The girl on the box

I+quietly+hated+my+name+because+it+wasn%E2%80%99t+Sue+or+Emily.

Salma Ali

“I quietly hated my name because it wasn’t Sue or Emily.”

By Muna Nnamani, Marcus High School

The Girl on the Cra-Z-Loom bracelet box had cerulean eyes. Her smile shone from the box, marked with confidence. Her thin, glossed lips framed pearly teeth.

From the time my mom brought the box home, the smile of the girl on its cover took up permanent residence in my brain. Everything about her did. The glossy black hair that framed her ivory skin. The denim vest that hung on her thin shoulders. The popular bracelets that adorned her wrists.

But most of all, the perfect smile. My smile would never look like that.

Eight year old me stared hard into the bathroom mirror.

I wanted to be pretty too.

• • •

The box contained rubber bands to make bracelets with. They were all over my third grade class, so I’d harassed my mom until she bought me my own box. I wanted to have something in common with everyone, to fit neatly in tetherball circles, to have something so interesting to talk about that people wouldn’t notice the faint remains of my Nigerian accent.

The box carried more weight than the actual bracelets. I lost the bracelets when the trend died, but I remembered the box for a long time.

Because the girl on its cover was the embodiment of White beauty, and I wasn’t.

I spotted more Girls like her. They were the main characters on Nickelodeon and Disney. The heroines in the books I read late at night. The classmates who chewed pizza at my lunch table at school, talking unafraid of what people would think of their voice.
The Girls shared the same skinny lips and shimmery-white top teeth. Their skin glowed alabaster, cream or various shades of tan.

Effortless waves of hair flowed down their backs, and they could toss any product at Claire’s into their cart without wondering if it was for them.

They didn’t know anything about how I cried in pain while combing my tangled coils. They didn’t know that the spots on my sunbutter legs were scrapes and mosquito bites from my time in Nigeria. And I guess they just assumed that anything could work on any hair.

When I was 4, I moved to America permanently. At 8, I still hadn’t fully adjusted to the country and was entering a new elementary school. Insecure and desperate to do school the “right” way, I was hyper aware of the differences between me and my classmates. I believed that Whiteness was the pinnacle of everything that was right.

And I wasn’t White.

• • •

So I felt ashamed on the first day of school, telling my new teacher, “I go by Muna” when she paused at my lengthy name, floundering during roll call. I quietly hated my name because it wasn’t Sue or Emily.

I felt ashamed at birthday parties, when my friends and I did makeovers and I was the only one whose hair wouldn’t cooperate with the curling iron. I felt ashamed every time one of my classmates tapped my shoulder and asked me if my braids were real.
And I felt ashamed during fifth grade lunch, when two girls at the table next to mine watched me eat, whispering behind cupped hands. The nicer one gave me an apologetic smile.

“Your mouth is really big. No offense or anything. I just couldn’t help noticing.”

• • •

At 8 I felt the familiar sting of shame as I held the box of bracelets next to my face, comparing the Girl’s lips with my own mouth.
Now I look back and wish that I had the courage to be honest with myself about my shame. About the feeling that I was ugly because I wasn’t the Girl on the box.

Instead, I did something I would regret years later.

I told myself that my lips were fat. They clipped, stumbled over the American accent. They didn’t come up with words on time, and people noticed them.

When I smiled, they did not delicately frame pearly whites. They showed the entirety of my top and bottom teeth, and stretched so wide that my eyes almost closed.

I wanted to be more like the Girl and less like me, so I started with my smile – slowly, I brought my bottom lip up to meet the bottoms of my top teeth, and decided that I liked it better there. I resolved to practice in the mirror, until it happened naturally every time I smiled.

I wish I’d realized that I only felt ugly because I could never be her.

And I wish I’d remembered that I was beautiful — because I was me.

This story was originally published on The Marquee on November 17, 2021.