When I was six I had a strong and sure sense of my girl power. So confident was I that when I asked the boy in my class who had a crush on me - how did I even know this, I wonder now? - to dive into a cafeteria garbage can filled with milk cartons, banana peels, and chicken à la king to retrieve my ring, which had slipped off as I dumped out my own school lunch, my plastic ring, a trinket from a cereal box, I knew that he would oblige me.
And he did. When he emerged triumphant from the garbage, chicken cubes and peas decorating his shirt, arms, and face, a badge of second-grade boy honor, perhaps, I smiled serenely, for I was anything but surprised to see the ring in his now grubby hand.
Why did I feel no shame to have manipulated a boy to whom I'd never given the time of day? Why did I believe that I'd merely exercised my right?
By fourth grade I saw the flip side of girl power, and it came in the form of my muscular thighs. Too big, I declared them, and started sitting with legs crossed to minimize the impact of all that flesh. Although it would not be unfair of me to implicate my father in seeding this preoccupation, my father who had discussed with me the circumference of my upper legs with a rather high degree of concern, he was not present enough in my life to do real damage. My mother's obsession with her weight, shored up as it was by television ads - oh, I watched a lot of television - did the trick.
Whatever the causes, singly and in combination, they worked on my sense of my physical self until I believed myself thoroughly unlovable by the opposite sex. Through college, when arguably I was in the best shape of my life, I believed myself unworthy of a man's attention, and treated anyone interested in me in an uncomplicated way with disrespect for his suspect choices in all things, for it was a small leap between choice in mate to choice in all things, was it not?
So what happened? Did I change so much in twenty years that these dramatic shifts in self-perception were warranted?
Of course not.
It was never how I looked. It was only ever how I believed myself to look. The same girl looked back at me in the mirror - but for growing taller and becoming less girl and more woman - year after year after year. It was my brain that distorted the image.
I expect that my devolution, from perception of self as desirable and powerful to perception of self as unworthy and powerless, is a familiar slide to most who share my gender.
And it is also true that in my forties I am more comfortable in my own skin than I have been since I was six years old and bossing poor Jonny into the trash can. Ironic, because objectively I was prettiest in college, at the precise time I thought myself ugliest.
Still, the girl power I possessed so casually - even thoughtlessly - at six years old eludes me. And I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I wish I could summon elements of her back to me to use every now and then as the occasion dictates. Failing that, I'd like simply to meet her, shake her hand, get to know her again.