Poetry Pick #1


So They Tell Me: Hoops Are for Hookers (and Eleventh Graders)

By Oxana Miller



The first layer of our identity that others encounter is our physical appearance. Our bodies’ traits and facial features, but also clothes and accessories we choose to adorn (or not adorn) ourselves with. I grew up in two different cultures, each with their own set of norms for a woman’s appearance. From first grade through sixth I lived Ukraine, where a woman’s outer beauty is believed to reflect her inner good nature. This was a prominent standard of my grade school years. 

During middle school, my family moved to Oregon. On my first day of American school, I dressed in a tailored blouse with puffed sleeves, tapered slacks, and patent leather flats. The time I spent selecting this outfit became embarrassing when I arrived at junior high to find the other kids wearing camp t-shirts and flip flops. As I muddled my way through the awkwardness of adolescence, I realized that a banner value for American female beauty is the confidence to wear whatever you want. I began to contrast what the ideally beautiful woman looked like in Ukraine compared to America.

 As a Ukrainian schoolgirl, feminine beauty looked like perfectly braided hair, a clean face, a pleated skirt, and shoes with some sort of buckle on them. Since uniforms were required, accessorizing was the way to express individuality. But since Slavic school culture is what Americans consider shame-based, girls’ appearance is open for discussion. One day, my best friend wore hoop earrings to school. Coming from an artsy family with a little bohemian flair, this is how she chose to stand out in the sea of identical maroon skirts. Our teacher, in front of the whole third grade, told her she looked like a prostitute and was too young to be wearing those seductive earrings.

Writing this now, having lived in Oregon for 11 years, that story seems unreal. I spent my teen years in a culture that values celebrating each body as it is, banning conformity, and encouraging individual expression. But as much as my two cultures differ in values, I’ve experienced some fundamental similarities as a girl in both countries.

In Ukraine, I felt insecure wearing my brother’s hand-me-down unisex winter coat. I longed to look as feminine as I felt inside, and when I couldn’t achieve it, I felt like less of a woman. In America, I felt insecure wearing high heels (something I started doing in fifth grade) because compared to the other girls, I seemed to be trying too hard, which was not in line with the feminist body-positive movement. In both places, the clothes I put on my body were heavy with cultural implications that I was not prepared to navigate at my tender age. And I believe most every woman has felt that weight sometime in their life. This has taught me that as I look around, whatever implications I perceive about another woman’s appearance, she is just trying to navigate these messy waters, same as me.

If you enjoyed this poem, check out Oxana’s book of poetry available on Amazon.

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