I was in eighth grade when I overheard a group of boys discussing their female classmates in the library. I sat frozen in a cubby desk hidden from their view. I attempted to finish a make-up vocabulary test, but my focus disappeared as I listened to their words.
“The new girl is cute, but a little chubby. Sometimes she is pretty, but other days, I don’t know.”
I felt the young man’s words cut through my skin and consume my thoughts. I looked down at my thighs and noticed their roundness. I put my hand on my stomach, soft to the touch. My other hand embraced a lock of my hair, reminding me again that it was a mistake to try a new haircut.
I was the new girl, and apparently ugly and fat.
I don’t remember much of my eighth-grade year, yet I’ve kept those words with me. I hear them when I look into the mirror and don’t like what I see. I think about them when my skinny jeans don’t zip up or when my hair is a mess. Every time my face breaks out or I slip my legs into a bathing suit, I am in eighth grade again.
Those words shouldn’t define me, shouldn’t have the effect they had. I grew up in a house with parents who showered me with love and positive affection about my looks and abilities. I married a man who is devoted and loving. I have friends who encourage and support. I am successful and happy with the person I became, the one I am still becoming.
Yet, those words often come back to haunt me. These are the words I keep in the desk drawer of my mind, the ones that startle me when they reappear. The ones I often shove into the back but can never throw out.
And now that I have girls of my own approaching eighth grade, I wonder what words will they choose to keep, what innocuous statements will stain their souls?
Although I like to think I can relate to my daughters, the world they live in is much different than the one I knew.
The pressure on young people today is tremendous. From looks and grades to social media presence and athletics, the burden to be the best weighs heavy on our most impressionable minds. This also creates a culture of envy and unconfident youth who do not know how to step away from the stories they create in their minds of their peers’ perfect lives. Individuality is admonished and childhood ends sooner.
The result is a generation of teenage girls searching for ways to cope. Eating disorders, sexual promiscuity, self-harming, body dysmorphia, depression and anxiety, substance abuse, and suicide are just some of the ways young girls deal with these external pressures.
So, I wonder, when my daughter looks in the mirror, will she hear my voice saying she is beautiful on the inside and out, or will she choose to purge her last meal? When a young girl ostracizes her on social media, will her father’s words ring in her ears, reminding her of her strength, or will she choose to cut her skin to deal with the pain? When a boy pressures her to move forward too quickly, will she remember her worth or succumb to peer pressure?
What words will she choose to keep?
Words are powerful. They can motivate groups and cripple young minds.
But words can be vague and open to misinterpretation. Eighth grade me didn’t realize this. Forty-something me wants to change it for my girls.
No longer do I compliment my daughters with generalities. I want them to possess mantras — words to live by and provide comfort in times of stress and confusion.
When we feel bad about our appearance, we say, ““I am enough, exactly as I am at this moment. Remember who you are.”
When someone treats us poorly, we say, “What others say is a reflection of them, not me.”
When we are troubled and don’t know what to do, we say, “Kindness is the best form of communication. Love always wins.”
And when the world brings us down, we say, “It will be okay, because I am loved.”
I am not naïve enough to think that simple phrases will protect my girls from the evils of the world, but saying these mantras with them, believing these words, and trying to live it, is a powerful exercise.
It’s the way I start shredding the notes from my past and writing new ones for my daughters.
And living through eighth grade once is enough for anyone.
Whitney Fleming is a marketing consultant, freelance writer and mom to three tween girls. She blogs about parenting, relationships and w(h)ine on her blog, Playdates on Fridays, where she talks about serious stuff, without taking herself too seriously. In her free time, she tries to dispel the rumor that she is a typical suburban mom despite the fact that she is often seen driving her minivan to soccer practices and PTA meetings. Go visit her site at Playdates on Fridays or find her on Facebook or Twitter.