“I’m stupid, ugly and ridiculous.”
This is a sentiment I randomly announced to my mother one day when I was about five or six.
(The featured photo was my second grade school picture. Don't you love the uneven bangs, the hair, the teeth, the glasses and the outfit?)
She asked why I thought that about myself and evidently, I shrugged my little shoulders and said, “I just am.”
I vaguely remember saying it. I absolutely remember feeling it.
Why did I have such negative thoughts? My parents never said or did anything that would make me think that way, and neither did anyone else in my family. My parents split when I was three but my childhood was quite functional. I was loved, accepted and supported.
I can't help but wonder if my negative opinion of myself came from cultural messaging. I wonder if patriarchy was the culprit. I honestly don't know, but I have a sneaking suspicion it's patriarchy.
I've often thought about when I made that announcement to my mother. There's a part of me that wants to cry for my little self, and another that laughs because I've kind of always been a cynic. Well, I'm really a hopeful cynic. I've never had a lot of trust in humanity, but I'm hopeful we can get it right eventually.
Because I'm a writer, I feel the need to tie this up with a neat little bow and explain how I overcame my negative thoughts--that I'm a perfectly confident women who's always self-assured. Hahaha. No.
I'm 50-years-old, so thankfully I have gained some confidence over the decades. I'm outspoken, sarcastic and quite strong, but I still hear that nagging voice telling me I'm not good enough, not thin enough, I'm too tall and my feet are too big. I started writing later in life, and sometimes I feel like a fraud. I have to find ways to shut down those voices and push through because I refuse to allow them to control me.
I go back to patriarchy.
There are too many boys and young men who are discouraged and belittled unless they follow a certain bro-code or sports-loving lifestyle, but in general, boys have an upper-hand.
Hillary Clinton wrote to NASA when she was a little girl saying she wanted to be an astronaut only to get a condescending, sexist reply that read: "Sorry, little girl, we don't accept women into the space program."
Growing up, I was taught to believe that boys are better at math and science and that girls were better at home economics and fashion. Yet, girls get better grades than boys do at all ages, including in math and science.
According to Australian researchers: "A big analysis of grades covering 1.6 million elementary, high school and university students shows that girls outperform boys at all ages. This includes science, technology, engineering and math subjects."
It's no wonder cartoons like this are created:
This cartoon focuses solely on body image but it's a perfect metaphor for how men and women are fed different messages--and how they view their societal gender-roles.
Boys can and girls can't.
The simple remedy is to reject sexist messaging. Sounds easy enough but unless we all reject and denounce sexism at every turn, we wind up with an imbalance where one gender feels confident and the other doubts and questions themselves. (Yes, I'm generalizing, but, HELLO.)
I picked up on this very messaging at a young age and it prompted me to tell my mother that I was stupid, ugly and ridiculous. For the longest time, I would tell that story with the tone of "OMG, look at what a weird kid I was..." I see now that I was echoing what I was learning from the world around me, and that I wasn't so weird after all. No one hurled those specific insults my way, I said them about myself because that's what I understood to be true.
Children are sponges and they pick-up on sexism. Adults who assume their kids are too young to get it are mistaken. Never underestimate a child's ability to internalize what they see and hear.
I wrote in another post that when I was a teen, I believed our culture was progressing, and in many ways we are, but there's (always been) a strong backlash against feminism and the price-tag is worrisome.
A 2017 New York Times article centered around how millennials feel about gender roles noted: "Overall, Americans aged 18 to 34 are less comfortablethan their elders with the idea of women holding roles historically held by men. And millennial men are significantly more likelythan Gen X or baby boomer men to say that society has already made all the changes needed to create equality in the workplace."
If we want to raise strong, confident girls, we have to provide them with a world that encourages confidence and practices gender equality. Yes, it starts at home, but it also must be part of the cultural experience.
We should always ask ourselves, "Can I do better?" If the answer is yes, do better.
It's on us. It's always been on us. Children take the cues we give them. No child should ever believe they're stupid, ugly and ridiculous--even if they do wear a green polka-dot dress with a power-blue sweater and a gigantic white lacy collar.