We Need Circle Breakers

Recently my daughter joined a new soccer team. We live in a different town than the rest of the young girls and are new to the club. We are outsiders.

At her first game, I walked onto the field and noticed small pockets of parents chatting with each other. Normally, I am fairly outgoing. I readily introduce myself to strangers, and I’m an expert at small talk. But something about the situation made me feel self-conscious. My husband was at my older daughter’s game, so I sat alone in my folding chair, head buried in my phone, I just couldn’t get up the nerve to approach the small circles of parents ten feet away from me.

Three games later, it was the same. I smiled and nodded at some of the parents who looked familiar as I lugged my chair over to my spot, but my husband and I sat off by ourselves.

Right before the game started, I noticed a man shaking hands with a mom about eight chairs down. Then he moved to the next set, and then the next. When he arrived at the family beside  me, I heard him say, “Hi there, I’m Joy’s dad. I just wanted to introduce myself since we don’t really know anyone on the team.  I know the games about to start, but who is your daughter again? What number?”

Finally, he approached me, and we exchanged pleasantries. He opened his chair next to mine and excitedly exclaimed, “I haven’t been able to get to any games before this, so I’m stoked. What school do you guys go to?”

We chatted intermittently for the rest of the game, and then afterwards, instead of every family immediately heading off to their individual cars, people mulled around a bit. One dad came up to our new friend, and then introduced himself to us. I saw a woman standing off to the side, and pulled her into our circle by mentioning I thought her daughter played a great game. Another mom joined to chat about an upcoming tournament. Before I knew it, the entire team’s parents stood in a group introducing themselves to each other.

That dad is a circle breaker. He changed the entire dynamic of the sidelines in two minutes. It was powerful.

I like to think of myself as a circle breaker. It’s easy for me. I will talk to anyone who will listen, I like to think I know a little about everything, and because I’ve moved around quite a bit, I’ve broken into mom circles in four states. I even have little circle-breaking children.

But we’ve all been there, been in that awkward situation where it just seems like the other person isn’t interested in you. Either their head is in their phones (guilty), they seem entrenched in another conversation, or their body language screams, “Stay away!”

But if there’s ever been a time for circle breaking, it’s now.

This weekend, we took a trip to Medieval Times for a belated birthday dinner outing for one of my daughters. Our minivan pulled to a stop about 11 rows from the building. The parking lot was well lit, and my husband jumped out of the minivan and started walking to the entrance. He called out over his shoulder, “You have the keys, right?”

I sighed. Keeping track of keys to a car with an automatic starter is exhausting. I stood by the side of my car rummaging through my purse, finding gum wrappers, pencils and store receipts, but no keys. Just as my hand wrapped around the metal key chain, I heard a frantic voice speaking to my three daughters and their friend who congregated just in front of our automobile.

“I am trying to get here,” she pointed to the screen on her phone. “But I can’t get the address right. Do you know the address here?”

The woman wore a hijab, and a small girl clung to her coat, peering up at the older girls with huge brown eyes.

I approached the woman and asked, “Do you need help?”

She responded, “Yes, please. I need to get here,” she pointed to a red dot on her phone. “And I am very lost. I have been waiting for someone to come out, but it has only been men or large groups and I did not feel comfortable. Two women said they could not help me.”

I told her the address of our location, and she breathed a sigh of relief as directions popped onto her screen.

We chatted for a moment longer, and then I asked, “Can I walk you to your car? Do you need anything else?”

“No thank you. I am okay now. Thank you for your kindness.” And with that she was gone, dragging her daughter behind her.

I wondered to myself how long she waited in the parking lot for the right woman to approach. I was happy my husband rushed ahead, and I was there for her. I felt for a brief moment, we were part of the same circle.

Our country is off its rocker right now. There is violence occurring in the name of hate and violence occurring in the name of love and violence for the sake of violence. Families are fractured by political divides and neighbors who were once friends now avoid each other’s eyes.

If there was ever a need for circle breakers, it is now.

I think about how awkward it felt for me to approach a group of parents, a group where we all shared a common interest in our daughters’ soccer team. And then I think of how difficult it must feel when there are true differences between you and other people, when the circles seem impenetrable because they are made of steel.

Now is the time to reach out. Now is the time to include. Now is the time to put our phones away and interact with the people in our kids’ schools, community and work places. If we don’t want to be a country divided, someone will have to break their circle open. It has to start somewhere.

I’m not saying every time you’re chatting with your friends you have to ask someone in; BUT be aware. When you see someone hanging off to the side nervously checking their phone, think about introducing yourself or even offering an inviting smile. When you see a new person at school, attempt to strike up a conversation, no matter how awkward you feel. And when you see someone who needs help, give it.

I hope more parents become circle breakers like the dad on my daughter’s soccer team. And I hope we become more approachable to people who may be fearful of prejudice, people unsure of the world right now. I hope we lead by example for our children on how to build relationships, build a community, build a positive life.

I forgot how easy it was to be a circle breaker. I forgot that most circles are tissue thin, if you just introduce yourself or make the first move.

More importantly, I forgot how easy it is to bust circles from the inside, just by being the one to let someone in. Most times when someone starts breaking the circle, everyone else follows happily along. I particularly like to show circle breaking off in front of my children. It seems to make their force even stronger.

Now is the time for circle breaking. Are you in?

The Tightrope of Self Esteem

The small-framed tween girl slides to a stop in her sock-clad feet directly in front of me.

“Ta-da,” she sings, using jazz hands as her chocolate eyes dance with excitement.

“You can’t wear that to school,” I respond too quickly.

“Why not? I think I look awesome.”

“It doesn’t look right,” I declare. The words spew out of my mouth like bullets, and I instantly want to siphon them back in as I watch my daughter flinch. “I mean, you are not supposed to wear it that way.”

A six foot, purple, zebra-print scarf wrapped loosely around her tiny head. Rather than looking like a headband, it looked more like a mis-wrapped bandage for a head wound.

I stared at the beautiful creature in front of me who was valiantly holding back the tears building in her eyes.

I wanted to shout, “Wait, I was wrong! It looks beautiful! You are beautiful!”  But the truth was, she looked ridiculous.

It was not our first fashion standoff. Gone are the days where I select her daily wardrobe — the adorable dress with matching hair bow and color coordinated socks or a trendy, leopard print sweatsuit with an accompanying hat. I try with moderate success to sideline my control issues and continuously tell myself that I am fostering her independence, her creativity, by allowing her to wear what she wants.  I did not say a word the time she went to school wearing more beads than Madonna in the eighties. I kept my mouth shut when her outfit comprised of leopard print on the bottom and stripes on the top. I even smiled brightly when she attempted a make-shift bump-it hairstyle she saw on Youtube.

I will not be the one to diminish her self-esteem, her self-worth, by commenting negatively about her appearance.

But I just did. Or did I?

Raising confident, courageous daughters is hard. Women face an onslaught of images every day telling us we are inadequate, and Photoshop changes our perception of “normal.” It is easy to feel our teeth are not white enough, our boobs are too small, our waist is too big, and our makeup is wrong.

Given enough power, these messages can break our spirits and increase the desire to conform, instead of love the things that make us different.

As the parent of three girls, I watch my words carefully and meticulously focus on the positive; I know the words I say aloud become the voices they hear in their heads later on in life. I go over-the-top with compliments and and shun others when they mention anything negative about weight, appearance or intellect.

But in this moment with her, I ask myself if I confused promoting self-esteem and self-worth with only saying what I think my girls want to hear?

It is a tight-rope I walk with my daughters. I want them to feel empowered, beautiful and accepted as they are, but I know that self-confidence is more than receiving compliments. Learning to accept and manage criticism, whether constructive or malicious, is an important life skill, yet I feel crushed between the desire for honesty and the motherly instinct to protect them from pain, whether from me or someone else.

I strive to find balance, promoting positivity in all aspects of their lives without creating gigantic egos. Can I be their biggest cheerleader and lead critic at the same time?

The defiant statement, “Well, I like it,” zips out of her mouth and I sense she is struggling to hold back a foot stomp. I know my next words are important, so I choose them carefully.

“Listen, sweetheart,” I begin. “There is a secret code women have called the girlfriend rule. You only use it in extreme circumstances. It states that when your girlfriend is wearing something so bad that she may embarrass herself, you tell her. You tell her because you love her, not because you want to hurt her. That scarf, well, this is one of those times.”

“But, I really thought it looked good,” she muttered, casting her eyes downward.

“I know you did,” I reply softly, pulling her close to my side. “But I think it would look even better over your shirt. Do you want me to show you how to tie it? And how about I get that new headband from Christmas. Do you think that would complete your look?”

“Yeah, I know where it is,” she squirms out of my grasp and heads back to her room.

When she returns a few minutes later, she is smiling in a sea of shades of purple that would make Prince proud. It’s not what I would have selected, but it suits her perfectly, and her confidence is exuding out of her pint-sized body like an exploding star.

“I changed my hair, and I think I like this look even more,” she casually states while moving her braid in order to place her backpack over her narrow frame.

“I love it,” I emphatically state, catching her eyes before she heads through the door.

I reach for my keys as I follow her, heaving a sigh of relief knowing I won this battle of self-esteem. If only the war wasn’t so damn long.

***

This post originally appeared on Mamalode.

To the Men Who Say They Are Just Words

My senior year of high school, I sat in a hot tub drinking Bud Lights with two boys from my class. The conversation took an unexpected turn when the gentlemen discovered they shared a notch in their belt buckles. Both young men had slept with a girl in our class, who also was a friend of mine.

It was innocent at first. I felt awkward listening to them talk about this girl, hearing the intimate details of their escapades; yet I didn’t speak up. I rolled my eyes and softly protested, but I let them get it out of their system, figuring eventually we’d move on to something else. As the beer continued to go down, the tone of the conversation turned sour.

“I wonder if we got her drunk if she’d do it again? Ha! Maybe both of us in the same night?”

“Yeah, she totally can’t hold her alcohol. She’s not like you,” my friend nodded his head in my direction. “Give her a couple of wine coolers and she’s gone.”

“I’ll have to remember that. I think she wants me. Maybe we should try to see what she’s doing tonight….Hey, where you going,” a deep voice said to me.

Without even thinking, I rose up out of the hot tub and grabbed a towel. “I have to pee,” I called over my shoulder, than grabbed my flip flops and walked the mile to my house and took a shower.

Later that night, one of the boys called me to make sure I was okay. I told him the truth. “Sorry, I felt sick all of a sudden and didn’t want to hurl in front of you.”

“Oh, bummer. No kissing for you this weekend,” he replied and then hung up the phone.

They were just words, but they had a physical effect on me. I felt upset by what they said about this young girl, fearful for what could happen to her. She was the prey, and I just sat in a jacuzzi with the predators.

I hoped the conversation was for shock value only, but I couldn’t help feeling uneasy around them from that point forward. The conversation changed me.

****************************

A few years later, I danced at a night club at 3 a.m with my sorority sisters. A large hand grabbed my scantily clad bottom and I felt hot breath in my ears. “Nice ass.” he shouted.

I whipped around to come face to chest with a man-child who weighed at least 250 pounds. “I’m a football player,” he stated matter of factly.

“I don’t really care,” I countered. “Don’t touch me.”

“No need to be a bitch about it,” He said calmly, putting his hand around my arm. “But if I really wanted to touch you though, I would.”

His eyes blazed into mine, and I stood there frozen, looking up at him.

“Let go of her,” I heard a girlfriend say, pulling me back towards our group.

It was just an exchange of words on a dance floor, but I felt fear and uneasy. I didn’t sleep well that night, and became more aware of men who had too much to drink, and men drunk on power.

*********************************

A few years after that, I picked up two executives at the San Francisco airport to assist with their company’s product launch at a trade show. The men sat in the back of the town car, while I rode up front with the driver, making calls to confirm appointments.

“Did you see the tits on that stewardess? What a piece of ass!” I heard from the back seat.

“Seriously. I think she wanted me. She didn’t charge me for my wine. Damn, I should have tried for her number while we were in town.”

The banter went on, making me increasingly uncomfortable, but since I worked for them, I kept my mouth shut. Later, as we sat at the hotel bar before a reception, the lewd comments continued.

“How much do you charge to be our wingman?” one asked. “Like maybe you can get one of your PR friends over here. One of the good looking ones.”

“Yeah, maybe we can double date,” he joking replied.

“Um, I don’t think that’s in our contract,” I laughed uncomfortably. I kept telling myself it was just jokes, but the hairs on the back of my neck were standing up straight. It felt like more than just words.

***************************

A few months ago, my daughter and I rode our bikes to get frozen yogurt. Her brain is eleven, but her lanky limbs and lithe body look much older. A group of young boys driving in what must have been their father’s convertible BMW yelled out some catcalls while flying by us.

“Whoo hoo!”

“Nice legs!”

“Marry me!” the young men shouted.

“Mom, what are they doing? Why did they say that when they don’t even know us?” my daughter asked me.

“Sometimes I think men believe their words don’t matter. They think women like to hear those things, even though they make us uncomfortable.”

“It made me feel weird,” she remarked.

“I know,” I reply. “They’re just words, though. They can’t hurt you.”

********************************

But they’re not just words. Not even close.

They are threats and barbs and put downs and intimidation tactics and insults. They made me feel frightened and nervous and panicky and anxious and uneasy.

Should I be tougher? Should I ensure my daughter is tough enough to handle these itty bitty little words?

Words are a double-edged sword. We want them to be meaningful when shared intimately or spoken from a podium. We want them to inspire and motivate and convey how we feel; however, when words are said as a “joke” or off the cuff, we diminish their power. When they are said privately, we want them rendered unimportant.

But if these little utterances — said behind women’s backs in locker rooms, to our faces at parties, yelled out the windows from automobiles, whispered in elevators, stated in boardrooms — if these words don’t matter, why are they still being said?

Edgar Allen Poe said, “Words have no power to impress the mind without the exquisite horror of their reality.”

The horrors these words spark for most women include rape, sexual assault, harassment, and abuse, among others.  I know they did for me.

I believe some men think their words don’t matter because these males aren’t talking about people; they are talking about women as objects, things on display or available for their use and pleasure.

It has become customary and normal, and passed down from generation to generation. My daughter already experienced the power of men’s words, and the deep emotions they can illicit.

Is it her fault for feeling “weird” because young men were yelling words at her? Is it my fault for feeling fear when men use these words — the same ones they use behind closed doors —in common conversations?

They say words are just words until we give them the power to affect us, yet women are expected to be aware of all the potential dangers in the world and handle ourselves accordingly. How can we not let them impact us? How can we not hear these words and anticipate risks, as signals to peril?

To the men who say they’re just words — you may be right.

But it’s the user, the intention and the context of those words in which I’ll judge you.

Words reveal who we are and what we believe. The ones we use collectively are a reflection of where we stand as a society and what we find acceptable.

There is a reason why we say we give someone our “word” when we make a promise. It’s an assurance of who we are as an individual.

I hear you, men who say they’re just words.  And I’ll believe you when you say them.

#Itsnotokay

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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