03 June 2019
First published in the 1970s, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen was called ‘shocking’ and even ‘traumatic’ for its frank and darkly funny approach to themes such as abortion, domestic abuse, job inequality, body image and sexual abuse. It’s sold over a million copies and is still as fresh and relevant today as it ever was.
Sasha Davis has everything a girl in 1950s suburbia could want: beauty, intelligence and a Prom Queen crown. But when she drops out of college to marry, Sasha realises her life has become a fearful countdown to her thirtieth birthday – the year when her beauty will have faded. As Sasha rebels against her fate, she experiences an intellectual and sexual awakening that might be her only chance of outrunning the aging process.
Read an extract below.
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They say it’s worse to be ugly. I think it must only be different. If you’re pretty, you are subject to one set of assaults; if you’re plain you are subject to another. Pretty, you may have more men to choose from, but you have more anxiety too, knowing your looks, which really have nothing to do with you, will disappear. Pretty girls have few friends. Kicked out of mankind in elementary school, and then kicked out of womankind in junior high, pretty girls have a lower birth rate and a higher mortality. It is the beauties like Marilyn Monroe who swallow twenty-five Nembutals on a Saturday night and kill themselves in their thirties.
Pretty or plain, by the time you survive puberty, your job in life is pretty much cut out for you. In either case, you must somehow wheedle back into that humanity from which you have been systematically excluded since you learned to walk. Among the ruling fraternity whose members can often barely hide their contempt for you, you must find one sponsor willing to brave ridicule for love of you. You must make him desire you more than manliness. For boys are taught that it is weak to need a woman, as girls are taught it is their strength to win a man.
When on the brink of puberty I emerged from behind my braces with a radiant smile, long black eyelashes, and a pink glowing skin, my troubles were only beginning. I suppose I should have expected a hitch: in the fairy tales too there was usually a steep price to pay for a wish fulfilled. The Blue Fairy had blessed my face all right, but suddenly there was my body. I loathed it. It frightened me, it was so unpredictable. It was nothing if not trouble. People were always ready to make fun of it. They made fun of it for not having breasts, and then they made fun of it for having them. It had once supported me in the trees and on the exercise bars, but I could no longer trust it. I hated walking on the street inside it. On the slightest provocation I blushed crimson, and then they made fun of it for that. My very blood betrayed me. What had my body to do with the me inside?
One day I got out of the bath bleeding down there, and from the nervous way my mother said it was “natural” after I screamed for her from the bathroom, I knew for sure I was a freak.
“Stay calm. I’m going to explain the whole thing to you,” she said. “It’s really nothing to get upset about, dear.” She smiled and patted my cheek as blood trickled down my rippleless thigh to my unshaven calf.
I was way past being upset. I was so horrified by my sudden wound that I was detached, as though I were watching a mildly interesting home movie of myself. My leg had known blood before—there were scabs and scrapes along the shinbone and around the ankles, and cinders permanently imbedded under the skin of both knees—but never blood before from there. That it didn’t burn or sting like other wounds only made it more sinister. I was sure my curious finger had injured something. I was probably ruined. It was likely too late even to confess.
“Sit down on the toilet and wait a minute while I go get something. And don’t worry, darling.” She sounded almost pleased as, leaving the room and closing the door behind her, she chuckled to herself, “Well, well, well.”
I examined the water still in the tub, lapping gently at the dirty ring. A faint trail of blood led from the tub to the sink where I, a good girl, had stood avoiding the bathmat. Was there blood in the bath water too? Oh, no! There was blood on my fingers and now blood smeared on the towel which other days polished to gleaming my sunburnt skin, cleansed in the chlorine of the public pool. What was taking her so long? Everything I touched was getting soiled.
Seated on the toilet, I looked down at myself. It was hard to see, not like my brother’s. The mysteries were inside—to keep us, I guessed, from seeing them. To use a mirror, even in this crisis, would have been suspect (suppose she walked in and saw me?), though indeed it might have helped, as my father had taught me it helped to watch the dentist in a mirror drilling out tooth decay. I had always hidden it so carefully, a mirror now would be doubly suspect. I could hear my father urging over the hum of the drill: watch and relax, reeeelax, let go, and the pain had somehow slipped away. But my father couldn’t advise me now. Anyway, if I relaxed now, wouldn’t the blood come streaming out? I tightened up.
The blood wasn’t flowing, exactly. Every so often, when I thought it had stopped and formed a scab, more would ooze out without registering as sensation at all. Like cells seen through a microscope, the blood moved slowly, surreptitiously. It wasn’t the familiar color, either—it was ominously deeper.
At last mother came back, carrying equipment. She locked the door behind her and shored me up with a smile. “Now,” she began. “This is called a sanitary belt.” She held it up. “It holds the sanitary napkin.” Like a stewardess demonstrating the oxygen mask, she held them up, the long bandage dangling by its tail from her index finger and thumb. Sterile.
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