A short while ago Elizabeth Bear wrote a piece titled “dumb all over. a little ugly on the side.” that hit me really hard in a ‘Damn I should have thought of that; I’m so glad she wrote that’ kind of way.
She talks about the responsibility adult women have to young women – and young men – in how we talk about and treat ourselves.
I’m talking about how we minimize, despise, excoriate, and abhor ourselves. How we exclude ourselves from consideration. How we martyr ourselves for others. How we call ourselves ugly, awful, incompetent, and stupid.
We all do it, regardless how confident we are, how high or low our self-esteem. We do it without thinking because it’s what we’ve been “taught” to do by the older generation. We learned to take a backseat from watching our mothers and grandmothers, women raised in a time when subservience was not only expected but demanded by society. A time when women were expected to put the needs of her husband and her family above her own.
We learned that in order to be “ladies”, we had to be meek and self-effacing.
I can’t count how many times I’ve said “I’m such an idiot” when trying to explain a mistake. Last week, I went into the comic book store looking for a specific comic. I thought it came out the day before; it doesn’t come out for another week or so. “I’m such an idiot,” I told the sales clerk. “I can’t even get the date right.” Did I make a mistake? Yes. Am I an idiot because I looked at the release date wrong? No. I felt a little silly, sure, but that’s no reason to label myself an idiot.
And there’s Bear’s point.
What [her friend coffeeem said] was, “You’d never tolerate somebody talking about me–or any of your friends–the way you talk about yourself.”
Such a simple thought, yet so profound. And she’s right. If the sales clerk had called me an idiot for getting the date mixed up, I would have been furious. Yet I’m allowed to talk about myself like that? It just doesn’t seem right.
My daughter is growing up quickly, and I have to be hyper-aware of what she hears and sees on television, in books, and from me. I don’t curse around her. I don’t play violent video games with her around. I do all the protective things a mother is supposed to do when her child is four-years-old. I even make a point to compliment her with words like “smart” instead of “pretty”. Yet it never occurred to me that I’m teaching her to demean herself by letting her see me demeaning myself.
Young men see adult women despising themselves, and it teaches them that women are abhorrent and useless. Young women see adult women despising themselves and it teaches them that they themselves are abhorrent and useless.
I can’t imagine my amazing kid growing up thinking she’s ugly or stupid or worthless. It terrifies me that I could be teaching her to believe those very things by calling myself ugly, stupid, and worthless.
It doesn’t matter how I feel about myself, how richly I think I deserve the browbeatings I give myself.
It is my responsibility to do this small thing to make the world better for other women–other people–younger and older.
If everyone took this same responsibility, our young men and women would grow up as strong, independent, confident people. I think we owe it to them.