A Girl's Life Online
Katherine Tarbox was thirteen when she met twenty-three-year-old "Mark" in an online chat room. A top student and nationally ranked swimmer attending an elite school in an affluent Connecticut town, Katie was also a lonely and self-conscious eighth-grader who craved the attention her workaholic parents couldn't give her. "Mark" seemed to understand her; he told her she was smart and wonderful. When they set a date to finally meet while Katie was in Texas for a swim competition, she walked into a hotel room and discovered who-and what-her cyber soul mate really was.
In A Girl's Life Online, Tarbox, now eighteen, tells her story-an eye-opening tale of one teenager's descent into the seductive world of the Internet. Tarbox's harrowing experience with her online boyfriend would affect her life for years to come and result in her becoming the first "unnamed minor" to test a federal law enacted to protect kids from online sexual predators.
In an age when a new generation is growing up online, Tarbox's memoir is a cautionary tale for the Internet Age.
* * *
I can't tell you what all thirteen-year-old girls are like, but I can tell you what I was like. Of course, this was all before.
* * *
I was in the eighth grade, and for the first time I was really obsessed with my appearance, my status, with fitting in. This is understandable, if you consider that I was growing up in America, and in New Canaan, Connecticut. New Canaan is the richest town in the richest state in the country. The moms all drive Suburbans and the dads all take the train to the city. And by the time they are ten years old, the kids in New Canaan know that the highest-grade BMW is not as nice as the best Mercedes. They know that you should never be seen cutting your own lawn, and that embossed stationery is far superior to lithographed.
On the surface, everyone and everything in New Canaan is tasteful. We don't have any fast-food restaurants or neon signs because the town doesn't allow them. The houses are all the same—colonial, wood siding (never vinyl), two stories. In general people are friendly and pleasant, and it seems like the most serious thing that ever happens in New Canaan is the cancellation of a ladies' tennis match.
I have a love-hate relationship with the town of New Canaan. I love it because it is beautiful. The best of everything is available, from chocolate to people, but after everything that happened to me when I was thirteen I began to think a little differently about what the place had taught meabout myself and about life.
* * *
The first thing you notice about the people in my town is that almost all of them are good-looking. In fact, being pretty is so common in New Canaan that the only people who stand out, the ones other people point at and talk about, are the average-looking ones.
Since I was very little, I have been confused about what beauty is and what it means. At thirteen I accepted the image of beauty I saw on the covers of fashion magazines. I thought the Calvin Klein models inside were beautiful. I thought ultra-thinness was beautiful. Beauty was painful. And it was very expensive.
I am sure that I started thinking this way when I was thirteen, because that was the first year I noticed that most of the really bright and successful people I met also happened to be beautiful. I wondered which came first, the beauty or the success. Perhaps their looks accelerated their success, or because they were successful they had the money to invest in their appearance. No matter what the cause, you can see that beauty equals success right on TV. And I don't just mean actors. Even the people who do the news on TV are attractive. Think of Diane Sawyer or Stone Phillips.
In New Canaan, there were plenty of beautiful rich people walking the streets as living examples of success. It seemed like all the women were blonde and slim with perfect skin and perfect hair. Their children were pretty, too, and a lot of effort went into making sure of this. I was always surprised when I met a kid with a less-than-perfect smile who didn't have braces. Everyone in New Canaan had to have impeccable teeth to go with their perfect hair and unblemished skin.
I managed to meet the size-ten weight limit, but I knew I fell short of most of New Canaan's beauty standards. In an effort to catch up, I read every single beauty magazine I could get my hands on, certain that inside lay the secrets to a successful, happy life. I would buy at least five magazines each month, usually Marie Claire, Mademoiselle, Allure, Self, and Glamour. After reading these I would then trade them to my friends in exchange for magazines I hadn't purchased. This way, I could read the whole magazine rack. Though a casual observer may think these magazines are alike, they are not. One might have one hundred suggestions on how to do your hair or how to pluck your eyebrows for proper shaping and contour. Another would offer reviews of the best tanning products. I felt like I needed every scrap of beauty information available, and I worried enough about missing something important that no magazine page was left unturned.
There was a problem with the magazines, however. Some of the articles gave conflicting information, which led to confusion. As Glamour encouraged me to wear makeup, Mademoiselle told me that most of it is made with whale blubber, a little fact that made me sick.
Then there was the problem of my own inner standards. Despite all of the influences around me, I also believed that for a person to be beautiful, she had to be naturally beautiful. The glow had to come from within, not out of a bottle. The trouble was, deep down, I knew I didn't possess natural beauty, and if makeup was cheating, then I was doomed to be ugly. And because of this, I was going to have limited choices in life. Now that I am a few years older, I know I am not ugly. But back there in the land of thirteen, I could see that I wasn't the airbrushed Calvin Klein ad. I wasn't even close. And since that was beauty, I was the opposite.
* * *
Being afraid that I was not beautiful didn't prevent me from putting a lot of time and energy into my looks. I wouldn't leave the house unless my hair was blown-dry to make it perfectly straight. This took time, and since I sang in a select chorus at school—rehearsals were at 6:45 A.M.—I had to get up before dawn to do my hair. The teacher's rule was if you're late, then screw you; the door will be locked and you'll surely hear about it later. I was never late.
Because I wasn't the most quiet person when I woke up, I usually made noise just walking the few feet from my room to the bathroom. I don't know how I did it. My mother claimed I slammed the doors, but I believe these were hyperbolic statements. (When I was thirteen, hyperbolic was one of my favorite words, and it seemed like everybody was a little hyperbolic.)
I thought spending large amounts of time in the bathroom was frivolous. I didn't take long in the shower, and I never spent time looking at my body because I didn't like it. I kept a towel around me until I entered the water, avoiding the mirror at all costs. If this meant standing under the shower with cold water on my head for a few seconds until it got warmer, then fine. I got in there, did what I had to do, and left. I did everything to conserve time. I brushed my teeth in the shower, a trick I saw in a movie once. And if I had to shave I did it very quickly, taking a razor and running it up and down my legs. I didn't use any of those prissy shaving gels. Altogether, I spent only about a minute and a half in the shower, but believe it or not it took me a long time to learn how to tie my hair up in a towel after showering. I am still not sure if I do it right, but the way I do it works. I love my hair; I wouldn't trade it for anything. It is blonde and straight, and I wouldn't want it any other way.
* * *
After I showered I inspected my face for blemishes. I learned in Marie Claire that the best time to pop zits is right after a shower. This is because the steam from the shower opens your pores so the pus drains easier. I couldn't stand to leave zits on my face. I never had a lot of them, though the occasional few did come along and needed proper attention. If I didn't take care of them, my mom was sure to say something, which was a lot more painful than any squeezing could ever be.
As I was finishing up in the mirror I'd turn on the radio and then the hair dryer. I'd think about my outfit and sing along.
I love music, almost all types. When I was little, we rode in the car singing songs by the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Buddy Holly, the Temptations, and my mom's favorite, Rod Stewart. I know all the words.
I also like some new songs. I can beat anyone at name-that-tune, even if you include opera and classical. Unfortunately I don't carry a tune very well. My mom says she would rather listen to a dying duck. My voice is really that bad. The only reason I got into all-state and the select choir was because I play the piano for some of the songs, so I'm not completely useless.
I didn't dry my hair in front of the mirror because, like I said, I hated mirrors. I didn't put on hair spray or any styling products because I didn't want to take the risk of damaging my hair. I always wore it down, parted in the middle, cut on an angle so I'd have small wisps that hung in my face. This gave me the opportunity to play with it during the day.
I know you may be bored hearing so much about my hair, but this is what matters when you are thirteen. Besides, my hair was the only part of my body that I liked. I trimmed it every seven weeks at a salon to ensure healthy ends. I tried hard to never have a bad hair day. If I didn't have time to blow-dry it straight, then I didn't wash it. Going out with wavy hair would have been too embarrassing.
Once I finished with my hair I got dressed. If you were ever an eighth-grade girl, then you'd understand how much I focused on what people wear every day. I have always liked clothes, but at thirteen I was absolutely obsessed with them. Without telling anyone, I tried to set a record for wearing a different outfit every single day. I really don't think I actually made it through the whole year, but I wanted to go as long as possible. At the start of the year I planned out my clothes so I could go at least four months, maybe four and a half. I figured at that point my parents would take me shopping, and I was right.
I had two rules about making my outfits. One involved shoes. Even though they do make the outfit, an outfit wasn't a "different" outfit just because I wore different shoes.
Number two: I wouldn't resort to wearing anyone else's clothes, or wearing something that was very old. Even if I had never worn it. I had a teddy bear vest that I had never worn. Even so, it was old, so it was against my rules to use it to make a new outfit.
I guess you could say my style was perfect for a middle-schooler living in Martha Stewart country. It was all J. Crew and Gap. Khakis, oxford shirts, polo shirts, sweaters tied around the neck. Solid colors only, no prints. Nothing else really passed—except for pleated skirts and argyle kneesocks. Most of my friends shared the same taste. We didn't wear hose. But we did wear jeans. I usually wore Gap special-edition jeans. My mother didn't understand that they were worth the extra ten dollars, but they were, because they came a little more washed and faded.
Everyone I knew was just as obsessed. Two of my classmates—Sandra and Erin—planned their outfits weeks in advance. They even created an exchange system for rotating their entire wardrobes.
Eighth grade was also the first year girls started to wear skirts and dresses to school. The girl next to me in social studies class always wore skirts when she was trying to get the attention of some guy. It was pathetic. I usually wore them only on gym days. That way I could slip my gym shorts on underneath and nobody had to see me in my underwear.
Which reminds me, I hated my legs then, just as much as I do now. At thirteen I already had the biggest thighs in the world. They were so huge that my mom wouldn't even buy me a skirt that was above the knee.
* * *
My whole morning routine took until 6:25. This was when I went into my mother's room and kissed her good-bye. It was usually the only time in the day when I saw her. Ever since my father left our family—I was a baby at the time—my mother has worked full-time. But when I was around eleven or twelve she really became a workaholic. Most of the time she got home so late I didn't even see her before I went to bed. She really lived at work, or for her work. Even if she was home, she was always thinking about work.
After I kissed my mom I went downstairs to look for my stepfather, David, who drove me to school. By the time I was thirteen, David and my mother rarely ever slept in the same bed anymore. David snored too much, so he slept in the guest room. David and my mother never took vacations alone as a couple, ever. And they argued like there was no tomorrow. Despite all of this, in some strange way that I can't figure out, they loved each other.
Like my mother, David was pretty much a workaholic. But even though he had a long commute to the city, he drove me to school early every morning so I could make chorus practice.
I didn't much like talking to David, so these car rides consisted of me changing the radio as much as possible. I couldn't stand to listen to bad songs, so station surfing was very big with me. Occasionally David said, "Can't you just leave it alone, Katie?" It was just a five-minute ride to school but I didn't stop pressing the buttons until I found something I liked.
* * *
Like most schools, I guess, mine was often frustrating and I felt misunderstood a lot of the time. The most alienating part of school is the way they separate you into groups, as if to say, "This girl will be a success, but this one won't." Like most kids, I never got into the program for gifted students, and it bothered me. We all knew what it meant.
Fortunately, there was one teacher I felt close to—the choral director, Ms. Montarro. She loved students who cooperated with early-morning call, and I did. Our group was called the Choraleers. Twenty-five kids from the seventh and eighth grades met three or four mornings a week. We mostly sang cheesy stuff, but we were pretty good. We sang the National Anthem at Mets games, and we sang at the all-state convention and for Congress.
In school, I was probably most devoted to music. Outside school, it was swimming. In fact, by the eighth grade swimming had become the major focus of my life, and as a result the New Canaan swim team—a highly competitive, nationally known club—was a big part of our family's life. My mother was very friendly with the coach and the other parents. And my younger sister, Carrie, had started swimming, too.
I first got involved with swimming when I was a preschooler and went for lessons at the YMCA. Their system started kids out as "guppies" who wore water wings and splashed around the pool with their mothers. (I went with my nanny.) Swimming was an important safety thing in our family and my mother insisted we work through minnow, fish, flying fish, to the shark level, which was the highest, so we would all be able to handle ourselves in the water.
By the third grade I had noticed the swim team, which also worked out at the Y, and started to think that I might like to try it. Unlike other sports, which require a lot of hand-eye coordination—more than I possess—swimming is a matter of practice and commitment, two things I could manage. When I told my parents that I was interested in joining the team, they were excited that I wanted to participate in any kind of sport.
I began competing in the fourth grade, which meant I also started practicing many hours a week. The main feeling I had at those early practices was coldness. Swimmers move fastest through cold water, so the pool at the Y was always chilly. I was usually one of the last ones in, and I never got used to the cold.
The team competed mainly in regional meets, but every year we qualified for some national tournaments as well. I suppose it was exciting to travel to different meets, but the most I ever saw of any of the cities we visited would be the hotel, the pool, the airport, and, if I was lucky, a restaurant. It didn't really matter if I was in California or Florida, it all seemed the same to me.
I invested a lot of time and effort in swimming, so much that it became a big part of my identity. My parents got hooked into the swim team, too. At the pool there were always two competitions. The first was the actual swim meet. Even though we all wore swim caps and bathing suits, everyone knew each other, or at least the competition. I know I would sit there and inspect the muscles of each swimmer, how defined they were and well trained they looked. You couldn't hide any of it in a swim suit, and I had a pretty good idea about who was a serious competitor even before we got into the water.
While the swimmers competed on the pool deck and in the water, upstairs in the bleachers the parents were competing, too. They kept track of who was swimming when and what times were needed to be able to finish where. The parents were always talking with each other, trying to figure out who had done what. They wanted to know how much extra help a particular swimmer might be getting. Who had private lessons? Who had a fitness coach?
I always felt like my self-worth was determined by how well I placed. And I think the parents felt the same way—their status among the team parents depended on how well their child placed.
As I improved, I became one of the swimmers that the coaches depended on for winning times. Where once it was enough to be in the top ten, gradually I was pressured to be in the top five, four, three. All the emphasis on winning made swimming less and less enjoyable. During those moments when I had doubts about staying with the team, all the work put into swimming convinced me to continue. I shoved my doubts away and thought, If I don't swim, what will I do? I'll have no life.
* * *
When you consider the demands of swimming, choir, and school, it's obvious I didn't have a whole lot of time for friends. In fact, I had just one close friend, a girl named Karen. As far as I could tell, Karen had a perfect life. She was tall and thin. She had dirty blonde hair and blue eyes. She was a soccer player, and her team had won a regional championship. She was also very intelligent.
Karen lived in a two-million-dollar house. It wasn't as gorgeous as the house next to it, which was on the front of Unique Homes, but I would have traded it for our house in a second. It had so many bedrooms that her older sister was allowed to have two. The whole place was decorated like a shrine to a happy family. The walls were covered with pictures of vacations, soccer games, and holidays. I always wanted my mom to put up pictures of our family, but she said she didn't have time.
Karen's family was sort of like the Kennedys, without the politics. They were all smart, all excellent athletes. Her brother Rob attended Williams College. Her father was in the real estate development field, and her mother was a full-time homemaker. Every time I went to Karen's house, her mother was cooking something like chicken or pasta. And she would do anything for us, even run out and get a last-minute video. And I will never forget the hot fudge she made for special occasions like Karen's birthday.
It's funny; I didn't like Karen in elementary school. She was a tomboy back then. She even admitted to me that she wore boxers in fifth grade. But by middle school she was in most of my classes and it didn't take long for me to see that she was no longer a tomboy. In fact, Karen had a way with guys, and all I could think was that she had somehow learned it during her tomboy phase.
* * *
I couldn't approach guys the way Karen did. I didn't have her confidence. I knew I was not beautiful the way she was, but I also couldn't see what she saw in guys our age. The cliché about girls being more mature than boys is true. Just listen to boys talk. It's always about skateboarding or something they saw on TV. Girls talk about relationships and the future. Serious things.
I also didn't understand the idea of dating at our age. I mean, I thought a date was where a guy picks a girl up at her house and takes her out. How can that happen in middle school? No one has a driver's license or the money for going out to eat or to a movie.
Nevertheless, girls my age put a great deal of effort into somehow connecting with boys in a romantic and sexual way. I almost fell out of my chair in social studies class one day when I heard that a girl named Jenny had given a blow job to a boy named Adam at a local park. At first I refused to believe it. But I heard it from a reliable source, and Jenny was one of the short-skirt girls in our class. A month later she was reportedly actually having sex with another boy. I heard her talking about how she had used an orange-colored condom and how it felt to lose her virginity. I was so grossed out.
It wasn't just Jenny who was running the bases sexually. Rumors flew around school about who fingered who, and what guy managed to get his hand up which girl's shirt.
At parties we would play a game called Never Have I Ever. We would sit around in a circle with some type of alcohol or beverage. Someone would then say, "Never have I ever kissed someone," and everyone who had kissed someone would have to take a sip. This game made everyone's experience level in the sex department—or at least what they confessed to—common knowledge.
My experience was nil, and I couldn't decide whether this was embarrassing or not. One spring afternoon I was sitting outside on a concrete bench waiting for a ride home from school. It was late, so there was only one other girl waiting with me. I had never talked to her before, but I knew who she was. She always wore black tops—long sleeve, short sleeve, halter—always black.
It wasn't long before she asked me if I had a boyfriend. I wasn't even wearing a bra yet, and this girl wanted to know if I had a boyfriend.
"Are you kidding me?" I laughed. "We are much, much too young to be dating."
"What's the matter with you?" she said sarcastically. "We're not too young. Everybody's doing it. That's the way it is."
And with that, she turned away. I felt stupid because there was obviously something going on that I didn't know about. Luckily my ride arrived and I didn't have to sit there with her any longer.
When you are thirteen, you spend most of your time trying to figure out whether you're a kid or a teenager or an adult, when you are really part of each. You feel like people are constantly judging you for the most superficial reasons. No one my age seemed to be interested in music, or books, or any of the things that mattered to me. They cared more about who had big boobs and who was still a virgin. I was beginning to feel completely alone.
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