Someone asked me today for “woman advice”. And the kind of “woman advice” he meant was not what I at all expected. Because what he wanted was ideas on how to help and an insight into the mind of a 16yo girl.
He described to me someone who sounded very much like myself at that age. Like my younger sister as she is now. And potentially like every woman who was once sixteen and lost, and unsure and afraid.
‘How do I convince my daughter she’s not ugly?’
The first thing I thought was ‘you can’t’. Which isn’t very helpful advice, but it was as true for me as it is as true for my sister nearly a decade later. Nor should we be relying on the men in our lives to tell us that we’re pretty. But that’s not the issue at hand.
And it didn’t end there for this girl, because she feels anxiety very deeply and is so conscious of losing her friends as they discover boys. Fuck, I hated being sixteen. I feel very deeply for her. I see how she’s reaching the conclusion of ugliness. I’ve seen the photos, I know it isn’t true.
I also know she’ll never be wholly convinced. Especially by her parents.
As young women, we all learn to measure ourselves and our identities poorly. We measure our value and worth against all the wrong yardsticks. Men, how big our circle of friends is, the size of our clothes. Everything in society encourages us to do so, it’s excruciatingly painful. Even now, knowing better, I judge myself in the mirror for “letting myself go” when I really haven’t, or having pimply skin when it’s just that part of my cycle. I judge myself for all the attention I’m not receiving from men (though that is a separate and previously discussed issue).
I listened to the pain, frustration and discouragement in his voice. The relaying that her mother is scared she’s going to “top herself”. The subtle self blame for passing on the “anxiety gene”. And I wished I could have said something helpful in that moment. But I couldn’t form that words, other than that she needed to make that self worth journey in her own time, when she is ready and that you can’t force her to acknowledge the beauty you see. I was thrown by being at work and not having time to collect my permanently scattered thoughts.
I’ve been thinking about that question and exchange for hours. So long that I’ve needed to write about it. And form a better response. I keep asking myself ‘what would I say to me when I was 16? What did I need? What did I want?‘ And I don’t know anymore, I feel out of touch with that version of myself. But I know what helps me now.
What I will say, next time I see him is this…
Please be gentle, and empathetic and validating. ‘You’re not’ is not what she’s looking for, or what she needs. She’s looking for you to say ‘it’s hard, but it’s going to be okay’, ‘it’s okay to feel this way’, ‘the human skin is so difficult at times’, let her know that you hear her. She’s searching for comfort now, as she comes to terms with her best friend’s boyfriend. And feeling second best and ugly. Her anxiety is running away with her reason, I know you empathise and feel that. Ask her specifically why she feels that way in that moment and listen so, so carefully to her replies as they’ll direct the conversation that you’ll have again and again over time.
Encourage her strengths and passions, the things that make her feel good and are crucial to her forming identity. Encourage her own introspection, her mindfulness, her presence. If you are truly concerned, encourage her to engage with the counselling you’ve organised. But don’t force it, never force it. That’ll only make things worse.
I hear you, I hear your pain and your love for her. It bleeds through, because its hard. It’s hard not understanding your child’s pain and knowing that you can never really grasp it. Just tell her that it’s okay. You don’t have to provide solutions, if she’s anything like me she doesn’t even want to hear them – at least not from you. She just needs you to be there. To be there and to hear her say that she hurts.