I am honored this week to be participating in TEEN WEEK, a campaign inspired by Mara at Medicinal Marzipan and meant to offer teen readers thoughtful company on their journey to self-acceptance. Today, I am sharing what was at the root of my self-acceptance journey, as my efforts really started at a young age. Want to experience the other fabulous Teen Week posts? Visit Mara’s site for a great round-up that will take you everywhere Teen Week.
Now, for my post:
At eight years old, my best friend Jenny and I conspired to get rid of our fat. It was 1981. We barely watched television. But what we did watch- The Dukes of Hazard- clearly had an impact.
Even now, I can remember Jenny and I walking between our two houses, whispering about how we wished we could get rid of our fat.
Years later, I would come across this picture (and others) and startle at the fact that there was no fat to be vanquished.
Along the way, though, something else saved me from the worst in myself. And it came packaged not on the television but in books.
As the daughter of an enlisted solider, there wasn’t much money for extracurriculars. My dad, however, came up with his very own version of extracurricular activities for me, and, truth be told, it ended up being so life affirming that it changed the trajectory of who I am today. Every Saturday morning, my dad loaded me into the wood-paneled station wagon and drove me to the library on the military base. There, he read the newspaper while I took as long as I wanted to select my stack of books for checking out. There was a kids’ room at this library. And I would start at the far wall with the top left hand shelf and work my way row by row, shelf by shelf, wall by wall around the room until I had honed in on the books that I just had to have that week. When I walked out, the height of my stack rivaling my own, my dad never said said, “You can’t read all that in one week.” He simply put out his hands to help me to the counter. Every Saturday afternoon, I’d sit in the corner of my room and fall into a book that I couldn’t put down. I was the girl who read in the bathroom, at the table, in bed way past bedtime. I couldn’t get enough of books. And those books? They made all the difference.
Really, you might be asking, Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great or Harriet the Spymade all the difference?
And they did. Because what happened is that I started noticing how plucky these girls were, how well they knew themselves, how clear their voices were. I want that, I would think to myself as I read. So I pulled out paper and started writing feverishly, becoming my own version of Sheila, Harriet, Ramona, Pippi, Annie, etc.
What I have since learned is that writing is this incredible gift into yourself– it is one surefire way to discover what it is you know, what you think, how you want to be in the world. Writing can be the ultimate truth teller. And so by starting to write at such a young age, I figured out who I was and how I wanted to be before I got into the worst possible self-doubt of adolescence.
I wasn’t without my hiccups, my life did not come without pain. I had plenty of pain, lots of hiccups, but every time I needed to mourn what felt like the betrayal of a friend or my invisibility or the loss of a boyfriend, I would go find the page. And I would write my way through it and out of it. Yes, I cried over that page. Yes, I fretted; I worried; I steamed. But I recovered there, too. Writing was the tool I turned to when I started feeling different because of my values and my looks. I could have turned to other tools– in fact, for a short period I did just that and my weight fell dangerously low during my quest to be a super girl until a teacher grabbed me, told me she would not allow me to do that to myself, snapped me out of it, and propelled me back to the page for my answers and processing and away from my body project– but reading and writing were always the places where I found not just the most answers, but the most honest answers.
Those honest answers- that self-awareness- became my addiction– knowing who I was and how I wanted to be in the world made me feel safe in a world that felt fundamentally unsafe. And when I struggled with the way that my looks and weight and clothes and socio-economic status were different from my peers, I returned to the page, asking it my questions, looking for answers, knowing that the honest effort of knowing myself and being real would ultimately feel more like home than selling myself out for a diet or a man or whatever might do.
Now, as a teacher and mentor, I always encourage my students to find the page, to go write down what they are experiencing so they can discover what they know. It might feel scary to find one’s feelings, but, what I have found, is that it is scary NOT to know what one feels, frightening to not know what one thinks. My greatest vulnerability was NOT writing my feelings. My greatest vulnerability was NOT knowing what I wanted, what I thought, because it made me susceptible to everyone else’s opinions, whims, and, even, insecurities.
But it was more than the writing that saved me. Early on, by middle school, I found that what I most had to offer others wasn’t my looks but how I made them feel– the laughter or hope or solution that I came up with always seemed to matter so much more than whether I looked the way that I wanted to look (which was taller and thinner with sleeker, lighter hair). While I might have wished that I looked differently, the people in my life didn’t seem like they were waiting for that or wanting that from me. Processing that discrepancy– that I felt like I needed to look different to matter– with how others treated me– that they were receptive to what I had to offer right now– was a big lesson for me. I could desire all those different attributes all I wanted, but I still, it seemed, offered value in the package I was in right now.
And so I started to focus on that– what I had to offer right now. What if I never got taller, thinner, or sleeker hair, I wondered? Are the things that I love only worth if I looked different? And they weren’t. They were worth doing right that moment and every day moving forward because they made my heart happy, made me understand my worth, and were my current solution to the world’s needs. And so I turned fully away from the idea that life was only meant to be lived with meaning if I looked a certain way. I turned away from the idea that the only worth I had was visual, and I fully embraced the notion that what I had to offer was the passion and purpose I felt inside me, that my soul was the gift I gave to the world.
Too often, we think we are bodies. And, yet, what the world most needs from us is very rarely rooted in our body– what the world needs from us is rooted in our mind and soul and heart. Our bodies are our vehicles, but they do not define us. We define ourselves. Too often, we think we will finally be happy when our body chances. The truth is that we will only be happy when our mind changes. When we give ourselves permission and the tools to be happy. Find your voice and your passion. Now. It is not too early, and it is not too late. You’ll save yourself and the world.