WHEN I WAS 14, I had a woman’s body. My boobs grew quickly. They grew and grew to require thick-strapped, supportive bras. And when I walked down the street men looked at me in a way that made me feel like I had grown them on purpose in order to attract their attention. Maybe I had. That same year—14 going on 15—I transferred to Ramaz, a Modern Orthodox high school on the Upper East Side, and signed up to audition for the fall semester musical, Newsies.
The morning of the audition, I spent even longer than usual getting dressed. I struggled to find a shirt that flattered my curves but was not so tight or low cut that I would get in trouble for violating our school’s strict dress code. I often dressed in front of a round, silver vanity mirror in my bedroom, angling it down so I could see my collarbones, cleavage, stomach, cotton briefs. Sometimes I liked my developing body. I would imagine the way that a man on the street or a boy in my class might see me clothed, out in the world; it was thrilling and a little shameful, a whoosh from my stomach to my groin that left me feeling almost nauseous and dehydrated.
Running late for daily morning prayers, I finally selected a pink, crew neck t-shirt that clung tight around my torso. It wasn’t that I wanted to show off my boobs exactly. Roomier shirts hid my waist and made me feel fat. I wanted neither to be provocative nor unattractive, but I was beginning to realize that there are few acceptable ways to be a woman.
ALL DAY AT SCHOOL, I made repeated visits to the bathroom to touch up my makeup and fuss with my hair. At the end of the day, the theater teacher, Ms. Siegel, called us in to audition one by one. She was in her 60s, wore thick glasses and a brown dress that was largely utilitarian. The other students had warned me to “stay on her good side.” By the time it was my turn, Ms. Siegel already appeared exasperated with the piano player, a pale redhead in glasses. “If we don’t move faster we’ll be here all night,” she said. I handed the piano player my sheet music for “Everything’s Coming up Roses,” from Gypsy, and he thanked me without making eye contact. “Whenever you’re ready,” Ms. Siegel told me.
I had chosen “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” because it had been the highlight of my performance as the overbearing stage mother, Mama Rose, in a fourth-grade production of Gypsy. Throughout elementary and middle school, I attended an after-school musical theater program at a small, decrepit playhouse in the East Village. I still think of that era as my glory years: At nine years old, dressed in a fur coat and carrying a giant snakeskin purse half my size, I sang Mama Rose’s brassy ballad of blind ambition to an encouraging crowd of picture-snapping parents. I was too young to fully understand the content of what I sang. Still, I was moved by the yearning implicit in the melodies. I could feel it when I sang: the lights coming up on me, me, me. The dark mass of audience watching me perform. Then applause. And the glory of emerging from backstage with sticky, sprayed hair and makeup. At that age, the future was wide open. I dreamed about a career on stage.
Standing in the fluorescent light of Ms. Siegel’s classroom, I felt nostalgic for the dim East Village theater and its creaky red seats, which always smelled faintly of urine. The song was meant to be forcefully belted but I found it difficult to muster the appropriate bravado in front of Ms. Siegel.
My confidence had been shaken since arriving at Ramaz. I was increasingly uncomfortable in my own skin and I wasn’t sure exactly why. I had gone to private Jewish schools on substantial scholarship since the third grade, but Ramaz was the richest and most elite school I had ever attended. My classmates arrived for the fall semester deeply tanned from summers in the Hamptons, dressed in the most expensive, on-trend clothes that were allowed under Ramaz’s religious dress code. I had spent the summer at home in the humid city and dressed in shirts scoured from the clearance rack at Urban Outfitters. I never stood out in my classes, never managed to convey the dynamic personality I believed I possessed. My most distinctive attribute was probably my body, which was involuntarily provocative: brash, and showier than I wanted to be at school. Auditioning for Newsies represented an opportunity to feel in my element once again.
“Louder!” Ms. Siegel interrupted my song. “I can’t hear you,” she said. I sang louder but my voice was shaky. “Okay,” she cut me off, “I have what I need.” I turned to leave, dejected, but Ms. Siegel called me back to chat. Since I was new at the school, she wanted to know where I lived and what my parents did. “They’re writers,” I said and she raised a brow. Having artist parents was unusual at Ramaz, where most of my classmates were children of lawyers or bankers. “My dad writes musicals,” I specified. “And how does he pay the bills?” she asked. Adults asked me this question so often that I didn’t realize until I was much older how intrusive it felt. My parents were struggling, which was why I was on scholarship. “That is how he does it,” I explained. Ms. Siegel smiled as if impressed. She told me that the class list would be up the following week. Then, just before I bent to pick up my bag, she looked me up and down and said, “You’re pretty.”
I WAS TOO FLATTERED by Ms. Siegel’s compliment to feel put off by the audition experience. On the subway ride home that evening, I wondered, was I really pretty? In the tunnels, I pouted my lips in front of the door window, oblivious to the other passengers. In those days I spent a fair amount of time in front of my vanity mirror at home, or reflective store windows in the streets, constantly evaluating my face and body from various angles.
Hitting the first benchmarks of womanhood felt burdensome and sort of ominous. The year I got my first period was the same year that I aged out of my beloved children’s theater class. At school, I was given a pastel pink book from 1988: The Wonder of Becoming You: How a Jewish Girl Grows Up. The book explained how the physical changes taking place inside my body should be accompanied by an important adjustment in my behavior and dress. I would soon be responsible for observing the laws of tznius, or modesty. “Modesty means keeping concealed what should not be revealed,” the book explained. Its pages described our foremother, Ruth, as an exemplary woman, a model of modest behavior. “What was it about Ruth that led Boaz to notice her?” the author asks. “Ruth was quiet and kept to herself, while other women hiked up their skirts to make it easier to gather grain. Other women flirted with the male harvesters . . . Ruth kept her distance . . . Few of us will ever harvest grain in a field, but we can all learn from Ruth’s behavior!” In middle school, I took this lesson to heart: I would be like Ruth. I would be quiet, keep my distance from men, and cover the parts of my body that should not be revealed. One of my favorite musical performances had always been Ann Margaret’s writhing, whimpering, and flirting in Bye Bye Birdie. It occurred to me that Ann Margaret was like those vulgar women in the grain fields.
Each time I found pleasure in showing off my body, it seemed that I was punished for it. At school, the teachers and rabbis would monitor girls for dress code violations and report every glimpse of cleavage or excessive skin to the administrative office. I hated getting in the elevators with two specific rabbis who were known to eagerly report violations. These young men, new fathers, would stand as far from the girls as possible and look down until they arrived on their floor. I always wondered how they noted the offenses so stealthily.
There were days that I risked lower-cut shirts for the sake of fashion, or to appeal to a crush. On these days, I always knew it was coming: I would hear my name called over the loudspeaker on my way to math or Talmud class. “Shayna Goodman, please report to the 6th floor office.” There, the secretary was supposed to give me an oversized Israel Day Parade t-shirt. She was a nice Upper West Side lady who often took pity on me and the other girls. “This is your last warning,” she said many times. But despite her kindness, these incidents deepened my discomfort in my own body, and my shame at having drawn attention to myself.
In the world outside Ramaz, there were also repercussions, potentially dangerous, for dressing too suggestively. Once on the subway home from school, a man sitting across from me mimed groping motions with his hands and stuck his tongue out. Soon after, a boy no more than 13 years old, selling candy for his basketball team on Broadway and Spring, backed me up against the windows of Dean and Deluca and whispered, “I will slap those fat titties.” One moment I was walking down Spring Street with breasts that were shapely, lovely, and taut. The next, they were “fat titties”: engorged, bobbling obscenities, engulfing the rest of me, inciting strangers, demanding modesty.
THE WEEK FOLLOWING AUDITIONS, the cast list for Newsies came up with my name near the top. I had been cast as Sarah Jacobs, the love interest of the protagonist, Jack. That night, I walked home from the train, beaming as I passed the pizza store. It was October, still warm out, and I could smell the pavement. I took my jacket off and I felt free, like everything had lined up in my favor. I didn’t know what I was more pleased about: getting what I assumed would be a big part, or getting the part because I was (evidently) beautiful.
My parents said that Newsies was “total garbage”—a reductive, nostalgic Disney distortion of the poverty-stricken, turn-of-the-century Lower East Side experience. “Both boring and revolting,” my dad said. But I didn’t take their criticisms too seriously. The show didn’t have to be good, I thought, so long as I was starring in it.
When I walked into shacharit prayers the next morning in the school cafeteria, I thought I detected a shift in the other students’ perceptions of me. My classmates said “Congratulations!” and “Mazal Tov!” in the halls. Some of the boys gave me high-fives, which was technically forbidden. Our school’s prohibition on all physical contact, however casual, made the slightest tap or brush a highly sensual thrill. “I fucking love Newsies!” one boy said in the hall. “You’ll make a great Sarah Jacobs,” he added, with a smile that I read as flirtatious and did not forget for a long time after.
I had never seen Newsies, but Ramaz seemed to be full of the show’s most avid fans. A girl who was to play a newsboy told me that she used to watch the movie every night before bed. “I always wished I was Sarah Jacobs,” she said.
“So what’s her deal?” I asked.
“She’s, like, a hot, sweatshop worker’s daughter,” the girl explained.
I liked the idea of it. Since childhood, I’d sometimes fantasized about embodying some wide-eyed, virtuous waif. One of my favorites was Liesl von Trapp, dressed in white chiffon, conveniently wet from the rain, the fabric clinging to her breasts as she sings, “I am sixteen going on seventeen / innocent as a rose” to her Nazi boyfriend. Girls like her were too good to realize how hot they were.
“So it’s a big part?” I asked my castmate.
“It’s an important part,” she replied.
ON THE FIRST DAY of rehearsals, we received copies of the script. “This is yours, Sarah,” Ms. Siegel said, which is how she addressed me from that point on. I skimmed the script, looking for my lines. Pages and pages passed without a word. This “Sarah” was on stage quite a bit according to the stage instructions (Sarah stands at the side, Sarah sits sewing a quilt at her father’s knee, Sarah looks afraid of her assailant, Sarah is rescued by Jack) but she hardly ever said anything. Even worse, she never sang anything. She had one brief solo line in the closing ensemble number.
I rented Newsies on VHS and watched it that weekend, eager for a character study, but there was no character to study. In her 19th century high-necked blouses and long skirts, Sarah Jacobs, as portrayed by Ele Keats, is exactly the kind of chaste piece of ass likely to be beloved at a yeshiva. She has big tits and nice, straight hair. She smiles vacantly while the leading man sings ballads and talks about himself. This was long before I would find feminism and make liberal use of the word “objectification”; at 14, I was only conscious of being annoyed that my part was so insignificant. As a child, I had been lauded for my ability to sing and act in comedic roles. I had played an emotionally complicated, overbearing stage mother with suppressed desires. But as a woman, I was going to play soulless, big-titted Sarah Jacobs—the Stepford wife of musical theater ingénues.
THE BOY who played Jack was a senior named Isaac, who was beloved by Ms. Siegel. He was tall and carried himself with confidence: king of the niche world of uninhibited theater nerds. He had a girlfriend, Atarah, also a senior, and I’d heard rumors that they made out on the seventh floor behind the lockers. I had never kissed a boy. I fidgeted and blushed each time Isaac looked at me in rehearsals, wishing that when he said his lines to me on stage, the sentiment was true in real life too. But outside of Newsies, he showed no interest.
One day, Ms. Siegel took me aside and told me that she had noticed I was behaving “awkwardly” around Isaac. “You stand like this,” she said and imitated how I folded my arms over my chest and kept my head down. She made a bashful face, looking down at the floor with sad, batting, deranged eyes. “Why don’t you try building chemistry with him,” she advised.
“How?” I asked her.
“How?” she repeated, “How do you think? You talk to him.”
I resented that the onus was on me. The last time I had tried to initiate a conversation with a boy at school was during our grade’s weekend retreat at a hotel in the Catskills. I went outside to the patio, where a group of boys were standing in a circle, making conversation. I had a crush on one of them: a kid with dark curly hair, who wore his shirtsleeves rolled up to reveal strong forearms. The intensity with which he shared his thoughts in our English class reminded me of Perchik, the radical Marxist tutor in Fiddler on the Roof. I worked up the courage necessary to approach the boy, one hand raised in a shy but determined little wave, the other holding an apple I’d grabbed from a platter inside the lobby. But as soon as I waved hello, one of the rabbis ordered me back inside. I heard him yelling from behind me: “Muchzar! Muchzar!”—holding the apple was apparently considered “carrying” and therefore a desecration of Shabbat. I did not dare to look back at the boy as I retreated from him. Inside the hotel, still holding the red, forbidden apple, I knew that I had been reprimanded for flirting and not for carrying. I never tried to speak to the boy again. For the rest of high school, the mere sight of him in the halls made me groan quietly to myself in mortification.
Isaac’s locker was two down from mine. Each time he gathered his books I would watch him out of the corner of my eye, trying to summon the confidence to say something. He was always gone before I opened my mouth. Probably off to grope Atarah, who I found beautiful in a way that seemed careless and accidental. One day, just as Isaac was closing his locker door, I abruptly asked him if I could have his AOL screen name. He said “Okay,” but did not make any moves to offer it to me. I remember thinking the word “whore” as I took a pen out of my bag and tore a corner off a Hebrew worksheet. “See you,” Isaac said. My face and chest were splotchy red.
That night, seated at the computer in my parents’ bedroom, I waited for Isaac to come online. “hey,” I wrote to him, “ms. siegel said we should build chemistry.” I sat with my hands hovering above the keyboard, my stomach sick with anticipation. “haha,” he replied. “is that funny?” I asked him. He didn’t reply. I waited for a long time—maybe half an hour—while my sister begged for her turn on the computer and my mother turned the lights off in the living room.
IT ISN’T EASY to play a nearly mute ingénue. In one scene, Sarah Jacobs wakes up in the morning to find Jack sleeping on the fire escape outside her bedroom window. She is delighted! She uses the curtains to coyly cover her bust as she leans out the window, smiles, and coos in a breathy voice, “I made you breakfast.” This is one of the few times Sarah speaks, and it was humiliating for me. I delivered the line sheepishly, instinctively putting my hand over my mouth, uncomfortable with the suggestiveness of the scene. “Take your hand off your face,” Ms. Siegel said, “Be seductive!”—a confusing directive for a 15-year-old who was not allowed to high-five a boy.
I thought back to the freedom of my prepubescent body. When I was in children’s theater, I navigated the stage with ease. I swung my arms as I sang—big wide movements! Now I was conscious of my boobs bouncing whenever I moved too quickly. I said my line softly. Sometimes I trembled involuntarily. “Jesus Christ!” Ms. Siegel would yell. “Do it right before I die!” She was never aware of how low the stakes of our production were. Her thin, fine hair would go limp and wet with nervous sweat. The worst was when she capitalized on her knowledge of my parents’ careers. “They’d be ashamed of you,” she once said, “if they could see how awkward you look, standing like a schlub up there.”
Toward the end of the musical, a “thug” attacks Sarah Jacobs on the street. “Ey, sweetie,” said the boy who played my assailant. “Try to imagine what it would be like if a man said something disgusting to you in the street,” Ms. Siegel instructed. On stage that evening, I recalled the memory of the man on the subway and gave the boy a look of extreme discomfort. “Like you’re afraid,” Ms. Siegel screamed, “not like you need to shit!”
When it came time for me to sing, I could not hit the birdlike high note in my one solo line. I opened my mouth and nothing would come but a quiet squeak. “It’s fine, we’ll have someone who can actually sing take your line,” Ms. Siegel said. After the rehearsal, I followed her downstairs to her office, which was decorated with posters of the musicals I knew and loved as a child. “I want to sing my line myself,” I told Ms. Siegel. She gave me a look of amusement. “I used to be a good singer,” I told her. Used to. I hadn’t spoken about singing in the past tense before and I felt the tears come. “I don’t know what to tell you,” Ms. Siegel replied. She was packing up her things for the night, busying herself so she wouldn’t have to make eye contact. “Welcome to the real world,” she said.
IN THE END, Ms. Siegel allowed me to sing my line. “Do not disappoint me,” she said, vaguely threatening. But I couldn’t help it. We gave three performances of Newsies and I missed my note each time. It was easier to let the music play, to let the audience guess at what should have been there.
After the performance, I emerged from backstage with a full face of makeup and banana-curled hair. My parents greeted me with flowers and concerned expressions. “You had no lines,” my mother said. “Why didn’t that woman give you something to say?” “Very good screaming,” my father deadpanned.
This was the beginning of the end of my theater career. The next semester, Ms. Siegel gave me a part in the chorus of Bye Bye Birdie and I went down to her office, for the last time, to ask her why she had not considered me for the lead. “You’re pretty,” she told me once again, “but you have no presence.” As I climbed the stairs from her office, I tried to reimagine the person I intended to become. I would not try to be an actress, I decided. I would be someone serious, someone who was skilled at something besides wearing lipstick and screaming. But the legacy of my role as Sarah Jacobs followed me throughout high school anyway, living inside me like a vain and useless alter-ego. Long after I quit musical theater—resigned myself to being just a quiet girl in a sacrilegious V-neck shirt—boys would ask me in the halls, “Hey, did you make me breakfast?”