Take a look at my body
Look at my hands
There’s so much here
That I don’t understand
Contempt loves the silence
It thrives in the dark
With fine winding tendrils
That strangle the heart…
– Natalie Merchant, “My Skin”
Similar to my friend Brenda, puberty hit when I was in the fifth grade, where, for one whole summer, I was the tallest one in the class, where I thought I could be a great women’s basketball player and believed I would actually fit into something bigger than a size 4 shoe.
Genetics had other ideas…
Childhood. It’s a time when insecurities are beginning to take shape as you become hyperaware of your body and the changes that are taking place — hyperaware, but not at all understanding what is happening. All you know is that everything is different now when you look in the mirror — you’re suddenly different — and instead of celebrating those differences, you’re made to feel ashamed of them by young boys who don’t know the first thing about a girl’s body and girls who are desperately wanting to see a change in their own.
Teasing. I remember the clever jokes they would create, led by the boy who lived a block over from me, who I’d used to play with when we were even younger. I remember how I cried — in part feeling bad about myself as I struggled to understand all of these changes that I couldn’t stop from happening , in part feeling betrayed by those I had considered friends and allies. But soon everyone else caught up, and soon we each began to realize that this was part of growing up.
Soon, we had other insecurities to replace the ones we had outgrown…
When I was in the seventh grade, I caught mono and was out of school for a month and a half. Instead of losing the weight, as so many others can claim, my metabolism tanked and my immune system went with it. I remember my mom pulling around to the back of the school to drop me off after receiving the clearance from the doctor; I remember bursting into tears at the thought of returning, of facing everyone after such a long absence. It wasn’t the first panic attack I’d ever had, but, looking back, it was the first one I could really recognize.
I wish I could say that I was afraid of not being able to catch up with the work; I wish I could say that I feared being out of sight and out of mind, that everything would have changed and I wouldn’t recognize or be a part of any of it. I wish I could remember — and I’m sure each of these doubts played their part, as they play their part to this day — but what I remember most was being ashamed of myself and fearing the ridicule that seemed only inevitable, that I had built up in my mind.
Mom took me home that morning, letting me have one more day before I faced my peers, before I faced my fears. I remember I was welcomed back by my teachers; I remember I was surrounded by friends again, easily slipping back into that circle and, somehow, that made it seem like everything else would be alright, even if I did spend the rest of my middle school days subconsciously hiding behind baggy sweaters and t-shirts.
High School felt like a promise — a golden promise that everything would change, that I would finally be able to grow into myself and show on the outside the person I was on the inside. Even now, writing this, it’s hard to admit that it’s all I’ve ever wanted — that someone would see beyond the flaws to the person inside; maybe that’s all we could ever hope for, in our secret heart of hearts…
He did. He found the person I was hiding and drew her to the surface, and maybe that’s why I loved him so, why I cherished our once-upon-a-time story.
Maybe that’s why I’d had so much trouble letting go…
But maybe it wasn’t all him…Maybe what he recognized was simply that I was finally beginning to accept myself…
I was sixteen when I went on my first trip to France, with a dozen and a half kids and three teacher-chaperones for ten days during the summer of 2000. I was sixteen when I flew on my first plane, when I visited my first foreign country, when I spent an extended time away from my parents, my family…
When it changed everything…
When it changed me.
I was sixteen when I first I discovered the world, when I discovered my voice, when I discovered myself.
I made myself a promise then (or maybe I’d just promised my mom) that has since been my life’s mantra: I wouldn’t hold back.
I wouldn’t hold back from being who I was for fear of what others might think of me; I wouldn’t hold back from experiencing what I wanted to experience because I wondered how I would look, how it might seem.
And I would never, ever hold back what I was feeling, would never keep from expressing how much I care about something or someone, in fear of their reply.
Life is too short: it’s cliché, but it’s true. I may not know exactly when it was decided, but something in me knew that I wasn’t going to tailor myself to fit someone else’s idea of who I should be, not there on this trip, and not, I later learned, in life. This was one of those rare, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities from which I couldn’t hold back, where the experiences were worth far more than the fear and worry…
Climb a thousand-plus stairs for a breathtaking view of Monaco? It would be hell, but sure. Hold an impromptu modeling session with friends at Mont Saint-Michel after marveling at the beauty of the abbey? A picture book of memories. A longing to see La Place de l’Opera more than any other monument because you read the Phantom of the Opera the year before and fell in love? Go. Tears cascading freely down your cheeks as you watch war footage in a memorial museum in Caan? Let them.
The question, “would you like dessert this evening?”
An answer: YES.
When I returned from France, my mom said she saw a change in me; when I finally looked inward, I saw a change in myself.
I shed the weight, both literally and figuratively. I began to pursue my passions through projects and in leadership roles in school, and I focused on the things and people that mattered the most to me. Maybe it was because I was in love, and I know how much that can change you, how, in its best form, how strong that can make you feel; maybe it was because I had finally found my own voice and I realized how powerful and beautiful that could be.
Either way, I had found myself.
Either way, I liked myself.
Heartbreak. Illness and illness again. Grief, mourning what seemed permanent losses — a loss of family, a loss of faith…
And then…a loss of self.
I didn’t think I could feel any lower than I did when I first started this blog — it was the beginning of what everyone claims is a quarter-life crisis, as I had no direction and any self-confidence was shattered. Who would hire me, has since been replaced by, who will love me?
It’s safe in the darkness, in the depression — you can let those voices whisper their poison until eventually you believe them to be true and by then, they act as a comfort, a shelter. You can convince yourself that happiness is fleeting, and that who you were then in the twilight years after France was just a fluke, that you’re older now, that you’ve changed — that it was only the innocence and folly of youth.
You can try to reclaim it by revisiting the country you adore, the country that feels like home…
But it’s only so long before you realize that it feels so much like home only because you had found your home in it…
You had found yourself.
And now you wonder where that’s gone…
You wonder how to get it back.
Self-esteem isn’t a switch that you can flip and await some grand transformation. There will always be moments when I look in the mirror and wonder how anyone can possibly love me as I am again, wonder if that wasn’t just some ironic twist of fate, if that wasn’t just the specialness of him. There will always be moments where I compare myself to others, wondering why I can’t be smarter or prettier or kinder or wittier. There will always be breakdowns in the shower and tear-soaked pillows in the quiet lull of night…
There will always be a time when, instead of your own reflection, you see your own worst enemy staring back at you. And that enemy has your face and your own name. And no matter how you try to escape her, she’ll follow you, a shadow that can’t be dispelled.
No, self-esteem isn’t a switch you can flip, but it’s a battle against the voices that haunt you, the voices that sound so very much like your own, that threaten to spread it’s poison as it belittles you, as it demeans the goodness in who you are.
Self-esteem is a war you wage, sometimes daily, against yourself and the insecurities that foster self-hatred instead of self-acceptance.
It’s a journey — a very personal and difficult journey — in discovering and rediscovering and discovering yet again who you are and why you are so loved.
Why you are beautiful.
And how you can love yourself.
Note: I can only imagine that this is the first post in a series on self-esteem, as I battle weakness and find strength on this journey towards my own self-acceptance. I want to thank Tatiana for her honesty and touching on the subject in her guest post, and Brenda for continuing the conversation and being vulnerable on her own blog — you’re both inspirations to me.