I was 16 when I burst into my mom’s office at the school board building, beside myself with confusion and sadness.
“I don’t know where I belong!” I cried. After bouncing back and forth between Catholic and public high school three times, I still didn’t have an answer.
It’s not that I didn’t have friends. There were groups of people I hung out with at both schools – my public school friends that I knew from my neighborhood and the city pool, and my Catholic school friends that I’d known since kindergarten. But for some reason, I had insecurities wherever I went. The girls at the Catholic high school grew up in nicer towns and had bigger houses and better cars than I did, and the kids at the public high school thought I was stuck up because I had gone to a grade school where my parents paid for my education. And wherever I went, there were girls who were skinnier and prettier who the boys liked better. I just couldn’t find happiness.
Eventually I had to make a choice and stuck with it (and luckily I chose the school where I started dating a guy who’s now my husband). I settled into my surroundings and finished school. But thinking about that experience where I flip-flopped back and forth always reminds me how hard it was to grow up, and how hard I was on myself as a teenager.
And the insecurities didn’t stop there. When I got into college, I found a love for fitness. With a gym on campus, I started working out an hour a day, which was great. Then I started watching a tall, lean, muscular girl on the stair-stepper every day and decided to up my game to two hours a day. Then afterward, I went home and ran a mile. Then two miles. Then three… My obsession with fitness led into my adult life, even after I had a couple of kids. I’d stick them in the day care and work out for two hours, and when I got home and looked in the mirror, I pinched any “back fat” I saw in disgust. Because if the other lady who was in the gym as much as I was didn’t have that, why did I?
All that working out led to the deflating of my once decent-sized chest, and except when I was pregnant or nursing, I was flat as a pancake. So throughout my early 30’s, I obsessed about breast implants. I researched and wrote articles about them, talking to doctors and other ladies who had them. Oh, how they would make me look so much better, I thought. Because even if I had a 6-pack like some girls in the fitness magazines, they actually filled out their sports bras when I didn’t even need to wear one. If I would have had an extra $6,000, I would have insisted on getting boobs.
I don’t know how it’s happened, but I thank God that as I’ve gotten older, I’m more and more sure that how I want to act or where I want to go or what I want to wear or how I want to look does not matter to anyone but me. Now, at three years shy of 40, I’m happy with and thankful for everything I have, and a lot nicer to myself than I’ve ever been. I eat chocolate as soon as I crave it, and I allow myself to order an ice cream cone when my kids do. And if I ever happen to have an extra six grand lying around, I’ll take all my closest friends on a tropical vacation, even if I have the flattest chest on the island.
It took half my life to be happy with myself. I’ve had lots of friends and a wonderful, supportive family, but I still wasted all that time beating myself up.
“Do you like her dress or my dress better? You have to choose.” I hear one of them ask as they swing in the backyard.
“You scribbled on your picture. I stayed in the lines.” I hear as they color at the table.
“You can’t be Elsa because I’m Elsa.”
“I want the pink plate! You can’t have the pink plate!”
“I don’t want to be on her team. She’s slow!”
Why are girls so mean to each other at such a young age? I don’t know. I only know that because it’s so hard to grow up and accept ourselves, I’m going to teach my daughter to be kind to herself and to others, even when they’re not so nice to her.
Tell your friend her picture is beautiful, I’ll say.
If someone wants to dress up in the same costume as you, feel honored that she wants to be like you.
If everyone else wants the pink plate, pick yellow. It will make you unique.
Choose to be on the same team as the people who will cheer you on. Sometimes the slowest ones are the best supporters.
I complain all the time about how strong-willed my daughter is, but in the future, I hope she’ll use that will to push herself through whatever obstacles or internal demons she encounters. Mean girls, back fat, a flat chest – maybe they won’t bother her. I hope she says “Oh, well,” just like she does now if someone doesn’t want to play.
And maybe sooner than 37, she’ll accept herself, and teach her daughter how to do the same.