Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Sting of Childhood Criticism

I'm pretty sure I never looked quite this bad because even when my mom was in the hospital, I bathed daily, but this is more or less the mental image I have of myself.

I'm writing this post for myself more than for anyone else. The same is true for many of my posts, but such is especially the case for this one. Above all, I don't want anyone to think I'm asking people to feel sorry for me. My experience may be different than someone else's, but probably neither a whole lot better nor much worse. Not one of us is likely to have gotten through childhood and adolescence entirely unscathed, and we all carry a few scars as a result. If my parents read this, I certainly don't wish for them to feel that am blaming them, as they probably did the best parenting of which they were capable, and most of that of which i'm speaking was beyond their control.

I grew up believing I was almost certainly one of the ugliest people on the planet. I'm reluctant  even to put it into words, because I know there are people who will read this and think I'm practically begging them to say, "Of course you're not ugly, Alexis! How could you even think that?" and I don't think it any more.  Throughout my childhood and teen years, I felt it very strongly, though, and almost everything anyone said to me about my appearance confirmed my feelings.

My parents didn't tell me I was ugly, of course. They would never have been so unkind. They tried instead to teach me that, while fitness and cleanliness were important, physical beauty really wasn't.  It was important to be a good person and to become intelligent.  In teaching me that, however, they reinforced the feeling I already had that I must be ugly or they wouldn't be dwelling so much about how unimportant it was to be pretty.

I had relatively few instances in which others actually told me that I was unattractive, but it doesn't take very many occurrences of being told in one way or another that one isn't especially good-looking before a child starts to believe it.  I mentioned the cousins -- particularly Rilene and Marthalette, but the others joined them -- referred to me as looking like an aborted fetus.  At the time they said it , I didn't know what it meant, but I eventually found out.  And while they didn't continue to address me or refer to me as an aborted fetus because my mom had such a complete meltdown over it, they still called me fetus.  In looking at pictures of myself as a very young child, I get why they called me that, as my features looked underdeveloped when I was a young child, but those children were old enough to know that they were being very unkind to someone who was much too young to defend herself.

I mentioned in a blog a long time ago that in first grade, when our Scholastic Weekly Reader or whatever the classroom news magazine was called featured an article  about tornadoes, a classmate named Sandra raised her hand and volunteered that the picture of the tornado looked like Alexis, because it was skinny and its fragments looked like my hair in the way it was always slipping out of its braids,  and everything around it was messy just like my clothes were always a complete mess.  Everyone in the classroom  laughed. The teacher didn't refute anything that Sandra said and didn't make any attempt to stifle her own laughter.  That was the year my mom was battling leukemia, and my dad spent most of his time in southern California with her. He hired the twenty-five-year-old sister of my uncle-by-marriage to care for us, but she spent most days and evenings lying on the couch watching television, and she spent the food allotment my dad left for all of us ordering take-out food for herself and leaving Matthew and me to fend for ourselves. The only clean clothing I had to wear was whatever I had laundered myself and, at the age of five, I hadn't thoroughly mastered the techniques of laundry. I wasn't allowed to use the iron and wouldn't have known how to iron anything that wasn't flat even had I been allowed access to the iron. The teacher didn't yet know the extent of the poor quality of care my brother and I were being given, but she did know that my mother was hundreds of miles away in a hospital and that my dad was with her. She could have shown just a bit of compassion instead of laughing at me.

Then I had the witch of a fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Moore, who gave the class her beauty lectures aimed at me.  "Not everyone is pretty," she would usually say first. "There is at least one girl in this class who is not pretty at all. But if she -- and other girls who are not pretty -- would just be sweet, other people wouldn't notice so much that she isn't pretty."  Several times, other girls in the class asked me why Mrs. Moore always looked directly at me when she gave the "pretty" talk. I didn't know for certain that Mrs. Moore was staring directly at me. I always looked down in shame during her speech because I knew instinctively that she was talking about me. I remember Cynthia  -- Sandra's much nicer twin; they had attended the same school as I did in first grade, and in fourth grade both of our families moved and we ended up in the same school again -- telling me, "I don't know why Mrs. Moore always has to look right at you when she talks about how important it is for girls who aren't pretty to be sweet. I don't think you're that much uglier than anyone else in the class." Being told you're not that much uglier than anyone else in the class may sound like faint praise, but it was possibly the closest thing to a compliment in regard to my appearance that I had ever heard. Then there was the somewhat devastating incident in the fall of that school year when Mrs. Moore mocked and ridiculed me for how my class picture turned out. The positive outcomes to that situation were that my parents became aware of Mrs. Moore's abuse and removed me from her class, and that by dad took me to a salon and had my hair chemically straightened so that it wouldn't be so hard to keep it looking neat.

Probably the one thing I had working in my favor was that I wasn't overweight. I received my share of criticism for being too skinny, but from everything I've heard, being too thin is a much easier stigma for a child to bear than is being too fat. In looking back at my pictures from my childhood, I can somewhat objectively say that, while I was far from being a flawless beauty, I was at least average in terms of little kid cuteness.  Most of the time it probably didn't occur to my parents to tell me that I was either pretty or cute because they were trying to raise a daughter who placed more value in character and intelligence than in looks. In my after-the-fact assessment of their parenting in that regard, they did the wrong thing for all the right reasons. They would neither have destroyed my character nor squelched my innate desire to learn by telling me that I looked pretty a few times.

I know now, objectively, anyway,  that my appearance is at least average, particularly on occasions when I take a bit of extra time with my hair and makeup and wear clothing that flatters me to some degree.  I also know that I'm not the only female who grew up feeling un-pretty.  My feelings were probably far from unique. Many if not most girls probably grow up far more aware of their flaws than of their attractive features. Most of us are either vain or insecure, or possibly even some unlikely combination of both.  

It's easier, or at least it seems that way to me, for boys. Boys don't have to be pretty. It helps if a boy is not overweight or has no obvious glaring blight to his appearance, and if he's lucky enough to be outrightly handsome, that's all the better. Regardless, society in general has greater willingness to accept a male child for his character, his intelligence, and his capabilities, than to accept the same for a female child. Furthermore, I was thin, sometimes pale,  and messy, but I can now see objectively that my physical features were not unattractive. There are little girls, on the other hand,  who really are a bit homely. And while they may be the best soccer players on their teams, or the best violinists or dancers in their studios, those honors come with huge imaginary asterisks beside the girls' names.  It's as if being unattractive dwarfs their other qualities.

If I ever have a daughter, I will think she is pretty even if other people don't see her as I do, and I will tell her that she is beautiful on a regular basis without worrying that I will cause her to become vain or to value physical appearance over more substantial characteristics.

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