I have this note that’s about six years old, and it’s been with me through four different house moves and about a million different purses. It looks like this:
It’s creased and crumpled because I’ve folded and unfolded it, read it and re-read it, loved it and loved it some more. That weird difference in color is probably from the time I accidentally spilled perfume on it when I had the note unfolded on the table while I was getting ready for a big interview. I doubt if the lovely woman who wrote it even knows that I still have it, but I’ve hung onto it for a million different reasons, not least of all her reminder that ‘you need no one else to make those things true about you (they just are).’
Before I can explain why this note is so important to me, I really need to make a confession: sometimes I hesitate before posting something on social media that has to do with feminism or with the importance of empowering other women or with accepting yourself because I swear – I swear! – I can almost hear all the women who knew me at a different stage in my life simultaneously rolling their eyes.
And I don’t blame them – I haven’t always acted like a feminist. Or tried to get along with other women. Or even accepted myself. And I actually find it pretty embarrassing when I think about the ways that I’ve interacted with and treated other women. If you’ve read any of my other posts, you’ll know that I’ve grown up overweight. While I now (mostly) see it as an immaterial aspect of who I am as a person, for a large part of my life I allowed it to define my self-perception. And (duh!) that effected the way I felt about other women. Growing up, I often felt threatened by women I perceived as more attractive (for me, this almost always meant thinner), more intelligent, more accomplished. Because not only did I feel the pressure to be thin, I also felt the pressure to compete with other women, and I felt this regardless of my size at any given point. I internalized the notion that the things that made another woman really cool somehow meant that the things I liked about myself weren’t so cool in comparison, and that my own worth was directly correlated with every other woman on Earth. If another girl was pretty, suddenly I wasn’t pretty anymore. If someone laughed at another girl’s jokes, suddenly I wasn’t funny. Honestly, it pains me to admit, but in social situations I’d often size up every girl around me. And, I mean, literally size them up: who was fatter than me? Who was thinner than me? I’d survey the room and then line them up in my mind from smallest to largest to determine where I fit into this ridiculously unhealthy hierarchy in my head.
Not always, obviously. I had healthy, functional, and amazing female friendships, but sometimes the things that affect your behavior or thoughts on a daily basis are so engrained that you barely notice them because they seem so normal. How many movies have you seen where two women fight over a man? How many TV shows depict women undermining each other for the upper hand in social situations? How many Regina Georges, Betty Rizzos, Blair Waldorfs, Chanels (and Chanel No. 1s and Chanel No. 2s and Chanel No. 3s and Chanel No. 4s…)?
You guys, I’m not trying to convince you that I have the world of female dynamics figured out. Trust me, I don’t. This meager blog post is way too brief to get into the nuances of feminism, what I’m describing is only a very rudimentary discussion of internalized misogyny, and there are tons of women I admire who understand it so much better and can explain it so much more eloquently than I ever could. The female experience comprises so many legitimate elements all at one time – race, class, ability, sexual orientation, gender identity (you don’t have to have a vagina to be a woman, y’all), and every woman has a unique story and perspective. And I think it’s incredibly important to discuss personal experiences on a very basic level, especially when it comes to taking responsibility for the times when we’ve come up short of who we’d like to be. Especially when it’s learned behavior. Especially when it makes your face turn red when you think about how you’ve acted in the past.
And, oh my gosh, does my face does turn red when I think of all the amazing women I could have gotten to know, who I could have learned from, whose presence and friendship I could have enjoyed instead of being unnecessarily cold and stand-offish, instead of being suspicious and catty, instead of being jealous and bitchy. And it seriously moves me. If you’re reading this and I’ve ever made you feel bad, I am so sorry that I deflected my own insecurities onto you. I hope you can forgive me.
Which brings me back to why I’ve kept that tattered note for so long. The girl who wrote this note to me was an acquaintance – I’d known her for several years through friends who all sang her praises, and the few times I’d been around her I understood why. She was hilarious and smart and the warm type of person who makes you feel like you are the reason that the world is a good place to live. She liked the Beatles and she had the coolest, most instinctive sense of style of anyone I’d ever met. In my mind, she was fearless for moving from Kentucky to a huge city up north. I’d heard rumors that she had dated the bass player I’d had a crush on throughout my entire early-twenties, and she was the kind of gorgeous that caused strangers to stop and gawk. So when I got an email from her several years later asking to meet up with me shortly after I’d moved to the UK, I was simultaneously excited and horrified. It would be the first time we’d spent one-on-one time together, and my insecurities FREAKED. THE. HECK. OUT. I had this gnawing worry that the things that I liked about myself, the things that I thought maybe set me apart from the crowd, were things that she was way better at doing.
But the day she arrived, I was so intimidated – and then suddenly I wasn’t. She wouldn’t let me be intimidated. She didn’t need me to be intimidated. She was so full of genuine self-love that she absolutely radiated confidence and kindness and authenticity, and I bathed in it. My insecurities just kind of melted away, and I forgot to feel as though I didn’t measure up or that I needed to compete in some way, and it freed up my time to focus on things that were way more fun: wrapping up in a duvet and binge-watching 24, dancing to Beatles songs, getting dressed up and feeling like I could hug the whole dang world.
When she left, I found the note that I’ve held onto for so long. The things she wrote about me were so lovely, but what affected me more than what she wrote was the fact that she wrote it at all.
I have no idea if she remembers what she wrote or even leaving the note for me to find after she left. At the time, I was overwhelmed by her kindness, but it has only been recently, while looking back on the past several years, that I’ve been able to unpack the enormity of that little note and to understand the reasons why I’ve felt the need to hold onto it so long.
This girl – this brave, amazing, funny, talented, gorgeous girl who left me in awe of her whole existence – took the time to handwrite a note listing the things that she appreciated about me. In the world I lived in at the time, this was not the way things worked. It threw me. It spurred me to subconsciously question the way I perceived other women and how I saw myself in relationship to them. I’m not saying that this single note changed my perspective or my thoughts or my behaviors all at once. I mean, I definitely didn’t wake up the next morning spouting quotes from feminist literature or trying to braid the hair of the girl next door. But it put a huge crack in the weird how-women-are-supposed-to-act-towards-each-other box I’d trapped myself inside. And now, years later, knowing that I can step outside of that box, I can see that her kindness to me translated to kindness to myself and to other women. And slowly I’ve found that when I’m accepting of other women, I become more accepting of myself. And when I look for things to love and admire about the women I meet, I more easily find things to love and admire about myself. It’s all connected – feminism, self-acceptance, body positivity, empowerment.
What I’m trying to say is that, in a weird and beautiful contradiction typical of human interaction, I think sometimes we actually do need other people to remind us that we don’t need other people‘s validation to love ourselves. And I think it’s important for us as women to actively be those reminders for each other, to disarm each other’s insecurities. To build each other up instead of serving as human rubrics to hold each other against.
It’s okay for me to be all the things she said about me. Incredible. Amazing. Beautiful. Full of life. Precious. SO intelligent. And I don’t need other women to make them true. Not even her. I just am.
And you don’t need anyone to tell you that you are incredible. Amazing. Beautiful. Full of life. Precious. SO intelligent. Not even me. You just are.
But sometimes it can mean a lot to remind each other of that.