The Words She Keeps

I was in eighth grade when I overheard a group of boys discussing their female classmates in the library. I sat frozen in a cubby desk hidden from their view. I attempted to finish a make-up vocabulary test, but my focus disappeared as I listened to their words.

“The new girl is cute, but a little chubby. Sometimes she is pretty, but other days, I don’t know.”

I felt the young man’s words cut through my skin and consume my thoughts. I looked down at my thighs and noticed their roundness. I put my hand on my stomach, soft to the touch. My other hand embraced a lock of my hair, reminding me again that it was a mistake to try a new haircut.

I was the new girl, and apparently ugly and fat.

I don’t remember much of my eighth-grade year, yet I’ve kept those words with me. I hear them when I look into the mirror and don’t like what I see. I think about them when my skinny jeans don’t zip up or when my hair is a mess. Every time my face breaks out or  I slip my legs into a bathing suit, I am in eighth grade again.

Those words shouldn’t define me, shouldn’t have the effect they had. I grew up in a house with parents who showered me with love and positive affection about my looks and abilities. I married a man who is devoted and loving. I have friends who encourage and support. I am successful and happy with the person I became, the one I am still becoming.

Yet, those words often come back to haunt me. These are the words I keep in the desk drawer of my mind, the ones that startle me when they reappear. The ones I often shove into the back but can never throw out.

And now that I have girls of my own approaching eighth grade, I wonder what words will they choose to keep, what innocuous statements will stain their souls?

Although I like to think I can relate to my daughters, the world they live in is much different than the one I knew.

The pressure on young people today is tremendous. From looks and grades to social media presence and athletics, the burden to be the best weighs heavy on our most impressionable minds. This also creates a culture of envy and unconfident youth who do not know how to step away from the stories they create in their minds of their peers’ perfect lives. Individuality is admonished and childhood ends sooner.

The result is a generation of teenage girls searching for ways to cope. Eating disorders, sexual promiscuity, self-harming, body dysmorphia, depression and anxiety, substance abuse, and suicide are just some of the ways young girls deal with these external pressures.

So, I wonder, when my daughter looks in the mirror, will she hear my voice saying she is beautiful on the inside and out, or will she choose to purge her last meal? When a young girl ostracizes her on social media, will her father’s words ring in her ears, reminding her of her strength, or will she choose to cut her skin to deal with the pain? When a boy pressures her to move forward too quickly, will she remember her worth or succumb to peer pressure?

What words will she choose to keep?

Words are powerful. They can motivate groups and cripple young minds.

But words can be vague and open to misinterpretation. Eighth grade me didn’t realize this. Forty-something me wants to change it for my girls.

No longer do I compliment my daughters with generalities. I want them to possess mantras — words to live by and provide comfort in times of stress and confusion.

When we feel bad about our appearance, we say, ““I am enough, exactly as I am at this moment. Remember who you are.”

When someone treats us poorly, we say, “What others say is a reflection of them, not me.”

When we are troubled and don’t know what to do, we say, “Kindness is the best form of communication. Love always wins.”

And when the world brings us down, we say, “It will be okay, because I am loved.”

I am not naive enough to think that simple phrases will protect my girls from the evils of the world, but saying these mantras with them, believing these words, and trying to live it, is a powerful exercise.

It’s the way I start shredding the notes from my past and writing new ones for my daughters.

And living through eighth grade once is enough for anyone.

Dear Mermaids: Body Image is Not a Trend

At the beach this summer, I saw two young teens snapping photos at the edge of the water.

The pair giggled at first, trying to get just the right shot with the ocean in the background, catching the sun dancing off the waves. Both wore their hair up in top buns, and possessed strong athletic bodies. Skin tan and glistening, I admired their youth and beauty.

I put my nose back into my book when I heard, “Wait, we can’t use this one because my face looks too round.”

Then, “Ugh. You didn’t hold the camera high enough, so my stomach is sticking out. Let’s take another.”

And then, “OK, just one more, and we’ll edit it before posting.”

By the end of the photo shoot, I was exhausted for them.

Instagram is a powerful place for young people. Posting a photograph can elicit a vast array of emotions for the viewer and subject.

It can empower a young girl by bravely demonstrating she has body confidence or continue to tear down one who feels left out.  It is a place where you can highlight your best assets or get ridiculed for exposing your vulnerabilities.

Recently, I read an article in Self magazine entitled, “Mermaid Thighs Are the Newest Body-Positive Trend Taking Over Instagram.”  On one hand, it makes me smile that so many women and young girls are working to counteract the dangers of the “thigh-gap” craze, where young women whose thighs did not touch highlighted what is unachievable for most.

According to Self: “The mermaid thigh movement is a direct response to the thigh gap trend that’s taken over Instagram in recent years. Basically, having a gap between your thighs was considered beautiful, which shamed a ton of women whose thighs naturally touch. The mermaid thigh movement recognizes that other group of women—those who don’t have a natural thigh gap—effectively giving every woman a body-positive trend to identify with. If your thighs touch, great. If your thighs don’t touch, great. Every set of thighs is beautiful, whether you have a thigh gap or not.”

I looked at the carefully posed photos of the gorgeous women who appeared in all colors, shapes and sizes, highlighting their beautiful bodies with captions of #mermaidthighs scripted underneath. It made me wonder: “Do my girls need to identify with a thigh trend to feel body confident? Can bodies even be a trend?”

Body confidence is not about identifying with a current shape du jour. It’s knowing you are more than your appearance and feeling comfortable in your skin. It comes from within.

Every time we — the media, retailers, consumers and Instagrammers — focus on a new body type as a “trend,” we tell millions of women that their body is “wrong.” It doesn’t matter if is portrayed as “positive” (such as a large bottom) or as  “attainable” (i.e., an eight-pack set of abs), If you constantly are immersed in photos believing your body should look a way that it never will,  you have a hard time loving the way you look right now. You have a hard time loving yourself at all.

And while I want sources of inspiration for my daughters — and even for myself — we need to stop using the shape of our bodies as trends — as something to aspire to — whether we think we are doing it for encouragement or shame.

Because the truth is, body confidence never goes out of style, even though body types do.

We need less posed photos geared towards perfection and more candid pictures of satisfaction; less hashtags about #bodygoals and more about #beautifulhearts; and less ostracizing of the norm, and more celebrating of the unique.

Because every time we highlight our body as a trend, we are stealing away a piece of someone else’s heart.

Keep up the great work mermaids. Just choose your hashtags carefully.

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