By the time I hit nine years old, I was showing signs of the sad, abandoned Daddy’s girl I would become. I was much chubbier than my friends, who ran around with the cutest boys in our neighborhood. One boy in particular – Danny – was your typical suburban jock-in-training. He wore the coolest clothes, played pee-wee sports, hung out with the coolest kids, and generally ignored me. He did have a crush on my friend Jen, though. Some days Danny would sit next to me on the bus so he could be closer to the seat behind me, where Jen always sat.
One day, as the bus pulled away from our stop, Danny turned to me with a flirtatious grin on his face. My little heart leapt. And then Danny said, “You have a pretty face. You could be really cute if you lost weight.”
Just like that, he snatched away the thrill of anticipation, turning my heart from a soaring eagle into a caged canary.
Most of my memories from childhood are hazy, but that memory is crystal clear. Even now, my breathing stutters and thins, and my mind’s eye focuses on the flaws of that innocent little girl instead of her natural propensity for joy and love.
I often imagine myself sitting on the bus next to that sweet girl, holding tight to her hand and tugging at her. Gently at first, as the little boy is releasing those ugly words. But my tugs get stronger as he finishes his condemnation. In my imagination, this sweet little girl would have no choice but to turn to me because I'm tugging on her so firmly. I’d pull her into the all-encompassing safety of my embrace and say, “My darling girl. Do not measure your worth by the words of a naughty little boy. Let this feeling of love and belonging penetrate deeply into each of your limbs. Breathe into me. Listen to my stories of all the incredible things you will accomplish, and the people who will fall in love with you along the way.”
One of the most amazing people I met along the way is the tall, funny, red-headed basketball player who was my best friend in college. At the time, I had no idea what we were doing together. There were girls following him around campus all the time, and I was ashamed that my pants size equaled my age. On our walks around the <very hilly> campus, I would struggle to hide my short-windedness as he nonchalantly bounded up stairs with his impossibly long legs.
But he was never ashamed to be seen with me. He’d stop and chat with a group of beautifully intimidating athletes and always include me in the conversation. Or he’d lead us to their table in the lunch place, and his closest friends from the basketball team always welcomed me with open arms. I honestly didn’t get it, but I wasn’t one to look a gift horse in the mouth. Or I was too filled with self-loathing to dig into my confusion.
Eventually, we graduated and moved to different parts of the country. I made friends in my new city, and went to a wedding for one of these new friends in Boston. I got quite drunk, and decided to call my tall red-headed friend and ask why he ever wanted to be my friend in the first place. You see, I was feeling ashamed at this wedding – of the way my dress fit me, of how little I could dance before feeling uncomfortable and sticky. And it brought me back to my low points in college, when I was lagging behind those impossibly long legs on the stairs. Luckily, a dear friend convinced me not to place that phone call to my college BFF. She very astutely pointed out that I would be doing his friendship a huge disservice by interrogating him about how and why he ever cared about me.
Years later, I sat at the wedding reception of my red-headed friend, surrounded by his closest friends. I’d never met a sweeter, kinder group of guys – all of them attractive athletes. Again under the influence of alcohol, I confessed my surprise that his circle of friends had always been so wonderful to me. His BFF from high school lovingly pointed out that I had some big misperceptions of the “cool kids.” As I look back on that conversation, I realize I was judging this group of athletic guys (the grown up versions of cool kids) just as I’d been judged so hurtfully on that bus long ago. I guess there’s a very good reason for the cliché “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Or “It’s what’s on the inside that counts.” Pretty or not, skinny or not… I no longer care. Show me who you are on the inside. Pretty please?