Todd Smith was everything my fourteen-year-old marching-band high-school freshman heart beat for. He was lanky and blonde and played the quads in drum line, and his favorite band was Incubus. His AIM screen name was KottonMouth and he drove a truck.
He was also stoned all the time—but as a nerdy bookworm, my experience with anyone being “stoned” went only as far as the fanfictions I would read until 2AM, where some sixteen-year-old would write about the boys from Stand By Me being eighteen and horny and high. I had never encountered marijuana before in real life, let alone had a crush on someone who liked to smoke it.
My crush on Todd grew with each band practice, each competition, each time I saw him play those drums with the laid-back ferocity of someone who didn’t really give a shit about being in a band but was too cool to quit. All of my friends knew how badly I wanted to be his girlfriend—it was a classic scenario in my head. I was the “good girl”—a bookish but loud flute player, funny yet anxious, average looking, and a daydreamer. Todd was the quintessential “bad boy,” and I wanted to be the girl that stole his heart.
This was why I found myself one night at a marching-band competition alone with Todd in an empty parking lot. We had broken off from the rest of the group while they watched other marching bands perform. I had lied to Todd and casually mentioned a few hours before how, “Yeah, sure, I smoke weed.” He had said, “Cool,” and then eaten a hot dog, but later he had approached me and asked me if I wanted to get high. I followed him like an idiotic puppy.
Todd leaned against an empty school bus, pulling out a piece of tinfoil. I was confused but tried to keep my cool. Todd held it up in front of me.
“You ever smoke a tinnie before?”
I couldn’t lie this time, so I said no. He instructed me, and I took a hit because I wanted to impress him.
It was the first time I remember that I did something I didn’t want to do to impress a boy. The most amazing part of it was that it didn’t impress Todd at all, and he later dated one of my friends. It didn’t make him think I was cool; it just made me cough a lot in front of him.
That was the moment when I realized I could never do anything solely to impress a man. And for years I volunteered with high-school girls—when I lived in Philadelphia, when I lived in New York City, and then when I moved here to Los Angeles. And I wanted to tell them every day to stop focusing on trying to impress boys and instead to focus on themselves.
My “smoking pot at marching band” experience was pretty harmless (besides risking getting caught and kicked out of the band), but it taught me something extremely important: I should NEVER do something just to impress a boy.
It taught me that if I want to smoke pot, it’s going to be for me. If I want to wear a dress or cut my hair or learn the dance to Beyoncé’s “Upgrade U” or lose twenty pounds, it’s going to be for me and no one else.
This idea of “women doing things for men” is still excruciatingly prevalent. For instance, I worked at Christian summer camps for many years. And one of the set-in-stone rules was that the girls couldn’t wear spaghetti straps, two-pieces, or yoga pants, but the guys were allowed to run around shirtless and in tank tops. It was set in our mind that we couldn’t wear these things for fear of causing our “Christian brothers” to “stumble.”
It seems harmless enough, but it’s instilling in our brains that it’s our fault as women if a man lusts after us—that if he sees our shoulders, it’s our fault that he starts thinking sexual thoughts about us. Instead of teaching men to not look at a woman as solely a sexual object, it forces women to feel guilty.
I wish I could take my fourteen-year-old self and sit her down to talk about why she thought changing herself would impress a boy. I did it solely to look cool in the eyes of a boy who couldn’t care less about me. And I think of all the girls out there right now feeling like they aren’t enough simply the way they are. And I want to tell them to stop and love themselves, but then I will feel like a hypocrite because everyday it’s a struggle to love myself, too. But maybe if we tell ourselves and each other enough times, we might actually start to believe it.