Not One of the “Pretty Girls”

Ann is the cute one. Claire is the creative one. I am the smart one.

Ann is the funny one. Claire is the strong one. I am the responsible one.

Ann is the social one. Claire is the gifted one. I am the quiet one.

The quiet one? Ugh.

First of all, I am not quiet. I never have been. I have, however, felt silenced much of my life. Even though I’ve never been fully silent, I have felt the burden of the expectation. Worse, I always knew my sisters were just as smart if not smarter than I was. And I am responsible, yes, but what choice did I have? Who wants to be defined by a necessity? I want to be defined by my spirit, my mark on the world, my soul song.

For decades, though, I have felt defined not by my authentic self, but in comparison to others. In my social group, I heard echoes of my parents’ characterizations of me. Sarah was the smart one, the responsible one, the quiet one. Why couldn’t I be cute? Fashionable? Fabulous? And why do so few people realize how funny I am?

I’m a natural leader. I get things done. I’m successful. Why not be known for those things? And aren’t I talented, a gifted singer and strong athlete? I can hold my own in just about any circumstance, and people usually like me once the get to know me. How can I make people understand I’m so much more than the labels of my youth?

More importantly, how I can stop hearing those labels in my own internal dialog with myself?

 

“I’d like us to be more understanding with Paulina, more inclusive,” I coached. “I think it must be hard to be one of the beautiful people.”

“Oh, right!” my colleague burst out. “Let’s all feel sorry for the pretty girl. Sorry, I can’t do it.”

We both laughed. Neither of us had ever been known as “pretty girls.” We had both been raised by struggling families, developing more scrappiness than poise we felt. We talked about this often. We’d grown increasingly assertive in our years. We knew how to fight for what we wanted. And, right or wrong, we assumed Paulina had just always been given what she wanted. In fact, my concern for her feelings, and my belief we should be more understanding came from a very conscious belief that she did not know how to handle NOT getting what she wanted because she’d been so privileged in her life as a 5’11”, built like a ballerina, blonde, blue-eyed, upper-middle class, ice princess. And, my colleague was right, no one is or should feel sorry for that.

The real problem is that no one, not Paulina, not anyone, is defined by those first impressions. But we’re all judged by them. Whether fighting the label “smart one” or “pretty one” or any other social short hand derived avoid actually learning about and understanding others and, instead, classify them into manageable data points in our schema, we are all limited by the labels assigned to us.

In the best case scenario, we acknowledge that these classifications are short cuts we are all prone to take but also acknowledge that they are not pathways to understanding–and then allow people and our relationships to grow beyond those classifications. This needs to start with ourselves, though. Because, the worst case scenario is we that we limit ourselves to those classifications and allow ourselves to be constrained and defined by them. They then become more than labels but fully developed stories we tell ourselves. Like these:

 

I am smart. I should do better in math because I am smart. Smart people are quiet and read a lot and stay home on Friday nights and do well in school. Smart is not popular. Smart is not pretty. Smart is not athletic. Smart is not funny. And I can’t do anything that makes me look stupid or that I might not be good at. People might think I’m not smart. And smart and Sarah are synonymous.

I am responsible. I can’t go out and have fun or take a day off. I don’t dare use all my vacation days when I have so much responsibility at work. I need to put the needs of others first, always, and make sure everyone is taken care of before I take care of myself. That’s the responsible thing. Because some people aren’t responsible. I need to be responsible. For everyone. That’s how responsible people live and happiness only comes from knowing I am seen as responsible and everyone feels taken care of. That’s how I’ll fulfill my role.

 

Narratives like this pervade our minds. They’re not all bad. They’re not particularly inspiring either. And they deny so much of who I am and what I can contribute and the countless other gifts I’ve been given by the universe. Isn’t the truly responsible thing to do to maximize all of my god-given strengths and skills? Isn’t that just smart? Isn’t it also fun, creative, and adventurous? I am fun, creative, and adventurous!

So why to I have to remind myself this almost daily in order to honor my impulses and desires and objectives of joy in this life? And why is my dear sister with social anxiety still trying to live up to being the funny social one? And when will Claire and I realize our own beauty and cuteness? And how can Paulina break free of the narratives we have attached to her in all of her beauty?

I’m fortunate to have friends I can be and usually am my truest best self around who remind me, “you know you want to go on this adventure, Sarah!” or “you’re gorgeous!” or “your laugh makes you who you are!” We should all be so fortunate.

They hold me to being my best self and not subjugating myself to others, to my labels past or present, or to the narratives I told myself all those years in order to be who my labels told me I should be. I think, as women, we are particularly vulnerable to these types of narratives and, thankfully, particularly watchful of them in what my friends and I call, our soul sisters. In fact, it seems we are better at seeing the tell-tale signs in one another hiding our light and falling prey to the dark shadow of our old narratives than we at feeling the shadow we hide ourselves in.

I am learning to longer feel bad about about that, to longer judge myself for falling into old patterns that lead, per my narratives, to enabling others even martyring myself and holding back my humor and energy and adventure and silliness. I accept that I am simply in the process of rewiring my brain, carving new neural pathways in an effort to avoid those that have been so well worn. This is going to take time and it’s time beautifully spent asking myself daily how I honored my truest authentic best self and what I can learn from the day’s successes and struggles.

Living mindfully and giving myself permission to be myself and to be imperfect even at being myself–which used to seem like something I should just be naturally good at–is harder than following the old narratives. It just is. But it’s liberating too. And every day I feel more and more joy and more and more in love with the world. Who’d have thought a girl who used to cry herself to sleep riddled with anxiety as young as six could feel this way and have this much confidence? But I do because as hard as it is to be mindful, it was starting to hurt to be otherwise.

I even wonder how much of the stress I put on my heart, mind, body, and soul contributed not only to the anxieties I developed but to the lesions on my spine associated with the most pervasive narrative I fight–a woman living with MS. But just as I am learning to no longer define myself as just smart and responsible and quiet. So I definitely will not be defined by MS. I am so much more than this or any label and its associated narrative.

MS did make me face this struggle with my labels head on though. Overnight, following a terrifying and numbing flare up, I had to redefine who I was and what I said about myself as well as what others said about me. This was no longer a choice. My old narrative no longer were enough. Can you be the responsible one if you know someone might have to take care of you some day? Can the smart one also have cognitive fog? Oh, and I was so done being quiet. Who knew how much time I had to say what I wanted to say?

Challenge accepted. Project redefining Sarah, also known as acknowledging and becoming my true self, was set in irreversible motion.

I now hope to be defined by my authentic self, deep and complicated and full of life in a way that defies labels. I hope I can help all the “pretty girls” and the “smart girls” and “funny girls” learn that maybe they are all of these and none of these all at once. We are women who break through labels and refuse to accept the old narratives of those labels and, instead, create our own narratives of complicated, messy, beautiful lives. After all, why settle for a narrative, a work of fiction, when one can have a reality and make a real mark on this world?

The world deserves this contribution, not just another false narrative. So, are you ready to shed your labels with me Ann, Claire? Paulina? What about You?

 

 

Soul Songs #20: Extraordinary Girl

“She’s all alone again wiping the tears from her eyes. Some days she feels like dying. She gets so sick of crying.” *

Though ultimately an optimist, I spent my childhood nights in tears worried about the future, scared I’d never find love, praying for my family. I was so scared I’d let people down and never be good enough. I even had a special pillow that I used exclusively for crying into so my sister with whom I shared a room, could not hear me cry.

I’d cry for hours sometimes. Then I’d take a deep breath, say another prayer and rest with the assurance that tomorrow was a new day and held new possbilities. I’d listen to music until I fell asleep and always awoke ready for the day, wearing a smile more times than not. I would even tell myself that no one ever needed to know how I really felt or how weak and scared I was.

I now have a life far easier than anything I’d known was possible. I’m comfortable. I’m confident in who I am. And I  become bolder and braver every year, more my true unabashed self. My prayers are mostly for others and offered in gratitude.

But I still cry. Comfortable is not the same as happy. Grateful is not the same as fulfilled. But I am not scared. I’m an extraordinary girl in an extraordinary world. I know that now.

*lyrics from Greenday

No Amount of Makeup Can Cover these Scars

“Now, girls, there is no way that this mascara is ever going to fully coat your lashes if you just put it on one side. You have to paint both sides of your lashes, like this. Close your eyes, dear.”

My friends and I looked at each other in shock and horror. “I never even thought of that!” I said, and was greeted with a murmured chorus of me neithers. We were thirteen and fourteen years old and we had been bravely, even boldly making up our faces before school, at lunch, after PE, in the bathroom before classes for which we dared to show up tardy. Just a month before, in fact, I had been re-applying my makeup in the bathroom before fourth period because I wanted to feel confident before our quiz; when the bell rang, I tossed my compact and brushes into my purse–yes, I carried a purse at all times–and ran to class, falling down the stairs and ripping all the tendons in my left ankle in the process. But my make up looked great.

The presenter continued and we leaned in to listen from our seats in the multi-purpose room. All 8th grade girls were seated in rows, surrounded by teachers and staff, as we were given instruction on how to apply our makeup and pick the most flattering clothes for our “season.” The guest speaker was from Nordstrom, an upper-end retailer most of us never entered. She had talked to us already about how to select our best colors and how to flatter our various body types.

“Now, you’re going to need to line your lips or you might as well not even wear lipstick.” This statement triggered my first negative thought of the hour. ‘I don’t have time for some of this,’ I thought. ‘Maybe I could do this just for special occasions like school dances,’ I decided.

I was an honors student, a spelling bee champion, a student of the month, and a tiny little girl living below the poverty line, walking more than two and a half miles to Shumway Junior High so that I could still walk to school and see my friends from my old neighborhood. And I wasn’t bothered by the presumption that fashion and makeup were not a luxury but a necessity, nor by the notion that it was deemed appropriate by the principal (whose name I never knew) to take time from our instruction to “learn” these things. I was bothered by the fact that I might not be able to live up to the standard being set in this assembly.

Applying my makeup this morning before even stepping out to get my coffee and the paper, I am reminded of that moment in junior high when I felt not demeaned, but motivated. I increasingly improved in my make up and hair and fashion skills. I grew to love getting ready in the morning. I found cheap ways to emulate the look I was supposed to create. I studied the styles of the likes of Whitney Houston and Madonna and Susanna Hoffs to develop my own look–that, we had been told, was very important. I convinced my mom to help me buy Seventeen and Young Miss magazines so I could research the latest trends and learn more fashion tips each month. And, in our home of liberal political activists, no one questioned this or felt it inappropriate not just for society to set such standards, but for my school to have done so.

I had actually been told, since my first day of kindergarten, to hold in my stomach, stand up straight, and smile whenever I entered a room. It’s funny how it never occurred to me to share this advice with the children I later nannied or raised. But I still think of it ever time I enter a room, just like I know to apply my makeup and fix my hair before leaving the house–to go to the supermarket, even.

As a high school principal, I  rarely found girls in the bathrooms applying make up or fixing their hair. They’d be late because they were standing in one of those circles all fiends make when sharing stories and gossip, but  never because of hair or makeup. I wonder what they would think of my friends and I. Were we more vain, more superficial? Was it just the 80’s? I don’t know. But, even at 42, I hear the voice of the stunning fashionista telling me, each morning, to make sure I coat both lashes fully with mascara.

Even today, I recall that day I sat listening and learning how to make my lips look properly pouty and my eyes to look sufficiently sultry. I should have been listening about how to report the acts that I was being put through by a trusted adult male each week, or how to feel strong enough to run away, or how to study for the SAT so I could get the education I so desired so I could escape from the life I feared I was being sucked into. But I wasn’t taught these things. And I wasn’t questioning why. I was just worried about my makeup.

I’ve come a long way since junior high. But I still have the scars. And, try though I might, I can never cover them all with makeup.

IMG_3358

Someone Like Me… and You

IMG_3358 “What’s someone like me doing in a life like this?” is playing on my phone as I begin my evening rituals, stripping layer after layer of color and product from face and hair. First the mascara and eyeliner, then the shadow, the face powders, the fixatives holding my hair in place, … Cyndi Lauper’s little known lyrics strike a chord. This song has resonated with me since I moved to Utah more than twenty years ago now. Tonight, though, is one of those nights when thoughts flow more like a waterfall then a gentle stream.

*

“Why are you moving to Utah?” was the question everyone asked when this liberal activist from Portland, Oregon said she was leaving. Bets were placed about how long she’d last in the conservative Wasatch Front. That was 1991.

“What brought you to Utah?” is still a question she struggles to answer.

“How much do you want to know?” She giggles in reply. Sometimes life just needs a reset button. That’s what Utah was, a completely new start.

*

Tea in hand, makeup removed and  hair at ease, I sit to enjoy the quiet time after everyone else has gone to bed. Sipping on the peppermint and breathing deep, I am struck by the fact that my quip shared with multiple do-gooders at tonight’s fundraiser is no longer necessary.

I’ve lived more than 20 years feeling I do not belong and am so different from my peers. When I received my last promotion I actually worried I would not be included in key decisions–wouldn’t be part of some “cool kids” vision I had created of my organizational hierarchy.

“Should I start getting my nails done, maybe get facials? What about my clothes… will they be okay?” My sweet husband just listened and offered “Do what makes you feel good.” Not very helpful advice, or so I thought at the time, but apt nonetheless.

*

“Look, Sarah, I even wore heals tonight!” my boss laughed as we walked into the event.

Wait a minute! Was my gorgeous, experienced, always financially stable supervisor actually self-conscious about her appearance and how she might be perceived by others? I thought about this all night.

It’s true I dress differently than any other in my position. My liberal streak shows in my flowing scarves and sari skirts. My commanding presence is made known with each assertive stride in my funky heals. And my hair is a different set of colors every six weeks.

It’s also true that I was raised and lived, and still live, quite differently than my peers. The abuse and addiction in my home shaped me and sculpted my strong spirit. The broken souls welcomed into my home as a child taught me gratitude–and how to learn from everyone I meet. I was no “cool kid” with my movement from school to school, protected only by the strong characters in my books.

Now look at me. What’s someone like me doing in a life like this? How dare I spend the last several months feeling somehow less-than when I have come so far and found a way to do so much. And, worse, how dare I assume others do not have their own insecurities and, instead, only judge and hold themselves above others. I was the one who was judging.

How can someone like me be so judgmental? How could I just assume this group would not accept me?

*

I always told my students “don’t ever let anyone else be right about who you will become; prove to them that you are only who you choose to be–and surpass all expectations!” I like to think I’ve done this. But sometimes, even someone like me, wallows in her little girl fears and insecurities. Tonight reminded me that maybe we all do this on occasion.

So, what’s someone like me, and someone like you, going to do? How can we remember our own greatness and embrace our own ability to connect and empathize with others?  In a life like this, it would do us all some good to remember that we all have our challenges and our worries, but we’re all in this together.