Dear Teenage Girls at Target,
Maybe your shopping trip the other day was completely normal, but for me, it was something completely new.
All four of you gave me deer-in-the-headlights looks when I joined you in the dressing rooms. I smiled politely and slipped into my room, expecting to overhear the usual assortment of teenage-girl snark and cattiness.
The conversation I heard was much different.
Three of you were helping the fourth find a swimsuit. It was clear she been having a hard time finding one and was feeling bad about herself, but the other three girls were nothing but positive. You gave honest constructive criticism on every suit Number Four was brave enough to show you: “This part is cute, but I think you’re looking for a suit that does X.”
You talked about friends who weren’t present, but, unlike far too many conversations I overhear, everything you said was kind. You commented – nicely! – about the wide variety of body types present in your circle of friends. You complimented each other! You complimented people who weren’t even there! Not once did I hear any of you say you wished you had Friend A’s legs, or Friend B’s stomach.
I had to text my friends. “There’s a group of teenage girls in the fitting rooms all united to find one of them a swimsuit she feels good in, all of them being super positive about their different body types and how great they look in different stuff. I WANT TO HUG THEM.”
Honestly I have never, ever overheard a conversation like that. It made me realize, first of all, how much negativity I hear in conversations between people of any gender, and how many of my own conversations veer towards the negative. We really like to gripe, and we especially like to gripe about people who aren’t around to defend themselves. Among women, who have largely been socialized to have low self-esteem and to think that self-deprecating or downplaying their individual beauty is ideal, those conversations are even more painful to overhear.
I wanted to know how you’d all done it. How have you managed to escape the pressures that force so many women I know into feeling ashamed of their bodies? What have you been reading or watching that inspired so much positivity? If any of you were jealous of your skinnier friends, you never said so. You never teased or shamed your friend. You were always helpful, encouraging, and gentle.
After a few minutes, everything had been tried on, and you were going to leave empty-handed. You reassured Number Four by telling her “you just haven’t found one you like yet.” I think two of you left to return the rejected suits while one of you stayed with Number Four.
That was when she started crying.
Now this was familiar: the feeling that you don’t fit into the world, that it doesn’t want you to participate in quite the same way – and it never will. It’s the feeling that inspires a thousand anguished swimsuit try-on sessions every summer, and prompts another thousand pleas for women of all shapes and sizes simply be who they are and wear what they want. I texted my friends what I wanted to be able to say to her: “HONEY YOU’RE BEAUTIFUL, HANG IN THERE.”
But, because we live in a world where complimenting the girls I’d been eavesdropping on for the last twenty minutes would be creepy, I could only send good vibes in your general direction. Besides, it was clear Number Four already had an amazing support network, one that I wish every teenage girl – and some grown women – could have access to. At the most vulnerable time in her life, she’s already managed to find friends who can see her beauty and will never let her forget it.
I bet it won’t be long before she sees it herself.