When I was a little girl, my mother told me I was ugly.
Before you get the wrong idea, let me say for the record that my mom is amazing; she is compassionate, creative, silly, and I think she did a phenomenal job raising me and my sister. She was in no way abusive.
She saw a little girl who was about to be handed her worth in the form of compliments. She knew the world would tell this little girl they loved her dress, her hair, and her shoes. So she did the only thing she could think to do – she did the opposite in hopes her little girl would learn not to measure her worth in such limited confines.
According to my mom, every time she told me I was ugly, I refuted her statement by declaring my grandma said I was beautiful. And that was that. With my mom and my grandma guiding me, I had the best of both worlds: someone to tell me I was beautiful and someone to remind me beauty wasn’t the most important thing.
God bless my mother and grandmother for doing everything in their power to raise a self-confident girl. And that I was.
But then I got to school and learned that confident girls were the wrong kind of girls. Any girl who “thinks she’s all hot” is the worst kind of girl. So I learned – like I think many girls do – to keep myself in a nice little box.
And if you can’t fit in the box, well, you’d better find some box somewhere big enough to squish your personality into. And whatever you do, don’t let anyone think you think you’re all hot!
The result of being shoved in a box for decades is a strange duality. I’ll hear a woman guffawing too loud in a restaurant and think, Sheesh, tone it down, lady. I’ll see another woman tilt her head back, open her mouth and howl with joy at the mall and think, Wow, I love her spirit. I both love and judge other women for the same qualities.
What I’ve noticed is my reaction to the wild, raw, and gorgeous spirit of other women is directly related to how ruthlessly I am judging myself at any given moment. The more severely I judge myself, the harsher I feel towards women being their true and unabashed selves. The more secure I feel and the more self-love I feed myself, the more beauty I see in women living with abandon.
It’s all relative to the box.
When my husband and I were a very new couple, we took in a stray cat who happened to be pregnant. She had six kittens one December night and we committed to fostering them until we could find each one a good home. They lived in a shallow box for the first few weeks of life. When their mama left the box, they would crawl to the edge and look on, awaiting her return.
One day a teeny, black female kitten dove out of the box. I assumed she just wanted to follower her mama. But she didn’t. At the time, we lived in an expansive warehouse converted into a loft, which I imagined to be frightening and overwhelming to such a bitty little thing. The wide open space didn’t seem to intimidate her at all. Every time I put her back in the box, she’d jump out. It took weeks for any other kitten to gain the courage to do the same. Every time she took off, her five siblings would line up along the edge of the box and watch her. Blink, blink – the way kittens do.
I know what it’s like to watch from the box. I look out at other women with judgment, essentially thinking, The nerve of her going out into the world, doing her own thing. Blink. Blink.
The truth is, most of the time I’m scared.
When I stop limiting myself, I look at other women with wonder and reverence. It’s like we’re all on the same team. We’re all on our own adventures. I can see the awesomeness in their adventures and support them. I admire their gumption, spirit, and laugh-out-loud magnificence. Because I want to be that too.
This is not an article preaching about how we should treat little girls differently. Those articles have been written. And anyway, I don’t think there is one good answer to the keep our girls out of boxes.
What I am saying is that in my experience, recognizing how I hold myself back is the first step to self-love. (Because knowing is half the battle, GI Jane.) It’s how I begin to stop judging myself, and in the process stop judging other women. And it’s how I am able to say to the world, I’m beautiful because my grandma said so.
Occasionally, I slip back into that judgey place. But when I notice, I can consciously turn my thoughts around and see the brilliance that is each woman dancing her own wild, shimmery, and unique dance.
We ended up keeping that little, black, girl kitty. We named her Joan of Arc. (Or Joanie Butt for short.) She was wild and determined and she was going places. We loved that about her. It’s time I love that about me.
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