confidence

To My Daughter When You Are a Teenager – Letter 1

Dear, Precious Shaila. By the time you are a teenager, I am guessing that you will still be dear and precious to me, if not more so than you are today.

I, on the other hand, fully expect to be a non-cool mother who you sometimes look upon with scorn and other types of not so loving faces. And like me, your mother, you have a face that gives away EVERYTHING.

I have not always been good about hiding my faces or my expressions. Which is ironic to me. Many years ago, I used to model and was told that I didn’t have enough “expressiveness” and needed to work on it. I wasn’t aware of the “Smizing” exercises that Dame Tyra Banks (I am sure she has been recognized by now for her contributions to society by England’s deserved Queen, Elton John) used to teach her proteges, but I did know that something in the pictures was not matching up to the way I was in real life.

An open book. Always have been, always will be.

But sometimes open about the WRONG things. Closed about the things that would take real bravery to talk about.

I don’t know if any of this is making sense, but since I have a good solid 8 years before you officially enter teenage-dom, I feel like by then I will have made better sense of this.

So I write this now, knowing full well that when it comes down to it, my years before you start demanding that we shop at Hollister or Abercrombie are just a few years away. You are like me in that way, always running to get to the next place and sometimes forgetting about the view along the way.

A few things came to mind today – for several reasons. There are some things we don’t talk about to you too much right now, but I hope we do by the time you are ready. It may be 12.

It may be earlier.

I made a lot of mistakes when I was growing up. I think it goes back to being scared to acknowledge the view. I was so eager to run from the bad, that I often missed the good, the breathtaking, the amazing things happening all around me.

I still suffer from this malady today. My shrink has a word for it. I am not too crazy about his words though, no pun intended.

I just call it “eager.”

There is something I thought of today that I wanted to ask you to do before I forgot about it.

Always stand tall. Always walk tall.

Why did I think this today?

Well, here’s why. You might not believe this Shay, but, when I was growing up, I was really tall. Like the tallest kid in my class until I hit the 6th grade. I also had boobs.

And big feet.

It felt weird. I already felt like such an anomaly in a school where most of the kids were white, went to Church, prayed to Jesus or prayed to a Menorah.

Yes, I thought they were praying to a menorah. And I thought a dreidel was a holy thing.

You see – all the things above could be quite different from each other, but I always just put all those kids who didn’t “look” like me into the same club. It wasn’t true when you really think back, but at 11 years old, that is how I felt. Their moms did not wear a bindi. Case closed.

To hide the tall, I would hunch my shoulders to try to make myself shorter. 

To mask the big feet, I would try and wear black sneakers. I found them to be more slimming and gave the illusion that I had teeny little feet that would make a petite Chinese lady in bindings jealous.

To hide my new mammary extensions, I would hope the hunching would hide the fact that I suddenly had these breasts. I didn’t understand why I got them before my friends and I certainly wasn’t being schooled at home to be “proud of what my mama gave me.”

Basically, I tried to make myself invisible.

I was invisible for a LONG time. 

To others, and in a lot of ways, to myself. I just didn’t want to acknowledge what was staring back at me in the mirror sometimes.

I remember that over time, I stopped feeling invisibile. While I may have tried to disappear visually, I always knew how to use my voice. And I was proud of that ability. Though I sometimes I think I used it for evil and not good.

Can you try not to do that please?

I remember on one especially rare confident moment, telling a boy I really liked in High School that well, I REALLY liked him. We were friends and had been hanging out in the cafeteria after our mid-term exams. He was teasing me about something when I finally just blurted it out in some really non-cool way.

“Cut it out.” I said, pushing his arm off my shoulder.

“Why?” he asked, palling around with me as if I was one of his little football cronies.

“Well, because…”

I remember mustering up all the courage I had to get the words out. Past that little frog in my throat that was trying to block this stupidity. Trying to say, “Shut the hell up and just look at your big feet. Who wants to date someone with such big feet.”

But I decided I didn’t want to be shy or invisible anymore. I was going to take a chance. Even if my friend was a high school stud muffin, I was just going to say it.

And I carpe’ed Shaila. Oh I carpe’ed big time.

“Because I like you.” There it was all out. Now this was the part where he would declare his undying love for me or at least tell me he liked my sundress or something.

“But Kiran, I can’t date you.” POP. No, not my cherry. For that moment in my life, he popped my hopes and dreams really (I was only 16, so what the hell did I know?).

“Why?” I asked naively, not realizing that this was my chance to walk away with some dignity. Or at least walk away without dignity. But to just get the hell back there in my little hunchback turtle pose.

“Because of what you ARE.”

Hmmmm.

Now I was really confused. I said the first thing that I could think he might mean.

“Because I am smarter than you?” I asked. At least I could walk away tall and with my shoulders back, I thought. Lord knows he spoke the truth if that’s what he meant.

It didn’t occur to me until later when I recounted the stories to my non-Indian friends that they thought he meant something else. They later confirmed with him.

It wasn’t because I was smarter, Shaila, darling. It was because I was Indian.

OHHHHHHH.

I don’t remember being particularly crushed though it was tons of years ago and Mommy’s memory has taken a big beating from all the abuse she gives it. I went on to face much worse rejection several more times in my life. Sometimes the turtle pose returned. Sometimes it stayed put.

I remember when I was in my mid twenties, I was seeing a really sweet guy. We walked into a crowded club one night and I immediately started to do the shoulder hunch, as if I was a Football player trying to make it past enemy lines. I had my head down and I walked fast. A beeline towards an imaginary touchdown.

My date stopped me and reached out his arm to gently grab mine.

“Will you just walk?” he asked, brushing some hair away from my face which I managed to hide under like Cousin It.

“I AM walking.” I insisted.

“Listen, you’re beautiful. Will you just give everyone a break and let them see you if they want? You don’t need to hide.”

I almost argued with him until I realized that he was right. Absolutely right. Not so much about the beautiful part. I think he was just trying to get laid with that line.

But that I didn’t want to have these eyes on me. That I wanted that nifty invisibility cloak that Harry Potter has.

Shaila, please don’t ever walk like your Mother did. Walk proud, walk like you OWN your walk. I don’t want you swinging your hips around like the girls in high school who got called sluts or anything, but …. oh what the heck, just swing ‘em however you want. As long as you are proud of who you are.

It’s not about the view you give others, though I am sure that will be gorgeous too. Its about the view you take in when your head is a little taller, your neck a little more upright and your heart?

Well, when you heart is positioned to soar.

It may make your heart more vulnerable baby. But it’s so worth the ride.

I hope you ALWAYS have a beautiful view.

Love,
Mom

“So be careful in what you believe in
There’s plenty to get you confused
And in this land called paradise
You must walk in many men’s shoes
Bigotry and hatred are enemies to us all
Grace, mercy and forgiveness
Will help a man walk tall
So walk tall” 

John (Cougar) Mellancamp, “Walk Tall”

You Can Try, BUT

“You can try, but you’re never going to get in.”

I remember hearing those words and feeling crushed. I was 17 years old and I was a pretty determined kid. My parents had agreed that when it came to college, I could go wherever I wanted in the country, because of their desire to give me the best opportunity when it came to education. If I got into a top tier school, would be willing to take on some financial aid and it was generally affordable, they would cut the umbilical cord and let me go.

Somehow, I decided that I was going to go, that I NEEDED to go to the University of Virginia.

My rationale was simple. It was FAR. At least 6 hours far.

It was beautiful. Full of Thomas Jefferson’s vision, architecture and history – the majestic grounds of the school were some of the prettiest I had seen.

It WAS a challenge. For a middle-class kid from New Jersey who just wanted a chance, I knew it would be hard – to get into and to achieve at. But I was determined.

****************************************************

“You can try, but you’re never going to get in,” my guidance counselor told me. I know she meant well and wanted to prepare me with getting the right back-ups in place, but I still remember how she could speak of my imminent failure with such conviction.

Little did she know that just by saying that, I was going. No question about it.

And I toiled. And I worked. I pumped through the application, laboring endlessly on the essays but finding that magical inspiration which turned out several essays I was extremely proud of. I knew I killed the application on the extracurricular part – lots of President, Captain, Treasurer titles amongst societies and teams that confirmed I busted my butt a lot.

When I sent that application in the mail for early admission, I crossed my fingers and prayed. But just in case, I continued  to work on my applications for Northwestern, Columbia, Stanford, Berkeley and Brown. (All other schools I was told not to even consider).

One of my best friends was also applying. We would talk about how great UVA would be together and how these two Jersey girls would take the Southern campus by storm. At the time, I was woefully unaware that people from New Jersey seem to permeate every college campus in this country like ants. Apparently, my friend and I were not the only ones who wanted to “RUN.”

The letter came. I got accepted. My friend didn’t.

I was sad, but excited. I felt guilty, but validated. I felt disappointed to not be going with my friend, but also felt like I was taking a leap off a big, scary cliff.

By myself. And it felt pretty freaking cool.

I could rock this.

I rode that crest of happiness for a bit till I went back to school that Monday.

In Calculus that day, my friend and I sat in our usual seats, drinking our diet Snapple. When our teacher, Mr. Buxbaum asked everyone how their weekends were, my friend told him about what happened – that I had been accepted to the university we both dreamed of going to and that she hadn’t.

I don’t think I will ever forget his reaction. He kind of closed his eyes and took a long breath. His hands were clasped together under his chin and he shook his head over them, grinding his chin into his knuckles. When he opened his eyes, he shrugged his shoulders, still shaking his head and said:

“Well, who is the minority?”

Here is my balloon. Here is a needle. Go ahead, Mr. Buxbaum – just pop it. Not just to reassure my friend but to also reassure me that my years of busting my ass meant nothing. Make sure you say it in front of the class as well.

That I achieved a big dream of mine because I was brown.

I felt a lot of shame. The crest of that wave I was riding crashed. So did a lot of other things.

**************************************************

A few years ago, I was having a conversation with my neighbor who is a friend of mine. She was saying she would love it if her sons could go to UVA. (I now live in Northern VA, never made it back to New Jersey). While I had gotten in as an out of state student, she explained to me it was much harder to go as an in-state student.

Unless things have changed, I know that the standards for in-state are always going to be lower in terms of standardized testing scores. But yeah – i get that if 100 people from your high school are applying there, it might be tougher.

I tried to explain that, but stopped. She wasn’t trying to invalidate me. She was just wanting the best for her own kids and explaining how she felt.

********************************************************

“You can try, but you’ll never get in.”

“Well, who is the minority?”

There are days when I wonder why I am scared to pursue things I might fail at. Why I let that spunky 17 year old girl from New Jersey disappear. But a part of me knows she is there somewhere, still standing up for herself and fighting what she believes in.

Its just that the weight of all the words from detractors over the years has started to feel heavy. And it shouldn’t.

There will always be detractors in your life. They can hold you down, they can try to drag you down (Kind of like the Chumbawaba song, “I Get Knocked Down”) but you just have to take the words and release them. Or at least acknowledge them and say to yourself,

“You’re WRONG. I AM special. I AM a rock star. Don’t put the weight of your disappointments on me.”

Detractors are often not just “saying it like it is” as many like to say. They have their own disappointments. Their own dreams that have faded. And sometimes its a little hard to watch someone dream and maybe succeed while they have given up.

Probably because they also had they own detractors.

I wish more children and youth received this message:

“You ARE special. You ARE a rock star. Don’t let anyone take your dreams from you. And don’t let anyone tell you that when you achieve them, you didn’t deserve them.”

Because you will achieve them. If you stop listening to your detractors. And over time, the biggest one to challenge what we want to do, what we want to achieve, what we have accomplished?

It becomes, well, ourselves.

Build yourself back up. That child with the dreams?

That child deserves it.

YOU deserve it.

Kiran


Thinner

I have struggled with food my whole life.

When I was little, I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. It was more of a nuisance that interrupted the time I would rather spend playing.

As a pre-teen I abused it and found comfort in it, mistakenly thinking I could fill the empty places in my heart with another bite.

My junior year in High School, I walked away from it and found power in turning my back on the calories and embraced the solace in running.

But I often didn’t know what I was running from.

Or to.

In college, I mistakenly followed what I jokingly called the “Sorority Girl Diet,” eliminating fat but eating my fill of jelly beans and bagels and ensuring that beer was part of the regimen (at least from Thursday – Saturday nights).

I would like to say I found my way in my 20’s.

But as I sit here in my 30’s, with two impressionable children who I have the power to influence, I realize I am just as messed up today in how I view food as I was in my teens. Not much has changed.

I can’t remember a day when I thought I was “thin enough.” Even as I look back at pictures of myself when I was my fittest, I try to remember what was going through my head at the time the pictures were snapped.

Not good enough.
Not pretty enough.
Not thin enough.
Ever.

My husband asks me to acknowledge this strange relationship I have with food. Perhaps he didn’t want me to write it on this blog, but oh what the heck. It’s hard to admit to crazy, but I can truly say that when it comes to food, I have always been a nutjob. Completely.

Utterly.

I sometimes feel shame that as someone who has seen poverty first hand, in such extreme circumstances in the villages of India, that I would reject or abuse what so many people don’t have access to and are literally starving for.

I bought a magazine at the store the other day. Like a junkie being pulled in by a vial of coke, I found myself adding it to my cart.

“Starving to Be Sexy” the cover said, showing images of celebrities who have fought their battles against any body fat and appear to be successful, flaunting clavicles, pelvic bones and ribcages that defy any unwanted calorie to even try to slip by.

“Isn’t this crazy?” I showed the magazine to my niece when she came to visit me.

“Yeah, but it’s what people expect. Of course they feel the need to be thin.”

As I found myself being drawn back to the magazine, I realized that it’s not so much that I think those celebrities are crazy. The rational part of me does, of course.

But there is also this part of me that relates to them. And where I have never been able to get “thin enough,” these celebrities have.

And it made me jealous.

How does this happen? I ask.

I think of myself as intelligent (reasonably). Not vapid (most of the times). Rational (cyclically).

The irony of one of the images actually made me laugh. One of the celebrities on the “Starving to Be Sexy Cover,” is reality show actress, Audrina Patridge. Wearing the same bikini that she recently wore on this month’s cover of Shape Magazine, a fitness magazine. One of the other celebrities touted as “too skinny,” Leann Rimes, just appeared on the cover of Shape Magazine, perhaps five or six months ago.

So let me get this straight. On the one hand, we look at these images and are being told that these women have gone to an unhealthy extreme. At the same time, we will see these same women highlighted on covers of purported “health” magazines.

It’s confusing, right?

I realize that the things I say glibly around the house are making an impression on my daughter. And that I need to ensure she doesn’t have this same messed up relationship with food that I feel like I have had.

So I try not to say things. I try not to show her just how preoccupied I am with food labels or show her any of my insecurities I feel when I look in the mirror.

And I hope she never goes through these mindless cycles that I have gone through.

Self-loathing when I “cheat.”
Hunger when I punish myself for not being strong enough.
Judgement when the scale taunts me with a number I want to deduct another 10 pounds from.
Or maybe even 15.

I am writing this post to say that I am one of many women who is too hard on herself. Too quick to judge myself. Too quick to punish myself. Insecure enough to buy in to the images that are telling me what society values in women.

But one thing I am NOT is a woman who plans to keep her subscription to Shape Magazine.

After years of trying to embrace healthy, I think that it’s time to acknowledge what “healthy” really means. And its not about the photoshopped celebrity on the cover.

It’s about acceptance.

Kiran

(This post was originally posted at my old blog site on July 17, 2011)

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MEET KIRAN

I'm Kiran, I'm a dreamer. A writer. A singer. A mother. An ugly crier. An Indian-American. Who loves Gandhi. My stories are full of truth that is sometimes hard for me to say out loud. This blog is where I overcome my fears and live (and love) out loud. Read More....

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