Lessons From My (Thigh) Gap Year

Bullying doesn’t stop when you put away that cap and gown. It just takes different forms.

I’ve been thinking a lot about bullying lately.

This morning, while walking my dog on a sunny and otherwise perfect day, my mind wandered to the guy in high school who called me “Thunder Thighs”. I still think about that comment. Nearly two decades before a “thigh gap” had a name, I was judging myself by whether or not I had one, and, if so, how much of one.

I still do.

I was fourteen then. I’m 33 now and will catch myself in the bathroom at a restaurant, checking to see if I should worry about what I’m eating or if my thighs say it’s ok to have that last slice of pizza.

I’m sure it was a joke, and I know I brushed it off at the time. But clearly those words stuck with me more than I would like to admit.

Today is International Day of the Girl and I can’t help but think about my friend’s little girls, and the world that they live in. I think about the lessons I learned at a young age and I’m still learning today.

I think about the things I said when I was young and the things that were said to me.

I think about those years in junior high when I had that terrible haircut that transformed my untamable curls into an awful blonde box-shaped pixie; and how people would ask me why I wasn’t sitting with the lesbian crowd. Because, you know, they have short haircuts and I have a short haircut, so therefore I must be gay.

Why to some people a haircut automatically signifies sexual preference I still don’t understand.

Recently, I traveled abroad and had men on multiple occasions lean in and ask, as if it were a sensitive secret the two of us were sharing, “So tell me, why did you cut your hair?” The moments of junior high taunting came rushing back with a force I hadn’t felt in years.

I’m sure there was no offense meant, but a part of me took it personally, for just a second.

“Because I wanted to,” was the reply, with a turn away to another conversation. But what I really wanted to say was, “What the hell is it to you what my hair looks like?” Clearly any straying from long curls must be a sign of some deep inner turmoil. Or maybe it’s simply that I wanted to be a boss like Claire Underwood. So get over it.

As a grown woman having spent a decade and a half in the working world, I’ve come to realize that bullying doesn’t stop when you put away that cap and gown. It just takes different forms.

Moments of pride I’ve felt as a writer have so quickly turned into moments on the brink of tears. Articles I had written were published in a major California newspapers and my boss believed those pieces, so beautifully written and picked up by these mass market papers, must have been written by my older, male superior. And there I was, having the gall to take credit for them!

The thing is, I never really did take credit.

I have been conditioned to speak in the proverbial “we.” I do so even when I’m the only one in the room.

I have never been one to brag about my achievements. When I write, all I want is someone out there to read it. I don’t need kudos or congratulations or a paycheck. All I want is for my words to have an effect on just one person; maybe someone who thought they were alone doesn’t feel so alone now.

It’s up to us to change the tide of bullying; to help our young girls, and boys, realize that words matter and can hurt. For years. We need to teach our kids to think before they speak; to build each other up and not tear each other down. Even if it’s inadvertent.

It’s campaign season and the air is filled with negativity; bullying on a grown up scale. By rationalizing that it was just “locker room talk,” we’re saying it’s ok.

The thing is, it’s not. Ever. Whether it’s a ten-year-old saying a classmate is fat, a teenager calling the marching band guy a “fag” or a grown man treating a woman as a sex object , it’s wrong.

And our kids need to know this. Because long before the problem manifests itself as bulimia or depression or alcohol abuse or staying in bad relationships or the plethora of other societal red flags, it could be brewing, and it could be leading to a lifetime of second guessing, self-doubt and self-loathing.

Self-esteem is an incredibly hard thing to cultivate. Especially in a world where our young people not only feel their self-worth is dependent on being the prettiest or the handsomest or the smartest, but also on the number of Facebook friends and Instagram likes they get.

No more negativity. No more bullying. Let’s teach our kids love, kindness, respect for self and others from the day they’re born and let’s be an example for them to learn from.

Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”

Today, let’s start to be that change.