"You have a sexy back" was one of the first things I heard in high school. It was my first week at boarding school, and a girl in my dorm decided the right time to tell me this was as I awkwardly stepped into our communal shower. Until that moment, I had approximately zero friends, but that surprisingly personal opener changed all that, and it was all because of my sexy back.
This didn't last long.
Three blissful months later, I noticed my sexy back had company — little white blotches popping up over my skin. Frantic WebMD searches assured me that I definitely had herpes. (I did not have herpes.) A more level-headed nurse at my school's infirmary took a peek and told me it was no big deal. I had tinea versicolour, a benign overgrowth of yeast that was not contagious. If I used the prescription shampoo she prescribed, I would bring back my sexy back faster than you can say "FutureSex/LoveSounds."
She was right — until one Summer later, when the rash sprang back up like a big, dumb garden full of stupid daisies that sucked. This time, I headed straight for a dermatologist, who told me what's what. While my original nurse was right — I did have tinea versicolour, it was caused by overactive yeast, and my shampoo could cure it — she neglected to tell me that some cases of the rash are chronic. For the most part, this happens to people who live in tropical areas, as the warm, humid climates foster bacteria growth. At the time, I lived in Connecticut, which was unfortunately not a sunny, dreamy Caribbean island. However, I was and continue to be someone who's prone to sweating — a lot — and because of that, regardless of where I lived, my dermatologist told me that my back could remain unsexy for the rest of my natural life.
For all of high school, I would not show my neck or my back to anyone, no matter how much Khia implored me to. I stayed out of backless dresses and wore sports bras under bikinis so no one would see my rash. (Weird they never asked me to star in the Baywatch remake, isn't it?) Long before the turtleneck resurgence, I trotted around high school and college in a black one, often looking like Simon sans Garfunkel.
Sure, there is nothing wrong with dressing modestly. However, these spots started sprouting during the years I was already navigating the garbage fire that is puberty. According to every mainstream depiction of femininity (as often filmed by creepy, thirsty men), coming of age meant getting boobs, developing hips, and showing off your new body in teeny tank tops and strapless dresses. I wanted to emerge from my preteen cocoon of The Sims and bedazzled composition notebooks as a bodacious, beautiful butterfly. Instead, my skin relegated me to tiger status, with splotchy stripes that bled all over my skin.
My young adulthood may have continued this way, had it not been for the most aesthetically pleasing binge-watch and hangover accompaniment, BBC Earth. While sitting on my parents' couch one lazy Summer afternoon, I unwrapped a Slim Jim and popped on an episode. As David Attenborough huffed his way through a snowy tundra, he spoke of Siberian tigers, the most powerful predators on the planet.
Like me, the tiger was covered with intricate imperfections, but that sure as hell didn't stop it from doing tiger things. I could also bare my spots and stripes, and it wouldn't get in the way of my life. Maybe, I could be a powerful killer too, facing my insecurities head on, like a tiger staring down its prey.
The next day, I went to the mall and bought eight shoulder-baring shirts. Years after high school, I still have a sexy back — and I show it off. Sure, I'll wear the occasional mock neck, but only when I damn well please.