For most of my childhood, I was your typical ugly kid: a dynamite blend of coke-bottle glasses, braces with neon rubber bands, and pasty-white, gangly limbs. I say this not in an attempt at false modesty or a consequence of deep self-loathing. If you were to look at my seventh-grade yearbook and point to the ugliest child, you would likely choose me.
Two decades post-middle-school, I still sometimes suffer from seventh-grade syndrome: the unwavering, if irrational, belief that I will always be an ugly kid. Though my oldest daughter just entered kindergarten, my own middle-school experience has inspired parental angst for the years to come.
I’m already keeping an eye out for bullies.
I was teased relentlessly as a child: on the bus, walking the hallways between classes, and in the vicious jungle that was the Andrew Lewis Middle School cafeteria. The taunting reached such a frenzy in seventh grade that I begged for home school. In eighth grade, I finally got contacts only to discover that I have a rather beak-ish nose, a feature thereunto masked by my oversized eyewear. Then began my classmates’ amusing references to the Wicked Witch of the West.
While we may be more responsive to bullying now, I worry my girls will face the same teasing I endured, only magnified in today’s cyber society. Social media has enabled a world of bullying without physical boundaries, where cruel nicknames go viral and safe havens like I experienced within my own home no longer exist. Even during the worst periods of bullying, I took solace in the fact that no one would call me “Casper” once I stepped off school property. The thought of my children being bullied (or worse, being a bully) fills me with dread because I never learned how to stand up to my own tormenters.
I worry I’m passing on my insecurities (and nose) to the next generation.
In reality, I’m distinctive looking, even memorable. Be it my meager skin pigment or D cups on a Size 4 frame, I’m someone who, on occasion, receives a second look or outright stare, and I hate it.
I can’t help feeling that I’m walking through life with a pair of absurd, “look-at-me!” cantaloupes strapped to my chest. Whenever possible, I keep my breasts securely tucked beneath cardigan sweaters, which serves the dual purpose of hiding my pale arms. My nose and I have yet to come to terms with one another, and unlike the skin or breasts, I have yet to find a way of hiding it. I avoid photographs in profile at all costs and am convinced that my protruding proboscis elicits whatever ogles come my way.
What’s worse, I fear I may have passed on the genetic fodder for an unpleasant childhood. As soon as my oldest learned the word for nose, I avoided complaining about mine the same way I avoided curse words. I figure she has a 50/50 shot of ending up with my honker, and I don’t want her to learn to hate it from me. Eradicating the F-word from my vocabulary has proven far easier.
I’m afraid I won’t be able to nurture two impressionable girls into confident, non-superficial women.
This herculean task makes me want to bury my imperfect face in a stack of parenting books. In a culture so focused on appearance, I’m concerned with how to raise my daughters to be neither vain nor self conscious. Though a multitude of weightier character traits deserve my parental attention, helping my girls to not feel limited (or defined) by their appearance is, for me, one of the most frightening prospects of parenting. I know all too well how negative attention for something as meaningless and unchangeable as facial structure can make you feel less about yourself. Should the world deem them beautiful, I’m also concerned my daughters will place too much emphasis on their appearance and the validation they receive from others.
I’m terrified of being a poor role model.
I wear my seatbelt, choke down my share of vegetables, and otherwise try to teach by example. I want my girls to feel at ease in their own skin, regardless of how they are perceived by others. In this, however, I’m still very much a work-in-progress. I understand that in order to teach my girls to embrace their individuality, I must come to terms with my own.
For me, surmounting the seventh-grade syndrome has begun with being too focused on my children to be self-conscious. I will read, sing, and dance on-demand, in front of complete strangers, if it means calming an upset child. Middle-school me would never draw attention to herself by belting out “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” during shot time at the pediatrician’s office. I sang it with gusto at my youngest daughter’s last well visit because, honestly, anyone’s voice is a million times better than a screaming kid.
Looking at pictures of me with my children, I notice a new brightness to my face. With my arms around my girls, I finally seem comfortable with myself and that comfort is remarkably beautiful—even in profile. It’s one of the many gifts they have given me, but I wish that wasn’t the case. I hope they simply pass through any awkward years with their confidence intact. As I try to let go of the insecurities that have haunted me since middle school, all I can do is encourage my daughters to treat everyone—including the face they see in the mirror—with kindness, regardless if they are prom-queen beautiful or the ugliest kid in the seventh grade.