My 10-year-old daughter and her friend are a lively duo—smart, confident, hilarious girls. One evening they were drying off from swimming lessons when their conversation took a surprising turn:
“I feel fat. Like, what’s all this?” my daughter’s friend said, pulling at her skin like she couldn’t stand to be inside of it.
My daughter responded: “I know. Is this supposed to be here?” she asked, squeezing her own flesh with disdain.
The girls sounded like people other than the bubbly children I know, as each coarsely evaluated her own physique. I’ve done this, and I’ve supported friends through this kind of brutal self-assessment. But I didn’t expect to hear 10-year-olds talking like this.
I chimed in, trying to say the right things. But mostly, I just babbled, desperately and awkwardly.
This is what I wish I would have said:
You are living, breathing, growing creatures. The images that show us what women are “supposed to” look like aren’t representative, and they aren’t real. They depict women whose job it is to have their pictures taken. So they work at it like professional athletes. That’s how rigorously they diet and exercise to qualify to do their jobs.
Their photographs are taken and edited by other professionals. Their job is to make the models look flawless. So they edit out any fat, zits, wrinkles or imperfections that make the models look like regular people. The models, photographers and editors work for a client whose goal is to entice us, potential customers.
Part of what is hard about being a healthy female in our country is that we hear that we matter more if we are pretty. Then we are given the formula for what it takes to be pretty ― being slim and having long limbs is a cornerstone of that formula. The many women whose images bombard us look like that. But most of us aren’t shaped that way, so we feel inadequate. When we feel a little vulnerable, we are more likely to buy things that promise to fix us. This may make us sad people, but it makes us good customers.
Giant industries are always trying to sell us stuff. Their job is not to be nice or kind, or to help us accept or understand ourselves. Their job it is to keep selling us on the idea that we are incomplete so that we will keep buying things to fix ourselves.
When you are 10, you get to dive into the secret world of you. You get to try a bunch of sports, play different instruments, read tons of books, study a range of topics, listen to all different kinds of music, and meet a host of new people. You get to explore who you are.
Sometimes it may be hard to feel confident because each of us exists in such an interior world, a reality that it is in our own minds. We don’t know how we appear to those outside of that world. We worry: “What do other people think of me? Am I smart? Am I funny? Am I a good friend? Am I attractive?”
One of my favorite things about being a grown-up is that I know who I am. I know what I do well. I know who my friends are. I know how to seek out social situations that make me feel comfortable and connected. I also know what to avoid. It’s taken me years to figure myself out. But I can honestly say that I feel at home with myself. I still struggle sometimes. But even when I go through difficult times, I understand the ways in which I’m strong. I know that I can count on myself.
This is what growing up is about—learning what feeds your soul and finding out who you are. Knowing what you love to do, and doing what you are good at builds a confidence that is uniquely yours. It propels you to do important things, like experiment with life.
You are an important person. Your opinion matters. Your opinion of yourself really matters. Before I learned this, I used to look to other people. I would hope that they would see value in me. But I realize now, that when I did this I was giving away something that I need. I was asking them to like me instead of asking me to like me.
Don’t search outside yourself for “likes.” Learn yourself. Discover your talent and your truth. Experiment with the beauty that is you. You are like a new language that has never existed on this planet before. Become fluent in you.