You ARE Beautiful–In Which I Am Afraid for Your Future

Dear Lily June,

When it rains, I can hold an umbrella over your car seat. When it’s cold, I can pull you into me and tuck us both under a blanket, calling us “snuggle buddies.” When you pick up a popcorn kernel from the middle of an otherwise spotless carpet and go to swallow the offending BB, I can race to your side and pry it from your superhuman pincer grip before you choke (and wonder what it’s been longer since–your parents popping Orville Redenbacher’s or either of us doing a proper vacuuming job).

The extent of my motherly protection for now revolves around keeping you safe from the elements, and I take my job seriously. But I know that time is slipping away from both of us quickly. I know that soon you’ll be one, and from there, one will be five, and then, you ride a bus away from my loving embrace and into popularity’s cannibalistic jungle sometimes referred to as school. And Lily, I am terrified.

***

Your mother was, once upon a time, a target for bullying. At the peak of my eating issues and at my smallest weight (over a hundred pounds ago), I was still called fat. When I dated a dork from our high school band and would lean over to kiss him in the cafeteria, people used to toss full and empty soda bottles at us.

I was fifteen and dressed like a black-lipsticked, dog-collared Goth when the Columbine school shooting massacre happened. Two students, who regularly dressed in black themselves and and were pushed to the edge by their own taunters, brought guns to school and opened fire. There was no excuse for their violence, Lily, but at the time when I was going to school and felt so isolated, hated, and ostracized by so many of my peers, I relished a certain power when they began to eye me with suspicion, wondering if picking on me or my friends might be lighting an emotional powder keg to its terrifying conclusion.

It didn’t stop their cruelty, but gave it a kind of sadistic vision. Everyone, at the time, felt like they had the power to be the next potential bully-gone-wrong, the next attacker-turned-victim. It was only luck that divided us–those who were stereotypically visually appealing from those who had the kind of beauty that was more unique. I remember as tensions were peaking, one pastel-clad mean girl leader flung the greatest insult she could think of at our group of midnight-hued weirdos: “At least I can pull off color.” In response, the next day in school, we wore signs painted to look like rainbows.

When an overweight friend of mine wrestling with diabetes and thyroid issues was cackled at by a popular clan for her size, my own group struck back further, not with weapons but with creativity. They say the pen is mighty, Lily. We used ours to start an underground newsletter that would run a regular fashion column, commenting on the clothing choices of our taunters. The comments were never cruel or even judgmental; they merely described the outfits in great detail. We called the column something like “How to be a Great Human.” It was meant to be satire, a comment on how the superficial ruled all of our mindsets at the time (ours included). It was immature, but it wasn’t dangerous.

And yet, it got us branded as “hostile” by the school’s administration, and for that column along with the crime of writing critically about other issues in the school (like the school board’s choice to send certain students home with a note from the school nurse describing their BMI’s in great detail–letters that were going to be passed out publicly in front of fellow students in home rooms, a choice which just felt, to us, like bullying taken to an institutional level) we were sentenced to counseling.

For what it’s worth, our counselor loved us. She knew we weren’t a threat; she knew we just needed to blow off steam. She admired and encouraged our creativity, and heeded our pleas when we asked for the mandatory counseling hall pass to not get us out of lunch, but out of Algebra classes. We were offended, not by her, but by the principle of the thing: We, and not our taunters, were the ones who “needed fixing.” It was a game of pin the tail on the victim.

It was a problem then, Lily, and that was back in the dark ages, when, to pick on someone, you had to actually face them. These times, they are a-changin’.

***

There were a few months there, right after you were born but before I began this blog, when there was a gap in your letters. I was healing from a lot of things, not the least of which was a hatred of the body I felt betrayed us both during the delivery. It was in that mindset of self-loathing that I came upon this video, posted to a mommy’s group on Facebook I had, at the time, been following:

In the video, called “You Look Disgusting,” a user named “My Pale Skin” talks about how free those watching her videos felt they could be in commenting on her personal attributes, from the acne she used makeup to cover up, to the covering job her makeup did. It seems, Lily, that to the anonymous waves of online bullies crashing into her psyche everyday, she was damned if she didn’t and damned if she did.

It inspired me to write you this short little letter on my Facebook page, which later would prompt me to get a blog on which to publish my epistolary opinions:

Dear [Lily June],

There once was a time before the internet, when, to say mean things to people, you had to stare them in the eyes and witness their real live faces crumple in pain in reaction to your words. Within my lifetime, I saw cruelty go wireless, high speed, and viral.

*Obviously* you’re a raving beauty, and anyone who doesn’t see it is a raving lunatic. That being said, please resist the urge to reduce anyone to the sum of their body parts (even yourself). And when you see a bully attack someone behind the safety of a screen–even if the intended target is you–I hope you’ll have the strength of spirit to rage on, my little lovely.

Maybe with art. Maybe with words. With wit. With grit. And always with an infectious and inestimable smile. ‘Cause *that* is where your beauty lives.

***

And it’s true, Lily: Your beauty is and will always be inside of you and will radiate to the outside from within. I am terrified beyond the capacity for rational though, though, that you won’t know or believe this. That cyberbullying may flex its jealous or petty or self-conscious fist through your computer screen someday, and that you may take the hit not actually to any of the genetic “gifts” I will have physically predisposed you to–your likely glasses, your probable acne–but rather to your enormous heart.

There is no umbrella I can hold up to this. There is no blanket I can hide you under from it. There is no way to snatch the pain out of your hands which will surely turn upwards in the same Why gesture I was, as a girl, a pre-teen, and teen so often making.

I can only tell you that There is no Why, Lily. The school years (excluding, for many, college and after) bring more pain and self-consciousness with them than what make up the rest of a lifetime, and most adults you meet are still reeling from them. There is truth to the adage that “It Gets Better,” just as there is truth to whispering to a Green Mile inmate, “This won’t last forever.”

That kind of “truth” doesn’t seem to mean much at the time. But as someone calling back to you before you get there from the other side of that horrible hormone-filled chasm, I hope what you’ll hear is a lot of love echoing across the depths of it, even when I also admit to tossing up a lot of shrugs, too. I don’t know, yet, how to protect or prepare you entirely from the predators you may call your peers. I don’t want to placate you. It will be hard, and I admit it. I remember, and I promise, for your sake, I won’t forget it.

I won’t blame you for the moods it puts you in, so long as you try to remember there is a season to everything. The cold winds of high school will blow on you until you’ll feel your arms are bare branches, overloaded with cruelty and ready, under pain’s icy grip, to snap. And then, just as suddenly as the difficulty arrived, it will have ended. Spring will restore everyone you know, the victims and the bullies, and it will be up to you all to make peace with the ways you’ve bloomed away from it.

There will still be bugs in the garden with stingers you’ll get better at spotting from farther off and avoiding. But there will also be beauty and compassion and forgiveness beyond your wildest reckoning. And if nothing else, at least each school year has a summer where you can say “To hell with it.” And if nothing else, as you get older and realize your self-worth has nothing to do with others’ appraisal of it, when someone is cruel to you, you can say, with “To hell with them.”

And, if you’re truly a beautiful person outside and in, you’ll pronounce it: “I forgive you.”

***

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32 thoughts on “You ARE Beautiful–In Which I Am Afraid for Your Future

  1. Devore says:

    I love your utter ease in discussing these topics, my dear. I know that when Lily June reads these in the near future, she will be proud. For now, cherish her with all the love you can muster.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Amy says:

    I can’t believe you were able to put words to this. But then again, that’s what you do, girl. In the most amazing and breathtakingly thoughtful ways. And that ending completely caught me off guard… In the most wonderful, piercing, convicting way. Ouch and Yay!

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Amy says:

        Thanks so much for this… You have no idea (or maybe you do) how good it was to read this just now. Living has taken all my time recently. I go to write and find that I’m so utterly spent that I don’t have the energy to write out the words. But I don’t think it’ll last… Never does. I definitely go in spurts with everything, it seems. It’s that given to extremes thing, I think. Also, letters have required lots of time recently. And though I haven’t written any, they’re being composed and pieced together as I go about schooling and bread baking, laundry, and the like. (LilyJune’s notwithstanding!) Anyway, thanks again for the encouragement. I may just be inspired to post some stuff I haven’t been brave enough to post yet. We’ll see!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. bitsfromheaven says:

    Ok I’m back…teething tablets, Motrin, bath time and snuggles is all it took for me to see him smile.
    Anyway…you and I have had some ‘comments’ on this with eachother. So I don’t need to post a post here. I think your fears are valid. The world such a very different place now, and with social media it allows for a type of cruelty that goes beyond the beyond…because in the eyes of the one bullying there aren’t consequences.
    I have raised my kids to stand up for those who get picked on. One of my kids was suspended a few years ago, because he punched a kid that was thumping another child with special needs. My daughter had to go to the office this year because she stood up in class and called out her own bully, telling him to say it to her face or not at all. There is no perfect way to raise a child, but planting the seed of empathy and compassion is wonderful start. And I think you’re doing well with that, as I see your baby smile, and the love that is so clearly shown in your blogπŸ’œ

    Liked by 1 person

    1. dearlilyjune says:

      I absolutely admire your parenting practices, and here now for another reason. I too want to raise Lily not just to defend herself, but anyone whom she feels would be made voiceless by the faceless cruelty of cyberbullying or made broken by the immediate violence of f2f bullying. It’s so clear that your children’s compassion reflects back on your very caring mothering. It’s an art, and you, my dear, seem to have mastered it. Your family belongs in the Louvre!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. bitsfromheaven says:

        Your waaaaaay to kind! Lol….the Louvre. Pffft…I’m just a mom who was bullied, quite often as a kid. I decided if I was going to bring humans into this world they might as well make it a better world.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Lonna Hill says:

    Being a teacher, it’s so hard to know how to deal with the things that happen in school. Years ago a fellow teacher told me that a kid had gotten in a fight in her class and the boy who threw the first punch had been suspended. I talked to her about it more and when I got both of the names, I was sure that the other kid was the one who started it. The other kid knew how to pick and prod and use disgusting words. I knew that the suspended kid had finally reached his breaking point and given the other boy what he deserved and yet he was the one who got suspended.

    Another time, more recently, a sweet, innocent, quiet little girl (a sixth grader) got suspended for her behavior online. I was shocked to hear what she had said and done online. Kids can have two personalities–one online and another at school.

    In so many ways, I don’t feel like it’s been that long since I was in school, but the world has changed so much. It’s so different for them now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. dearlilyjune says:

      I taught, too, though at the college level so most of the strange interactions that might occur between students happened way out of the scene of the classroom.

      In the meantime, I don’t necessarily blame the teachers. My friends and I were in the gifted curriculum in school, and our immediate teachers stood behind us, even when it came to the formal disciplinary hearing that decided we should be enrolled in counseling. And certainly, having a place to vent our frustrations in no way hurt us, other than sending the message early that it’s easy to make assumptions about who might be the guilty party based on appearances alone.

      Everyone, teachers, administrators, etc. was scared at that time of the possibility of violence. We were typecast and pigeonholed as trouble-makers, but really, we were just engaged and concerned thinkers. And yet, the way we dressed, I understand only decades later, must have been hard to see past. It must have made people nervous in an era where nerves were already set on edge. I don’t condone the superficiality of my school’s intervention, but I understand that it was motivated, too, not by a system but by a group of engaged, caring teachers and facilitators who didn’t know better what to do.

      I do worry, though, now, when anyone can hide their attacks behind the anonymity of the internet. As you indicate, it’s not so easy to spot who might be doing what and to whom. And because the crafting of an online persona only too quickly can become like writing a fiction, I think there’s a disconnect between the person doing the typing and what that typing, ultimately, can do.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Lonna Hill says:

        It’s that last part–the ability of kids to craft an online persona and the difficulty of figuring out what they are doing outside of school . . . that’s the most scary thing for me. . . and that’s what makes adolescence so different than when I went through it. It’s hard for the schools, but it’s hard for the parents, too.

        Most of the discipline problems we had at the last school I worked at dealt with either cheating or online bullying. And so many times, when the kids got into trouble for the online stuff, the parents would be absolutely shocked. I had a conversation with a non-teacher/mom friend and she talked about how she monitored her child’s online behavior. She talked about being friends with her child on facebook and paying attention to what he was posting. She had no idea that she needed his password to really monitor . . . or that he could create another account without her having any idea about it. Kids are *way* more tech savvy than their parents and so often, parents just don’t know how to monitor their kid’s online activity. And when the kid does develop that online persona so different from who they are iface-to-face, they are shocked.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. bitsfromheaven says:

    You’ve made me think of something totally off subject, but maybe it isn’t…
    When we were kids video games were Mario, duck hunt. Now they are extremely violent, filled with gore. It sets up an evolving teenagers mind to crave that violence when it is played to an extreme. So when bullying does happen not only are they left emotionally wounded but they want others to know that pain. I think the violent games take away from the permanence of such choices when they are taken from the screen to real world. I’m sure I could have worded that ‘more better’ but I was up all night. And I love you wonderful teachers! It never escapes me that you are just as much of an influence on my children as I am.πŸ’œ

    Like

    1. dearlilyjune says:

      There are definitely some studies which confirm that violent video games have the impact of emotional numbing. But the same goes for violent television, and even more so, violent homes…

      The danger, I think, is that so many parents are content to allow their children to be passive consumers without ever truly talking to them about what it is they play/watch/listen to, etc. Obviously, I’m not there yet, so I can’t speak with any kind of authority on this. But I was amazed, teaching college students, at how many of them couldn’t see the flaws in logic in a single commercial or magazine advertisement, let alone the problems and plotholes with whole TV programs or video game story lines…

      It’s a good reminder to me that, if I’m going to trust my child to choose her own entertainment (and I hope I do), I have to get into the trenches with her and discuss reality alongside the fantasy and escape certain kinds of entertainment provide.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. bitsfromheaven says:

        It’s really only hard as they age lol…like a banana rather than a fine wine. My kids constantly tell me I’m banished to the outer realms for taking their tech stuff, blocking channels, time outs for silence. I hate video games, and there is nothing they get from them that they can’t elsewhere. If I had my way, our home would be free of them forever!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Blathering says:

    From reading your blog so far, I feel optimistic for Lily. Mainly because you are already aware & thinking about this. Bullies will look for vulnerable kids with low self-esteem, so helping to build your child’s confidence from the start is going a long way to ensuring she is not the kid they target. I think it’s important this is not achieved by giving them unrealistic praise for everything they do, but by encouraging them to not feel scared to have a go at things, and treating a “failure” as a learning experience. (Because I have an arts background, I think that creative activities for kids have a lot of potential in this regard).

    Hopefully schools in the US, like in Australia, talk a lot about this issue and provide information for parents about it. Unlike our parents, we now know there are factors that can help a kid to build resilience – I can’t remember what they all are, but one is having friends outside of school, and one is having an adult who is not their parent, that they can talk to. My partner and I were both very shy kids so we were aware of building our daughter’s self esteem to avoid her being a target for bullies. Some of the other things we did were to enrol her in a drama course – improvisation skills are really useful – and have her do out-of-school activities where she was with kids that she didn’t know. Of course, I guess she’s been observing us interact with other adults over the years, too, so it probably helps if parents socialise occasionally, and don’t always vocalise their own nervousness about having to hang with parents they don’t know while she does her class!!! πŸ™‚

    I like to think that our approach helped our daughter, as she has never been bullied (thank goodness) and seems pretty chilled out about things like interacting with a group of peers she doesn’t know, or doing some kind of challenge in front of other people – both things I would have rather melted through the floor than do, when I was 16!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Nena says:

    I went through bullying myself and as loving as my mother is, she did not understand what it was like when I was going through it:( I hate to hear that you went through a similar painful experience, but I do highly commend you for being such a positive role model for Lily which will be such an incredible support for her if she ever experiences such horrible nonsense:(

    Liked by 1 person

  8. originaltitle says:

    I’m so sorry for the things you went through in school. I think your actions and clever, creative wit in the face of it all truly define your strength and beauty. You never lowered yourself to their level, but rose above and that is truly commendable. Sadly bullying is so much easier as you say, now, online. How much do we monitor without breaking our children’s privacy? How much do we let them solve their problems or get involved? I worry very much about this. This is a great topic, thank you for posting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. dearlilyjune says:

      Oh, I wouldn’t say I never sunk to their level. It was immature of us to track our bullies’ wardrobes when we knew it would make them nervous, after all.

      But to think of what my daughter could go through? I shudder to the bones and soul. I’d gladly suffer ten million taunts from my past again just to save her from ever having to read one on the screen of her [insert futuristic device here].

      Liked by 1 person

  9. maryam says:

    Oh my god, I wish my mother would have written me a letter like this before I started secondary school years ago! Unfortunately I only found this after I graduated high school, but it is still nice to think that I survived through all these even if there were moments that seemed too difficult and where I seemed alone without support from my friends and family.. Lily June is one lucky daughter πŸ™‚ I wish you and your family the best.. lots of loves from Malaysia ❀

    Liked by 1 person

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