I debated whether I should share this particular post since most of the people that read this blog are probably well into their 20s or 30s. And truthfully, I wrote this piece hoping to have it published on a blog or in a magazine that was geared more toward teenage girls. But then I thought, let’s face it. Some of us are still grappling with issues of self esteem from our childhood. And if that’s true, then how you feel about yourself today is going to have a profound effect on what strides and leaps you’re willing to take tomorrow. So for any young women who read this, this is for you. For my seasoned sisters, this is for you too!
It was during my 5th grade Art class that I learned for the first time that boys thought that I was ugly. Up until that point, while I certainly was not the most popular girl in my class, I always thought that I was relatively attractive. Why? Because my mother always told me that I was beautiful. My father affectionately nicknamed me “Teen Queen” and treated me like royalty. To this day, I’m not sure what set them off, but as I packed up my school bag after class, I became privy to one of the most humiliating conversations I’ve ever witnessed in my life.
These three boys sat there and literally picked apart every aspect of my looks, from my hair, to my skin color, to my nose, to the clothes I wore.
Boy 1: “Look at the way her nose gets all pointy at the end. She looks like a bird.”
Boy 2: “Her long hair helps her looks, but if she didn’t have that, she wouldn’t be pretty at all.”
Boy 3: “Look at how skinny she is.”
Determined not to give them the satisfaction of seeing me cry, I stuffed my art project in my bag and walked, head down, past those boys, straight out of the classroom and out of the school. As I walked home, I let the tears fall silently down my cheeks and the questions started to swirl in my mind. Why was I ugly to those boys? If I was ugly, what could I do to make myself pretty?
At 31, I often reflect on that moment in my life and I smile; because the woman I am now knows a lot that that little girl at 10 didn’t have a clue about.
Lesson #1: What others think about me does not make me beautiful or worthy of acceptance.
This was a lesson that I had to learn quickly. As a teenager, I discovered early on that EVERYONE will ALWAYS have an opinion about me, and everyone else for that matter. If I allowed myself to be ruled by what other people say, how would I ever be satisfied with me? How would I ever even discover what makes me, me? Realizing this, when I began high school, I made the decision to only explore what made me happy, regardless of what the “popular” thing was. When all of my girlfriends wanted to be cheerleaders (because that’s what the “pretty girls” did), I decided to join the drama club. When everyone wanted to join the marching band or band front, I joined the concert choir and orchestra. And by the way, I did try out for the cheerleading squad, made it, but then declined, so that I could pursue projects that I was more passionate about.
Now I’m not saying that I never followed a fad or tried certain things because I saw my friends doing it. As a young person, you’re trying to find yourself and you’re going to fall prey to peer pressure at times. But when I reflect on those years, I’m proud to say that I made conscious decisions to involve myself in activities that I knew I could either grow from, or really allow my abilities to shine in. By doing this, my confidence soared. And while I still may not have believed that I was the most beautiful-looking girl in the world, I actually started to gain respect from my peers who were beginning to recognize my abilities. And this was based on me showing others what I could do, not by waiting for approval or affirmation from them first.
Lesson #2: Beauty is about embracing what makes me unique.
When I looked in the mirror, I saw long, thick, curly hair that just wouldn’t behave without a relaxer. I saw skinny arms and legs and no real booty to speak of. I saw thick eyebrows and stubby, wrinkly fingers. Why couldn’t I be taller? Why couldn’t I have a nice hourglass shape like some of my faster-developing girlfriends? And after years of critiquing my body, I finally had to get to a point where I accepted it for what it was, because all this emphasis on what I had and didn’t have was taking up precious time that I could have been using to do something worthwhile. It was truly just a distraction that made me increasingly unhappy with myself. Besides, I learned from my doctor, as women, our bodies are constantly changing. So we can’t hold ourselves hostage to our looks or we’ll never truly discover what makes us special on the inside.
I started working on investing in myself in other ways than just my physical appearance. I read about and fell in love with my culture. I experimented with acting, singing, dance, photography, writing poetry, plays, and short stories. I began volunteering for local community organizations. What I discovered was that I see the world through an artistic lens; I’m passionate about education; and that I absolutely adore working with people and uplifting my community. I liked this girl! This girl was beautiful! And this journey of self-discovery helped me to start setting goals early so that I could filter out distractions, determine what was really important to me, and really shape my life.
Lesson #3: Surrounding myself with people who recognize and appreciate my beauty helped to build my confidence.
Once I started to spend more time examining who I was, I began to identify with people who appreciated the things that I valued. I surrounded myself with mentors that would be honest with me, empower, and motivate me to be even greater than what I thought I could be. They recognized my abilities and would recommend me for opportunities that were a good fit. They looked beyond my physical appearance and saw that I actually had a brain. So they challenged me to spend time developing that instead of just my exterior. This helped me to see that I was so much more than my body. My intelligence and passion for life were beautiful and fierce!
So looking back on that heartbreaking day in the Art room, I realized that I made an important decision. Although I was crushed by their hurtful comments, I chose not to allow their opinions to ultimately define me. Doing that would have given them my power and kept me locked in a downward spiral of self hatred.
You have the ability to make the same kinds of decisions. One of my favorite quotes that I always share with young people is “Success and failure in life is based upon how we handle opportunities.” Everything that happens to us in life, whether good or bad, is an opportunity for growth and self discovery. Be bold. Dare to discover the true beauty that you are. It’s your choice. Don’t let someone else define your beauty. Do it for yourself.