When I was twelve years old I moved from my Mom’s apartment in Brooklyn to my Dad’s house in Tempe, Arizona and enrolled in junior high for the first time, in New York elementary school was K-6. New school, new schedule ( I had never had to switch classrooms, had a locker or any of that stuff I saw in the movies), and new friends. Most of these kids had been going to school together for the last 11 or 12 years, the relationships and social hierarchy were well established. I was the new kid and I was nervous. While I sat in my first class on my first day with my stomach turning somersaults I made a conscious effort to smile at people I thought could be my future BFFs. I have always been pretty extroverted and social so I knew making friends would take some effort, but I wasn’t too worried.
In orchestra the popular girls were my classmates. I could tell they were the popular girls by they way my other classmates fawned all over them and the way they ignored said fawning. When I walked in and selected a seat near popular girls I received some sideways glances, but not one smile.
I ate a sandwich in the bathroom by myself and then hung out in the library for lunch that day, and a lot of days after that.
Then one day a boy talked to me, the good news was I was thrilled to have any kind of interaction. After suffering from new kid disease, which renders you virtually invisible to all classmates, I was dying to talk to anyone. This boy liked me, he also happened to be the same boy that head popular girl was crushing on.
I can’t really remember how it started, but soon after that my life became pretty rough. Popular girls did not like that I was talking to popular boy, it went against the well established social rules of junior high. I was called ugly, stupid, gross, and dumb. I was pushed into lockers, stared down with daggers of dirty looks, and at one point locked in a supply closet with a girl holding the knob on the other side so I couldn’t open the door. I cried in the bathroom a lot while I ate my sandwich in a stall by myself. It wasn’t that I had zero friends, I am forever grateful to the 2 or 3 girls that became my solace in a world where I dreaded getting up every day. It was just that the hate was so much louder and powerful than the nice. It was like a constant ringing in my head that I could never shake, and it demolished every shred of confidence I had.
I survived junior high, but it changed me and my view of girls, I was wary of their intentions and scared to be vulnerable. I welcomed high school because it meant there would be a bigger pool of new students and allow the opportunity to reinvent myself. In the spring of my freshman year one of my friends asked me to try out for cheerleading with her because she was scared to do it by herself. I said yes but was already convinced I was too uncoordinated, ugly, and unpopular to be a cheerleader. It turns out I wasn’t. My friend got cut while I made the cheerleading squad. In the span of a few months a bow and a megaphone thrust me from social obscurity into the popular crowd. It was almost an out of body experience because my self confidence was still shit and I kept my walls up when it came to being friends with the other girls on the squad. In addition to cheerleading I was also very active in yearbook, to the point that I even attended yearbook camp one summer. That crowd was almost a complete 180 from the cheer group, yearbook was where I felt at home. It was creative, accepting, and led by a phenomenal woman that continues to inspire me today with her giving spirit. I walked around still feeling like a scared 12 year girl sitting in the bathroom eating a sandwich, I was terrified that someone would pull back the curtain, reveal that I was not in fact cheerleader material, and proceed to strip me of the popular title. The popular girl group was still there too, they were more of a murmur in high school but when I passed them in the hallways I was still too afraid to make eye contact. High school was similar to junior high in that I had 2-3 friends that were girls and they were (and are) fantastic human beings, but I was still wary.
After high school I became the “ I’m not friends with girls” girl. I had a million excuses: they were drama, they were gossipy, they were mean. Truth is I was just scared, even as a quasi adult my 12 year old self was terrified of letting any women in because I didn’t want to get burned. It wasn’t until I was 24 that I started to trust women again. She worked with me at my first job out of college, she was from Iowa, had a warm personality, and a great laugh. She eventually became my carpool buddy, my part time therapist, and my happy hour side kick. We would laugh until we cried and dance like we had rhythm, she broke my fear of women. Soon after that I started a new job at a nonprofit organization that came with an office full of women. While my view on women friendships had started to turn my romantic life was not so great. Spending most of your life feeling like you are not good enough, that your opinion is stupid, and trying tirelessly to please everyone except yourself leads one to make some questionable choices when it comes to partners. We were both young, painfully insecure, and didn’t have the strength to communicate honestly, it was a bad combination. When it all came crumbling down in a heart shattering breakup the women from my office put me back together. They hugged me, let me cry, and took me to Vegas. They were honest, inclusive, encouraging, and loved me unconditionally. These experiences taught me how to be a better woman and laid the foundation for every female friendship that I have had since.
Once I found my authentic voice (and spent some time talking through issues in therapy) I became confident. With confidence came the ability to identify who should and should not be a part of my life. It is not just girls, shitty people are everywhere. Here are some ways to identify them: they are exclusive, they use back handed compliments, they discourage you from trying new experiences, when they are mad they resort to name calling or personal attacks, they don’t ever ask “how are you?” Most shitty people are just scared and insecure, but you can’t control that so instead just keep your distance.
In my 30s I have become passionate about helping other women find their fearlessness. My happiness and self worth rises as I watch them become more confident. Sure, I have days where my junior high school self pops up but I remember a great piece of advice I heard recently from a woman I admire:
“It’s not that the bad thoughts go away, you just learn to tell them to fuck off.” -Rosaura Unagst, Owner/Artist at Pigment & Parchment.