erik kirkland memorial prize finalist
Four-years-old, I climb up the step stool in the pre-school restroom and stare into the mirror at myself. I love pigtails, and I even got to wear them with pink har ties today. Mom told me she would do them as long as I didn’t complain, so I made sure to squeeze my eyes shut tightly when I walked by the mirror before going to the car.
Now I finger the right pigtail. My hand scales the loose strands, then the hair tie, until I feel for the part line—a jagged lightning bolt that flashes up my skull. My left hand races to the other pigtail, and I grab a fistful of the remnants of hair below the hair tie. I feel my heart drop at the difference in weight between the two sides.
My panic materializes with a single tear that escapes my left eye and slowly trickles down my cheek, finally dropping to the vanity. I look back up at my reflection, but I don’t see myself anymore. I only see the lopsided pigtails that Mom spent half an hour “perfecting” this morning.
I look behind the reflection at all of the cartoon posters on the wall of girls with blonde, brown, red, and black hair, all done up in ponytails and pigtails and braids with perfect center parts. I taste more tears as they tumble down my small face, into the corners of my mouth, and down my chin and neck.
I refocus on myself in the mirror, surrounded by the girls with perfect hair and perfect teeth and perfect everything, and I wail. I claw at my head until the hair ties are flung from my stupid, flat brown hair onto the bathroom floor, and then I claw some more until Miss Brenda is holding me and stroking my stupid brown hair that used to be in stupid, uneven brown pigtails.
“Alexis, what is the matter? Why are you so upset?” She still strokes my hair, restraining my arms against my chest with her other arm.
I sniffle and then croak out, “My mom did my pigtails wrong. The right side was heavier, and it hurt me.”
Mom never did my hair again.
Sensory symmetry is described as an overwhelming need or urge for things to be balanced. This balance can be of the body, objects, concepts, and other things, and it affects everyone differently. Sometimes, it occurs in the form of a compulsion, or “an irresistible urge to behave in a certain way, especially against one’s conscious wishes”. Other times it can be a conscious demand that can be ignored but causes great discomfort.
I had just cut a piece of cake for a customer and noticed a small smear of chocolate icing on my left thumb. No big deal. I’ll just wipe it off with a paper towel, so I don’t waste gloves. The small bakery I worked at was particularly high-class, so our owners graciously provided us with the expensive quilted Bounty paper towels.
“Lexi, are you okay? What’s wrong?” Lorrin, my supervisor at the bakery, witnessed a compulsion and my physical response to it, one that was out of my control and left me red in the face almost four years ago.
I tore a piece from the roll, wrapped it around, and twisted it up along the length of my thumb.
Simultaneously, I felt a wave of discomfort and nausea surge through my veins that snapped my head to the left, then to the right, then back to the left. The ache of this sensation rocked me so violently that I failed to suppress a gagging noise, which Lorrin heard. The towel and glove combination warranted the same repelling response from my body that touching a rough, unpainted wall did. Something about the unevenness of the texture of both, compared to the smooth skin or latex of my hand or glove, sent my nerve endings into a frenzy.
Before I responded to her concern, a tsunami of need, much greater than the repulsion my body displayed a second before, engulfed me and forced me to twist the paper towel around my right thumb. The same discomfort, same nausea, same uncontrollable head shaking, and same gagging befell me.
Lorrin stared at me in shock, awaiting a response. I nodded, recovering from the sensory overload, and responded.
“Yeah, I’m okay! I just- well, I just have this weird balance thing. Which I guess is also a texture thing?” Sensory symmetry trained my brain and body to recall what experiences will make me shudder in disgust and cause the hairs on the back of my neck to stand up straight.
While adrenaline does not remedy my textural responses, like to the paper towel on my gloved thumb, it can help with other things, like sports-related injuries. The same adrenaline that kept me running in a soccer game also allowed me to push through something that would have been painful, like knocking into another player or getting turf burn on my knees.
In a 2012 study on psychological and skeletal-muscular effects of epinephrine, or adrenaline, on athletic and physically active individuals, undergraduate researcher, Jarrod James, found that “adrenaline…diverts an individual’s concentration from pain to something else, giving him or her the feeling that the felt pain no longer exists.”
Purple, blue, green, and then yellow bruises dotted across my body from age four to age sixteen—the twelve or so years I dedicated to gymnastics and soccer, but also dedicated to ensuring that each half of my body was the same at all times.
At gymnastics practice, for several years after my experience with the pigtails, I did back walkovers on both my left and right legs, even though my right leg was stronger. I literally bent over backwards to achieve this form of balance.
At thirteen, I pulled my shin guard from my sweat-laden left leg and observed new cuts, scrapes, and bruises that littered it. I did the same with my right, only to find that I had one less bruise on it than the left leg. Guess I’ll ask to play left midfield tomorrow. The thought was instinctual, behind it the intention of running alongside another girl playing right defense, guaranteeing a bruise on my right leg.
Other aspects of soccer plagued me daily—I spent up to twenty minutes before practices and games tying and re-tying the laces of my cleats until I felt sure that the tightness of each were the same.
I went to great lengths to achieve the physical equilibrium my brain called for, even in uncertain and mostly uncontrollable situations.
According to Stephanie Hutter-Thomas, a professional body piercer and professor at the University of Maryland whose doctoral dissertation was on elective body modifications, “the more exposure we have to a particular chosen event or stimuli, the less frightening or outrageous it seems because we slowly become desensitized.” The key word here is ‘chosen.’
I got my first set of ear piercings when I was around six years old after I assured my parents that I could take care of them and clean them. I had a fear of needles until I was fourteen, so I waited until the summer of 2014 to get my second set of piercings.
I remember squeezing my mom’s hand so tightly she said she lost feeling in her fingers. I made the piercer promise to count down from three before doing both piercings.
The piercer repositioned the needle to match up with the purple marks where I had said I wanted to be pierced.
I gripped my mom’s hand, my thumb nail digging into her palm.
And it was done. I hadn’t even felt the needle go through. Painless.
Dr. Stephanie Hutter-Thomas also found that, “after conquering the anxiety of successfully receiving and healing that first body piercing, it becomes more exciting to choose the next one.”
So, the following summer, I got my left cartilage pierced. While I was excited, I couldn’t help but be bothered by the fact that my right ear had one less piercing than my left. This left me in a constant fit of discomfort, so my mom got me an earring cuff, which functioned as a faux piercing for my right ear.
The easiest way I can describe this longing for my ears to be symmetrical is to say that one felt “heavier” than the other, and the lighter of the two felt unfinished. I wore my hair down every day and rarely put it behind my ears so I wouldn’t have to witness the imbalance without the ear cuff.
When the summer of 2016 rolled around, I had decided to finally get the right cartilage pierced and retire the ear cuff. This was a big moment, as I would finally achieve the balance I so craved for my ears.
I went a solid two years before the desire to change something in my life struck me (haircuts only satisfy me for so long), so I decided to get my nose pierced.
I put myself in a situation that then forces me into a state of imbalance, but there is power in that choice and it, for me, is a form of therapy to overcome the constant droning need to have perfect balance.
I spent a long time thinking about which side of my nose would need to be pierced, and I finally settled on the right. This decision didn’t come lightly, as I had always known I would get a tattoo for my little brother, so I chose the left wrist for the tattoo and the right nostril for the piercing.
I got my nose pierced in 2018 and waited to get my tattoo until September for my birthday in 2019. But I was restless and in need of some change in my life before my scheduled tattoo appointment, so I talked to my piercer and decided on a conch piercing on my left ear. The conch piercing is nestled in the center part of your ear, so it was a perfect balance in between my two lobe piercings and my cartilage piercing. I was finally balanced!
Until that September when I did indeed get my tattoo on my left wrist—a little black puzzle piece to connect me to my brother. This imbalance didn’t bother me too much, because my wrist and my face are almost never in view at the same time, but still I knew my body wasn’t symmetrical.
I have yet to complete the balance on the right side of my body, but I did get a septum piercing in 2020, which makes it a little more bearable since it’s in the complete center of my face. Adding these little decorations to my body, much like clothing, brings me a small sense of change that I can control.
Part of that independence from a lack of control is the understanding that I can’t control everything. I think realizing that fact has made me a more balanced person for it, because there are only two guaranteed things in life: those which you can control, and those which you can’t.
emily speck is a Broadcast major with a film minor from Cleona, Pennsylvania. Photography is a newfound love for her and she plans to continue pursing photography within videography and taking photographs.