While growing up in Jamaica I was painfully sure that my life was not the real deal. My father’s ancient Austin Cambridge sputtering along Red Hills Road; my unruly hair that began escaping from its plaits the moment my mother put down the brush; and mosquitoes that sounded like helicopters hovering over my ears while I slept were never part of the lives of the authentic girls who peopled my favorite books (like Nancy Drew) and TV shows (like Scooby Doo).
As a teenager, I wanted this fictional life more than ever. I wanted to somehow make what I had, mosquitoes and all, into a remotely acceptable version of what it was supposed to be, and my chubby, black body became the site for this phenomenal transformation I longed after.
Meadowbrook Pharmacy was just a short walk down the street from my house, and the pharmacy became my arsenal of supplies defining what a “real” teenaged girl’s life should be like. A small magazine rack huddled in a corner near bars of Cadbury chocolate and bottles of Limacol, and each time new issues of Seventeen appeared on the rack, I was first in line. I’d eagerly rush home and inhale all those images of beautiful (white) girls whom I must have imagined that I could one day look like: shiny long hair, a svelte body, perfectly applied makeup.
Seventeen and its army of fair maidens, their images embedded in a web of ads for tanning lotions and articles on how to select the right shade of pink lipstick, did little more than aggravate me, but year after year I kept on reading. Then one day my heart sputtered when I came across a picture of a gorgeous girl with short hair and dark skin! She was in a swimsuit posed on the sand next to a foamy ocean, and her skin glowed as if she’d been coated in pixie dust.
In the weeks after I got the magazine, I’d flip through the pages each day and marvel at the photos of this girl. I guess I kept checking to make sure she was still there, a girl as real as me and not some river mumma causing mischief. It was not until years later when I’d gone off to college and Whitney Houston became a household name that I realized she was the girl who had magically emerged from the depths of the oceans; and now she’s gone back there just as suddenly as she came.