30 Going on 13.

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.

60 thoughts on “30 Going on 13.

  1. Thank you so, so much for this post. I’m the mother of 3 girls, the eldest about to be 13, and I found this so helpful x

  2. Just loved the blog. It was so real and sensitive. Girls in general no matter the age can be cruel at times. We need to teach them better self esteem and love of self. I think when that happens there will be fewer mean girls. You gave those young girls a wonderful lesson in kindness.

  3. I completely agree with the sentiments in your post. i’d just add, though, that it’s really not all that different for boys. They get bullied too, whether because of their appearance, race, hair color, taste in music, parents’ jobs, or a million other things besides.

    With boys, in addition to nasty, cruel remarks, there is also the nasty, cruel behavior. The bullies at my school were quite aware that names alone would never hurt the rest of us, so they made sure they also had an ample supply of sticks and stones too. I speak as someone whose twelve years of schooling all those decades ago took what fragile confidence I was born with and pounded it to dust. I think the fact that my gravatar image is a man with a bag on his head is not unconnected.

    It has also massively affected how I raise my own kids. I would be devastated if either of them a) were bullied at school, or b) bullied anybody else at school. I’m afraid I’ve also developed a bit of a hair trigger when it comes to anyone bullying my kids. There haven’t been many problems so far, thank goodness, but the once or twice the situation did look threatening, I went round to the bullies’ parents and politely but firmly expressed my concerns. That seemed to work.

  4. Thank you! I am going to keep this and share it with my nieces when they turn 13, and make the backpack package for them! Xoxo!

  5. Have the 13 year old going through the stuff as we speak / read. You right on the money here! So insightful and useful to read – as we struggle to keep grounded through it all. Girls are so fabulous though, right?

  6. I am so with you on the “no amount of money in the world” thing. But if I could go back there and just go hug the 13 year old me, I’d do it without question.

  7. I just woke up to discover this post in my email inbox. I don’t usually read a lot of blogs now but the title intrigued me so I clicked on it, I am very glad that I did! This post is amazing and coming from a thirteen year old’s perspective, really made me think about life in general. The advice is great and thanks for writing such an inspiring post xx

  8. Can you please deliver this package full of goodies and wisdom to my two girls when they turn 13? I also remember 13-17 being the most horrific years of my life. Just horrible. In case you can’t make it in person, I am absolutely saving this and sending it to the email account I created for them where I send photos and pieces of writing I want to remember to share with them. Thank you for this. (LOVE the selfies too – both of them!)

  9. An awesome write… I am 22 and I still feel the same way when some of my friends constantly remind me that I lack grooming and I look like an old woman.

  10. You were SO in the right place at the right time. Thanks for speaking up for that (soon-to-be) new girl — she’s gonna have it hard enough as it is, and you did an amazing thing for the girl pack in your room. I wish more women would lead our girls by example. (Oh, and I agree with gotrespect. My daughter would love this survival kit!!)

  11. This is truly one of my favourite blogs… i am 15 and i feel that all girls my age should be reading this because you are absolutely right in every way! This post put a smile on my face and makes me feel more confident too because sometimes its like nobody understands but you do. Thank you zoo much for sharing!

  12. The perfect survival kit for thirteen year old girls. 🙂 “You got this. Let us know if you need anything.” So beautiful!

  13. Also, it is so hard to convince teenagers that we actually do remember what it’s like to be that age and that we really do have their best interests at heart!

  14. Gah, this post was so amazing! I have a sister who just turned 12 and I want to make her this amazing survival kit you just talked about and give it to her next year. ❤

  15. I definitely could’ve used this when I was that age. If, god forbid, the genie from Big ever comes into our lives and I’m forced to be 13 again, will you be my crazy aunt Hagrid?

  16. As someone who works with kids daily, I know how that is. Why is a nine year old so vicious? You’re just discovering how the world works and how feeling work, and your first reaction is to just be super mean. I was never like that as a kid. But then again, I used to watch Mr. Rogers.

  17. Thanks for this. What a good call out. Soon, I’ll be around teenage goods and this is such a good reminder. Good work – and thanks for sharing.

  18. Pingback: We all remember. Let’s speak up. | Riddle from the Middle

  19. I hope you are a teacher in the schools as well as summer camp because you are exactly the kind of teacher kids need. Good for you. I was a teacher for ten years. Loved it, but found it took over my entire life and I ran away to find my own life. I do continue to love kids, though, and want the best for them. I do still teach, but on my own terms–no standardized tests to teach to, no ridiculous meetings to attend. I’m glad, however, that there are still dedicated and sane teachers such as yourself. Here’s a big round of applause—and a new follower–for you. http://judydykstrabrown.com/2015/08/06/at-fourteen/

  20. Bullies are the worst they can be so cruel. you are very inspirational I am in high school and these two girls have been bullying me all summer they put me down by writing mean comments on the internet and try to steal all of my friends I don’t know how much more I can take of it but this has been very inspiring to me thank you 🙂

  21. I try to keep my children busy with developing their emotional and aesthetic feelings by doing arts, by providing them with good quality literature (thanks for your suggestions) and giving them as much love as possible. I believe that once they come to their teens, they can already be prepared for the competition in a very different way than most parents try to. As you said, the goal is not to be the prettiest, the most smart or the best in any other way…

  22. What a beautifully written post – and good on you for pulling those girls up! It’s often the type of thing that some would pretend they haven’t heard – but as you said, you need to teach compassion as well as maths!

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