By Christine Stoddard
The trolls thought I stopped modeling because I finally realized I am not “conventionally attractive.” I have the hips of an Amazon, the breasts of Peter Pan, and a face that is strange but charming. They wanted me to hate myself, to hang myself like my grandmother did when her husband left her for a woman shaped like an old-fashioned Coke bottle. But when I look in the mirror, the only thing I loathe is the hoard of trolls clacking away at their computers.
Kate Moss is no conventional beauty, either. She’s short with a broken nose and crooked teeth. Yet in those early Instagram days, I never saw Moss as my defense, only my inspiration. I never had this epiphany that I wasn’t Pretty Princess pretty. I always knew. I was beautifully odd and oddly beautiful and I had a talent for seeing into the soul of any camera. My loyal followers saw that. Mona, my only true friend and photographer, saw that.
I was one of two daughters born to two medical school professors originally from Egypt. They relocated to Richmond when my sister, Mayada, was three and shortly before I was born at the mammoth Medical College of Virginia downtown. There, my parents lectured amongst the buzz of waspish politicians and state government worker bees.
We lived in Jackson Ward, a historically black neighborhood within walking distance of the hospital and medical school. It was an imperfect fit, but where else were we supposed to live? Richmond had no ideal zip code for people like us because we had no place in the Capital of the Confederacy’s narrative of black and white. Yet as Arab atheists with olive complexions, we had to make our own home in the Bible Belt somehow. That was how we ended up in the nicest house on the block in a less-than-nice neighborhood. At least it seemed that way to uptight white suburbanites. But I can’t say the neighborhood made me any more nervous than I felt anywhere else. I had a female body and, even as a little girl, I knew that made me vulnerable no matter where I went.
We were gentrifies who lived in a renovated row house among abandoned buildings, dilapidated apartments that saw constant turnover, and once pristine addresses destroyed by partying college students. Though my family and I saw our share of small-time street corner drug deals, we never witnessed any violence. Since we had a car, we didn’t mind that the grocery store was in the next neighborhood over, either. We said hello to our neighbors and never told them to change a thing. We didn’t see why an upscale coffee shop or yoga studio should replace the barbershop or soul food café. There were enough people in town doing that already.
My parents did take issue with one aspect of where we lived, however, and that was the local public school system. Horrified by accounts of textbook shortages and gaping holes in hallway ceilings, my parents sent Mayada and me to the all-girls’ Catholic school across town. From kindergarten onward, it was a nightmare. Mayada and I were magnets for insults, invasive questions, and culturally clueless remarks. It only worsened as we got older. “I thought Egyptians worshipped cats like Cleopatra. What are you doing at a Catholic school? Are you trying to convert so you don’t burn in hell?”/“Aren’t your parents doctors? Why do you live in the ghetto?”/“Your English is really good. Do you still speak Egyptian at home?”
If you think a fifteen-year-old girl with a pleated skirt and ribbons in her hair can’t be intimidating or offensive, you are wrong. So very wrong. College prep only made everyone hungrier and more aggressive than teenage hormones alone ever could. On top of grappling with typical puberty woes, we had to grapple with the college admissions race. All but the most religiously observant girls fought for thick acceptance packets from Tier 1 colleges their senior year. That’s why our high school counselors funneled us into as many honors and Advanced Placement courses as we could handle. Most of the girls we knew considered bulldozing a few classmates’ self-esteem levels part of the process. They weren’t interested in becoming nuns or missionaries. They lusted after Smith College and Harvard Law.
That was the motivation for stunts like this one:
My freshman year, I found the word “Muslim” scrawled on my locker in glittery blood red nail polish. It did not matter that I wasn’t actually Muslim. It was the intent. I whipped out my phone and took a photo to text my sister, whose locker was on the other side of the building. She texted me a nearly identical photo of her similarly defaced property. We agreed to meet at the principal’s office in five minutes.
“How can I help you girls?” asked Mrs. Parkhurst, the principal’s secretary, as we stepped up to her desk.
“We’d like to report a hate crime,” said Mayada, without hesitation. I nodded, grateful to have such a confident older sister in moments like these.
Mrs. Parkhurst was a petite middle-aged woman with thin, naked lips and mousy brown hair. Her cardigan sweaters were all black or beige and she always wore flat, circular Mother of Pearl earrings with a matching Mother of Pearl cross necklace. Her Spartan desk contained her computer, a black Moleskine notebook, and a Virgin Mary statue that was about six inches tall. Mrs. Parkhurst’s fashion sense and desk had not changed since I was five years old. Even her pen—a gold ballpoint with the engraving “John 3:16”—was the same. She liked consistency and order and that was that.
So I should not have been surprised when Mrs. Parkhurst pursed her wormy little lips, cleared her throat, and said, “That’s not possible.” But I was.
“You haven’t even heard our story,” I snapped.
Mayada glared at me and apologized on my behalf. “You’ll have to excuse my sister, Mrs. Parkhurst. She’s upset. We’re both upset, and we need to talk to Sister Branch for that reason. Could we please see her now?”
“She is busy with the bishop,” said Mrs. Parkhurst after she cleared her throat again.
Mayada and I glanced at Sister Branch’s closed door. Before Mayada could issue her next diplomatic phase, I darted for the office and opened the door. Sister Branch was seated with the Catholic newspaper and a bowl of oatmeal.
“Good morning, Abra,” she said, raising an eyebrow for a beat before returning to her paper.
Mayada and Mrs. Parkhurst were behind me in the next split second, but neither one said anything. All of three of us stared at Sister Branch, who looked up again.
“Well, come in.”
“I tried to stop them, Sister Branch, but—”
“It’s fine. I wasn’t busy.”
Had I not been in a rush to tell Sister Branch what happened, I might’ve sneered at Mrs. Parkhurst. Instead, I took out my phone to pull up the photo as Mayada and I talked over each other.
“Oh, this is not good,” said Sister Branch.
My sister and I shook our heads.
“I’m very sorry this happened, girls. Could you email the photos to me? We’ll get to the bottom of this.”
That was the last we heard on the matter. The janitor scrubbed our lockers clean by the end of the day. When Mayada and I followed up in a week, Sister Branch said the school administration had not found a culprit.
“Besides,” said Sister Branch over her usual bowl of oatmeal, “the vandal did not employ a slur. It’s simply a descriptor.”
“Yes, but we aren’t Muslim,” said Mayada. “We’re Egyptian, but not all Egyptians are Muslim.”
“I see,” said Sister Branch. “What then is your family’s religion? Your parents did not identify as Catholic when they enrolled you.”
My normally articulate sister was at a loss.
“We’re in the process of converting,” I piped up. “Our hearts have been touched by Christ.”
Mayada looked down at her Mary Janes.
Sister Branch beamed. “I’m so pleased to hear that. You’ll have to let me know when your confirmation takes place.”
“Of course!” I said, a little too enthusiastically.
“Your parents are converting, too?”
My sister remained silent even as we walked down the hallway back to our classrooms. I knew she was reeling, so I didn’t bother further provoking her with my questions. When we got home later that day, all she could muster was, “I can’t believe you did that. Now Sister Branch will care even less about finding out who wrote on our lockers.”
I shrugged and opened up my English textbook. I read for a minute or two and then complained about having to diagram sentences in an honors class. Mayada simply left the room.
Our frazzled parents didn’t have time to take action about the vandalism. Nor did they seem too concerned.
“It’s just a word, Abra,” my mother said one morning two weeks after the incident. I had complained about it again while she packed her briefcase. “It’s not even the right word,” she muttered. “Ignore those brats and focus on your studies.”
Whichever “brat” had done it was trying to distract Mayada and me from our studies. I was in the top ten in my class and Mayada was tied for valedictorian in hers. We had to turn the other cheek if we were going to keep our rank. We weren’t vying for spots at the Ivies, but we still sought a certain level of comfort and prestige. Or, should I say, our parents did.
Our parents expected us to go to Virginia Commonwealth University, which housed the medical school where they taught. To them, an American university was an American university. The nationality alone afforded prestige. They didn’t care that apart from a select number of programs, VCU’s undergraduate admissions were not particularly competitive. All the better, they reasoned. Mayada and I would be that much more likely to earn full-rides. Naturally, we would live at home while studying pre-med and steer clear of dating. During those four years, we would earn every fellowship and research grant possible. Then we would get accepted into the far more competitive Medical College of Virginia, also with scholarships. Once we completed our residencies, we would return to Egypt to marry accomplished Egyptian men—most likely fellow doctors. Religiously, we were not Muslim, but culturally, certain things were just ingrained. That included obtaining both higher degrees and parent-approved husbands.
Though my report cards matched my parents’ expectations, my own dreams did not. Hence the living within my mind. I daydreamed and doodled and wrote stories. Too often, I filled up my sketchbook while bored in class. In this way, I figured I could avoid as much of the snake-tongued gossip that tried to constrict my adolescence as possible. Muslim or not, I would not let my vicious classmates win. They could deface my locker however they wanted. I would continue drawing caricatures of them and writing poems about the merits of Egyptian coffee versus Starbucks.
Shortly after the locker incident occurred, I began modeling with Mona.
Mona was many things, including one of the most faithful Catholics I have ever met, but most people only ever saw her hemifacial microsomia. The syndrome is second only to cleft lips and palates in terms of common congenital deformities. Her face was warped, with a small, bent jaw and asymmetrical ears. I didn’t care. Mona was loyal and kind and a truly gifted photographer. Despite being friends since second grade, I wouldn’t discover that last bit until high school.
The modeling started freshman year when took our first elective. I chose Arabic because I thought it would be an easy A for me. Although, it turns out that occasionally speaking a language with your mom and dad doesn’t necessarily make you ace at conjugations or writing a whole other alphabet. Mona chose darkroom photography. She liked that it was an art form that was on its way out. “I better learn it before it goes extinct,” she said as we filled out our course forms during the last week of eighth grade. “Plus, missionary organizations are always looking for photographers.” When Mona grinned, she bared her snaggletooth, a feature that had endeared me for as long as I could remember.
Days before Mona was shipped off to summer camp in North Carolina, we submitted our forms to Mrs. Parkhurst, who pinned them under her Virgin Mary statue. Then we waited. I went to a day camp at the Science Museum of Virginia and wrote letters to Mona in the evening. In five consecutive letters, I mentioned my fear of getting placed in a second period of gym. Mona’s fear was getting placed in home economics. (“I’m pretty sure I don’t have to be Martha Stewart to live at a convent,” she wrote.) In the last week of July, we received our course schedules, which confirmed that our choices had been approved. I came home to the letter after spending all day dissecting owl pellets and reconstructing tiny rodents on cardboard. Mona, who had just returned from North Carolina, was able to read the letter herself.
“I’m so happy I won’t spend two semesters baking muffins,” she said when we met up for ice cream.
“Don’t worry—I’m pretty sure another nun at your convent will know how to do that.”
“Exactly. We’ll pool our God-given talents together. Mine will not involve cooking appliances.”
We took a break from talking to finish our ice cream cones.
“Do you think high school will be different?” I asked as the last of my chocolate ice cream dribbled down my chin.
Mona shook her head. “No, I mean, it’s the same school, the same girls,” she said. “We’ll probably get five new girls, ten at most. Otherwise, same gang.”
“I guess I just hoped they’d be nicer this year.”
“They won’t be. If anything, they’ll be meaner. Our class rank means a lot more now.”
“It doesn’t matter where I go to college. As long as I graduate with decent grades, a convent will want me. My faith counts for far more.”
“I still have to stay in the top ten if I want that scholarship.”
“You’ll do it. You’re very smart, Abra.”
“Thanks,” I said and wiped my chin with a napkin.
When Mona smiled at me, I felt her warmth envelop me. It was her spell and I didn’t mind falling under it.