It feels slightly awkward to type that. I was debating between that and, “I like myself” for the title of today’s post. It feels awkward because, I think, as much as having good self-esteem is a desired and valued characteristic, it seems hard to voice my healthy self-esteem without coming across as vain or conceited.
I am in my mid-30s, a decade in which I was foretold to gain a healthy sense of identity and confidence. It certainly hasn’t always been here. In my teen years, I was a big fan of No Doubt, and the lyrics to Gwen Stefani’s “Staring Problem” hit home for me.
“Such a cute girl / I’m so jealous / I wish I looked exactly like her / What’s it like to have that body? / I’m gawking while I wonder”
I grew up wearing a back brace from age 9 to age 12. I had severe scoliosis that kept getting worse, and the doctors hoped that wearing that horrid, uncomfortable, hot and bulky brace for 23 hrs/day would stop my spine from continuing to curve. I wore it under my clothes, which looked weird and bulky and wore holes in my shirts from the screws poking out. I tried to own it and joked that I had abs of steel and convinced new kids at school to punch my stomach. I wore it under my softball jerseys and my cheerleader SWEATER (that only I had as all the other girls got to wear cute vests which didn’t work with the brace).
I even wore it over my bathing suit, which was a real treat. There was one time, while on vacation, that I was swimming in a pool and noticed people staring at me and my brace. I felt uncomfortable, as any little girl getting undesired attention would. But as I was swimming and trying to ignore the starers, another little girl entered the pool with her mom. This girl had a significant case of CP, and was really contorted, didn’t seem to be able to verbalize, and was swimming in floaties with her mom even though I remember thinking she looked older than me. And WOOSH, all those staring eyes jumped right to her. That day left a profound impression on me. I remember feeling grateful for my body, and for the relative health I had, and for my physical independence. (I realize that thinking, “wow, glad I’m not that girl” isn’t very kind or honoring to her, but I was 11 and that was my takeaway.)
Another pivotal shift in my self-esteem journey came during high school. By now I had had two major surgeries to correct my spine, and was out of the back brace. My surgeries fused my spine in several places, and stunted further growth in my torso. I was left with a disproportionately short torso and excess skin, which drove me nuts since there was no amount of crunches that could burn off skin tissue to give me the smooth, taut torso I dreamed of. During the summers of my high school career, I worked as a lifeguard at the local beach. If wearing a one-piece swimsuit every day in front of all your peers doesn’t make you get over yourself, nothing will. A lot of my fellow lifeguards also went to my high school, and one of them was a girl named Megan. Megan was the epitome of “hot girl,” a popular cheerleader who was dating an older “man” who wasn’t even in high school anymore! One day while working the same shift, I overheard her complaining to a friend about her figure. My actual thought was, “If even Megan doesn’t like her figure, then the rest of us are screwed!” And somehow, in that moment, I just got over it. I realized that maybe no one ever feels happy with how they look, there’s always someone else to compare to, and decided to give up the fight. I got over caring about my figure and that it didn’t look like the movie stars or even my fellow lifeguards. I again felt grateful for my body and all it allowed me to do, how active I could be and how healthy I was.
Out of school now and into my adult life, I dated a man who was very open about his past relationships. He had described some of them as “hot and heavy,” but lacking substance. I zeroed in on the hot and heavy part, without realizing that he was complaining about the lack of depth and was trying, clumsily, to tell me that I was the whole package. I had looks, chemistry, and something more profound. All I was hearing and was now freaking out about was if our chemistry was lacking and I wasn’t hot enough. This baggage came into our relationship for a long ride, even into our marriage.
In our first year of marriage, we got into an argument and I again was comparing myself and feeling like I didn’t measure up. In the midst of our fight, I ended up giving myself a pep talk. It came out of my mouth from another source – I think it was the voice of God trying to smack me upside the head from within my own head. I basically yelled at myself, explaining that the past girls were lacking, that only having physical attraction isn’t enough for a healthy relationship, that my husband chose me for the total package – my looks, my personality, my intellect, my interests, my humor, my career ambition, my vision for life. How lame would it have been if he only married me because I was the hottest girl he’d ever met? I finally realized that I was so much more than that. And again, it was like a switch got flipped, and I no longer cared about his ex’s. To the point that I can confidently say that I am not the hottest woman that my husband ever dated, and I am not at all bothered by that.
I now, over the accumulation of many instances in my life, have a healthy self-esteem. When people say they think I am beautiful, I believe them. When people say they like me as a person, or think I’m smart, or funny, or anything, I believe them. I don’t think I’m the greatest human to ever walk the planet; hardly. But I like myself. I like who I am and who I’m becoming. I’m still growing, learning, maturing, improving. There’s still work to do, and there probably always will be.
There’s a concept I’ve come across from reading various books, this idea of the lie of scarcity. It is a lie that there is only so much ______ to go around. Only so much talent to go around, only so much love to go around, only so much belonging to go around. Part of my old jealousy from comparing myself to others was because of this idea of scarcity. If someone complimented another girl in my presence: “Stacy is SO funny; Nadia is SO pretty; Whitney is the nicest person in the world;” I would sting because I thought that made me LESS funny, LESS pretty, LESS nice and likable. What a sad lie to believe. My not-quite 3 year old daughter thinks that if she loves something, I can’t also love it. If her favorite color is red, mine cannot be as well. It is infantile thinking, this idea of scarcity. Someone else being talented or successful or attractive has NO BEARING on my own success, my own talent, my own appearance. Let’s stop comparing ourselves, let’s rest on the idea that we are made uniquely with many pros and some cons, let’s believe people when they tell us that they love us. Let’s lavishly spread the compliments and love around, knowing that there is always enough.