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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The Body (A Love Letter)

597896d44805c7a7ec065a52b2c24e5fWhat is the difficulty in stripping layers of cloth and standing bared in front of my own reflection? It should be easier to face a reflection in the mirror than it is to face the secrets of a soul; easier to bare a breast, a hip, an ankle than to see unmasked the wings and horns of a self.

And yet…

and yet…

and yet it almost never is.

Even after all this time and thought and searching and acceptance and writing I maintain a complex relationship with my own body. This husk of muscle and flesh and spark and firework, this weight of tendon and sinew and bone and passion. This body.

We circle each other warily. Often we are at war, waging battles against one another, laying siege. At times we live under the flag of an uneasy truce. But the peace is always tenuous. There is always a new front to be claimed, another battle on the horizon.

This body.

These legs. These crepe-skinned knees and flesh-heavy thighs. These legs which have carried me through four and a half decades, which have run me up mountains I thought too high to climb, which have scaled heights I thought impossible from where I stood looking up.

These arms. My God, these arms. These arms which are baggy and saggy and on their way to  bat-winged. These arms which have cradled and rocked countless babies to sleep, protecting and soothing. These arms which have carried the weight of what is needed to feed my family, which have wrapped around generations, pulling grief close, pulling joy closer.

These hands. Christ, these hands which have woven the threads of love and passion and family together into a tapestry of life. These fingers which fly clacking over keys and sometimes seem to know what I need to say before my own mind recognizes it.

This womb. This womb, that hollow source of heartache. This womb which eventually harbored and nurtured two little lives, which had the strength to push those lives into this world to stand on their own, apart.

These breasts. No longer high and mighty, these forlorn breasts. These breasts which nourished two sons; and these hips, always too wide, curved and rounded leftovers of my mother’s body which expanded to accommodate and grow new human beings.

This spine. This spine now just starting to lean. This spine which has stood upright in the face of change, of heartache, of sorrow and grief. This backbone which has borne whatever I have heaped upon it without breaking, without complaint or crack.4adc46e2384f59258e0c836bd3dd5e76

This body. This body which has starved itself and run itself ragged trying to fit a tortured and distorted ideal of its own making. This body, a safe haven for a lover to harbor in, warmth and depth in which to burrow. A lap in which to snuggle, flesh soft enough to absorb the sharpness around it.

This body which despite all of this still only loves itself part of the time.

This heart. This heart which bears the scars of breaking, which has been pieced back together and still beats in time with a love ferocious and fearless. This heart which still has not completely learned to love what has loved me back so fiercely all this time.

This body.

 

 

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