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Life Lessons from the Third Stall on the Left

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In a marginally sanitary junior high school bathroom in 1982, I stood with The Girls. The Girls and I -- about ten of us -- were "The Group" in our school. In other words, we were the girls whose chummy photographs filled most of the yearbook, the girls who had the basement parties, the girls who gathered self-esteem not through ourselves, but by being a member of the precociously social elite.

I vacillated in and out of that group during junior high school, and from what I can tell, in hindsight, was only accepted into that group on a few small criteria, as I failed to meet the major requirements: money, cheerleading, a rockin' Bat Mitzvah and friendship since childhood. I had only moved to Skokie, just northwest of Chicago, a short while before, and had none of those things. What I did have was an amazing fashion sense, street smarts, a chilled-out hippie Dad and -- best of all -- not only a wealth of knowledge about sexuality unusual in a 12-year-old, but I had an actual (capital B) Boyfriend -- as well as a good lock on my closet in terms of my feelings about girls -- and said Boyfriend was the wealthiest boy in our class, on a fluke. This was the big, big stuff in the 7th grade, as a lot of very meaningless stuff tends to be.

Nonetheless, I'd always felt my bond with The Group was tenuous, both on my part and on theirs. On that day, as I snuck an unfiltered Camel on the windowsill (yet another of my worldly habits which made me a desirable group member, awful as that was), the discussion at hand was this: for each member of The Group, was their face or their body more attractive?

Everyone went through, one by one, and I opted out on the voting process, finding it all generally distasteful, but did agree with most of their votes. Yes, while Laurie's face was passable, her body was stunning. Yes, Lynne had an astounding face that made her body seem boring. Yes, Melissa had a fine face, but she had a butt worthy of bronzing. Eventually they got to me.

They pondered, rubbed their chins, and whispered while I made myself look casual, cool and unconcerned by exhaling smoke rings and twirling a finger through my Sun-In curls.

They came to the consensus that they really couldn't make a strong vote one way or another. I shrugged it off, went to Social Studies, did the usual hangout afterschool, then went home. And cried the entire evening like a baby, having had it verified that not only was I generally unappealing physically, one couldn't even say which aspect of me was less unappealing than the other.

Suffice it to say, at 12, it never struck me that just maybe the reason they couldn't come to a vote was because I was beautiful on both counts, or because I wasn't finished growing into my beauty. Or that maybe they found my false confidence and bravado really intimidating, and wanted to break me. Or that maybe, all of this was arbitrary, none of us had a freaking clue as to what we were talking about, and were all just projecting our insecurities unto each other. As a lower-class girl in 7th grade misplaced in the upper-class echelon in the Jewish suburbs of Chicago, these are not things one even assumes are possible.

If that seems unreasonable or atypical, I offer you the following, recently spoken by young women from 13 - 22 right here at Scarleteen.

"I don't like my stomach. I have "love handles" and I hate them so much. My stomach would be pretty good if I didn't have them. I have a kinda small waist but then *BAM* there's my handles of fat on my sides and I hate them so much. I also don't like my breasts. They're 2 different sizes and its noticeable if I wear tight fitting shirts."

"Since I'm skinny, I really don't like wearing anything that will attract too much attention."

"He had said that he wanted to mess around, and he had told his friend that he liked me...but I just find out tonight (from the girl who is supposed to be my GOOD friend) that "I'm not his type," and that he was supposed to tell me "how it is" yesterday but didn't. I feel really bad about this. I've been told my numerous people (especially guys) how gorgeous I am. So why do I feel so ugly and depressed? Is there anything i can do to help myself? "

"There is not one part of me or my body that I really like. I'm not just saying that, I thought about it for ages."

In discussions at Scarleteen about body parts and self-image, more times than not, what is liked about an aspect of the body isn't liked because it is functional, or even because the person who owns it likes the feel or look of it, but because someone else (often members of the opposite sex) has made clear that it is appealing, or because that part or parts garner constant attention and adoration from others.

Most of us know that people of all genders, especially in this day and age, often have very real problems with self-esteem, self-image and body image. It often is more pronounced in young men and women -- and more common with young women than men -- who typically find more acclaim and recognition in their appearances than in their skills or achievements. Most of us know that one of the big tricks to developing better self-image and esteem is starting with oneself, and weeding out the approval, acceptance, or lack thereof of others.

And while I believe that it is (really, it is) realistically possible to do so to a good degree -- and very important -- I have to confess that I don't think it is realistic to do it in toto, nor is it realistic to be completely unaffected by the approval or disapproval of others. Not as youth, nor as adults.

One of my personal body loathes growing up were my legs. I was a very active kid, and did a lot of rollerskating, ice skating, and some horseback riding. Doing so built up the muscles in my legs incredibly, and that combined with a genetically full bottom and wide hips guaranteed that I would always have thick legs.

As the years went on, I developed a grudging bare-minimum acceptance of them. They did make me strong as heck, and I could kick with a lot of power when required (be that to a ball or a set of balls, in truly dire situations). And I always loved my butt, and knew that the curved roundness of my butt was thanks in part to the foundation for it my legs provided. But I'd be dishonest in saying that acceptance wasn't minuscule at best. And it was really hard to get to even that level.

But some years back, working a convention in Atlanta, I was fixing a display when a stunning woman came up behind me and said, "I'm sorry, but I saw you from all the way down the hall and just had to come over and tell you that you have the most incredible legs I have ever seen."

And you know, save moments of insecurity, it was that comment that solidified my acceptance, and sometimes passing admiration, of my legs. It wasn't my being personally empowered, it wasn't my own love of my body, it wasn't anything but what that beautiful woman said to me (and thank you, whoever you were).

Looking back, I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge that a lot of the reason I love my butt is that everyone else has always loved my butt. I love my hair more when every new stylist I have remarks on how thick and soft it is. A friend of mine will never forget the day her gynecologist told her she had a beautiful cervix. Every letter I get about what an original and lovely face I have does in fact make me love my face more. The parts of me that lovers have taken as their favorites often came to be my favorites, as well. The parts of me that lovers or admirers failed to mention did, often, in fact, feel neglected, and I had plenty of moments of wondering why no one ever commented on my wasp waist, or my strong nose, or my long neck, and wondered if maybe what I felt was beautiful about them wasn't at all. Perhaps I only liked them because I felt I had to.

Hard truths, and not entirely comforting, but there they are. And these from a person who on the curve of self-esteem and self-image probably has a better level of both than most women of any age. Makes you wonder about those below that curve, and it makes you wonder how futile our messages of "Love your body for yourself!" just might be for nearly all of us.

So, I'm going to tailor my stance on this a bit, and invite all of you into the bathroom with me. The third toilet on the left is broken, and believe me, you don't want to have a look at it to see how broken. Trust me on this.

Here's the deal: the parts you dislike? Go ahead and dislike'em for now. It's okay. It's true, your ankles are kind of round, and your lips are kind of thin, and your shoulders aren't as high as you'd like. It's true, those parts that don't meet your beauty ideal don't meet your beauty ideal, and they may never do so. You're allowed to be disappointed, you're allowed to wrinkle your nose at them, and that doesn't make you a bad person, nor does it make you weak or shallow. But you have a choice: you can go nuts hating them, waste buttloads of time and money and energy obsessing or trying to change them, or acknowledge them as they are, deal with it and not waste your life on something so silly and meaningless. In either case, unless you're going to invest thousands of dollars in vanity (and likely not be satisfied then, either), they're going to be the way they are, and they're yours for life, toots. Que sera, sera.

But (and it's a great big butt), I bet you've got the most beautiful mouth. And that little curve on your tummy? It's really perfect. And those muscular thighs are awe-inspiring, and your delicate shoulders that you think sag a bit? That's probably why your neck looks so long and luscious. The yellowish tint of your skin is divine. And I like your big feet -- they show off shoes gorgeously. And you know, now that I'm thinking about it, full lips would look pretty weird on your fine-boned face.

And no, I can't say if your face or your body is more appealing, but I'll tell you what your average -- and even not-so-average -- 7th grader doesn't know: that's because it's all you, and unless I'm deluding myself, or keeping my safe distance by objectifying you, I can't see one part of you without seeing all of you, and how it all works together. I can't see the beauty of your arms without knowing the way they look also allows you to hold someone you care for so tightly and close, and I can't tell you that what I find physically appealing about you isn't tempered by the fact that I also think you're a fabulous person. And I hope you recognize all of that beauty and all of that realness on your own.

But, hey -- I think you're beautiful, too. And you're allowed to let that make you happy. Just don't let it make you late to class.

written 20 Jan 2002 . updated 13 Dec 2012

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