Body Image Stories: My Body Image Story, Part I: Moving to Maui

I was moving to Paradise, where the sun would always shine on my back, the warm blue water would welcome me, and bad things never happened.  Or so I thought.  I didn’t realize that I was about to enter into shark-infested waters, but they would be inside the school.  The company my dad worked for outside of Seattle had landed a contract to put in the sewer system in Kihei, Maui.  He would be supervising.

As one of only a handful of white students attending the school, a gang of girls approached me.  “Get da hell offa dis island, haole.  Go back to da mainland whea you belong,”  the leader said.  (Translation:  Get the hell off of this island, white girl.  Go back to the Mainland where you belong.)  When Gwen and her pack cornered me on the playground that day, I started to think it was going to be a long two years .  A cloud of fear and confusion engulfed me, and began to take root in my heart.

I was used to being popular and making friends easily.  So what was the big deal?  I just didn’t get it.  After all, we were all people, but just wore different colors of skin.

Day after day, week after week I was told I was worthless and shameful because of my white skin.  I felt like an apple in a pile of papayas.  They threw rocks at me, called me names, spit on me, and despised me before I even uttered a sound.  All because I was white.

One day, a native girl handed me a new, unsharpened white pencil.  She said, “Hea.  Take dis.  It’s white like your &*#%  haole face.”  (Translation:  Here.  Take this.  It’s white like your %^&* white face.)  The pencil dropped to the old wooden floor of the classroom, and my heart dropped to another level on the elevator of despair.   It felt like it was bleeding.  I began to wonder how long I could take the pain, the loneliness, and the fact that almost everyone hated me because of my white skin.

The depression became unbearable.  I despised my white skin, and wanted to have beautiful brown skin and dark hair.  But each day I swam, surfed,  or played tennis after school, and the tropical Hawaiian sun-kissed my hair until it turned white-blonde.  My skin was a beautiful bronze, but I still paid the price for my light blonde hair and blue eyes.  If I would have been even a little darker complected, it wouldn’t have been as bad.  I could have looked half Polynesian and blended in.  But with the blue eyes and white-blonde hair,  I just didn’t fit in.  I cried myself to sleep many nights.

Sleep was my drug of choice.

One morning I noticed almost everyone wearing white bands on their upper arms.  I didn’t know until it was too late that it was Kill Haole Day.   They would be “choosing” one of the handful of white kids that attended the K-8 school to beat up until just this side of consciousness. I wasn’t chosen, but one of my friends at a local high school was. The natives held his head against a wall and prepared to crush his skull with a concrete block. Just at that moment, the assistant principal walked onto the scene and spared his life.

That was it.  I needed to move back, so I told mom and dad that I had to move back to Washington, or go to a private school where most people were not prejudiced.   If not, I would drop out of school, although I was a very good student and my parents would never have approved.  Finally my parents relented and let me attend the private school.

Decades later, I am awed by how God used my Maui experience in so many ways.  Several years ago I interned at Union Gospel Mission Women and Family Shelter in Seattle.  I had the honor of working with many women of color, and sometimes they came in for counseling with stories involving race.  They would sigh and tell me I wouldn’t understand.

And I would say, “I have never experienced your story, but let me tell you a bit about my story.”  Their eyes widened, and they looked confused.  How could a blonde, blue-eyed, pale woman know anything about being a minority, they wondered.  Once I told them about moving to Maui, we began to enter into their stories with truth and grace.

After getting my teaching degree, I taught public school in several places in which most of the population consisted of Mexican Americans.  One time I asked the students to write about three things they would like to change about themselves.

I cried after school as I read the papers and many had written,” I would like to be white.”  So of course I shared about my years on Maui, and continued to tell them that they were beautiful just as they were.  One time a girl was going to buy blue contacts, and I was able to convince her that her brown eyes were beautiful and encouraged her to embrace her heritage.  Now I understand how it is that God can create beauty from ashes,

I have lived it.



2 Comments Add yours

  1. Joe Clark says:

    Great post. As someone who was also there, in fact going to a public high school as a 14 year-old, it’s amazing how similar our stories are. And at the time we didn’t even talk about it at the time that I can recall. At Christmas break, I also told my parents that I wasn’t going back to that torture chamber called Baldwin High School and as you know, ended up going to the same school you did. I think you did the right thing by leveraging your story to influence your students in a positive way. In the long run, the experience has made me wiser and more compassionate and sympathetic toward others who may be going through something similar. Although I’m grateful that 1974 is now firmly in my rear view mirror.


    1. Thanks, Joe. I’m so glad we came out the other side, and that we have found ways to become better people because of our expereinces. Take care, Cherrie


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