Teen Week: Words That Heal is an annual blog series that occurs the last week of March, where bloggers use their sites speak out about their experiences with body image, sexuality, and self-esteem during their teen years. Props to Sally McGraw of Already Pretty for alerting me to this initiative and to Mara Glatzel of Medicinal Marzipan who started this whole ball rolling.
This is me in grade 9, baby!
Recently I commented to a friend that physically I don’t perceive myself as having changed much since I was fourteen. Yes, there are some differences. I’m heavier. My grooming and style choices have evolved. And of course some grey hairs and facial lines have shown up in the twenty-plus years since this photo was taken.
When I was fourteen, I yearned to be beautiful. Unfortunately my perception of beauty was a laundry list of characteristics I didn’t have: Tall, long legs, long hair, big eyes, small nose, large breasts, small butt and of course, innate grace and poise.
I’ve written before about the ongoing and epic challenge of embracing my weight, my hair and even my race. While I still grapple with those issues an adult, I can tell you the body-image battle has never been brutal as it was when I was in ninth grade. Looking in the mirror I saw a bit of a disaster, the opposite of beautiful. I was overwhelmed by my perceived flaws. I had no idea how to fix them but I felt very strongly that I had to fix them. I had to be beautiful.
Being beautiful was everything.
Being beautiful was permission. Being beautiful was access to all the things I wanted to explore as a young woman. I was meeting new people that intrigued me. I wanted to talk to them, to get to know them.
I wanted to talk to boys. I wanted to flirt with boys and maybe even kiss one. I wanted to be sexy. I wanted to show off in fun clothes and have people to notice me.
I wanted to be a cheerleader and I wanted to be on our school’s council. I wanted to go to parties. I wanted to jump into the middle of a crowded room and dance my ass off.
But I didn’t.
I didn’t do any of it. These things were not for me. I didn’t belong at parties or in class government. Happiness was for the likes of big-eyed beauties with wide, symmetrical eyes and dainty button noses.
How on earth was I supposed to flirt without a glorious mane of hair toss around? Why would I bother wearing a slinky red dress with an overly-long nose that clashed horribly with everything? Surely no one cool and interesting would want to talk to the girl with flailing skeleton arms.
In grade 9, I loved to draw. I used to sketch endless self-portraits of a new-and-improved Nadine. Nadine with long, curly hair that was black instead of dark brown. Nadine with longer legs. Nadine with a tidier face: larger, wider-set eyes, front teeth that didn’t gap and a nose that wasn’t so terribly prominent.
That’s who you should be, I would tell myself.
Sometimes I thought perhaps I was changing. Occasionally, someone would offer a compliment or a dude would show a little interest. I’d race study myself in the closest reflective surface to see eager to see what was different. I was always disheartened and a little confused when I saw the same face I’d always seen scowling back at me.
I spent so much time and SO much energy waiting, wanting so badly to be something I just wasn’t. I was in high school – the time of puberty, of big changes. Perhaps if I waited long enough, the years would change me from an ugly duckling into a swam.
During my first week at university a man I didn’t recognize came running up to me on campus.
“Nadine?” he asked. There was nothing familiar about this guy but he clearly knew me. I tried desperately to place him and failed, so I confessed that I didn’t recognize him.
“No, I guess you wouldn’t”.
It turned out, he and his family had been sitting next to me during a flight I’d taken to Bermuda. When I was eight.
“Do you remember, you played with my sister and I?” he recalled.
I did remember playing with other children. “But I never would have guessed that was you,” I told him.
“My parents have pictures of us from that flight and as soon as I saw you I knew who you were. You look exactly the same.”
A person I’d known for three hours when we were both children recognized me on sight, more than a decade later. Puberty had come and gone. High school was over. In all that time, nothing had really changed.
“You look exactly the same.”
Okay, I thought. It was a small thought, followed by a massive wave of relief.
Maybe my apperance would never really fundamentally change. Maybe I would never be drop dead-gorgeous. But maybe, it didn’t really matter. After all, who had said that I could only be happy if I looked perfect?
Mostly jerks. And magazines. And jerks in magazines.
What if I just accepted that I was kind of funny-looking and let that be cool, instead of awful and then moved on with my life?
Crazy. But I thought it might just work.
My life and my self-image improved after my epiphany…and after years and years of work, to heal the damage I’d inflicted upon myself in my younger years. When I look in the at thirty-six, the woman I see hasn’t changed to much…on the outside. The inside is a different story.
I’m no longer waiting, striving for the better-looking, advanced model Nadine to show up. That person doesn’t exist. And that’s fine. I don’t want her anymore. My old drawings are long lost and I’m glad. I never want to see them again.
I revel in the joy of stepping on stage and performing. I do get a charge from flirtatious encounters and feeling sexy in my own skin. I’ve discovered a world full of fascinating people many of whom appreciate the opportunity for a friendly chat. My closet is full of happy-making clothes. I do burlesque and take my clothes off in public, yo!
Friday night I danced at party. Smack-dab in the middle of the floor.
Even though my body is beginning to age, I feel more attractive at thirty-six than I was at fourteen. Not because of any external but because of the massive internal overhaul. My attitude makeover – which is still in progress – has done wonders for my image.
If I could go back in time, I’d find Me-In-Grade-Nine and tell her, to go and live in the skin she is in.
The beauty will take care of itself.