Freaks and Weirdos: On Walking Straight, Walking ‘Normal’

“Walk straight!” my mother commands.  I’m only eight years old, trudging through the shopping mall with my six-year-old sister in tow.  I catch my breath at my mother’s disciplining, let out a soft sigh and roll my eyes.  “Brooke, did you hear me?” she complains.  I keep walking, and for a minute I straighten out my feet, spine, and shoulders into what I have been told is a proper posture, a “normal” way of walking.  Just for a minute, to appease my nagging mother.

My dad tells me a different story.  People who are pigeon-toed are fast runners, and fierce athletes.  I embrace this narrative as an eight-year-old, and take the initiative to out-run any boy at school.  Girls rule and boys drool.  Even my neon-green t-shirt says so.  I play tag-football at recess, and I relish during the elementary-school-wide Field Day.  When I run, I let my legs be as pigeon-toed as ever.  And I even earn a first-place ribbon for it in the fifty-yard dash.

Do I ever trip over my own feet?  Sometimes, yes.  But as a kid, whose dad says it’s cool to be pigeon-toed, I take pride in tripping over my own feet.  I learn to laugh at myself.  Let the self-tripping commence!  I’d rather trip over my feet with an audience than waste my concentration and discomfort on walking straight.

“Walk normal!” my mother shouts.  She switches between saying, “walk straight” and “walk normal.”  According to her and the use of their seeming interchangeability, the phrases are synonymous: walking straight means walking normal.  And walking “normal” is apparently the desirable gait.  “Brooke, I said walk normal,” she reinforces her demand.  This time we are at the grocery store, and I am feeling disobedient.  I keep moving along, pretending like I can’t hear her, and collecting coupons as we stroll down the aisles.  “Did you hear me?” she repeats.  “Come on, you walk like a slob.  Pay attention.”

My dad signs me up for soccer and softball.  I build strong quadriceps and hamstrings.  I go to a summer soccer camp the year I turn nine, and the professional trainer immediately notices the uniqueness of my stride.  I stand out in the group, literally and figuratively.  She teaches me to use my pigeon-toedness to an advantage.  I train hard for a quick, skilled touch to the ball.  I have a mean outward cut, thanks to my pigeon feet—perfect for fake-outs.  And best of all, I learn to kick the ball with the outside of my foot.  Imagine a penalty kick, in front of the goal: the keeper notices I am right-footed and expects me to sweep it across into the left corner.  But my pigeon-toed outside-of-the-foot kick curves it unsuspectingly into the opposite right corner.  Solid shot, like a line drive, slightly curved.  Goal keeper left stunned.  Ever heard of “bend it like Beckham”?  That’s me.

Third and fourth grade pass by, and I’m the class tomboy.  I only wear boy clothes, even boys shoes.  My mom thinks “it’s just a phase.”  If that’s what’ll keep her off my back, then let her think what she wants.  I run amok on the playground each day happy to be picked in the first few by my fellow male team-captains for our kickball pick-up game.  Most of the girls frolic on the swing-set, perform cartwheels through the dry, yellow Sonoran desert grass, or play jump-rope.  Cartwheels and jump-rope set me apart from the other girls—I was never very good at gymnastics or dance, my legs could never plié.  In fact, my legs are capable of quite the opposite.  The few who knew about my amazing inward-turning feet talents would run up to me on occasion, dragging their new friends along.

“Show Sarah how your feet turn in!” Jamie requests excitedly.

“Okay,” I act in accordance: and inward my legs go, my feet nearly facing backward.

“You’re a freak of nature!” Sarah exclaims.

“Yep,” I agree.  And I get back to playing kickball while they scurry off in giggles.

I am ten years old, in the fifth grade.  The drive to the orthopedic surgeon’s office in downtown Phoenix is far from the North Phoenix suburban neighborhood my mom takes pride in raising me in.  Born and raised in a working class Jewish neighborhood in Chicago, she’ll do whatever she must to provide her daughters the socioeconomic privileges of middle class status.  The drive is daunting: my neurotic mother schleps me along, as I am resistant to go.

“Maybe the doctor can fix your feet,” she says from behind the wheel.

I shrug my shoulders, say nothing, and continue staring out the front passenger window of the SUV.  I am truly at a loss for words.  The ambivalence is too stark—one thought process feels a sense of relief at the notion of being “fixed.”  The other thought process, the feeling in my gut, wrenches at the idea.  My mom keeps talking.

“You know, your sister was born pigeon-toed, too.  By then the doctors had come up with corrective baby feet braces.  She wore them the first two years of her life.  They didn’t have anything like that for you, though,” she explains.  I already knew the story; she’s recited it to me countless times.  I even know where she keeps the baby-feet-brace mementos: in the special storage box high in the downstairs closet.  I often sneak down there, climb up into the box, and look at the little braces.  I hold them in the palms of my hands and wonder why science had failed me at birth.

“I know,” I respond to her recitation.  My words to my mother are often short and abrupt.  We pull into the parking lot; the office building is stacked with dark red bricks and has a fountain flowing in the entrance.  No matter the desert drought we’re experiencing.  I pass through the automatic doors, and a whoosh of icy air conditioning slides across my neck.

X-rays—we need x-rays!  The official science technology will authorize the pathologization of my pigeon-toedness.  Was there Latin terminology to name my pending diagnosis?  Certainly there is!  According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health (very authoritative and all-knowing, omniscient institutions of knowledge production), Metatarsus adductus (MTA) is a foot deformity: the bones in the front half of the foot bend or turn in toward the body.  Deformity? According to my dear friend Merriam-Webster, deformity means: imperfection, blemish: as A) a physical blemish or distortion: disfigurement, and/or B) a moral or aesthetic flaw or defect.  The language at hand reflects how the medical model negatively classifies nonnormative bodies as unfit, defective, or abnormal.  Bodily variations that do not meet standard ableist criteria are viewed as having something intrinsically wrong them that need to be cured.  And yet, the transparent knowledge of x-rays will report my MTA to be more “severe” than this standardized definition suggests.

The nurse practitioner leads me through the maze of hallways to what appears like a series of dressing rooms in a department store.  She slides a curtain open and invites me to step inside.  Her instructions: strip naked, put your clothes in the cubby, and wrap the gown around your body.  Am I complicit in the medicalization of my beloved pigeon-toed legs?  At age ten, I’m only doing what my mother says is best, and what the nurses officially know how to do.  Besides, seeing my own bones against the bright x-ray screen is fascinating and surreal.

Diagnosis: pigeon-toed from the hip down.  Whereas MTA is commonly in the feet and ankles, my legs are entirely turned inward from top to bottom.  First opinion: corrective surgery at the ankles.  This should fix the appearance of walking “normal.”

“So my legs would be turned inward but my feet would be turned outward?” I ask, slightly panicked.

“Yes,” the surgeon replies in his German accent.  “It would be far easier, quicker, and less painful of a procedure.”  Or, you mean, more economically profitable within your capitalist cost-benefit analysis?  Less risky under the choke-hold of private insurance companies?

“But what about sports?  Would this change how fast I run?”

“It’s hard to say,” he says coldly.  “I’ll let you two think about this for a moment while I step out of the room.”

I feel like ducking for cover.  How can I get out of this?  “I don’t want to do this,” I blurt out as my mom reads some pamphlets.  She is startled by my claim.

“Brooke,” she says sternly.  “What about when you’re walking down the aisle?  You don’t want to look like a slob at your wedding, do you?”

My mom excuses me today from my fifth grade summer school program.  She herself has even taken off work.  Second opinion: another orthopedic surgeon’s office somewhere in the sweltering mirage-inducing black asphalt of downtown Phoenix.  X-rays and proper documents are in my mother’s possession.  Our seemingly smooth access to specialized opinions and medicine exemplifies our white socioeconomic privilege, healthcare coverage since birth—my dad a hardworking business man with salary and benefits.  He’d rather be a radio sports broadcaster, he tells me later in my life, it’s his dream job—and believe me, he’d be great.  But sacrifices must be made to sustain the nuclear heteronormative family.  My mother, too, gave up the life of art and design for full-time hourly wage in order to raise her two daughters.  She and I stroll up to the building, and I squint at the brightness of the white walls, inside and out.  Sterile; and the high-ceiling lobby with granite tile echoes our every shuffling sound.  Fake plants hover in the corners.  Wait a second, I recognize this building.  It’s where I go to be tested for my scoliosis.

No more x-rays needed, instead I proceed through a regime of diagnostic assessment.  This doctor is much nicer and I think he remembers me.  Tests, tricks, games: without trying to correct your stride, walk down this long hallway in a straight line.  Okay, now take off your shoes and socks and walk down the hallway again.  Walk backwards.  Side to side.  Jump.  Skip down the hallway.  Jog, sprint, run down the hallway.  Walk back slowly.  Sit up on this table, and let your feet dangle over the side.  Do they normally turn inward like that?  How does it feel when I turn them out like this?  It’s painful?  Uncomfortable?  Okay.

The proposal for cure: corrective surgery, from the hip down.  Either break both legs at once, re-set them, and be in a wheelchair for six months, or break one leg at a time and be on crutches for a year.  After they heal, physical therapy for one year minimum.  “Oh, the last surgeon said he’d go at you in the ankles?  Bad idea.  It’s the entire leg that’s turned inward, not just at the ankle.  I wouldn’t be comfortable with that,” the doctor muses.

And I think about being in a wheelchair for half a year.  I think about bending it like Beckham, the fifty-yard dash, and my impromptu freak-show performances at recess.  I do not, I do not, think about timelessly gliding down the wedding aisle.

I look up and see my mom picking out a date on the calendar with the surgeon, five weeks from now—making sure I’d have enough time to recuperate before my sixth grade year begins.  The doctor pulls out more paperwork and my mom scribbles in the necessary information to secure my upcoming surgery date.  Both legs at once.

It’s family movie-night: dad, mom, me and Britt peruse the “New Releases” wall around the inside perimeter of Blockbuster from A-Z.  Little signs hang in-between every other section in royal blue and mustard yellow, rhyming “Be Kind, Rewind.”  My hand traces across the VHS case for Now and Then, and I admire to myself Christina Ricci’s classic tomboy character.  My eyes fixate on her casual stature, jeans and t-shirt style, hands in her pockets.  I love her face.  And she even gets to kiss Devon Sawa.  I blush as I recall the scene in my mind.  I could never watch this movie with my parents!  Moving along to the next couple letters in the alphabet with Brittany trailing close behind me, we land on the movie Space Jam, starring Michael Jordan and the Looney Toons squad, and cheer in unison at our selection.  Mom gives in; dad willfully supports our decision and secretly buys us a Kit Kat at the check-out counter away from my mom’s obsessive calorie-counting scrutiny.

Sneaking Britt and I our favorite candy is always an under-cover operation for my dad.  My mom doesn’t stop at the legs: she disciplines her daughters’ bodies from head to toe, and my body in particular.  I’m very protective of my sister, so if and when my mom torments her, I fight back with twice the fire.  At ten years old, I’m restricted to fat-free milk (more like milky water), and low-fat, low-sodium wheat thins (adult food already?).  Everything she gets grocery shopping is some combination of low-fat, non-fat, fat free, sugar free, low sodium, low calorie.  My teeth are another project for my mom.  I’ve already had braces across the top row of teeth (when I was 8 years old)—I’ve had retainers, expanders (to crank my molars into place since apparently they were out of place), and a headgear.  A headgear is that contraption in cartoons the super nerdy kids wear and get beat-up for it at recess.  Thankfully the orthodontist spared me from being socially ostracized and prescribed me to lock it in my jaw and around my head immediately when I got home from school until I woke up the next morning.  That lasted about six months, to fix my “cross-bite.”  It’s no wonder my parents won’t be able to afford to pay for my college tuition.  Looking socially acceptable costs a fortune.

Yet my mother’s obsession with the ideal body is not so simple.  On top of achieving the impossible beauty ideal that western society tells us to achieve, there’s other factors that complicate the story.  Not to down-play the power of discourse, certainly the media floods our psyches with misogynistic portrayals of women that affect how we see and treat ourselves.  Popular media is rampant with images that train our minds to be and think a certain way—attempting to attain certain beauty characteristics such as thinness, hair styled, make up, clothes, and more.  This is ableism.  To idealize a particular body and to comply with subsequent disciplining regimes of self-care is what makes able-bodiedness compulsory: the ideal body seemingly within reach yet perpetually out of sight.  In this sense, my mom is in a weight-loss battle with life.  She was, what she calls, obese in high school.  I’ve known this about my mother since I can remember, as she used her own life story for leverage when threatening us before the long, glorious aisle of cascading chips and cookies on our trips to the grocery store.  She will tell me in my teen years that her obesity, in her eyes, meant no high school proms and no dating.  In college, she confesses to me when I’m older, she went on a crackers and diet soda diet (also known as anorexia).

After losing a drastic amount of weight, she joined the frightening world of Greek Life, where she met my father.  I would argue that my mother has chronic anorexia and post-traumatic stress disorder to this day—not to psychopathologize, but I am trying to make a point.  It’s no wonder, her first daughter and oldest child now embarking on the second decade of her fruitful life, that my very presence in the household would be such an inner psychological and embodied struggle for her.  On top of it all, her side of the family (all them Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern European descent) has carried many struggles with obesity, to the point where a handful of cousins and aunts have had their stomachs stapled or undergone gastric bypass surgery.  The legacy of anti-Semitism also embeds itself within our bodies, written on our flesh, passed on from one generation to the next.  Assimilate or die.  Looking “normal,” to my mother, also means decreasing the chances of positioning my body as a target for assault, for violence.  In addition to the painful processes of female subjectification through the discourse of the ideal feminine body, this family genealogy and larger historical context seems to feed and justify my own mother’s chronic self-starvation and traumatic stress, and further justifies projecting her insecurities and psychiatric illnesses onto me through things like abusive corrective surgeries, invasive dental work, and tasteless low-fat wheat thins with a glass of milk water.  At ten years old, I’m hiding a box of double-stuffed Oreos under my bed.  My heart pounds as I eat them furiously alone in my room, listening intently for the sound of footsteps stomping up the stairs.

On the drive home from Blockbuster I consider the implications of my impending surgery.  Will I ever be the same again?  What will Brittany, my kid-sister, think?  What about when you’re walking down the aisle?  Walk straight, walk normal.  Concentrate on walking straight.  Practice.  You look like a slob.  There, that’s better.  Is that so hard to do?  What about your wedding when you’re wearing high heels?  Concentrate.

We pull into the driveway, and the garage door closes behind us.  I can hear Barclay, our family-dog (a brown and white Shih-Tzu), whimpering and scratching the walls in excitement in the laundry room upon our arrival.  I squeeze through after my mother to make sure he does not escape into the dusty, hot, two-car garage stacked with bicycles, storage shelves, and bins full of sports equipment.

“I’ll make the popcorn!” my mother announces.  This gesture excites no one but her, and maybe the dog, because, my dad, Britt and I are butter-lovers, and my mom, well, I’m sure you can guess the way she preps her popcorn: plain.  Plain: no salt, no buttah, nada.  Um, what’s the point?  I might as well snack on leftover cardboard boxes.

The movie begins and we dim the lights around the couches.  Brittany and I move down onto the carpeted floor to sit closer.  Michael Jordan gets sucked, literally, into Looney Toon land and the silly basketball adventures begin.

“Brooke!” my mom shouts in a whisper.  “Don’t sit like that.”

I’m feeling defensive after my inner dialogue on the car ride home.  “Leave me alone!” I spit bitterly back at her, over my shoulder.

Don’t sit like that,” she snarls.  I watch Michael Jordon’s distinct pigeon-toed stride across the court as he approaches Bugs Bunny.  “Sit cross-legged.”

“I can’t!” I shout.  “It doesn’t feel good.  This way is more comfortable.”

“Wendi, leave her alone,” my dad murmurs.

“David!” she exclaims in disbelief, slapping her knee for effect.  “The way she’s sitting just makes it worse.”

“She’s fine,” he says.  “MJ didn’t turn out so bad.”  And he leans over to tickle my mom in the rib.  She tries her hardest not to laugh, not to smile, not to change her ways.

My mom is frantic, getting cold feet, having second guesses, wondering if she should have me go through with the surgery.  She barges into my bedroom, and I’m sitting at my desk reading Nancy Drew.  Scrounging through the disarray of the clearance section, I found a Nancy Drew six-pack of the first six volumes at the bookstore that my dad takes me to, and the books they’re all in shiny hardback bind.  I love the smooth hard cover and the pointy edges protecting the crisp pages inside.  Like fresh dollar bills, the texture almost the same.  I love the sound the crisp, fresh, one-dollar-bill pages make whenever I turn one over.  The beautiful sound of paper felt through my fingertips.

“Brooke,” she says to me, her urgent tone pleads that I place the bookmark in and set the enthralling mystery aside.  “Do you want to have the surgery?” she asks me, for the first time.  For the first time.  She finally asks.  Maybe she wants sympathy, I think she wants this because I can hear it in her voice, that rare tone my mother gives when she’s asking for sympathy, almost asking for forgiveness but not quite articulating that she’s sorry.  No she never says she’s sorry.  I can’t give her sympathy, even though a small part of me wishes that all of me could, and instead I give her anger.  How could she now, just now, finally ask me?  After all this?  She expects to put the burden on me, now?

The skin on my arms it prickles and the hairs they stand up in solidarity, ready to protect me.  Tiny little hairs, fierce, erect, ready to fight, my teeth, they clench and grind and I want to answer her question but I am so shocked and angry that I find myself in silence, I release the strain of molar against molar and find my mouth open, my jaw ajar.

“Do you want to have the surgery?” she asks again, as though maybe I didn’t hear her the first time.

Do I want to have the surgery? Do I want to have the surgery!  I want to shout it, I want to scream it.  To me it’s a crude rhetorical question, an insult, a spat in the goddamn face.  But I can’t even say a word.

Third opinion: doctor’s office not quite an office, but more like a den, a study den, with a lower ceiling and rustic wooden furniture.  A dark, burgundy wood that invites me to sit and ponder thoughts, deep thoughts, surrounded by lots of books in a dark burgundy wooden bookshelf full of lots of crisp, beautiful-sounding pages.  The doctor—an older white man with white hair and a white facial beard with eyewear like my poppy, the kind with large lenses and thin bronzed wire frames—asks me to sit up on the patient’s table.  He squints at the x-rays illuminated behind my head.  He squints at them for a brief second, glances at my chart, then looks over at me.  My mother, she stands next to the patient’s table, waiting anxiously for any word that might drop out of the doctor’s mouth.  I know she needs the reassurance, I know she needs a doctor to tell her that I don’t need surgery.  I couldn’t bring myself to say no to her.  Maybe he will, I know she’s hoping he will.

“So tell me why you’re here,” the doctor says, to me.  To me!

“Um, I’m pigeon-toed,” I answer.

He looks squarely at me and pauses, then remarks, “I see,” with a certain curiosity, like we’re in a Nancy Drew mystery—detectives putting the clues together one by one.

“And is there something wrong with your pigeon-feet?”

I shrug my shoulders.  “I can run fast at school!” I proclaim, my eyes open-wide from the thrill of speaking my pigeon-toed pride aloud.  “And I’m good at soccer.”

“Mhm,” he recites like a line from Sherlock Holmes.  “Do you ever trip over your feet?”

“Well, yeah, sometimes I guess.  But not very often at all.”

“Do kids make fun of you at school?”

I never really thought about it like that before.  “I don’t think so.”  The doctor, talking to me, asking me questions, is a different experience for me than with the other orthopedic surgeons.  The other doctors, they so readily diagnosed me, so readily assessed and prescribed corrective surgery.  All it took was one visit per doctor—and they’re ready to cut.  To turn me into a cyborg—I’m both disturbed and fascinated by the thought, not quite sure what it all really means.  Both surgeries, either at the ankles or the hips, would require hardware screwed into my bones.  Would I beep through security at the airport?  Would I have scars in my hips, in my ankles, forever marking the authoritative hand of medicine on my flesh?  Where is the line drawn between corrective surgery for ‘pathological deviance,’ and plastic surgery for cosmetic purposes?  Where would my corrective surgery fall between such distinctions?  Did I really have something wrong with me that anesthesia, sharp blades, bolts and screws, lots of blood, lots of stitches, lots of scars, and lots of post-op pain could “fix”?

First opinion.  Second opinion.  Now third opinion.  My mom, she hardly speaks this go around.  The doctor hardly asks her a thing.  This changes my experience with and approach to medicine and doctors entirely.  This doctor wants to know how I experience my body.  He does not want to know what others’ perceptions are of me, per se, like that of my own worried mother, but rather, how I experience others’ perceptions.  For instance, do kids at school make fun of me?  It depends.  In some ways yes, in some ways no, but kids are mean to each other regardless since we’re engrained from such an early age that there are indeed freaks and weirdos: like nerds, like booger-eating slimy outsiders, like chubby dweebs, like Jews, like the one Black kid in the whole fifth grade, like brown-skinned non-native English speakers, like the masturbating child, like the kid who is left-handed, like the kid with a lazy eye, with a speech impediment, with a stutter, with a runny nose, with too much spit, with a big nose, with big ears, with dyslexia, with duck feet, or, with pigeon-feet.  All us freaks and weirdos: being stared at, regulated, disciplined, feared, loathed, despised, pushed into isolation—all for being who we are perceived to be, not for being who we say we are.  So here I am, saying who I am, and I demand that you listen, listen hard, and rip out those presuppositions, discard your fear, and re-perceive the idea of me and my freakery and all those other weird kids who sit or stand beside me, next to me, and with my pigeon-feet.

“Okay,” he ponders as he reads over my chart a second time.  “Does being pigeon-toed hurt?  As in, physically, does it give you any physical pain?”

I think for a moment.  “Only when I’m sitting criss-cross-Apple-sauce on the floor,” I respond.  “It’s the way it turns my legs, it makes them sore.”

And then, the question is asked.  He asks, “do you want to have surgery?”  His question provokes much deliberation in my head, the context so different from when my mom asked, and I deliberate as I attempt to speak it out loud, as my mother chimes in, as the doctor listens hard, as I try to figure out how to say what I want to say, as I realize that the doctor has not suggested once that my legs need to be fixed, and this realization gives me the confidence to say, No.  No I do not want the surgery.

The doctor listens and responds to my spoken thoughts, “Alright then.  I do not recommend any surgery.  You are fine just the way you are.”

Left - kid sis; right - pigeon-feet.

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