Like many women, I was insecure in my childhood and teenage years. I had been bullied for many years in elementary school for being short, nerdy, and socially awkward, which left me painfully self-conscious, untrusting, and unable to open up to people. While I began to come out of my shell in middle school and high school, I mostly stuck to a close group of 2-3 best friends, with a few acquaintances with whom I was friendly. I hated my appearance. I hated being short. I hated how hairy I was. I hated the flabby skin on my stomach. I hated how I never felt like I could possibly be as pretty as the girls I saw on TV, or the girls I saw in magazines. I hated that boys never seemed to be interested in me at school, and I hated that I felt inferior to my peers.
And then he came along. He was tall, he was older, he was handsome, he was confident, he was the guy that so many other girls wanted to date. And then he picked me. I was in shock; I was flattered; I was infatuated. I couldn’t believe that someone like him could like someone like me, and when that impossible possibility sunk in, I latched on. He told me I was beautiful—so I believed it. He told me I was perfect—so I believed it. I mean, it was him. If he said it was true, it had to be true. To hear things that I never thought possible about myself from him gave me an unimaginable confidence boost, one that my insecure teenage self never thought would happen.
But after one month, things began to change. Sure, the sweet nothings were still thrown around here and there, but in between those cutesy texts and loving glances were less kind comments. He told me that I looked ugly smiling with my teeth in pictures, that my nose looked big when I smiled, that I didn’t look good in a bathing suit, that I wasn’t as smart as he was because he was a year older than me. When we had an event to attend, he told me that I shouldn’t wear eyeshadow, and that I shouldn’t leave my hair in its natural, wavy state, even though I wanted to.
But when I questioned the way I was being treated, he would tell me over and over again that he was “treating me like a princess”—and in some ways, I felt like one. I felt like I was dating this older, cooler guy, which made me feel cooler by default—something I had always desperately wanted to believe I was. I felt like his criticisms of me weren’t mean or rude, they were because he wanted me to be my best self. And if he was saying them, then they had to be true. I believed he was better than me, and that he knew better than I did, and that I should take his “helpful” advice and fix myself so that I could deserve him. And even in the moments where I would express my doubt, he would say things that would draw me back in, that would make me forget, that would make me think this is all worth it.
I was sucked into the relationship. I drifted from my friends. My best friend and I had one of the biggest fights of our lives because of my infatuation with him. But even after she and I fought, I refused to believe that there was anything wrong with our relationship. But it didn’t matter because, after months of my self-esteem hanging by the thread of his words, I was left heart-broken.
I was shattered. I had been dumped by the one person who would ever think anything of me. I had nothing left to be confident about—I had put all of my self-worth in his perception of me, and by dumping me, he proved that I was worthless. My 21-year-old self recounts these events and cringes, but my teenage self truly believed that this was the end of the world. While I now recognize the flaws in my logic, that I deserved to be treated so much better than what I had put up with, as a teenager going through heartbreak, I did not have the foresight to understand that life goes on.
You might ask why I, and so many others, allow themselves to be treated this way by the men in their lives. Some of it has to do with immaturity. Some of it has to do with insecurity. However, in the words of Nora Ephron, from her book “Crazy Salad,”
“I don’t pretend to be able to provide an answer as to why [some] women put up with what they do, but some of it has to do with a society structured in such a way as to make women believe that to be with a man—any man, on whatever terms—is better than being alone.”
We date the people that we think we deserve. We, as women, are often indoctrinated to believe that our self-worth is tied to the approval of a man, and to be alone is to relinquish our self-worth. This creates a vicious cycle—we feel worthless, and are criticized by our partners, and then try to fix ourselves because we want to feel good enough to date those people. And even when we recognize that the way we are being treated is not ideal, and that we may not be truly happy, we continue to put up with it because we already feel worthless, and don’t think we can do any better.
I couldn’t imagine the idea of being alone, because being alone meant that I’d be relinquishing the source of my self-worth. It didn’t matter on what terms that self-worth was acquired—being with him and feeling unhappy was preferable to the horrific unknown of what it would be like to be without him. While these events are a distant memory for me, I still see similar events unfold with teenage girls and young adult women around me—I still see others experiencing the same lack of self-worth that I felt so long ago.
Hindsight is 20/20. If I could go back and speak to my teenage self, staring at the mirror, practicing smiling without her teeth, straightening her hair and adjusting her makeup to her boyfriend’s liking, I would tell her that she is beautiful and perfect the way she is. I would tell her that she is going to go on to do great things and conquer the world. I would tell her that she doesn’t need to feel insecure, that she has no reason not to love herself. I would tell her that she deserves so much more, and that she shouldn’t feel like she has to prove her worth to someone else. But if I’m being honest, I don’t know if my teenage self would have listened. I don’t know if many teenage girls would. But I wish more did.
I’ll admit, I still have moments of self-doubt. I’m still short, I’m still nerdy, and I’m still pretty awkward. But I’ve learned to love that about myself. I’ve learned not to be overly concerned about the opinions of others, and I’ve learned that I don’t need a man to tell me how I should dress, or how smart I am, to know that I’m a beautiful and intelligent human being.
Yes, I dated the person that I thought I deserved. I used to think that I didn’t deserve much, but as I’ve learned to love myself, I’ve realized that the last thing I deserve is to settle for anyone that can’t see what I’m worth.
My sense of self-worth is not, and never will be, tied to what a man thinks about me.
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