When I was a kid, I saw a poster in a bookstore of several girls in generic jeans and one in leopard-print tights (this being the ‘80s). Underneath were the words: “Dare to be different.”
Maybe it was the leopard print or the hairspray finally getting to my head, but I promptly decided that “dare to be different” was my new motto. I would be daring! I would be different! I would be true to myself, whatever that meant!
For years, I scrawled “dare to be different” on the pages of my Trapper Keeper and told people it was my motto, dammit. But at the same time, I struggled with the feeling that I was just trying to convince myself. The truth was, I wasn’t daring to be different. I wasn’t daring to be anything but be nice and well-liked and worthy of the approval of friends and authority figures.
It’s said that judging the decisions you made in the past from the wisdom of the present is profoundly unfair, more so when the person you’re judging is an impressionable teenager desperately trying to figure out who she is. But there are moments when I find myself wishing I could build a time machine, go back in time and meet my younger self—my awkward, confused, insecure younger self, who wanted so much for someone to tell her what to do and what to say and to who to be.
And I’d take that girl by the hand—after getting past the inevitable uncomfortable introduction—and tell her a few truths I’ve learned over the years. Starting with:
What my parents say about me are their truths, not mine. For so long, I believed I could do nothing right. I suppose this comes from being raised by parents who believed that praising children in any way would turn them into spoiled, arrogant, unmotivated brats. So they went the other extreme with me. As an adult and a parent as well, I can now understand that they were a product of their own upbringing, and that they were as loving yet flawed as any human being.
But if I ever met my younger self, marinating in shame and resentment, I’d tell her not to believe what they say, because all the endless criticisms were reflections of their own truths, not mine. I have my own truth. My worth as a person is never dependent on what anyone says of me at the moment. My worth is intrinsic, untouchable, immeasurable. The words “lazy,” “stupid,” “unthinking,” and “useless” are just words they’ve painted on the glass walls that they’ve erected between them and me. On the other side of the wall is Who I Really Am, unbound and limitless.
What my piano teacher told me about boys and sexuality is wrong. My piano teacher—God rest her soul—was a beautiful person and an awesome teacher. In between arpeggios and Bach fugues, she would dispense nuggets of wisdom, which I would eagerly imbibe.
A sampling: Girls are the more sensible gender, because boys have only one thing in their heads—and usually in the wrong head at that. So it behooved a girl to be modest for both her sake and for the boy’s. Also, girls were more emotionally mature, but since boys disliked pushy girls, a girl just had to wait patiently until the boy she liked finally noticed her. In addition, girls were the more spiritually evolved gender, so to save both her soul and the boy’s, she had to be the one to maintain Virgin Mary-levels of purity. By implication, if something did go wrong, it was always the girl’s fault. Regulating sexuality is her responsibility, and never the boy’s.
Again, these lessons were not the truths, but her truths—products of a particular time and space. I’d tell my younger self that boys are able to think rationally themselves, and are thus responsible for their own behavior. On the flipside, girls are as much sexual beings as boys are. I am free to own up to my own attractions, fantasies, desires and physical responses, so long as I do not hurt anyone. The slut-shaming that was so rampant in my teenaged years, and so deleterious to my acceptance of my own body, is just another of society’s impositions. I am free to choose to disbelieve them, just as I choose to believe that I can play Chopin’s Prelude in E Minor if I practice hard enough.
It’s okay not to like the same things my friends like. This is a tough one. For my younger self—and even now—disapproval from anyone felt like sword cuts to the heart. They slashed through the foundations of my self-esteem, undermined my own sense of worth. So I devoted most of my energy to pleasing people and trying to keep them happy. I grew adept at anticipating how they felt and what they expected of me, and I adjusted my behavior accordingly.
So I ended up going along with my friends on adventures I really did not want to go on, doing things I really did not want to do. Those moments were me buying my friends’ approval and companionship with the coin of my self-respect.
I’m still learning this lesson, to be honest. This process of getting to know my own voice, so well that I can hear me clearly even when everybody else is voicing their own opinions about me. So what on earth could I tell my younger self about this that would not stink of hypocrisy?
The truth then: That my many little betrayals of my own wants will one day exact a price much higher than my friends’ disapproval. Somehow, the memory of those betrayals will remain, and it will take an immense amount of love and forgiveness to finally reconcile yourself with your true best friend—yourself.
Then I’d take my younger self by the hand and lead her to some place quiet and serene, somewhere where she can be alone, and let her hear the beauty of her own voice.
(Part 2 to follow.)