The Little Girl Who Hid Inside
If you wouldn’t use harsh words to talk to a child, why are you using them to talk to yourself?
In 2019, I worked at an after school program in La Jolla. Children between the ages, two and six would be dropped off after school to play, work on fun activities, or read with their peers. I was often at the coloring station and re-reading children's books to my small audience. I had forgotten all the important lessons children's books had taught me as a child: be brave, be strong, and be happy. These lessons only served as a reminder to myself the moment I read them out loud to children. Had I read the books quietly to myself, I would have skimmed the pages without giving them much thought. However, hearing them in my own voice, out into existence had brought these words back to life.
What's more, is that I was the teller of these powerful words and lessons. I was feeding the young minds and souls who were listening to me with wide eyes and excitement. I would then move to the coloring table. Lia and Lexi were sisters who always sat in the reading circles and would move to the coloring table right after. They would ask me to draw them pretty flowers and girls in princess dresses. It was such stereotypical views of feminine beauty, but it’s what they liked and they wanted to make sure I made the most perfect picture according to that image of beauty.
While coloring with pink, blue, green, and purple markers both of the girls would always chat amongst themselves. Giggling they would tell each other, "Lia, I want my princess to be pretty like you," or "Lexi, my drawing is going to have green dinosaur slippers." The notion of what beauty was to these kids wasn't quite clear yet. Whatever caught their attention in that moment was what they always picked as the beauty standard of the day.
Tracing the outlines of the princess figure, the girls would always ask me what I thought would look best as if I had the best sense of beauty. I always told them that whatever colors, dresses, and hairstyles they thought looked best would be the prettiest version of their princess because their decision is what mattered the most.
While I don't encourage the idea that children should have beauty standards, I cannot deny that they exist wherever we are. At young ages, we form an idea of beauty, and don't start to define it until we begin growing up.I never disagreed with their choices because I would never want to discourage them from feeling beautiful. When I think more deeply about it, it's not that I never disagreed with them, it's that I never had a reason to. I always agreed with everything they considered to be beautiful, because it was beautiful. It was mysterious how easily I could agree with a child’s beauty standard, but be so meticulous about my own. Their choices were both calculated and free-spirited at the same time. Even though I was always on these little girls' side, I was hardly ever on mine.
Self-awareness and self-confidence are very fragile things. What's even more fragile is our emotions connected to our self-awareness and self-confidence. The way I would encourage a young girl, is a stark contrast to the way I would encourage myself. The hypocrisy felt sticky and didn’t sit right with me especially when doing so would only benefit me. The more I grew up, the harder it became to encourage myself. I didn't realize this until I watched how excited the children were when they would read stories of bravery and color pictures of beautiful things. Feelings of envy would jokingly emerge when I think of how much I wished to be like these kids— free-spirited and not a care in the world of what others thought about me. For once in my life, I wish I was treated like a child. Rather, I wish I treated myself like a child.
I used to be a confident individual. I wore what I wanted because my clothing made me feel good. It empowered me when I was feeling low because it felt like I had somewhere important to be. As the saying goes, "when you look good, you feel good". As the quarantine took over, I found myself in a very similar position that most others were in: I never left my house. I spent most of my time leisurely hanging out on my couch, sleeping, and eating. It seemed like half of the people around me were thriving at their peak. They were learning new recipes or working out and discovering the best version of themselves. Whereas the other half had essentially hit rock bottom in their own private ways. I felt like I was the latter.
It had become my new routine to order from UberEats while I binged watched all of Netflix. Since I hardly left my house, I found it pointless to get dressed up if I wasn't going anywhere. I actively wore sweatpants and leggings. It wasn't until months of this routine had passed that I started to feel restless wearing the same T-shirt every day for a week. There was no one to see, and no places to go. I only ever left my house for essential items like groceries.
Eventually, I decided upon wearing jeans for the first time in months to the grocery store. Jeans weren't exactly my idea of dressed up, but after months of pajamas, it was a step up. I needed to take baby steps.
To my horror, my jeans hadn't been able to zip up and the button was far from being able to reach the closing slit. I was in denial as I forcefully tried suck in my stomach and make the two ends of my waist band meet. Pre-pandemic, a good ol' deep inhale could fit me into all my jeans no matter how tight they had become. This was a new level of trying to squeeze in. It never occurred to me that I had gained weight.To torture my self-esteem more, I went to check the scale in our bathroom. I needed to see it in numbers to confirm the amount of physical change my body had gone through. I developed an unhealthy habit of constantly checking the scale every morning and every time I went to use the restroom. I felt my self-esteem dwindling and started to lose confidence everywhere else.
When it comes to believing in our reflections of beauty and self-image, I need to be better at repeating affirmations to myself. I always think of the movie The Help when actress Viola Davis plays Aibileen Clark and tells Mae Mobley, “You is kind. You is smart. You is important” each day up until they part ways. That little girl will forever remember those affirmations because they came from someone who deeply loved her and wanted her to believe in the conviction of those words. I needed to deeply love myself and want those words of conviction to be true for me too.
If I had done that, I'd be kinder, more forgiving, and more loving towards myself. If I spoke to myself the way I would to a child, I would tell myself that I should be brave and daring like the characters in their story books. It's easy to tell children varying ways to be who they want to be and embrace their interests, but at what age do we outgrow that encouragement? Why do we outgrow it? When can we start re-teaching our minds and hearts to believe it's acceptable to start having those conversations within ourselves again?
You wouldn't crush the dreams of a child, no matter how outrageous and unrealistic, so why are we so quick to crush our own? There is a small child in all of us. That child is quite sensitive and needs a safe space to feel loved and accepted when we express what matters to us.
I didn't feel beautiful. If I heard a young child feel this way about themselves, my heart would break into pieces. If I heard an adult say these same words but towards a child, my heart would break into pieces. In both ways, that's exactly what I did. I broke my own heart. It's like I didn't know how to respond to the harsh criticism I had voiced, even though I was the one in control of my words and thoughts. I could feel the little girl in me shaking, confused and unable to understand why I had been yelling at her with unkind words. I was punishing her for doing nothing wrong. She stopped growing to love herself because I had stopped encouraging her. I was her biggest support, yet I told her that until she helped herself I wouldn't give her my approval.
When you hold a child who is hurting, you make sure to be gentle and even try to soothe them with soft pats on the back and quiet whispers. You're wary that aggression could escalate their emotions and try to choose your words carefully so you don't hurt them. You create that safe and welcoming space for them so they can grow up to feel confident and empowered in their own skin.
Being spoken to as if I was a child was degrading. However, if it comes with the right intention, it can be warm, tender, and affectionate. I couldn’t process words of encouragement from others because I didn't initially believe in it wholeheartedly on my own. When I think about the young girls who always asked me to read them story books and draw them beautiful things, I think of the power of words and affirmations. Their ability to move within you and stir your perception of the world is remarkable. The little girl inside me deserves to hear the good words I have to say about her, and she deserves to take root in those words and grow through them. Let’s be kinder to the little person hiding within us and bring them out.