Am I too much? Too loud? Overly emotional? Should I wear this? Did I eat too much?
For a long time, I was actually afraid to be myself. I instinctively worried about what others may think—about not being accepted by those around me.
As a young girl growing up in the 80s/90s, I was judged and shamed regularly, as a matter of routine. Having shared these experiences with my female friends, it seems that this was actually a common experience for young girls then.
Here are some of the unhealthy phrases I heard growing up:
1. “Men like something to grab hold of.”
This was often said at meal times when I was a teenager/young adult if I hadn’t finished everything on my plate. I was training as a dancer at the time and was, therefore, very lean. This prompted comments all the time about how thin I looked and how I needed “feeding up” in order to be more curvaceous—aka more desirable to men, in their eyes.
2. “Wow, she’s got an appetite hasn’t she?”
When I really enjoyed my meals and ate everything on my plate or said “yes please” like everyone else when I was offered dessert, someone would comment about how much I was capable of eating and that if I wasn’t careful, I’d put on weight. I’d be told that “nobody wants to date a little piggie!”
3. “Don’t wear that, it makes you look slutty.”
If I was going out as a teenager, I was encouraged to not wear my skirts too short or my tops too tight for fear it might give men the “wrong impression.”
4. “Don’t wear that, it makes you look frumpy.”
If I dressed comfortably with flat shoes or trainers and jeans or trousers, it was implied that I looked unfeminine, therefore, unattractive to men.
5. “Why don’t you make more of an effort?”
As in, how on earth could I possibly even consider leaving the house without wearing makeup?
6. “Play hard to get.”
I was always advised to act aloof and not make myself too available for fear of appearing “easy” and, therefore, putting off a potential suitor. Because if a young woman actually enjoyed expressing her own sexuality and engaged in casual sex, she should be ashamed of herself.
7. “Still no boyfriend? Never mind, you’ll meet someone soon!”
As a young woman, I was often shamed for being single, as were my single friends. We were told that all we needed was a boyfriend, as though we could not be perceived as fully rounded human beings on our own. So basically, we were conditioned to believe that a woman was incomplete without a man.
8. “Keep your voice down you’re making a show of yourself!”
If I expressed myself too openly, laughed too loudly, or was generally enjoying myself a bit too energetically, I was told to tone it down to make others feel more comfortable.
All of these phrases generally came from well-meaning older female relatives or older female family friends. Harsh as it all seemed, it actually came from a place of love. They merely wanted me to be acceptable within my family, to society—basically, acceptable to men.
It was, in their eyes, for my own good.
And so I entered womanhood constantly doubting myself, living my life based upon what others—particularly men—would think of me. I was never asked how I felt or what I thought. That wasn’t important.
I had become a chronic people-pleaser, constantly attracting narcissists and emotionally avoidant men, desperately trying to fit in with them. Even if I felt unhappy deep down, at least it was better than being single, right?
I’d dress in a way that he would find attractive. I’d fit in with his plans to the detriment of my own. I’d pretend to like whatever he liked or not eat too much or drink too much in his company. Predictably, none of these relationships ever worked.
After my last epic heartbreak, I had had enough. I was exhausted from trying to be all things to everyone. I realised that it just wasn’t possible. Everything I’d been conditioned to believe just wasn’t working out for me.
I felt I needed to break the pattern that had been passed down for generations of women in my family. The fear that if I wasn’t “acceptable,” nobody would want me. Because when all was said and done, I just wasn’t happy.
I decided for the first time in my life that I would put myself and my own needs first.
It scared me at first, after all these years, to fight against my old survival mechanism. But I persevered and after a while, it felt liberating. I felt happier and more secure and ended up attracting a wonderful healthy relationship. And it was then that I learned an important truth.
People thrive when they are allowed to be themselves.
We thrive when we can feel comfortable enough to show up as we really are, instead of constantly doubting ourselves and worrying about what others may think.
Now, I dress how I like, eat what I like, express myself fully, and pursue my own interests and dreams. And at last, I am now acceptable—not just to my boyfriend or my family, but to myself.