For some inexplicable reason I still can’t fathom, when I was in high school the term du jour for a pretty girl was muffin. At the top of this confectionary food chain, reserved for the prettiest of the pretty, the cheerleadiest of the cheerleaders, was blueberry muffin.
Even more inexplicable than the baked good rating system was the fact that I happened to be dating a football player. Not just any football player, mind you, the quarterback. In case we stay overseas and you never experience the popularity of American football, the idea of the quirky, kind-of-gawky smart girl (yes, your mom) dating the QB is the stuff of John Hughes films. If you don’t know who John Hughes is, I’ve failed you.
I digress. During some sweaty locker room conversation that later got back to me, in between towel snaps and jock itches, a teammate asked the QB–my QB–why he was going out with me. I wasn’t blueberry muffin material, he said. In fact, I wasn’t even muffin material. I was nothing more than…burnt toast.
As a grown up writer I’ll give the boy credit for sticking with the theme, for stringing along the metaphor. But as a teenage girl, I was devastated when his words found their way back to me. Few girls of fourteen or fifteen have the stamina, the strength or the confidence to withstand a direct assault on their looks. I certainly didn’t.
Most of us don’t. Not then anyway. Recently I had brunch with a group of smart, successful women. We got to talking about the sticks and stones slung at us during those long ago school days. And while we could, as adults, laugh them off, it was obvious those barbs sliced deep enough they left scars. They may not be visible to the naked eye, but they’re there all the same.
It was a timely conversation. I had just read an excerpt from an interview with the actor Melissa McCarthy, who recalled how she responded to a journalist who body shamed her in print.
“Just know every time you write stuff,” she said, “every young girl in this country reads that and they just get a little bit chipped away.”
Boys, I love you dearly, I hope you know that. I will fight in your corner if and when you need me. I will advocate for you, I will be your voice, I will stand by you and behind you. But know this: If I ever find out you are taking pot shots at a girl’s weight or the size of her thighs, I will take you down. If I find out you were making fun of another student’s skin or her hair or the size or her breasts, I will take you down. If I find out you’ve insulted a girl because she was flat chested or big hipped or because she didn’t meet some crazy expectation of pretty or some unachievable ideal, I will take you down.
We remember. Over coffee and croissants, every single one of us remembered the name of that boy–the one who shamed us. Every single one of us could name, without a breath or a hesitation, the full name of that boy, the one who made a mark, left a scar.
And I don’t want either one of you to ever be that name.
As the proud feminist mother of boys, I’m in a unique position: I get a chance to raise the next generation of men. I feel like it’s my duty to raise you boys to respect all people–not to treat women differently because they are women, but to treat everyone respectfully. Frankly, I hope you’re holding the door open for whoever comes behind you, male or female. But there are things I can’t tolerate, can’t abide. Hurting girls with words that aren’t necessary or kind is one. Cutting someone with an insult sharp enough to leave a lasting scar, is another. Being that boy? Please don’t. Don’t be that boy.
You can’t keep a good woman down–not for long, not really. But you can leave her marked and pocked. And tweenage, teenage, young adult skin is a lot more susceptible to scarring than this forty-something woman’s. Your skin takes on teflon, repellent properties as you get older. But that takes time. It doesn’t take much to slice open the heart of a ten year old or a twelve, fourteen, sixteen year old girl.
Boys, if you call a girl ugly, you’re not commenting on her looks, you’re hiding the ugly thoughts in yourself. Be gentle in your actions, gentle in your words. When you call a girl fat, or tit-less or greasy or skank or slut, you are feeding your own emptiness by creating a little chunk of emptiness in her.
Just remember that. Remember that the scars fade, but they never go away completely. Remember that she will always keep your name on the tip of her tongue. Forever and always. I want you to be remembered, but not for that, never for that. Not for being that boy.
So be kind, be respectful, be aware.
(Your quirky, kind of gawky, mostly smart) Mom