Those Awkward Years

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Who knew that even the most beautiful women in the world sometimes perceived of themselves as awkward and even a bit homely? I once read an article in which Audrey Hepburn admitted to often feeling like an ugly duckling. She laughed about being too thin and devoid of curves and commented that she really had a quirky face. Likewise Kate Winslet cackled hysterically at the thought of being considered beautiful. She confessed to always thinking of herself as the fat girl in class with facial features that would never qualify her as a model. When I was a high school teacher I learned that was was often the loveliest young women in the class who body shamed themselves for one reason or another and saw reflections in the mirror that displeased them. 

Learning all of this as a mature individual who had moved beyond an obsession over appearance was nonetheless a revelation. As a young woman I had sometimes loathed the way I looked. I was Twiggy thin rather than curvy like Annette Funicello which made me want to hide my boyish figure under baggy clothing. Wearing a uniform at school was a face saving wardrobe benefit for me. My baby fine hair would not hold the big bouffant styles of my era even with an application of an entire jar of Dippity Do. I suppose that I felt as self conscious as any human ever had so I generally gave up on attempts to be attractive and focused on preparing for the single life that I was certain would be my fate. 

Luckily it did not take me long to finally reach the point of liking myself just as I was. I actually vividly remember the moment when it happened. I was attempting to do something with my unforgiving hair and I laughed at the face in the mirror and exclaimed, “I like you. Don’t ever change.” I realized the age old truism that my imperfections made me more interesting. I didn’t need to be a Barbie doll. I became comfortable in my own skin because I quit thinking about myself and became more concerned with the people around me. Selflessness, empathy and compassion became my beauty tools and the more I really cared about others the more confident I felt. I also eventually understood that every single person has moments of insecurity.

We humans have a tendency to compare ourselves, especially in a society that sells us on the ideals of what real beauty or success actually is. We are both overtly and subliminally told over and over again how we should look, feel, act to be accepted. Today that pressure is way stronger than it was when I was young and feeling so gawky. Social media and the vast array of movies, magazines and television programs set up a kind of continual barrage of imagery that dictates who and what is in and who and what is out. Self esteem is boosted or destroyed by a single post on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. Likes and followers are measures of popularity. There is a not so subtle bullying that is terrifying for those who are still in the process of finding and appreciating themselves. Because of the new challenges some never reach the point that I did when I knew how undoubtedly okay I was.

I recently had a conversation man with whom I had attended high school in which he admitted that he had wanted to get to know me back then and maybe even take me out but I had intimidated him. He explained that he saw me as one of the more popular persons of our class and that he believed that I was also one of the prettiest girls. I laughed so hysterically at his confession that I almost hurt his feelings, so I had to admit to my own teenage angst and speak of my almost paralyzing shyness and feeling of being just north of being ugly. We then talked about the ridiculousness of those years when we were so frightened and unsure of ourselves. 

It’s quite sad that teens do not have the confidence that comes with adulting. As we grow and experience the world and its people we develop our talents and find our purposes in life. All of that makes us less inclined to worry over appearances but it takes time to reach that wonderful point of feeling good in our own skin. I suppose that the act of becoming a swan or a butterfly is simply a matter of time but in the supercharged environment of the present getting there can be like gingerly walking through a minefield. 

The mental health of our teens and very young adults is being threatened not because they are “snowflakes” who are unable to take a little heat but because there is an ugliness through which they must navigate that is unlike anything any former generation has ever seen. The old saw of not saying anything unless it is nice is passe. It has been replaced with an anonymity that encourages ugly insults that would have been unacceptable in an earlier time. Kids today are being scarred in hideous ways by words that are difficult to forget. We have somehow given people the idea that denigrating others is a form of strength and honesty rather than the abuse that it really is. We are often more forgiving of cruelty than we are victims who break under the brutality of words.  

I honestly do not know if I would have managed to become a well adjusted adult if I had been subjected to the kind of viciousness that is so rampant today. I can now handle a comment that accuses me of being an idiot because I am confident enough to know that I am not. As a sixteen year old or even a twenty year old I might have tragically believed such words if they had been directed at me. Young people today are all too often the target of such attacks from their peers just as twitter has become a domain for undercutting and even firing individuals with whom we disagree. Being or feeling awkward today is tough. It’s well best time for those of us who have made it past those trying years to call out anyone who belittles others and the toadies who follow them. If we do not return to kindness and decorum in the way we treat one another I truly fear for the mental health of our young. It is up to us to help because growing up is awkward enough.

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