I was an awkward kid; string bean skinny, butter teeth, a plague of freckles and the fairest skin most people have ever seen. Some joked that I was so fair you could see my blood flowing through my veins. I had a lot of nicknames, none of them kind.
My sister was “the cute one” and I was “the smart one.”
I was confused when an adult neighbor looked at me as if he’d seen me for the first time when I was about thirteen, “Good God, girl. You are going to be a knockout when you’re older.”
I thought he was gross.
I never thought of my appearance because I was ugly. I knew I’d have to rely on my wits and developed a biting sense of humor to compensate for what my mama didn’t give me. When I did get attention from boys I was suspicious and then I shrunk from it. I had faith in my smarts and a quiet confidence that may have been ill-placed, but served me well. I relied on being a nerd with the hopes I’d land an equally nerdy husband. We’d make informed decisions, listen to NPR and have the best jokes; a match made in nerd heaven.
It wasn’t until I was 18 that I realized attractive, popular boys were interested in me. I remember the first time a very good looking 20 year old made it clear he wanted to take me on a date. I was the girl that looked over her shoulder both ways to see where the pretty girl was, and upon realizing I was alone pointed to the center of my chest, “Me…?”
I don’t get it…?
Many years later my husband would tell me that a colleague once said, “Jeanette has no idea how pretty she is, does she?”
He’d smile, almost proud, “She’s my ugly duckling.”
So, I turned into a swan, yada yada, good for you.
Well, not exactly. While the little girl in me is happy that my freckles faded, Crest invented White Strips and self tanner doesn’t stink as bad as it did in the 90’s, I’m still an ugly kid on the inside. I just feel a different kind of pressure and I think every single woman knows it intrinsically. While I would like so much to tell you that my brainy confidence transitioned to every other part of me, you can be like me too, I suffer from an ugly little secret:
Negative self talk.
I notice the things about myself you may not. I’m self conscious about the little gap in my teeth, the way my right eye looks a little squinty when I smile, the lines that are coming with age, the size of my waist, the fact I have no pigment in my face after I wash my make up off and I could go on, but I think you get the point.
I don’t really recall negative self talk when I was a kid, Is this a grown up thing? I would like to return it, please.
I’ve tried a few things to combat it and at my best I tend to defeat the beast. At my worst I typically whine until a girlfriend tells me to get my head in check. It’s like a little flash bulb goes off, Oh yea. This is me being mean to myself.
I thought I’d share in the hopes this may help when your inner critic decides to show up with a magnifying glass.
I try to be thankful for my body in this moment, knowing in ten years I’ll wish I looked like I d0 today. I thank my strong legs for keeping me going, my healthy body for creating a life, my clear skin, my freckles for being only lightly freckly. I thank my smile for not only being large (One of my nicknames in high school was The Joker. Let’s move on…), but bringing light to those I love when they see it.
I try to be aware of the negative self talk that sneaks up on you. These are the things you didn’t consciously realize were there, but something stirs something deep. A rebuff or a rejection has you suddenly questioning whether you are lovable or worthy? A question or criticism suddenly makes you question your intelligence or motivation? See it for what it is in the moment. This is war talk. It is your dormant inner critic. Don’t allow it to fester. Do the work if you need to, but do not start to believe it. It is a dirty liar. I give you permission to treat it as an enemy.
I try not to obsess. At all.
My right eye will probably always water and staring in the mirror for fifteen minutes, hating it, worrying about my soon to be off-kilter eye makeup, is silly. Throw the extra mascara and liner in the makeup bag and get the day going. I’ve learned to love my watery eyeball. It gives me character and I will always have a conversation starter, “No, I’m not emotional. My eye just waters. Allergies.”
I deserve to love my life and sometimes that means the taste of decadent things. I also feel strongly about health, so I don’t overindulge, but I’m not going to make myself feel bad because I ate pasta. It was delicious. It’s in the past. Let it go. Tomorrow I will make (mostly) good choices.
I refuse to be mean to myself or anyone else. I may say, “I should probably hit the gym more and eat cleaner,” as opposed to staring at myself in the mirror, “Look at your disgusting (enter body part here).” There is never anything positive about bullying yourself or anyone else for that matter. One of my girlfriends and I recognized that we were in the habit of pointing out what we hated about ourselves to each other a few years ago. We were doing it in front of our daughters, so we created safe phrases and compliments to get each other back into check and remind ourselves that a dimple here or there was not what made a woman. If she started in on herself I would smile, “You have beautiful eyes. You are such a good cook.” If I did, she’d respond, “You are such a great writer. You have such a beautiful smile.” We only had to do it a few times before it stuck.
If someone else feels the need to tear into another individual, I refuse to be part of that as well. You don’t know the struggles and negative self talk of others. Let them figure out their own path and quiet their own dirty little liars. You do you.
I smile as I write this, thinking back on an encounter with my daughter and our Target cashier a month or so ago. Olivia is four and as the woman was ringing us up, she asked very loudly, “Mommy, why is that lady so old?” I tried to give her a look she hasn’t yet realized is the “be quiet” look, so after the second time I had to handle it.
I leaned in, “Liv, what you are saying may hurt her feelings. Don’t say it again and we’ll talk about it in the car.”
We did. She understood that if she wanted to tell the cashier that she had a nice necklace or she liked the color of her shirt she could do that, but saying something about her being old or having wrinkles may not be the nicest way to interact with someone. A few hours later I was on the phone with a friend, laughing about how time was flying. When I got off the line, Liv was ready to have a talk with me.
“Mommy, we don’t tell people that we’re old. It’s not kind.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You told that person, ‘We’re getting old.’ Maybe that wasn’t the nicest way to talk to her.”
Or to myself.
Out of the mouths of babes.
Be good to yourselves, friends.