“Self-conscious” means to have undue awareness of one’s self, one’s appearance, or one’s actions.
I remember the day self-consciousness replaced self-confidence.
In 4th grade I was a rough and tumble woods girl, living in the upper peninsula of Michigan. That April we moved to Florida, land of incessant heat, burning sun, and a life indoors. I finished the school year as the new kid and the outlier position held through the end of 5th.
My parents chose a private school for 6th, a small Christian academy, with the hopes it would be a better fit. The idea was that small classes would mean more attention around kids from better families who were being raised “right”. Despite having had a much rockier time trying to fit into Sunday School cliques full of girls who’d grown up together in the south than I had in public school, I was looking forward to the new school too. It would be a fresh start.
In anticipation for The First Day, I was given a perm, which I tried to brush straight and instead created a burning bush of redheaded frizz. I then pasted it back on the sides with two gold toned barrettes. My curly bangs refused to lay down flat and fluffed up, poodle style. One of my front teeth had not fully come in, having been damaged after a balcony fall I’d taken as a toddler. The other front tooth had a small brown cavity. Besides a smattering of freckles, my pale skin was punctuated with a few bright red spots: my first zits.
I walked into the brown paneled and brown carpeted classroom and sat down at a brown desk in the second row, in the second seat from the back. I put my teal binder squarely on the top and set my red pencil case next to it. I looked ahead to the green chalkboard and the cursive name of our teacher written in white chalk. Nervous butterflies fluttered in my stomach. Tension buzzed in the air.
The seats in front of me filled with kids, most of whom were welcoming each other with high fives and laughs of recognition, a clan of kids who’d been here together for 5 grades before. I pushed away fears of being, ‘the new kid’. Today we all had the first day of junior high. I sat up straight, determined to be a good sport, to get good grades, and to make this a very good year.
A shiny tan girl near the front of the class in the row to my right turned back and smiled. She had on a peach top and jeans and peach socks to match her top. I thought she was smiling at me so I smiled back, wide and pleased. She covered her mouth with her hands and giggled and looked at the boy to my left.
“You’re right! She’s hideous!”
My body froze even as my blood rose high with hot shame. I tried to swallow the embarrassment watering in my mouth. The teacher stood in front of the class and began her welcome to the new year speech. I don’t remember hearing a word she said but I did understand something loud and clear:
Kelly H. and her Many-Colors-of-Benetton snottiness had just christened me with the nickname I’d have at that school every day for the two years I went there:
Paul added a noun: Hideous Iguana.
As in, “Hey Hideous, pass me the scissors.”
And, “You can’t sit there. This is a Hideous Iguana-free zone.”
Daily stomachaches, school absences, mounting shyness, and interior self-loathing took over. I saw what they saw: an ugly reptile who didn’t tan, who had a weird name, who wasn’t worth getting to know. I don’t remember smiling there again.
It took a few years but I eventually learned first not to brush out perms and then to stop getting them. I learned how to put on make up, at least the basic, “natural look”. My teeth were repaired. I got glasses and then contacts and then grew my hair long. Everybody left Junior High. Kelly and Paul and their friends probably changed too. They are probably kind hearted adults with families who don’t even remember me or what they said.
It’s just interesting how some things stick to a recipient like crazy glue. I think 20 years had to pass before I didn’t feel hideous. It was maybe 10 more until I’d be writer enough to Tell This Truth. There’s been lots of living in between and that brings us to Now.
At 41 I am still part woods girl who likes a clean face. I like washing with cool water and skin that can breathe. It took my lifetime but I now like my pale skin and salted caramel freckles. I’d go around like that all the time except another part of me likes a little dress-up now and then. I’m not very skilled at putting it on but there are occasions that benefit from a little tint and enhancement. For the most part, my two halves make their peace.
There’s just one sticky wicket with which to contend: I still feel shame when I shop for make up. I still feel like I’m posing. I resist spending money on myself. I struggle to see the expense as “worth it”. The drugstore is full of marketed chemicals and the department stores are full of Girls Who Know What They’re Doing. My planned response has worked for the past 5 or so years:
avoid it as much as possible.
Fair skin wrinkles the least. Red hair grays the slowest. My acne is finally gone. I use cocoa butter to moisturize at night and the lightest, cleanest sunblock I can find for the day; light makeup when necessary and act like a desire to do anything different is irrelevant. Play it cool, hippie girl.
When did that stop?
Last year I realized I’d aged more in the past 2 years than I had in the previous decade all together. I can usually drum up enough existential intelligence to brush off any fear of aging. I can welcome “wisdom streaks” and “laugh lines” and look forward to becoming a tough old bird with long white hair. Well, I thought I could…until stress pushed the fast forward button and just like the sudden transition from woods girl to bullied pubescent, I was changing from young mom to peri-menopausal hag with nitro speed.
I looked in the mirror and felt, “hideous”.
Around this same time my daughter-in-law got involved with a skin care company called EVER. She’s fair and redheaded like me and since having babies, her skin is the most sensitive of anyone I’ve met. Chemicals aren’t safe. EVER’s top line is expensive, at least from the perspective of water-and-cocoa-butter, and I listened from a distance, cheering her on but knowing I’d never sign up.
“Your face isn’t worth spending money on.”
Melanie started posting before-and-after photos. EVER isn’t a cosmetic company; they sell chemical free skin care products that are botanically derived and not tested on animals. These are products that claim to clear complexions, remove age spots, improve tone and wrinkles…you get the idea. I wanted to remain skeptical.
“None of that stuff really works.”
Photo after photo showed bare, clean faces in natural lighting with younger looking skin. There was a visible and noteworthy difference. The dark circles of mommy-fatigue had faded. Conditions like eczema and rosacea healed. Make up became unnecessary; these women’s faces glowed, dewy and healthy. I’m talking Anne of Green Gables kind of purity here. I refused to be impressed.
“Photos can be edited. Don’t be the idiot who believes everything she sees.”
Melanie and I met for lunch. It’s really hard to argue with what you see in person. She wasn’t wearing make up and it was a work day. Despite having two very active and intense little boys who I know to be early risers and who sometimes get up at night, Melanie looked like she’d just had 6 months of great sleep. If photos could be doctored up, there was no way she could fake looking that fabulous.
“Even if it works, you don’t deserve it.”
She showed me the prices and sales structure. Wine parties and home demonstrations, social media sales, contests, glossy marketing graphics and sample kits. I’d artfully dodged selling any kind of multi-level product through the years: scrapbooks, jewelry, vitamins, shakes… I’m a former Amway brat. That’s not my style. I have a full time job and a novel underway and four teenagers and a dog. I’m not a “hair girl”. I don’t like “high maintenance.” I’m afraid of being considered “vain”.
“You selling beauty is not a line anyone would buy.”
It was in the midst of a personal inventory exercise that I changed my mind. A meme in my social feed reminded me to, “be the person you needed when you were younger.” I gave that one some serious thought.
Back then, I needed to hear good things about myself, the way I was changing, and who I was becoming. That girl had pretty green eyes. She could draw really well. She loved reading and talking about books. She ran like the wind (and needed a good sunscreen). She needed to hear that everybody gets acne at some point and that some day, it all goes away.
So I actually stood in the mirror and told my 41 year old self these very same things. I made a list and stuck them to the mirror. I like her. I like her curves and her face and her mind. I like her curiosity. I like her long red hair and her green eyes. I like how she can raise one eyebrow without moving the other. I like that reads the newspaper and books and is trying to write them too. I like that she still runs fast. I like that she chose great friends. I like that when she feels challenged by something, she figures it out and knows how to dig in and learn something new.
I am not hideous and never was.
And then I said, maybe in a whisper, a few other things as well. I said I wasn’t ready yet to have white hair. I don’t want to look this tired. I’m not ready for wrinkled skin. I need to use more sunscreen. Cocoa butter isn’t enough at night. It isn’t the natural process of age that has changed me: its stress and a lack of proper care.
A difficult divorce from an abusive marriage. Single parenting. Auto-immune disease. A remarriage and modern family. Job changes. Anxiety.
Proper care can come in a variety of forms. I made another list for the mirror: a list of things that I want to do for Tia before she turns 42. This decade is still young. It’s a decade of children leaving the nest, of new opportunities, of full nights of sleep and of creative ideas. It’s a transition time, similar to ones known in the past, and this time I’m going to be the person to myself that I need. I’m going to recognize the changes my human body, my animal, is going through and I’m going to do some things that help ease it through the adjustment. I’m going to do this because I like this soul and I like this body and it has served me well for 42 strong years. It deserves to be loved and cared for and also to be stood up for, protected.
At Christmas, Melanie gave me a tube of the EVER Daylight Radiance moisturizer with SPF. Sunblock has to be a part of my life. I live in Florida with fair skin and burn in minutes. Finding one that doesn’t lead to a break out has been hard. This is actually the first one I’ve ever (ha!) used that isn’t the least bit greasy. It doesn’t smell like sunblock. Chemical free and citrus smelling, it feels good to use. When I put it on in the morning I feel a small boost of gratification that I’m putting something special on a special person. I’m taking care of my animal and I’m glad.
Because I use it every day, I’m going to soon need more. And because my water-and-cocoa-butter regimen is anemic and needs an overhaul, I’m going to give this chemical free, plant-based program a try. I’m going to have a home party with wine and a demonstration and the social media party of month long sales. I can’t make this a business, which would probably get me my stuff for free, because I definitively don’t have time. But if I do earn enough to start the regimen, I’ll take the before-and-after’s. I’ll see if I can get my outside to match my insides, the parts that feel strong and healthy, rested and young. If not, I’ll know that I tried but I’ll know more than that too:
- Someone else’s valuation of who you are does not determine your worth.
- Painful experiences can become material later.
- Mean people suck.
- People also change.
- Tell the truth.
- Sixth grade was over a long time ago. You’re an adult now. Get the heck whatever you want for your face.
- Update: We did have that party. My friends and I danced barefoot around a fire ring and threw scraps of paper into the flames. On the papers were all the baggage-y hangups we’d carried that weren’t useful to us anymore. Melanie did an outstanding demo, the wine was great, and my favorite EVER products are in my make up drawer. Hint- SMELL THE GOSH DARN LAVISH!! :swoon: Want to try or buy EVER?