November 23, 2016

The True Power Of Words

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Tommy Tong
Tommy Tong

Being inconspicuous wasn’t an option for me. I was one of only four guys in a Las Vegas ballroom full of females. The other men were working cameras and video. And me? I was the token “Dad” in the room.

Let me rewind.

The event was a town hall meeting titled “Words Matter: Reframing the Body Image Conversation for our Daughters.” Having raised one daughter, myself, that was my single point of reference for the afternoon event. Presented by the Dove Self-Esteem Project and “She Should Run” (a nonprofit with a mission of encouraging females to run for office), the forum’s attendees were a large group of young girls – ages 8 to 18 I’d guess – all associated with the Girls Club of Nevada.

A Vegas ballroom packed with energetic young girls, a dozen or so “adult” women, a few tech guys. And me – soon to be schooled on the epidemic of verbal bullying.

I was also about to meet an 18-year-old-girl who has been on my mind ever since. But I’ll get to her in a minute.

First, some highlights from the “what did I learn?” corner.

“Words matter.”

I heard that time and time again by the adult presenters who were charged with not only presenting the topic, but gain important input from the attendees – many of them bravely standing in front of a microphone and their peers in the middle of the room. Sharing their personal experiences from their few years on planet Earth.

“Why do words people use about you matter?” asked the moderator.

Immediately a flurry of hands went into the air – as the girls shouted out an array of answers ranging from “because they describe you!” to “because everyone likes a compliment.”

I was thinking to myself this positive tone wasn’t going to last long.

“And whose word matter to you?” continued the moderator.

“My parents.”

“My brother and sister.”

“My friends.”

“My teacher.”

And then came the zingers I knew were coming.

“Bullies.”

“Social media.”

“Television.”

“Ads.”

The sources of negativity in their lives quickly outnumbered – and outweighed – the sources of positivity.

These darling little girls then proceeded to speak and share, one by one, about body shaming, being too fat, too skinny, too dark skinned, too light skinned, hair that was too short, straight or curly, being mocked in the classroom, being teased on the playground, being humiliated on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and every other social media platform.

“How many of you have wanted – or still want – to change something about the way you look?” asked the moderator.

Every single hand in the room went up. My heart sunk.

Not that I’m not aware. The facts are out there. But it’s one thing to read that nearly 60% of children have had bad things said to them on social media – and it’s a very different thing to hear it from the mouths of the children and young adults who are on the receiving end.

Which brings me to the 18-year-old girl who I’ve been thinking about. Her name is Taylor Vidmar. A sparkly eye, smart-as- a-whip young lady I had the good fortune of sitting beside. She was there to help introduce the girls to Dove’s new #SpeakBeautiful Squad, a group of digitally savvy, influential women who provide tips, advice and resources girls can use to armor themselves from this negativity.

Taylor’s star has been rising recently after her highly publicized story titled:

Being a Fat Woman During Trump’s Campaign: Despite What Trump Thinks, No Word is Just a Word.

When I was 18, I’m pretty sure I was focused on my summer tan – a nice perk from lifeguarding. Taylor was taking on the newly elected leader of the free world. I was sitting next to a force. A force that caught the eye of MTV who recently named her an MTV Founders and Campus Ambassador. Smart move on their part.

But it wasn’t her credentials that made the impact on me; it was the story she shared – part of her message to President-Elect Trump – that resonated in ways totally unexpected.

“The first time I remember being called fat was in kindergarten. I was out by the jungle gym during recess, and I saw some friends sitting on top of the monkey bars. When I asked if I could play with them, one of the girls looked me in the eyes and responded, “No, you’re too fat to play with us.”

She said it with a shrug and a smirk, smugly, as if she were bragging about what she got for Christmas. I got a Barbie Dream House and you’re just fat. I can still smell the wood chips and fresh-cut grass, see the red jungle gym, and feel my small, chubby fists clenching as if this had all happened yesterday and not over a decade ago. What happened to me that day hurt and affected me in a way that many people don’t really understand…”

After the town hall, I went to say good-bye to Taylor.

“You were wonderful. You are wonderful,” I told her.

She shrugged it off sweetly like most 18-year-old girls I knew would.

I told her how much her kindergarten story meant to me. She seemed surprised. As if a dad three times her age might not be able to connect to her experience.

“Oh, I totally do, Taylor,” I told her. “And I think a lot of adults walk around with messages given to them along life’s journey.”

She smiled and said thanks.

“I’ve got a kindergarten story. Someday I’ll share it with you.”

After a hug good-bye, I was off. Leaving a ballroom full of voices elevating at levels beyond the loudest school cafeteria lunchroom.

It was a good day.

It was an insightful day.

And all I could think about was my kindergarten experience. But mine was oh-so-different from Taylor’s.

It came in the form of a handwritten note from my Kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Newkirk, as part of my end-of- the-year report card. All of the proper boxes were checked when it came to my work habits, skills and behavior. It was Mrs. Newkirk’s note, however, that meant everything to me. I couldn’t read at the time – but I still remember my mother reading it proudly.

“I am sure you are aware that you have a very remarkable child. He is very polite and well mannered. Concerned for others, he has a sense of humor and a twinkle in his eye….”

I made my mom read that handwritten note to me again and again. I remember being aware that those words, Mrs. Newkirk’s validating words, were the first time anyone ever commented on me outside of my parents or siblings.

I still have that handwritten note.

More importantly, I’ve actually remembered those words many times in my life. I’ve turned to them when I didn’t feel much like a person of value. Or when others were hurtful. Because no matter how much mud was slung my way, I always had the gift of knowing, “Hey, Mrs. Newkirk said I had a twinkle in my eye.”

Words matter. To all of us.

My only wish is that somehow, some way, I could give those same words once given to me to every young boy and girl.

They’ve served me quite well, you know? TC mark

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