February 4, 2013


When I was a teen, I wanted nothing more in the world than to be popular.  I remember once, when a girl who had been at our school and then moved away came back for a visit.  Everyone was so happy to see her!  They flocked around her while I, who hadn't known her well, stood jealously on the sidelines.  I want people to feel that way about me, I thought.

My day to day jealousies were even more pronounced.  I was convinced that I had the code cracked; I knew what it took to be popular -- I just didn't have what it took.

The T.V. shows and teen magazines of which I was an dedicated consumer confirmed what I already knew.  First of all, to be popular, a girl had to be pretty.  Obviously.  Pretty meant thin, and preferably blonde.  A cheerleading uniform certainly helped.  Straight teeth and straight hair were musts.  Did I mention she had to be thin?

Not only did I not have these essentials, but I was burdened with significant deficits as well.  Not least of these was that I was smart in school.  If a girl was pretty, I guess she could be smart too, but the confluence of short, chunky, near-sighted, curly-haired, and smart was too much.  I was doomed to a life on the social margins.

That was the story I wrote for myself.  People were not going to like me, at least, they were not going to like me in a way that elevated me to the social center, that exclusive club -- Popularity --  where I longed to be.

I compensated.  I decided, cynically, that not to be popular was just fine with me.  In fact, I was better off not to be one of those popular girls.  I might not be popular, but that just meant I was unique, iconoclastic.  Popular was common.  I was special.

Even as I reached for a feeling of smug superiority, I didn't believe a word of it.

Alongside making myself better-than, I employed a strategy I was more practiced at:  I would be really nice and helpful to people all the time.  I'd worked this angle with my family for years.  Even if I never made it to the upper rungs of the social hierarchy, I could make people like me -- or, at least, make sure they didn't dislike me.  I would create an illusion of being near the top.  In fact, it was sort of like a high-wire act:  Don't lose your balance or you'll upset someone and they won't like you after all.

As it happens, high school doesn't last forever.  The social center no longer existed in the same way -- except in my mind.  As time went on, through college, work, marriage and mothering, I kept telling myself the same story:  I'll never be popular.  I don't have what it takes.

Mostly, that story was so familiar, that I couldn't even hear it as it played on and on in an endless loop in my head.  But it affected all of my relationships.  I lived, unaware, with this unexamined notion that everyone else was looking at me and seeing what I saw when I looked in the mirror and asking:  Why aren't you blonde and sassy and a cheerleader?

What could that question possibly mean when asked of a 45 year old, graying, homemaking married mother-of-three?  I was looking at the 45 year old with the eyes and the unfulfilled desires of the teenage girl.

Finally, after long years, I paused and did something different.  I looked through my grown-up eyes.  First I looked out at the world, and I saw something I hadn't noticed before.  People like me.  They do.  For a minute, that surprised me.  That's what it means to be popular, doesn't it?  That people like you.  People like me.

Now, not everybody likes me, but somehow, it didn't feel like I was going to lose my balance and fall to my death.  There's a net -- and it's not only held up by the people who do like me.

The real safety I feel, the reason it's finally okay, I'm finally okay, whether I'm liked or not, ends with the eyes looking into that mirror.  They are no longer eyes of judgment.  I'm not sure quite when or how it happened, but it ends there because it started with hearing the message that there is a God who thinks I'm okay.  How many times did I have to hear it?  A hundred?  A thousand?  I don't know.  But one day, some time, it finally clicked.  That woman in the mirror, not thin nor blonde nor a cheerleader, is lovable.

Lovable is different than popular, but I hadn't known the difference.  Lovable was what I really wanted to be.  Popular was just a substitute, a stand-in, when I didn't know better.  I am lovable.  I was then too -- or would have been, had I known it.

If popularity is an exclusive club, lovability is as inclusive as it gets.  We're all invited -- you, me, the least popular person you've ever met or heard of.  It's the opposite of popularity in a way.  If, to be popular, I thought I had to conform to some external standards of goodness or beauty, to be lovable, I have to be radically myself.  If being popular meant being above, lovability means being one alongside everyone else.

Try this, would you?  Look in the mirror today, just once, and notice the man or the woman who is really in the mirror -- not the person you wished you'd grow up to be, not the person your parents thought you were, not the person you think you ought to be, just you.  And know that you are lovable -- and beloved -- just the way you are.

1 comment:

  1. I can tell you that the cheerleading uniform did not work AT ALL, but then again, I was also not thin or blonde...

    Years ago, it was you who told me that I was a child of God and he loved me and that is something that I have carried with me for 20+ years. I call upon that memory when I'm scared or sad, and have shared it with my students. For what it's worth, it is for reasons like that that I love and value and admire you. Popularity has nothing to do with it.