a label on my beliefs, I’ve experienced a sense of comfort and belonging that I’d never felt before. Sometimes, I look back at my awkward early teenage years and I wonder how different things may have been for me had I not been so consumed with trying to fit in. I’m sure I’d have spent less time with my hair in ribbons, and hopefully more time meeting people I actually connected with.
*Name has been changed.