The Lion Queen

I spend a good deal of time watching women hack through the jungle of self-doubt with a dull, rusty machete.

Scratch that. With a pair of cuticle trimmers.

I’d like to say it’s difficult trying to figure out why so many unbelievably smart, successful, frankly kick-ass women have trouble valuing their self-worth, except it’s not, because at times I am one of those women. You see, I’m not just talking out of my increasingly expanding ass when I say that women, on the whole, have a confidence problem.

There’s a saying going around at the moment which resonates with a lot of women I know.

Lord, give me the confidence of a mediocre white man.

On the surface the statement is a flippant way of looking at the way society is set up to benefit and glorify the accomplishments of  men, (many of whom absolutely deserve the accolades). But dig a little deeper and you’ll get to the self-deprecating heart of the matter. Female confidence is a tricky tight rope to walk. Too meek? You get walked all over. Too strong? You’re a bitch in heels. Speak up? You’re called shrill, loud, overbearing. Don’t speak up? Well, no wonder you don’t get that raise. What’s seen as confidence in men often comes across as entitlement in women. What comes across as assertiveness and leadership among males is perceived as aggressiveness and ball-busting in women.

If women have to constantly recalibrate the poles they use for balance, to find some Goldilocks just right version of confidence, is it any wonder we fall flat on our faces a lot of the time?

But surely we get a little bounce back from a safety net of other women underneath us, right? Oh, honey…no. Plenty of times other women are more than happy to watch you fall flat on your face. Whether this is simply human nature, decades of conditioning, or a combination of a thousand other factors is up for debate.

I write nearly every day of my life. I have a successful blog. I’m published. I’ve won contests, been nominated for Pushcart Prize, been paid for my work, completed a novel….and yet when someone asked me to tutor their child in writing, I balked.

Surely I’m not qualified! (Yes, I actually said those words.)

When do you become enough of a writer to qualify guiding others in the writing process? When do you become good, better, best enough to do anything? Is there a magic formula to feeling qualified enough? If so there seem to be a lot of magic formulas kept under lock and key and away from the manicured hands of women.

I have a witty, whip-smart friend in the UK who is a lawyer. Another who is a doctor. And this summer I  listened to both of them tell me how unqualified they felt as they returned to positions they’ve been educated and trained for, positions they’ve held before. Sometimes while pregnant, managing a household, morning sickness and a toddler who refuses to pee anywhere but the corner.

Ah, women. I love ’em, but man! Even when we are good at what we do, hell even when we are great at what we do, we doubt ourselves. Forget locusts, if women suffer any kind of plague, it is the plague of second-guessing their worth. We under-value our contribution. We give our work and time away for free. We volunteer instead of assuming we should be paid. We politely inquire when we should expect. We’re happy when people recognize our talents, when they flatter us, and our bank accounts wither and die as our expertise is taken for granted, our time and effort devalued and expected to be given for free.

I’m not saying you should demand the PTA pay you for helping hang Halloween decorations. I’m saying we need to value our work because when all we do is volunteer? Our work ceases to have value.

Your grandmother was right. Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free? We can lip service volunteer work all we want, and we absolutely should all do it–from time to time–but when we give too much of the milk away for free, the cow develops low self-esteem, doubts herself, and undermines her worth. And as loathe as I am to compare women to cows, when the metaphor moos….

But more than monetary payment is what happens when your work ceases to be valued–internally and externally. You convince yourself  you’re not as good as, worth as much as, as qualified as. The chips on your shoulder get heavier over time. They weigh you down like a bra full of bricks until you can’t stand up straight, until you can’t walk with your head held high, until you start believing it yourself.

In my day-to-day life I meet and talk to countless women who doubt themselves, who disqualify themselves, who dismiss their qualifications as not enough.

I do it myself.

The men I meet? They rarely worry they’re unqualified. They assume a natural position of qualification that’s been inferred upon them since birth. Like Simba the Lion King cub, they wear the crown of accepted leader. Their position is accepted…and expected.

Sisters! Lean in, lift up, whatever it takes. Look into the mirror everyday and channel Al Franken’s Stuart Smally character: I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh-darnit, people like me. Whatever you need to do.

Because some days Sarabi** isn’t good enough. Go out and demand a crown of your own.

 

**Sarabi is the name of Simba’s mother. I had to look it up. You see how ingrained this shit is? I didn’t even know the name of Simba’s mother!

 

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Sticks and Stones

sticks-and-stonesDear Boys,

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.

Grease Ball
Tit-less
Fat Ankles
Kitchen Lady
Stick Insect
Burnt Toast

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.

Stick-and-stones-may-break-YOUR-bones-but-words-will-always-hurt-ME

“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.

beautifulBoys, 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.

Love,

(Your quirky, kind of gawky, mostly smart) Mom

 

 

 

Mirror Mirror on the Wall

 Porträt der Magherita wikimedia Commons
Porträt der Magherita
wikimedia Commons

I am not, nor have I ever been, a classic beauty.  Over the years the body parts subjected to my disdain, dissatisfaction and scorn have been many and varied.  My nose, my freckles, my knees.  My gummy smile, my fine hair, lack of boobs, saggy boobs, stretch marks, short waist, cellulite.  I am harsh lines but without the cheekbones.  More Modigliani than Monroe.  I have had my fair share of admirers over the years, as most of us have, but suddenly, out of nowhere, at the ripe old age of nearly 43 (and oh, how it hurt to write that number), I’ve noticed a bit more notice.

I’m sure a lot of this is to do with the fact that I am sleeping eight and nine hours a night for the first time this century.  It may be that my bangs have finally grown in after that disaster of a haircut.  Perhaps the northern climes of Denmark suit my skin better than the sweaty southern shores of Cyprus.  Who knows.  But the point is, it’s weird.

And yet, at the same time, it’s really not.

Because I don’t think it is the way I look which attracts people.  I think it’s to do with a sense of self-ease; with where I am, who I am, what I am.  I don’t feel like I am consciously projecting a shimmery aura of self-awareness and acceptance or any other new-agey Kundalini/chakra opening/ naked yoga beauty.  It’s just a comfortable settling in with myself. And this is something I’ve only been able to achieve as I age.

A Facebook friend recently posted an ode to women over 40 (which has been widely and falsely attributed to Andy Rooney).  It doesn’t really matter who wrote it, the spirit of the piece is true enough.   Sure there are chin hairs and hot flashes on the horizon, but there is also self-awareness.  There may be laugh lines and crow’s-feet, crepe-y necks a creeping in, but there is confidence as well.  And that all comes through, in the way you speak, in the opinions you hold, in the way you carry yourself and the life you lead.  And those are the things that make you sparkle, that make you shine, that make people want to be near you.

8851I have always been an open book, with both my opinions and my emotions.  I have never shied away from talking about myself or my experiences or sharing my stories with anyone and everyone.  (Point in case:  a somewhat narcissistic blog post, on a blog, which is essentially a narcissistic exercise—but I don’t want to meta-anaylyze myself.  Not today).  Infertility?  BTDT, what’s your question?   Depression? Practically an expert, what do you want to know?  Sex, parenting, knitting?  Go for it, though I draw the line at combining the three, those knitting needles are sharp.  I am opinionated.  I have strong political and social beliefs, but I like to think I respect that not everyone thinks the same way I do.  Unless it is blatantly hateful, falling into one ‘ism’ or another, I will listen to what someone has to say.  I may out-shout them or ask them to back it up with proof or just agree to disagree, but that is life.  And I am starting to believe this openness, this willingness to share, not only the funny stories (remind me to tell you about the guy who jumped off the balcony in Falaraki), but also the painful ones, (multiple miscarriages), the embarrassing ones, (the falling down drunk ones), the cringe worthy ones, (well, maybe not those), this makes me attractive to people.  I think it’s also why people often stop and ask me for directions.  They have a sixth sense that I’m not going to rob them, molest them, or laugh in their face.  And I may just tell them a witty story while I am telling them to turn left at the lights.

I’m not perfect, not by any stretch, but I know who I am, and that kind of self-knowledge is something that only comes with age and experience.  As much as I thought I knew myself 25 years ago, or 15 years ago, I can look back now and do the condescending older person thing of smiling indulgently and nodding.  “Uh-huh.  Sure you do.  Yup.”   Knowledge and awareness don’t just accumulate over time, the benefits expand exponentially.  The passions and intensities that burn bright through your youth soften, sure, but they soften into something sustainable.  No one can maintain a sprint through life.  The heart will not stand it.Blue_candles_on_birthday_cake

When I was young, only 18 or so, I met a friend of a friend’s mom.  At the time, I was confused about who I was, who I wanted to be, who I thought I was.  I wanted to be an actress. I wanted to be famous.  I wanted people to know my name.  But I was not confident, not in myself, and certainly not in the way I looked.  And she looked at me and said, “You need to grow into your beauty”.  This woman had never met me before, I’ve never seen her again.  I haven’t thought about her words again until recently.  But I know now it’s not  physical beauty she was referring to. She was referring to the place of calm, of acceptance, of awareness that comes with age.

I joke all the time about how much getting older sucks.  And there’s a lot about it that does suck.  Just when I’ve reached an age where I can afford nice things, I have to be careful what I wear.  I have to watch what I eat, and drink.  Out go the cheese doodles, in comes the quinoa. I am aware of my age, in a way I never was when I was in my 20s, when everything except the next beer seemed so far off it didn’t warrant worrying.  But I wouldn’t trade in the satisfaction, the comfort, the feeling of home I’ve come to experience within myself.  Not for anything.  Not even for the plump, collagen rich skin of my 18-year-old self.

It’s a powerful thing to be ok with one’s self, muffin top, crow’s-feet, spider veins and all.  Because these days when I look in the mirror, it’s not the freckles and the laugh lines that stare back at me, but a woman who is loved, not only by others, but by herself.

And that is the fairest of all.