Friday, February 24, 2012

on being the smart one.

{photo by Arielle Elise}

The first time a boy ever called my house, it wasn’t to ask me out or to talk about the comings and goings of adolescent life. It was for homework help.

As my mother held the phone out to me, I distinctly remember not a feeling of elation, but of frustration and fear. I was 10, and I was mortified. I was past the age where boys had cooties, but that didn’t mean they crossed my path very often.

In fact, that phone call was the only one I’d receive from a boy until I was about 17. I’m not complaining; my life has turned out in the most magnificent of ways.

But make no mistake: Just because I’m married doesn’t mean I don’t remember what it’s like to be the smart one. Because every girl knows, deep down, that there are categories. And that doesn’t make them right or true or very much fun, but they are there. They exist. You are  smart or pretty or funny; even if your soul encompasses all of those things, it’s into one category you often go.

My category was “the smart one.”

So when I read this post by Annie Downs, about a self-described “pretty girl” with a prettier friend who gets all the boys’ attention, the memories came flooding back.

The time I wore a denim jumper to school, and my best friend told me I looked pregnant.

That fall football game walking around the high school track, when my friends and I discussed which of us would grow up and be on homecoming court, and my name was never even mentioned as a possibility.

A walk up the staircase in which I ran into the “it couple” of my high school, and the girl looked straight into my eyes and asked me if I was jealous.

The time a guy introduced me to his girlfriend, asking me: “Isn’t she beautiful? Isn’t my girlfriend beautiful?”

How my junior high best friend and I looked so much alike that people couldn’t tell us apart, until the summer she grew up and got contacts and her braces taken off, and everyone described her as “the pretty one.”

And, in case you think this all fades away with adulthood, that day not so long ago when a well-meaning woman at church patted my arm and told me I was “pretty in my own way.”

It’s a lot for a girl to handle, this pressure to be pretty and funny and smart and interesting, some incredible combination of “all of the above.” And no matter how long you have been comfortable in your role, in your box, the words and the memories are still there.

Because the truth is, it’s not really very fun being put into any box.

I’ve never been called “the pretty one,” but I imagine it’s no better than being the smart one or the funny one. I imagine the expectations and the frustrations are unbelievably similar.

That’s what happens when boxes are involved.

We all start to look the same.

Growing up, I didn’t keep a mirror in my bedroom. It wasn’t intentional, really. The bathroom was right down the hall, and I had a desk and a dresser and a bed and a poster of Roman Holiday hanging on my wall. I didn’t need a mirror.

My heroines, my role models, were the girls I read about in books. Sure, I thought the Olsen twins were pretty, and there was a picture of Sandra Bullock taped to the back of my door. But mostly, I idolized Jo March and Anne Shirley: girls who were smart and independent and brave. Girls who, it should be noted, were rather ambivalent — or perhaps, more appropriately, dissatisfied with — their appearances. Jo chopped off her long locks and longed to be a boy; Anne couldn't stand her carrot red hair or her freckles and wished she wasn't so skinny.

Despite those skin-deep frustrations, though, Jo and Anne manage to move on. They move beyond the face in the mirror, and they triumph.

I suppose that’s what I wanted to do, so I left the mirror in the bathroom.

Here is what I would tell that pretty girl Annie wrote about.

There will always be someone prettier than you. There will always be someone smarter than you. There will always be someone funnier than you.

But there will never be another you.

And I know that’s cheesy, and it’s not much consolation when you’re standing in the corner getting ignored by all the boys (and, hey, let’s be honest, some of the girls).

I know.

I’m married to someone who thinks I’m beautiful, and it can still be a struggle. I can still feel like that little girl who got a phone call not because she was pretty, but because she was smart.

Finding “the one” doesn’t mean those insecurities fade away.

I think there’s a reason for that.

True happiness and true confidence don’t come from what other people think about you.

Confidence and happiness come from what you think about yourself, from recognizing that you were made this way. The God of the universe knows every wrinkle, every pimple, every gray hair, every pound, every inch. He knows it. He owns it. He loves it.

I am 26 years old, happily married with a job that I enjoy and a life that I love, and there are days when I get up, and I look in the mirror, and I don't really like what I see. (Adult acne will do that do a person, am I right?) 

And, yes, the attention of my husband and his repeated affirmations of my beauty are helpful. Being loved by someone always helps.

But it's being loved by the Heavenly Father that heals.

That pretty girl with the prettier friend? She will never know she is enough until she realizes He has made her this way. A wonderful, bright, energetic young man won’t make her feel whole. Finding a husband won’t make her know her beauty.

But a relationship with the Father will.

I may never be the prettiest girl in the room.

But if I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that my Father loves me, is in love with me, and made me who I am for a reason?

I can be happy and confident and authentic.

And really, the older I get, the more beautiful I believe that makes me.

Oprah’s said it, fashion designers have said it, my mom has said it to me my entire life.

It’s the smile that comes from deep within, it’s the complete and utter contentment with myself that make me beautiful and noticeable, by both men and women alike.

That feeling can't come from another person. It comes from being in love with the King and from being happy with who He made you to be.

If we could ever see what the Father sees, if men and women could begin to look at each other like Jesus looks at us, we might be able to put the boxes away. We might finally be able to understand that we are smart. We are beautiful. We are funny.

We are all of the above and so much more.


brie. said...

i was the smart one too.

- the phone call from girls pretending to be my friends, but really prank calling
- the time i was surrounded in the school yard and kicked as an 8 year old
- asking my date to prom because no one asked me
- going alone to my university formal because no one asked me

but you're so right. the heavenly father heals all of us. i never had a lot of boyfriends, i thought i was hard to love...

and i now have a husband, who i wouldn't be with, if i wasn't the smart one - i had to go grad school to be here in london, and i wouldn't have met him anywhere else.

what a great reminder of perspective. and of how god holds it all together and works it all for his good.

Kari said...

I have certainly never been the pretty one. I am okay with being the smart girl and feel fairly comfortable in my own skin. But I try to convey this message to my girls at school, that they are important because they exist.

I don't really read Annie Downs, but isn't part of her story that she was voted homecoming queen? How does this fit in with that? That's one reason I never read her book . . . I was an outsider and the idea of me being voted homecoming queen (or even being on the court) is ridiculous. I can't relate.

annie said...

@Kari - I don't read Annie Downs either; that one post came across my Twitter feed, so I clicked on over. Her response -- essentially that the playing field levels post-high school, and that girls pretty and prettier eventually find someone who thinks they're lovely -- got me thinking. I do think the playing field levels a bit more post-high school -- if only because we all become a bit more comfortable in our own skin -- but I am convinced there will always be pretty girls and smart girls and funny girls (and, let's face it, mean girls). I don't think that really changes in adulthood. And while, sure, finding someone who loves you and thinks you're smart AND funny AND beautiful is great, I don't think it's really the solution to the comparison problem. The solution is finding peace in who you are and who you are becoming.

I'm with you: I've always felt fairly comfortable in my own skin (although of course, I have my days), but it so often becomes apparent to me that a lot of girl aren't. (It's heart-breaking to me.) I'm glad there are teachers and leaders and mentors trying to convey to girls how important and smart and beautiful they are... just by being them. (Is that cheesy? Probably. But I think it's true.)

Kari said...

I don't think it's cheesy. I think it's very important. Your sense of self can't come because of circumstances. Getting a man doesn't make you pretty. Not having a man doesn't make you undesirable.

(And then there's all that stuff about fighting society's messages about what a "pretty girl" is. Ahhhhhhh!)

Kristin said...

Annie! THANK YOU for writing this. What a wonderful reminder...and a challenge...and a comfort all in one! I'm happily married too, but you're right - self-worth doesn't come from a husband. I still don't believe him when he says that he thinks I'm beautiful. Only God's hand of peace and contentment can calm our insecure hearts. ~

annie said...

@brie - it works out so much better than we imagine, doesn't it? and here's to being "the smart one"! :) i, for one, wouldn't trade it.

@Kristin - I love that last sentence: "Only God's hand of peace and contentment can calm our insecure hearts." Amen. Thank you for getting exactly what I was trying to say.

Erin said...

I was totally the smart one. And the very quiet one. Luckily for me I live in a pretty smart town, so I usually had some "smart one" friends as well. But it wasn't always easy. I think that I was able to cope with it by feeling superior...I knew I was smarter, and therefore more put together and grounded than a lot of other people, and this made me feel better about myself in the comparison game. Obviously this wasn't completely healthy, but as a middle schooler and high school it helped me cope when I started to feel disappointed in myself.

As an adult I feel generally comfortable with who I am (I agree...the playing field tends to level a bit, although it may never become completely level). But still...the comparison game is not an easy one to stop playing. It creeps up on you when you think you are rid of it and you find yourself having to calm yourself down and say lots of prayers.

Anonymous said...

Really cool post, it really resonated with me.

One thing I noticed this past semester when I got to study abroad was that everyone had a fresh start. No one was in a box yet, since most people didn't know each other. Granted, the program I studied with was pretty rigorous academically, so we already knew we were "the smart ones" from our home schools, but it actually made it really nice to just have that box unsaid and move on. We kinda eventually found other boxes. But at least it was another step in seeing each others' personalities, instead of just stopping at the "smart box."

Also interesting how we internalize our labels and make them part of our identities. Oxford didn't show us any grades until the end, we only got comments on papers, and it was a surprisingly big struggle at first. Seeing A's was such a part of our identities, as lame as it is. I think it was a pretty healthy semester to not see any official grades until the end.

annie said...

@Erin - When I was growing up, I surrounded myself mostly with other "smart ones," too, and it definitely helped. To them I was popular and confident, and as I've gotten older, now I feel that way. :) And for the moments when I don't? You're right. Prayer really does help.

@Emily - What a good observation about meeting new people! Maybe that's what helps so much about going away to college or finding new friends in a new hometown. There's no time or reason to get out the boxes; real life is too busy and making new friends is too important for that. In fact, looking back, it was when I joined the honors college at my university that I kind of even stopped thinking of myself as "the smart one." Everyone else was smart, too, so that just didn't matter anymore.

Erin said...

I love this post, Annie! So well put.
No matter how wonderful someone loving you well is, no one can give you full confidence like Jesus. He has to be the one to fill our cup.
I was always a very confident kid. But looking back, I think it may be a lot because my circle was very small.
I was homeschooled & kept myself in groups where I was cool.
I was popular at church & prided myself on being a smart one.
It is a bit of shock when you leave your little world & find out you are not such a big deal to most people. But it does make it all okay when we can know that we are a big deal to our Heavenly Father.

(also, I was totally devastated at one point when I was told by a couple guys that I wasn't that cool really, but they liked me because I was a pretty girl. (paraphrase of course...) I never wanted to be the pretty girl growing up. I felt so undervalued. I think they thought it was a compliment?)

Anonymous said...

I am completely in tears over this.
Sometimes cheesy truth is just what we need.

Elizabeth and Kyle @ Love Is the Adventure said...

Annie, this post made me cry. Thank you so much for writing it.

This brought back a lot of memories for me, too. I remember once in driver's ed classes, that a group of jocks behind me nicknamed me "smart girl" and kept harassing me for the answers to all the tests. I remember them laughing at me. I remember feeling so worthless.

It's amazing how that stuff stays with you, long after those people are long gone. And yeah, sometimes despite my husband's constant affirmations, I still feel like the nerdy girl with the glasses and the huge frizzy hair that no one will ever value for her appearance. Whew.

Thank you, God, for a love that transcends that kind of insecurity! :)

AnnieBlogs said...

Absolutely beautiful truth. Thank you.

Annie said...

I have been so excited to read this post ever since I saw you'd published it, and just because of its title.

Because I was/am definitely the smart one.

And I hate it.

I don't mind my intelligence or my ability at school {although I do hate school}. I hate the labels. I hate the box. I hate the night my parents had friends over when I was in high school and they wanted to know what I got on my ACT, and instead of considering that I might not want my scores paraded around the dinner table, or anywhere, for that matter, my parents told them and their friends spent what felt like an eternity fawning over the impossibility of such a score.

I think why we love Jo and Anne, why they eventually grew up and moved on, was because they found what they were good at, what they liked about themselves, and they pushed and challenged and pursued and grew into that aspect of themselves. And I think that's what growing up is, and I've found myself doing that, too, as I move through college: searching for my niche, for my place, as I looked for part-time jobs through college and look for full-time jobs now, and I think I can say, far more definitely than I ever could have in high school: My name is Annie and I am not my ACT score.

Annie said...

P.S. I just saw that you had The Tiger's Wife in your sidebar - how are you liking it so far?!