Growing Up Girl Part 1: but am I pretty? (about bodies and women and self-worth and feminism and society's beauty standards)

"i want to apologize to all the women 

i have called pretty

before i've called them intelligent or brave

i am sorry i made it sound as though

something as simple as what you're born with

is the most you have to be proud of when your 

spirit has crushed mountains

from now on i will say things like 

you are resilient or you are extraordinary 

not because i don't think you're pretty

but because you are so much more than that." -rupi kaur

 


I couldn't possibly be more aware of my body. And I couldn't possibly be less in my body, present there. Or so it has been. Yoga is helping. Meditation is helping. Circles of women who hold my stories compassionately are helping. 

I had many interests as a young girl and none of it had anything to do with my appearance. I very much enjoyed photographing nature, stomping through creeks in the woods, staring at the clouds while lying in the cold grass, jumping on the trampoline, and watching disney movies with my family. I was thoroughly obsessed with mystery novels and I adored time alone in my bedroom with a million candles lit. Going to church with my family was genuinely one of my favorite activities and discussions about the existence of God and God's love for humanity were truly captivating to me. I loved anything outdoors as long as it didn’t involve sports. I was convinced that animals had God in them and I wanted as many of them near me as possible. My mother was my favorite human on the planet and having her near me was the most important thing in all of the world. I’d have preferred her company to that of even my girlfriends my own age but oh how I loved my girlfriends too. Girlfriends were like treasures and I felt rich. All of these pieces of my life made me who I was: a wild, free, spirited girl who loved life. 

Yet, inside, slowly but surely my voice was being held hostage by the voice who asked over and over, "but am I pretty?" 

Growing up girl meant constant awareness of how my body appeared to the world around me and my particular outer appearance happened to match that of society's wickedly cruel standards. I didn't make this so, I did not choose this, but one of my first memories is of feeling special because I was pretty, they told me so. On t.v. and at church and in my home and at school and everyone, everywhere. Eventually, I internalized the message I’d already been sent a million times: my worth was in my body and what my body could do for the male species. While I was interested in literature, theology, religion and nature growing up, the only thing that seemed interesting about me was my outward appearance. Just my looks.

“She’s so pretty,” I’d hear them tell my parents as I caught the look of pride on their faces. “You’ll be a model one day, for sure,” they’d tell me, at eight years old, and I knew I was supposed to be excited at this prospect. I knew from as early on as I can remember that I was supposed to be invested in my appearance. I felt the world's gaze upon my body like a layer of bricks I was forced to carry around with me everywhere I went- this heavy load of self-conscious awareness of my body from as young as kindergarten. Deep inside of me, at the core of who I really was, I did not care what I looked like or what others said about what I looked like. The real me wanted to explore planet Earth and to write poetry but the world didn’t tell me to be interested in those things. The world told me to care about my looks. Eventually these subtle and not so subtle messages felt like divine truths. Thou shalt be pretty.

I'm eleven years old walking the halls of middle school. “She’s flat chested and she doesn’t kiss long enough,” my best friend reported back to me about why I’d been dumped by my boyfriend. My darling girlfriend wrapped this tragic news in as much compassion as she could muster but it stung nonetheless. It was mortifying and yet I also couldn’t figure out exactly why I cared. I felt hallow, scared, and ashamed. What exactly was I ashamed of? “Flat and doesn’t kiss long enough.” I did have very small breasts which was fitting seeing as how I was a very small girl. This was a fact that until this point hadn’t bothered me in the slightest. On the contrary, I’d been so against the very idea of growing large breasts that I’d prayed to God to keep me small. When my breasts began to grow even the tiniest bit to where my nipples became noticeable while clothed, I simply placed band-aids across them hoping they would disappear. Growing boobs would only get in the way of my perfectly enjoyable childhood of climbing trees and riding bikes in the mud. Yet when this boy criticized my flat chest I immediately became enraged. The worst part of which was that I was not at all angry at the boy. I was furious with my own body; infuriated that it had caused me such humiliation.

I'm twelve years old standing in the bathroom while my gang of girlfriends clamor over bags of lipstick and mascara, all competing for mirror space. I take one last glance at the mirror, feeling small because of the acne threatening to invade my face and the way those dark circles under my eyes never go away. "You know everyone thinks you're obsessed with your looks, right?" A knife to my gut twists and turns as I take in this brutal message about the way my peers experience me. All I want in this world is to curl up in my mother's arms with a long mystery novel and a cup of tea. 

Year after year I dissociate with my body more and more. My body; a commodity, a goal, an ideal, a means to an end. What end? Pleasing

I begin to loathe this vessel my soul rides around in. I don't even know who I am, I feel empty and lost, separate and unknown. Unknown. Is there any misery as troubling as this for beings hard-wired to be known?

I'm twenty-nine years old and I muster up the courage to ask, "could you please just compliment me on something other than my looks? Maybe don't even mention my looks at all for a while. I can't take it anymore. I feel like I'm nothing but your prize." 

I'm thirty-four years old and I walk into an auditorium where I've been invited to speak. I step up to the mic because someone once heard me speak and desired that I bring my wisdom into their space. My wisdom. My intellect. My passion. My expertise. But it is my body I am thinking of. How frizzy is my hair? Can anyone tell that my stomach protrudes far past my breasts? Am I sucking in that belly enough? Have I chosen a shirt that covers enough? Is my hair lively and framing my face enough to take away from how round my face is? Do those dark circles under my eyes tell a story about my life? Is my body distracting from my message? I try desperately to shut her up, this unreliable narrator who's taken me captive. I've practiced for years now: practiced owning my true voice, practiced quieting the world's voice inside of my head, practiced focusing all of my attention on what I care about. "But am I pretty?" whispers throughout my body like a resounding gong in a shoe closet. Over and over the question begs to be answered. 

I can command the attention of a room with my fire and spirit and whimsy and wit. I can wrap you into the arms of my soul with my compassion and empathy until you truly believe the truth that you belong. I can paint you a picture of a better future and describe intelligently the ways of history. 

But am I pretty?

I can grow gardens of nourishment and wonder from earth that was once worthless, crumbly clay. I can weave words into firestorms of truth that settle in the hearts of humans like a mother's hug they didn't even know they needed.  

But am I pretty?

I'm thirty-five years old attending a conference full of women I adore for the purpose of talking about the deeper truths of life. This conference, which I've been a part of planning, this conference is about conversation. It's about leadership. It's about calling. It's about badass breaking down of the status quo and revolutionizing the way people lead in the world. But I don't feel pretty. 

We talk about sex and power. We talk about ancient understandings of femininity. We ask important questions. The dialogue is intriguing, exhilarating, intelligent, and world changing. But I don't feel pretty. 

I feel frumpy and unnoticeable. My hair is all a frizz from travel. I've chosen a shirt that only accentuates my round belly. I look exactly like Anne Hathaway at the beginning of The Devil Wears Prada. And so I shrink, folding in on myself, wrapped in doubt and confusion about who I am and how I fit in this world. 

The first day of our conference wraps up with a cocktails and keynote event on a rooftop and our event is sponsored by an incredible boutique clothing store. So before we head upstairs for cocktails we peruse this gorgeous store and it is here I've found my salvation. I frantically search the clothing racks for something that will make me pretty. I need this. This is not some superficial quest for more clothing to fill my already overflowing closet. This is my quest for my own worth. This is decades of muscle memory at work, my fingers casually flipping through dresses while my heart races and my face sweats. I need this like an addict needs her drug. I'm consumed. 

I buy a dress I cannot actually afford, I throw my hair up into an elegant-messy bun, and I run up the stairs to our rooftop event with satisfaction in my bones. As the compliments come my way I sigh, I relax, I am at ease, I am home. I am worthy to take up space here now. Because I feel pretty. 

That little girl who doesn't know her worth is still hiding deep inside of me. Despite years of calling her into the light of the truth of her power, she cowers sometimes. And when she feels particularly weak she pounces on my self-worth like a wildcat seeking her prey. But she can't hurt me. I turn to her and tell her it's okay. I remind her that she's not small anymore. I explain to her that I know who she is now and that it has absolutely nothing to do with being pretty. I practice gentleness with her. The last thing she needs is more shame. I hold her. And I ask her to join me in moving forward, another day of reckoning

I'm learning to return to my body, forsaking her won't help a thing. My body was never the problem. Growing up girl in a world that objectifies girls' bodies had ripped me from my self. I will have to practice for the rest of my life; practice loving my own self into wholeness. It is heavy and holy work.