Dear Prom Queens and Cheerleaders
Dear Prom Queens and Head Cheerleaders,
To Tall Leggy Models and Class Presidents,
To the Girl who wakes up an hour and a half early to match the perfect outfit with your eye shadow,
I am not you.
I’ve never been you. I skipped out on my prom. I’m good at exactly one sport. I didn’t know what an eye lash curler was until I was in my 20’s and didn’t go on my first date until I was 25. My best friend, while in college, taught me how to walk in heels. And most of my early adulthood was spent in an oversized Boondock Saints hoodie that was so worn it eventually disappeared into one giant hole.
I am not you.
And, according to a bevy of movies, books, songs and TV shows, we are natural enemies. It starts in high school, this battle between us, when hormones are raging, and dating and social class are intimately linked. During this time, we become enemies.
More specifically YOU become the antagonist and I become the quirky, underdog that everyone roots for. During adolescent and high school years everyone notices you, the boys fall in line for you and girls want to be you, while I remain in the background, left to less “shallow” interests. The shallow boys, concerned only with looks and status, don’t notice me because they are blinded by your perfection, allowing them to look over your general vapidness. During those high school years, I would suffer in loneliness, maybe my best friend is the man of my dreams if the story is REALLY good, a man who tousles my hair and can talk to me about ANYTHING but is mesmerized by your glitter and glamour (really, just go listen to any T-Swift song, she’ll tell you!).
But all the books, and songs and movies promise me that one day, maybe after high school, your popularity will crash and burn, everyone will find out how silly and shallow and “mean” you are. And I will finally be recognized and appreciated, and guys will line the block for me. Maybe, I take off my glasses and become sexy. Or maybe some sensitive lawyer/doctor/humanitarian/son of a duke of England sees me reading a book across a crowded café and is immediately taken by my whimsical charm and loveable clumsiness and the fact that I’m so different, and refreshing and “not like all the other girls.”
…at least that’s what they say will happen. This is what the movies and songs promise us, right? The odd, unpopular, “quirky” underdog gets the guy and triumphs over the traditionally hot, popular, pom-pom waving air head. Sure, in the movies they try and say it’s about character and the heart, and looks not being all that matters, but it seems the “mean” girls have a specific look, inflection, hobbies and habits. The mean girls are never in the art club, or the anime club, or on the newspaper staff (although, it should be noted that even in said movies, despite their efforts to make it about the internal, the “odd” girl is someone just as hot, or hotter, than the “mean” girl, she just stumbles more and wears sneakers).
That’s the story I was told growing up. Perhaps not in so many words, not that honestly, but that premise took many shapes, and many a well-intentioned adult would say it to me in my more self-pitying days when I felt like a walking can of guy-repellent.
“You’re a diamond in the rough…” “Guys are intimidated by your beauty, that’s why you don’t date.” “One day guys will flock to you…” “The fact that you haven’t dated MAKES you more valuable than those girls who’ve dated every guy who asks.”
That’s what I heard about you. I heard that because you dated more than me, I was somehow better. Of course I didn’t realize that in both cases our value was being determined in relation to our dating lives, or lack thereof, I didn’t realize we were both being lost in that dialogue.
I remember one vivid metaphor that circulated on Myspace about me and you:
…that’s the story.
And I am doing my very best to reject every part of it.
I’ve stopped buying and peddling it.
Yes, you are different from me. I’m not you. But you aren’t the enemy, you are not the antagonist of my story, or anyone else’s story. In this “story”, everybody loses.
In this narrative, he becomes a prize, a reward that the underdog “gets” when he wakes up and sees all that he’s been missing and how truly wrong for him you are. He’s “earned”, either by your good looks or my underdog status.
You become a villain, a caricature, who may or may not actually be a silly, vain bimbo, but I’m certainly not going to take the time to find out within the constructs of this story.
And me, who I truly am doesn’t matter either, because all my worth is coming from weighing myself against you, comparing all my worst parts to your best parts and all my best parts to your worst parts.
Furthermore, it’s a lie. Men, or women, aren’t “prizes” for being nice, or good. But that’s what we reduce them too when we tell them that “it’s all worth it because one day a man will want you.” First, it’s the lie that you’re story is only validated when a certain person comes around to love you. It’s also a lie that reduces people to blue ribbons that you get for good behavior.
And you crash and burn when, maybe, that person doesn’t come along. At best, you have people that are disappointed and resentful when there prize fails to be given, at worst, it can cause a burning, hateful feeling of entitlement toward an entire gender that you feel wronged you by denying you a date. Not unlike the thought process that led to a violent shooting by Elliot Rodger, a man who made no qualms about telling the world why he went on his shooting spree:
“And that is how my tragic life ends. Who would have thought my life will turn out this way? I didn’t. There was a time when I thought this world was a good and happy place. As a child, my whole world was innocent. It wasn’t until I went through puberty and started desiring girls that my whole life turned into a living hell. I desired girls, but girls never desired me back. There is something very wrong with that. It is an injustice that cannot go unpunished. There is no way I could live a happy life with such a scenario…All I ever wanted was to love women, and in turn to be loved by them back. Their behavior towards me has only earned my hatred, and rightfully so! I am the true victim in all of this. I am the good guy. Humanity struck at me first by condemning me to experience so much suffering. I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t want this. I didn’t start this war… I wasn’t the one who struck first… But I will finish it by striking back. I will punish everyone. And it will be beautiful. Finally, at long last, I can show the world my true worth.”
No one wins. So why do we keep doing it? It may become less dramatic and theatrical after high school, but it’s still there; that ever present anxiety, that comparing, that competition, that resentment. It’s not supposed to be that way. When another woman enters the room, the picture, or your circle of friends, our default response shouldn’t be to think, “am I prettier? Am I smarter? Am I funnier? Am I anything –er than her?”
Sure, I get the frustration of being screwed over by someone, and to add insult to injury, see it overlooked in them because of how they look, or what their status is or their ability to cover up hatefulness. And, for both men and women, I hate that we are often more apt to not consider the wisdom of our decision if the person is “hot” enough, or we may be more likely to overlook egregious character flaws that would send us running to the hills in any other situation. I hate that for some people the ideal woman is a one-dimensional, infantilized damsel in distress. I am not trying to downplay the damaging effect of elevating and worshiping one standard of beauty. But the solution to this is not denigrate and insult and stereotype and feed that fear and mistrust.
The solution is just the opposite. It’s to start fostering trust, and confidence, and stop tying a woman’s worth to how it compares to another’s.
Build up and encourage your friends and daughters but don’t denigrate other girls in the process. It does not help young girls and women to hear that their worth is reliant on being compared to another person.
Yes, let’s teach young men and women that we are more than how we look, and that character does matter. But let’s stop creating false dichotomies about the “type” of woman that has that character.
When we are women who have male friends, let’s stop acting like hating our own gender so much we can’t be around them is something to brag about. One of the greatest services I have ever done myself is to intentionally surround myself with women who are strong, smart, independent and wise. Let’s stop using “I don’t hang out with girls” as some sort of badge of honor.
If you don’t want to date, you aren’t a prude. If you do want to date, you aren’t “low-hanging fruit”, “chewed up gum”, or “a dime a dozen” type of girl, and it doesn’t mean your love is less valuable.
If you don’t spend an hour in the morning picking out an outfit you’re not lazy. If you do, you aren’t shallow.
Be honest with your mood and don’t hide your personality. Don’t smile if you don’t feel like it. But girl’s who do walk around smiling and happy and bubbly aren’t “fake.”
Be proud of your curves, love your body. But don’t label women without them as “not real women.”
For the sake of your own spirit, don’t weight every attribute and choice against those of someone else. Beat down that anxiety that rises when another woman enters a room and fight the urge to immediately asses what areas you are stronger in than her. You cheat yourself out of the chance to know her, to hear her story and learn from her. Because when you start affirming strength, dignity and personhood, it becomes an addiction and it doesn’t leave you with the hallow feeling of not being good enough.
To that girl, with the model looks, the striking features, the one who looks perfect no matter what… I’m not you.
I was the girl who preferred to read and write and spend time watching movies with my dad instead of going to dances. And that’s good. But that does not make me better than you. It does not make me “more real” than you. It does not make me the “hero.”
Maybe you have flawless social skills. Maybe you don’t have an artistic bone in your body and maybe you pick your dress out for prom a year in advance. That’s good too.
Maybe you’re prettier than me, maybe you’re thinner than me, maybe your room is lined with homecoming mums, pageant trophies, dresses and jewelry.
I don’t know you.
You are an individual, living your own story. And I am living mine. Sure, how we look, our interest, our hobbies, they are part of us but they are not the sum of who we are. We are those things, and so much more.
We are our integrity, our honesty, our trust-worthiness, our compassion, we are the words we speak, whether we choose to say what is uplifting, what is kind and what is true. We are our capacity to treat other people with honesty, respect, and integrity, affirming their worth as people. You are living this out, or not living this out, in your own story, but you will not be reduced to the antagonist in mine.
And I hope, should our stories cross, that we would not be enemies but friends.
I hope we would build up and speak words of life and love. I hope that I would not scoff at your interests and I hope that you would not be embarrassed of mine. Maybe you’ll teach me how to walk in heels, and maybe I’ll recommend a book you may like. And maybe you’ve already read that book and maybe I already know what color looks good with my complexion.
Maybe our “types”, blend and overlap more than we thought. Maybe several types exist in one person.
But if I see you as the antagonist, as competition, I’ll never really know.
Let’s start being more than what the world expects. Let’s show that our stories are much more nuanced and complex and multi-dimensional than what has been portrayed.
And maybe we can start rewriting the narrative all together.