How the seventh grade study of Notre Dame des Paris gave me the strength and understanding to overcome bullying and grow into the woman I wanted to be.
Puberty is a nightmare for everyone. Most people would agree that at times they wanted to crawl into a shell. I actually had a shell… Well, it was a back brace and I had to wear it every day. I will never forget that time in my life. See, I was wearing a brace because I had Scoliosis. For those who are unaware, Scoliosis is a deformity of the spine. It is when your spine twists into an S shape causing the rib cage to shift resulting in a back hump. I rarely discuss this part of my past, because for some reason I somehow pair this memory with shame. I realize that shame is the wrong emotion, but I want to make people realize where this shame comes from, because it is not just me. It’s not just people with scoliosis. It’s everyone.
I still remember it like it was yesterday. I was recently told that the curvature of my spine was worsening, and at this point the months spent wearing my brace were pretty much futile. Afraid to operate things were at a standstill. Regardless, of my condition I still attended school daily. My boobs were growing (no one noticed because of my brace), boys were getting Math Class induced boners and one day in French class Mr. H announced that we were going to study The Hunchback of Notre Dame aka Notre Dame Des Paris. This was a nightmare, as if I wasn’t already being teased enough.
Unfortunately, I was forced to adopt the nickname Quasimodo and it hurt. I hated my teacher for surfacing this tale to a bunch of cruel 12-year-olds. As much as I hated it, I could not help but indulge myself in it. If you haven’t read it, seen the opera, or any of the numerous film interpretations of the famous story, here is the Wikipedia synopsis:
The study of this made me horribly insecure, but at the same time I was happy to relate to these characters. In this world a 12-year-old girl who did nothing but be born into this prison of a body questioned if that body made her a monster. Rumours passed through the halls of what the other children thought scoliosis “really” was. One boy in particular told people that it also caused a mental defect. He was completely off. Due to his ignorance, his rumour induced several painful confrontations from my peers.
I remember my first dance. It was Valentine’s Day 2002 and I asked the cutest boy in school to dance. Every girl wanted to dance with him and was waiting around for him to ask, but I was a go-getter. So, I asked him. When “Cry” by Mandy Moore came on, we danced. I was so happy. I felt like a character in a Judy Bloom novel. However, I was crushed when another classmate told me he only danced with me because he felt sorry for me. I was so hurt. I really did feel like Quasimodo.
In health class I remember hearing the term “Your Body is your temple.” Not to me I thought. If anything, maybe my body was like Notre Dame: an architectural masterpiece with frightening gargoyles keeping people at a distance. The school year was coming to an end and arrangements were being made for my back to be operated on. The decision to operate was made based on the fact that my rib cage had shifted so far that my lungs and heart were in serious danger.
Eighth grade began and when November rolled around I had two surgeries. I was out of school for three months. I had to learn to walk again. My classmates so kindly sent get well cards and made paper cranes with little notes on them. Rather hypocritical I thought when getting these cranes and cards from those who bullied me. When I went back to school, I had to wear another brace. It felt like it was never ending.
May 24, 2003 was the last day of wearing my brace. I was taller. I was thinner. Now no one could tell before with my brace on, but puberty was kind to me. I was a 13 year old rocking c cups. Every day they seemed to get bigger. The boys started looking at me differently. All I could think about now were my scars. Now the hump was gone and was replaced by two scars.
It wasn’t until a writing class in May of this year that I was forced to revisit this period of my life. I came to see that in spite of my scars, my former deformity and the insecurity caused from teasing, I managed to rise up. I became the woman I wanted to be. I became a model, an actress, a comedian and a writer. In fact, I am stronger for it. However, this part of my life is like a ghost that haunts me. My inner Quasimodo is sanctioned in the bell tower within my heart with all the experience and memories from this time of my life.
Now it seems like so long ago that I was ridiculed for being different because of my back. Tables have turned, and have since come to empathize with Esmeralda. I have since lost a job for having large breasts. I once had a writing opportunity and a jealous peer told me “I didn’t deserve it, and that I have had everything handed to me for being pretty.” This outraged me more than anything. This person did not know me at all. I have not been favoured for being pretty, and I certainly have not had everything handed to me for such things. It is easy forget that people no longer see me as someone with a deformity. As much I hate saying this, because it sounds self-indulgent, but being attractive can be just as much a plague as being unconventional in appearance.
How crazy is that? Spending so many years being trapped thinking you are a Quasimodo and then have this rapid transformation where you suddenly are Esmeralda. I have been both. I still am. On the surface I am well groomed, dolled up, with more than ample breasts, but beneath my shirt I wear a scar.
Crucified for beauty and crucified for being a beast. See in the end of Notre Dame des Paris Quasimodo crawls next to Esmeralda and dies with her. When found together in the Vault they try to separate they bones, but can’t. What does this tell you? Like within Notre Dame, in my body I hold both a beauty and a beast. Though on the surface you now see Esmeralda, but Quasimodo is never far away.
These experiences have been difficult, painful and at times shaming. These are also the things that have enriched my life and have guided me down a creative road. They opened my mind and have given me a sense of humour. When doing character work I can write from various points of view, having experienced both sides of the discrimination coin.
Why am I writing this, you wonder? This is why. You can only see what people show you on the surface. If you have made it to the end of this piece, I want you to go into your mind and think about something negative you have said about someone based on the surface. Now I want you to revisit your opinion of them. Was it a shallow judgement based on only the top layer of who they are? Like Amanda Marshall once sang, “Everybody’s got a story that can break your heart.” Give that person another chance. Get to know them. You might be surprised to find out how much in common you have and you might be stifling yourself from having a great person in your life that truly gets you. Remember, with Genius comes insanity, with beauty comes a beast, and with something bitter can be something sweet.
Andrea Holz is a Toronto-based award winning writer, actress, comedian and coffee master.
Photography: Younger photo is a family photo, the modelling pic was taken at the Complection’s College of Make-up Art & Design, and the colour is taken by Charlotte Klein.