I Have a Fake Personality

As a little girl, I changed who I was to fit in. Decades later, am I still pretending?

Photo: Jaime Monfort/Getty Images

II grew up a sad, sullen child. Always quiet. Always watching the other kids as they laughed and played, trying to figure out how they operated. Sometimes they’d catch me watching and I’d blush and turn away.

My family was constantly in motion. By seventh grade I’d gone to six different schools, and my personality didn’t lend itself to making friends. More than that, there was something about me that attracted spite and derision from other children.

They teased me about my wavy, messy hair. I brushed it each morning in an attempt to render it neat and cute like the other girls, without success. It was too thick for barrettes, and I couldn’t figure out how to weave it into braids.

I was taunted at the bus stop for wearing high-water jeans, a term I didn’t even understand until someone told me it meant my pants were too short. Even then, I didn’t understand why it mattered. The reasons I was teased never made sense to me.

I longed to shrink myself invisible inside it but red jackets ten sizes too large don’t lend themselves to invisibility.

As I bounced from school to school, I came to recognize certain patterns. Popular children were pretty and happy. I was neither of those things. Popular children also owned clothes that fit. In second grade I wore my mother’s red raincoat to school every day. She’d cut it short and cropped the sleeves so I’d have use of my hands, but it was heavy and the shoulders hung low to my elbows. I longed to shrink myself invisible inside it, but red jackets 10 sizes too large don’t lend themselves to invisibility.

One day, I pulled it on after class and discovered a miracle had occurred. The raincoat fit perfectly. I was no longer a fat strawberry waddling down the street in a too-large jacket. That afternoon, I walked home as a slim, red straw. I still remember how light I felt as my feet bounced off the pavement.

God must have transformed my raincoat, I thought. He knew I was a nice girl and he’d commanded my mother’s massive jacket to conform itself to my tiny body as a reward. I was special, worthy of miracles, chosen by God.

When I got home, my mother immediately asked where my coat was. When I insisted I was wearing it, she pulled it from my back and pointed to another girl’s name, written across the tag.

I’d grabbed the wrong coat by accident. God hadn’t intervened. There was no such thing as a miracle. At least not for me.

AsAs I got older, I accepted that I’d never be pretty or have the right clothes. The only thing I could change was my personality. I knew the way I studied people made them uncomfortable so I perfected the art of not-staring and shaped my lips into an inviting, permanent smile. It’s a habit I continue to this day. Even when I’m alone. Even when I’m sad. I’m smiling.

I noticed the popular girls weren’t smart. If they were, they kept it secret. Dumb girls were the teachers’ favorites, and boys wanted to hold their hands. I desperately wanted this kind of approval for myself.

I stopped raising my hand when I knew the answer. Stopped reading paragraphs out loud in a manner that demonstrated I was several reading levels above everybody else. Stopped sharing my thoughts.

It worked. In time, I made friends. So what if I didn’t go to college?

I learned to feel comfortable when I walked into a room. To make small talk and silly jokes. And if I still wasn’t pretty, I nevertheless managed to become someone people found attractive.

It went on this way for 20 years. Thirty, if I’m being honest. But lately, I’ve begun to wonder: What if this popular, charismatic individual I’ve become isn’t real? What if I’m still faking my personality at 49 years old?

Perhaps I never really wanted to be popular. Maybe I just confused being popular with being loved.

Is this why I find it easy to walk away from people? Why I push them aside if they need me too much? Maybe, deep down, I’m still that person who’d rather observe than participate.

Perhaps I never really wanted to be popular. Maybe I just confused being popular with being loved. But, at this point, what does it matter?

By now I’m used to being the center of attention. I don’t think I could sit quietly in a corner if I tried. What’s more, I don’t want to. The fixes to my personality are as much a part of me now as my skin and hair. An invisible tattoo sewed to the soles of my feet like Peter Pan’s shadow.

Still, a part of me can’t help but wonder how life might have been different if I hadn’t pulled a chameleon act in my youth. If I might have chosen different men, different friends, been a different kind of mother. I almost certainly wouldn’t have had a career in sales. And I might have found a faster path to becoming a writer.

But this is where I am. No matter how I got here.

In the end, we are the choices we make. Right or wrong. I was once a little girl who made the choice to change her personality. To laugh, make small talk, and become the life of the party. To smile, even when she was feeling sad, confused, or lonely.

Just like I’m doing now.

An earlier version of this essay appeared at Purple Clover.

Freelance Writer: The Washington Post, NPR, Lonely Planet, Fodor’s Travel, Ozy, HuffPost, Thrillist, Reader’s Digest, etc. Follow me on Twitter: @tamaragane

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