I almost never put selfies on social media, because it’s not a thing that I think to do, but today I woke up and grabbed a dress from my closet that I haven’t worn in years, and I remembered why I liked it so much, and I picked up my new glasses from the opticians and I walked around in the sunshine and I felt pretty good about myself and I took a picture that I really like and I put it on the internet.
It’s a few hours later and I’ve been working from home all day (wearing this dress) while lying in bed (which is a bad work habit but often what I do) while my (five-day-stubbly) legs brush against the bedsheets and my (dirty) feet are tucked under the blankets and a friend asked what I was doing today and so I sent along the picture on the left.
I guess what I’m saying is, perspective is a funny thing. I am simultaneously both that adorable, smiling girl with the filtered-background face and the great new glasses and the smirky smile AND ALSO I am the doofus on the left made out of seventeen pizza-chins. I am both of those at once.
I was circulating around my classroom yesterday while my students were working on their design projects. (I spend my summers teaching at a summer camp, where my lesson plans fall someplace between “Arts n’ Farts n’ Crafts” and “Odyssey of the Mind.”) The table of thirteen-year-old girls didn’t register that I was nearby, and I overheard the following:
Did you hear that that new girl is definitely coming to our class in the fall? The one that took the tour?
I hated her.
Me, too! She’s so pretty.
Right?! She looks too old, like, sixteen. She’s so tall and she’s so pretty and her hair is perfect and I hate her. It’s so not fair. We shouldn’t have to deal with her.
My heart sank.
Thirteen-year-old girls can be relentlessly cruel. I know because when I was a thirteen-year-old girl, my lifelong problems with anxiety really started to come into focus. Developed a nervous habit of tugging at my hairline that eventually created a bald spot, one that took years to regrow. Tried to hide in the bathroom during lunch. Bit my nails until they bled. Would bite the insides of my cheeks to keep from crying, whenever the girls who bullied me were nearby. Would go home at night and cry and be rude to my parents and shut the door and fantasize about being anywhere, anyplace other than where I was.
I stumbled on this picture of myself from around that time recently and I was astonished.
In my head at that time in my life, I was ugly, trollish, unworthy, unloveable, disgusting. A walking pimple in enormous glasses, alienating everyone around me because I already knew they hated me so what was the point. I was the worst. What was the point. I should just give up already. And I felt and believed that to be so very true, that I suppose that’s just what I believed was true. That’s the narrative in my brain, anyways. I was disgusting. I was grotesque.
This is a picture of a doofy thirteen-year-old girl being cuddle-attacked by a gigantic teddy bear at Christmastime, and it’s me, and she was and is beautiful.
Here’s what I said to that table of girls in my classroom yesterday:
Hey guys, I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop, but I did overhear what you said, and I’m gonna step in as the adult in the room right now. Janie, it kind of sounds like you’re judging someone based on their appearance, and not on who they are as a person. Would you feel good if someone did the same thing to you?
They stopped. They got it. They got quiet, and then one of them said, “Actually, she did seem really nice.” They all nodded.
Imagine what the world would be like for women and, by extension, for humanity if we spent as much time teaching empathy and compassion as we did teaching standardized test prep.
In my perfect world, when a girl turns thirteen, she should get a package delivered to her containing: a bunch of adorable cotton underpants and a gentle, humorous reminder that thongs are uncomfortable and there’s plenty of time to experiment with those later; a copy of Mindy Kaling’s essays about her girlhood from her book Is Everybody Else Hanging Out Without Me; a few inspirational quotes from both Malala Yousafsai and Tina Belcher, and a pair of sturdy sneakers as a reminder to keep climbing trees. The package is contained within a stylish and ergonomically sound backpack, pre-loaded with tons of maxi-pads in all the miniature pocket compartments, and hand-delivered by a responsible adult woman who is not your mother (think Hagrid from the Harry Potter universe, except, like, if Hagrid was your cool aunt, or that one amazing teacher who lets you hang out in her classroom during study hall).
There should be some kind of rulebook for turning thirteen. Some kind of poster in every middle-school girl’s bathroom in the country, saying:
Be kind to yourself.
Be kind to other people.
This year is going to be hard, but you’ll make it.
Keep dreaming. Keep pushing. Keep working.
You will fail. You will feel stupid. It happens. It’s okay.
You don’t need makeup yet. (In fact, nobody “needs” makeup!) But it’s okay if you want to play around with it sometimes for fun.
There is no right answer to “Who Is The Hottest Disney Prince?”
(And there is no right answer to “Who Do You Like?” You don’t have to tell anybody else what you think about in private, if you don’t want to. It’s okay if you dream about kissing boys. Or girls. Or both. It’s also okay if you dream about being a flying warrior princess who rides off on a dragon to save the kingdom, or about waking up to discover that you’re secretly an heir to the throne of a distant country. You don’t have to worry if you don’t have a crush on anybody just yet).
Learning isn’t dumb. Growing isn’t dumb.
Making mistakes sucks and is unfortunately really necessary for growing up.
Being scared is sometimes good for you.
If your friends don’t make you feel good about yourself, they’re probably not your friends.
Adults don’t always have it right. Listen to adults, but listen to your heart, too.
Be brave. Be strong.
You got this. Let us know if you need anything.
You couldn’t pay me enough money in the world to go back to being thirteen. Literally, there is no sum of money in the entire world that could make me go back there. If any of you reading this are actually the fortune-telling gypsy from the movie “Big,” please stay the hell away from me. No thank you, ma’am.
But I can try, in whatever small ways that I can, to love the hell out of those kids. And to let them know that is okay to feel beautiful and to feel pretty and to take pride in your appearance, and also that there is incredible freedom in making gross ugly faces, in shaking off the need to “be pretty,” in running wild and in freely laughing and in not giving any of the craps what anyone else thinks. To try and let them know, without using these exact words, that I promise, I promise, I promise: it really is all going to be okay.