One of my first memories from school has little to do with actual learning. I can’t picture my second grade teacher’s face, or remember a single project we worked on, but I remember the boy who sat across from me at my group table as though he were standing in front of me right now. David. He had brown hair and deep-set eyes and always looked a little too angry for a seven-year-old. And I remember arguing, him picking on me and teasing me in front of the whole class. I remember one time, in particular, when I got so angry at his teasing that I stood up and yelled at him loud enough that the teacher stopped the class to put me in a time out. I remember him saying that I wasn’t even a girl, that I was loud and ugly and weird. I remember my teacher calming me down, telling me that he was only doing this because he liked me most of all, deep down. I remember his theoretical admiration of me not quite lessening the sting of his infantile cruelty.
But most of all, I remember caring. I cared what he thought because he had more clout than me as a boy, his prescriptive attitude towards my behavior and tendency to shame the way I behaved meant something on the playground, because there was something inexplicably important about his opinion. When he spoke — even when he said mean, untrue things — people listened. And I knew that there was a part of me which, no matter what I may have thought of him, would have to adjust the way I behaved and the way I came across to make him like me more. He was a boy and I was a girl, and therefore a certain part of me was going to depend on what he thought.
Ever since, whether actively or without even realizing what I’m doing, the opinions of boys have mattered more than they probably should. All throughout school, at work, in my personal life, I have found myself profoundly concerned with how a man — even a man I might not like or be interested in myself — might perceive me. Does this male colleague think that I am a hard worker? Does this man at the coffee shop think I’m attractive? Does he think my sweater is too tight? Does this boy in front of me in class know who I am? Even when their opinion, in any objective sense, couldn’t be less important to me, I have been hyper-aware since I can remember of what that opinion might be.
And when I look back at what I idolized as a girl, it makes a certain kind of sense. All of my heroines from movies and stories, no matter the impressive resume they might bring to the table on their own, finished her story by being validated by a man who loves her forever. I do think that many of the Disney Princesses, for example, were positive role models. I am not in the camp that things all of the Disney canon needs to be thrown out with the proverbial bath water. But I knew, even as a young girl, that part of their stories were always going to be inextricably linked to their love lives. They were beautiful — more importantly, they were beautiful in a way that a man approved of. They had small waists and big eyes and long, flowing hair. They were the often referred to openly as the most lovely girl in town, or in the whole kingdom. Their overcoming of obstacles were heavily amplified through their uncanny ability to look good while doing so.
So much of my life has been consumed with this search for love, for approval, for being perceived as beautiful even when I don’t feel that way myself. It’s hard not to feel as though so much of your worth and purpose is placed not only on finding your own Prince Charming, but on making sure all of his Prince Charming friends would also want you, too. The general approval of men, and their place in your life, is something that cannot be escaped. I cringe when I think about the amount of time I’ve lost on worrying what a man might think of me, or whether or he would date me, or why he rejected me, or what I could magically turn into to make him change his mind.
For some reason, the question is rarely what do I think of me? Would I want to date someone like me? My opinion of myself can often fade into the background of a more pressing societal question: Are you desirable? Even when I actively want to distance myself from thoughts of what I look like or who is interested in me, I am surrounded by the idea that it is all I am worth.
I love the men in my life. I feel blessed to be surrounded by good people who care about me for the right reasons, who take me seriously, and who respect me as a human being. I try to remind myself on a daily basis that that my father, my male friends, my boyfriend — these are the people that matter. And not because they are men, but because they are good people who deserve my admiration. But closing out the 99 percent of other men for whose opinion you should have not a care in the world is a daily struggle, and one that means going against the grain of all we’ve been taught. To not care if your skirt is attractive or your voice is too loud for a man’s taste is to forget so much of what the world wants you to believe makes you a “real woman.” And though I know that the men in my life love me for who I am and not because I fit into some pristine little mold society has carved out, I can’t help but wish sometimes that I could be a little bit more like that perfect female mold, just to make them like me.