Thursday, October 30, 2014

i'm the smart one

My sister and I went on an overnight date this weekend. Naturally, we posted some goofy "us-ies" on Instagram. This morning a friend from work mentioned our "sister date" and said "Your sister is really pretty. Way prettier than you." I was like, "Thanks, I know. Dick." And we are no longer friends ;)

Anyway, the reason I'm so... and forgive me, this term is just THE WORST, but I feel like it works here: "butt-hurt," is that it rings true. I mean, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, blah blah blah. But. By most any measure, my sister is prettier than me - always has been. She is a blonde, blue-eyed beauty, and while I don't think anyone would call me un-attractive, my looks are apparently better suited for a skinny gay man, if my handsome little brother is any indication. I've had a complex about it ever since I was old enough to care about this kind of thing. I was always glad we had totally different coloring and honestly don't even look related because then at least it's not as direct a comparison. Apples and oranges. I could tell myself that gentlemen prefer blondes, and tall, dark, handsome and mysterious men prefer brunettes. We could each be someone's cup of tea. But still. It's always niggled at the back of my brain.

It wasn't just something I kept to myself, either. I became self-deprecating about my looks from a young age. I always threw the first punch so that no one else could. Probably no one even cared. Probably this is just more of me being completely self-absorbed and neurotic. But that's what I did. I joked about my flat chest, my bad hair, my bad skin, in stark relief to my sister's buxom, Nordic beauty. It was such a thing that someone - I don't even remember who - I can't imagine it was my mother, self-help wasn't her thing. Maybe a teacher? Anyway, someone gave me this book when I was in 8th grade - Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. And probably the book was about a lot of things, but the only thing I remember is where the author says it's actually better, from a self-esteem perspective, to be "not completely unfortunate looking," as opposed to drop-dead gorgeous, because then your sense of self is more than skin deep. I basically pinned my entire existence on that notion. My sister was The Pretty One. The Sweet One. I was The Smart One. The Sporty One. The Funny One. (Which isn't fair to her, either. She's also very smart and pretty darn funny, too. Sporty? Eh, maybe not. Love ya, sis' ;))

And the thing is, people (our parents, teachers, etc.) played into this division of assets, for better or for worse. Perhaps we showed certain proclivities from the get-go. But it became this feedback loop that cemented us into these roles.

As I got older, though, two things happened. One, I just started to care less. I realized that not being "the pretty one" didn't stop me from getting what I wanted. People liked me anyway, and more importantly, I liked myself. Maybe Mary Pipher, PhD (author of Reviving Ophelia) was right. Maybe being just "meh" allowed me to develop a strong sense of self separate from my physical beauty (or lack thereof). And if you've read this blog for a while then you probably know, by the end of high school, I certainly wasn't lacking in self-esteem. I knew I was never going to be the prettiest girl in the room, but I also knew that I brought a lot to the table. And that worked for me.

Two, I won't say I got prettier, but, I learned to tame my looks into a manner that I found sufficiently pleasing. Yes, that means I became a slave to creams and cosmetics and Hot Tools. And again, I'm no stunner. But I'm pretty enough. And that'll do.

But. This issue obviously lay dormant because some offhand comment from my asshat friend instantly reduced me to my insecure, 14-year-old self again. And that just got me thinking about "labels." I've read these articles that say stuff like, "Oh don't tell little girls they're pretty," or "Don't tell your kids they're smart" or "Don't say 'Good Job!'" because you're going to give them some sort of complex and I'm thinking, "Come the f*ck on, people! Do you realize what a bunch of candy-ass hang-wringers we've become?!" But then, sometimes, I sort of get it. Like right now.

I don't even remember the context of the conversation, but I remember once my mom told me I had a nice singing voice. My little sister said, "What about me?" And my mom was like, "Yeah, not so much." We laughed about it at the time but it gave my sister a serious complex. To this day, she will not sing in front of anyone else because she is so paranoid that she has this terrible voice that is going to burst someone's eardrum. And that is just so sad. I think about that now, as my adorable daughter LOVES to sing. And I LOVE to hear it. It just kills me. It makes my heart swell. It is music to my ears, no matter how... ahem... unmelodious it may be. I would never ever want to do anything to dampen her sweet, singing spirit. (Unlike my little brother. I have no problem telling him to pipe down. As a big sister, I feel it is my duty and my honor to give him shit.)

And perhaps more substantively, positing my sister and I in these seemingly diametric roles sort of snowballs. Not that anyone ever used this exact terminology. It wasn't, "She's the pretty one," it was, "Well you're no beauty queen," or "You'll grow into your looks," or "Pretty girls are boring. You don't want to be like them anyway." And my personal favorite, "Your sister is hawt. You guys look nothing alike." [?!] For my sister, it was "Why can't you get good grades like your big sister?" "You don't apply yourself," and "School isn't your strong suit." If one of us was crowned the queen of beauty or brains, it meant the other one had to fight to unseat her from the throne. And sometimes it just seems easier to play the part you're given.

The thing is, we sort of internalized these roles even though they weren't necessarily a perfect fit. I showed this post to my sister and she was like, "I thought you were the pretty one AND the smart one! I was just the 'nice' one." (She is the nice one. That is for sure.) Then she pointed out that even though our collective perception (her own included) was that she sorta sucked at school - looking back, her grades were really quite good. I mean, she was no Academic Decathlete like yours truly, but hey, there's only so much room up here at the top of the nerd chain ;) Sadly, all the negative reinforcement made her hate school, and left a chip on her shoulder. Similarly, I'm actually not terrible to look at. But because that wasn't my part to play, I didn't (and to an extent, still don't) feel like I can really "own" my beauty.

I'm not saying my parents did anything wrong. I often think we are better off for our parents not having spent so much time talking about feelings, giving trophies for participation and the like. And anyway, I find myself guilty of the same things despite endless and exhausting touchy-feely self-examination. For example, as I've discussed here at length, Jack is always our "sensitive boy" and Colby is our little "scrapper." DM and I are cognizant of the risk that these labels entail (this article discusses fundamental attribution error and confirmation bias in the context of parental labeling - pretty interesting) - but we both do it anyway. Just like me making fun of my flat chest, beating everyone else to the punch, we'll warn so-and-so about our "sensitive," "emotional," "dramatic," "scrappy," and/or "certifiably insane" child before s/he even has a chance to demonstrate this behavior (or not demonstrate it). And, if that is what people are looking for, that's what they're going to see. In turn, what they (and we) see helps inform how the kids are going to act. Chicken? Egg? Who knows.

Food for thought: If a toddler acts bat-shit crazy in the forest, does he make a sound?

Okay I don't even know how to wrap this one up. Just imagine me getting reluctantly escorted off stage by a large hooked cane.

The end.

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