I was in the loft the other day, searching around for a box of clothes I knew I’d stored away safely for Effie to grow into, when I found a bag full of notebooks. Amongst the old school books and faded paintings of my childhood I discovered a familiar book. A book I shared my hopes, dreams and fears with almost daily from 26th October 1996 to the 2nd December 1999 – so, from the ages of 13 to 16 years old.
It was a revelation.
Settling down to read back through my teenage years I was filled with a funny sense of nostalgia. Things were so easy back then weren’t they? Back when I didn’t have to worry about paying bills or looking after little people. Except I was wrong. Reading the pages I poured my heart and soul into, I discovered that things were often far from easy.
Of course there were the usual in-depth analyses of situations involving boys, clothes and which album I should spend my next round of pocket money on (“I really love Sleeper. I’m definitely an ‘Indie chick’. But I can’t decide between Blur and Oasis – Liam and Damon are both fit.“) And then there were the lengthy reviews of Titanic and my musings on whether my mum would allow me to cover every inch of my newly painted bedroom with pictures of Leonardo DiCaprio.
Some entries made me howl with laughter (“Went to see Men In Black with Will Smith in it at the Odeon. It was good. Will Smith is sexy and that song Men In Black is sooo cool – almost as cool as Puff Daddy and Faith Evans I’ll be missing you. Decided to grow out my fringe.” … next entry… “Decided to keep my fringe after all.”)
Some entries gave me a funny insight into how kids view adults (“Why are Mum and Dad different when they’re with other adults? They almost act like they don’t like Christmas. I know Dad likes Christmas just as much as us because he always wears his Christmas waistcoat. He just doesn’t want his friends to know in case they think it’s not cool.“)
But weaved amongst the regular teen angst, boy dramas, friendship scenarios and pocket money plans were admissions of extreme self-doubt and pain.
I had a happy childhood. My teen years were fun and busy. I grew up in a home full of laughter and love. My parents were always switched onto the things my sister and I needed. I thrived at school, got good grades, was in countless clubs, enjoyed playing music, dancing and horse-riding out of school. But there were still moments that had me questioning my self-worth, telling myself I was “ugly” and a “waste of space”.
In one entry I wrote aged 14, I described myself as “fat and spotty, with a flat chest, freak nose and freak ears.” I then went onto say: “I AM UGLY. I am weak. I eat too much. I am selfish. I am fake.” Then, at the bottom of that entry I listed my weight – 7 stone 12 pounds.
I remember having moments of self-doubt as an older teenager, but I had no idea I could be so mean to myself at just 14 years old. These were words I’d written down, told myself, emphasised in capital letters with ten lines underneath.
It’s not that I was unhappy. Far from it. Overall I was a well adjusted, bright, funny and popular kid. But running between all the joyful moments was an undercurrent of shame. (“I’d be so embarrassed if anyone found out I sometimes feel like this. Everyone thinks I’m confident and happy all the time. I just need to fake it.“)
It made me realise how much pressure I put on myself back then. How I was always my own worst critic – something that stayed with me for years and years afterwards. Interestingly, in the entries where I was berating myself for not being good enough, pretty enough, clever enough etc I was also having digs at other people. On days when I felt bad about myself, I was clearly angry at the world and everyone in it, while on the happy posts I loved everyone and couldn’t praise my friends and family enough.
Just a normal part of being a teenager, you might say. But I read these pages and saw a blueprint for what was to come. The early comparison syndrome I suffered when listing my own traits next to the popular girl at school, the feelings of self-worth often tied up in how I looked (“I’m so spotty and ugly today. I know I’m going to do badly in my maths test. I’m so rubbish at maths. At least if I was properly clever it wouldn’t matter that I was ugly.“).
So many of these early feelings followed me around, lurking in the background for long after the teen years. And I wonder, if I had managed to get those feelings into perspective a little more in the early days, maybe I’d have found them easier to deal with later on?
I wish I could go back and give the little me a big hug. If I could, I’d also tell the little me that my worth was not defined by my appearance, that it was normal to get spots and that it didn’t make me ugly. I’d tell the little me that I was smart, funny and kind – and those were the real things that mattered.
I’d tell the little me that I was lovely and would look back on photos of myself in years to come and think how beautiful and happy I looked. I’d tell the little me that those younger years go by in a flash and they are too short to spend time being mean to yourself. I’d tell the little me that it is OK to fail sometimes, OK to make mistakes, that no one is perfect and these moments are all part of life.
So much of what I was feeling wasn’t even a product of my own mind. It was a product of the magazines I read, the models I aspired to be like, the girls I saw on TV. There was no social media back then, which was both a blessing and a curse. The only “normal” people I could compare myself with were friends and other girls at school, who all clearly had the same hang-ups that I did. Our insecurities fed off each other, as we discussed ways to lose weight, get bigger boobs, straighten our hair pre-GHD’s.
I can’t go back in time, and nor do I want to really. All those feelings and little wobbles make me who I am now, a person I like, unashamedly. I’ll always be sensitive, but this isn’t a bad thing. I can now see it also makes me more able to empathise, which is a good quality to have. But I’ve also learned how to have a much thicker skin and not to let the comments of other people matter to me in the ways they did at 15 years old.
All I hope is that my own daughters get to dodge these feelings as much as possible. That they know, early on, how lovely they are, and that they get to shut that inner mean girl up before her voice grows loud enough to really matter.
I made a video about the subject of self-love which I posted over the weekend. Since publishing it, I’ve heard from so many people – from teen girls to new mums to grandmothers, boys, girls, men, women – showing that body image and related issues of self-esteem are very real for many, many people.
I made the video for the teenage me, and the 22 year old me and the new mum me….