The first day of school is always an occasion in the life of a child, but the first day of Middle School is to the other firsts like Christmas is to Columbus Day is. It’s a big deal. I selected my outfit well in advance and waited at my bus stop with nervous excitement. The focal point of my attention was not on seeing old friends or meeting new teachers, but on a very risky part of my ensemble- a brand-new necklace. The girl I had been up until that point did not wear jewelry and this $10 chain from Claire’s felt like a major fashion statement. As the bus rolled along collecting kids, I felt their eyes burning into me, judging my appearance.
But there was one kid in particular that I was worried about. Matt Hollo was the only other person on my bus who was in 6th grade too. I imagined him telling other kids “Michele wears jewelry now, who does she think she is?” I was horrified at the possibility of garnering attention for the way I looked. Even though Matt was a nice, quiet boy, to me he represented the hyper-critical judgment of all my peers and I couldn’t bear to have him see me in that vulnerable state.
And the bus approached Matt’s stop, my anxiety spiked to a new level. As he climbed the stairs, I started fumbling for the clasp of my necklace. As he walked down the aisle toward me I managed to remove it and slip it into my backpack, just in time. A narrow escape! I felt like James Bond. When he passed my seat he probably didn’t even look at me, but I was incredibly relieved that there was no incriminating jewelry to be seen if he did. If you don’t try, you don’t expose yourself to judgment- that was the rationale behind my self-presentation throughout middle school: baggy t-shirts, minimal makeup, definitely no jewelry.
I feel sad when I look back on that timid little girl: so consumed by the strange narcissism of self-consciousness that she thought such a trivial change to her appearance would matter.
If I were to take a photo that I liked and post it on Facebook, my opinion of how good the photo is may be altered according to how many other people “liked” it. I, in turn, have the power to ascribe value to other people’s photos, comments, experiences. This creates a strange world where we are constantly seeking and dispensing validation. Of course I shouldn’t worry so much about what other people think: I am “someone else” “someone else.” I have the capacity to hold just as much weight over them as they do me. I try hard to determine, in advance, how much I like something, before giving it over to the capricious hands of others.
I have certainly changed from the girl I was that first day of Middle School- I speak out, dress up, and regularly go out of my way to make myself noticed. But such acts of confidence do not necessarily mean that I no longer feel that aching doubt. On the contrary, the more often I “put myself out there” the greater my need for validation. It is exhausting and I am sick of it.
I recently dyed my hair and was rocked back into the mind-frame of my 12-year-old self- deeply self-aware, painfully needy of reassurance. Irrationally I wondered if people were thinking “Blonde? Who does she think she is?” I had no sense of whether or not I liked it, I was at the mercy of other people’s feedback. I hate this experience for revealing my insecurities, but I am grateful to it for what it is teaching me. With the buffer of time, I can objectively look back on my tortured self on that school bus and know that I need not have worried. I try to apply the same logic to my situation now. With a little bit of money, I could re-dye my hair and make it like it never happened but I’m going to let myself do that. It’s no longer about how it looks, but about training myself not to give into the unknowable question of what other people really think. This time, I’m not going to take off that necklace.