I was eleven when the doctor said I needed to wear a back brace twenty-three hours a day to treat my scoliosis. He wanted to do everything possible to stop the S curve in my spine from getting bigger in order to prevent a spinal fusion, which my mom had undergone when she was my same age. From the moment I saw the brace and learned I’d be stuck inside a thick, plastic shell that hugged my torso from just below my bra to beneath my hips all day every day, my body and my scoliosis were always on my mind.
At first, the brace made everything harder. It hurt to breathe and move and get dressed and be a kid inside my hard exterior. My brace amplified the changes that were happening to my body thanks to puberty. It pushed my chest up and out and gave me fake plastic hips that made me feel like an instant woman when all I wanted to do was blend in and be the same as my friends. It didn’t help that the way I was developing and growing required doctors and monitoring and bracing. I was told over and over that there was something really wrong with my body that needed to be fixed.
During the two years and four months I spent in my brace, I kept my sadness and pain inside, hidden from my closest friends and family. On the outside, I acted confident and totally fine with the fact that my clothes never fit right and that I had to miss out on skiing and cut back to just one ballet class a week. After two years of dancing in The Nutcracker in Boston, I had to skip that too, because the combination of performances and rehearsals required too much time out of the brace.
I was heartbroken to miss out on so many of the things that made me feel good about myself. I pretended that none of it bothered me, while at the same time feeling exposed and insecure, because the last thing I wanted was for other people to see me the way I saw myself—as different. I didn’t think that being honest about how upset I felt was going to change anything for the better, and I didn’t want to keep reminding my friends that I wasn’t like them, when I was already excluded from sharing clothes and skiing and ballet. I thought talking about my brace and focusing on it too much would make it worse.
After my brace came off, I didn’t want to talk or think about scoliosis. I wanted to move on. Only I couldn’t escape the negative view I had of myself. I never stopped hating my brace; it had been such a big part of who I was that I carried it with me even after it was gone, tucked away like a secret. I didn’t want anyone to see what I saw when I looked in the mirror—the S shape in my spine, the way my shoulders and hips always looked and felt uneven, how my torso was too short and seemed wrong and squished between my long arms and legs, and my stomach, which was weak from all of those hours trapped in the brace. I spent a long time after the brace came off struggling to accept my body and feel comfortable in my own skin.
It wasn’t until I was in my twenties, when I started talking and writing about my experience being treated for scoliosis, that I began to realize what a big impact my brace had on my self-image. It made me feel insecure and self-conscious about the way I looked and how I fit in the world, yet I was determined to give off the façade of confidence, even around the people closest to me, because I was trying to convince myself that my brace hadn’t impacted me. More than anything else, I felt alone, because I wasn’t being honest with anyone about the distorted view I had of myself.
Through the process of writing Braced, I had the opportunity to connect with a lot of people who’d experienced scoliosis, including my editor. It helped me to listen to their stories and talk openly about how scoliosis and bracing impacted the way I saw myself. I was shocked to find out that not everyone hated the brace as much as I did. There were so many different ways that people handled scoliosis treatment. Some kids I met named their braces—Mildred and Beatrice and Emily. My editor saw her brace as a protective shell, making her stronger.
Through these conversations, I started to see my own experience differently. I realized there were so many positive parts about wearing a brace—things that had made me better and braver and stronger in the term and long term—that I’d never considered or thought about, because I hadn’t talked about my brace with anyone, much less people who really understood and could relate to what I’d been through. As my perspective changed, I was able to bring what I had learned from other people to Rachel’s experience and help her grow and evolve over the arc of the book I was writing.
These conversations helped me to feel less alone and part of a bigger community, and I began to realize that my scoliosis is a unique part of who I am—curved spine, uneven hips, squished torso and all. It has made me a stronger, more honest and sensitive person.
Scholastic / Arthur A. Levine Books
★ A Junior Library Guild Selection
★ Starred Review from Kirkus
★ Starred Review from Booklist