Last summer I found a photo of little RaDonna, and promised to love her.
This one, to be exact. She’s so adorable.
That practice was so healing and meaningful to me, like a breeze to adopt. Of course I would protect the most innocent version of myself.
What feels less easy, however, is to love this version of myself.
And it’s not for the obvious reasons.
I have a hard time loving her, because every single day, someone yelled at her.
Whether it was the girls yelling at me, loud and in unison while I dug books from my locker after lunch— “BITCH,” “SLUT,” “POSER”— or my dad in the confines of the car on short, but very long, daily drives to school, or both, it was engrained into me that I deserved to be tormented.
I thought, for sure, that something was wrong with me. So I became my biggest bully. This phase in my life taught me toxic ways to treat myself. It normalized abusive behaviors. It instilled a belief system that I was unlikeable. So when I see images of her, I feel shame and embarrassment. I find it harder to protect her, because I believed all the things people said.
In a lot of ways, if I’m being honest, I still do.
So I’m challenging myself to love the girl who needs it the most.
To start this practice, I want to see myself from a new vantage point. When I clear the initial haze of pain from my view of her, I see someone completely different.
This girl was fearless.
Always adorned in studs, she romped around in high-top Converse Chuck Taylors with flames roaring up the side—she even changed the laces to a thick, neon orange. If it could be personalized, it was. She rocked a wallet chain and about a dozen bracelets at a time.
She coated layers and layers of eyeliner around her eyes. If she was feeling adventurous, she drew black lines all the way down her face. This in particular repulsed her homeroom teacher; every time, the math teacher told her to wipe it off or go to the principal’s office. Of course we know Rae chose the principal’s office. But here’s where it gets good. THIS GIRL RIGHT HERE. She did her research. She read all of the district’s rules and policies about attire and makeup. So when she was sent to the principal’s office for the nth time, she had a case. On that fateful day, studs and all, a 13-year-old eighth grader negotiated terms with the principal. They comprised to keep the lines drawn to just one-inch down her face.
Only studying once, the night before, she won the school spelling bee on a word she’d never heard before: efflorescence.
Her evenings were the best. For hours upon hours, she immersed herself in the world of emo songs, lyrics and album art. She lit incense [she wasn’t allowed to have], stapled torn magazine pages of her heroes onto her walls [and eventually the ceiling], and she wrote in her green composition notebook.
This notebook is so, so special. Permanent marker scribbles and cheeky artwork transformed the cover, and its pages were filled with misunderstood-girl anthems, I-love/hate-boys anthems, and fuck-the-world anthems. She poured over the songs, sometimes in tears, sometimes with a laugh, writing and scribbling. Crossing out and filling in. And at some miraculous point, to a select few songs, she wrote in all caps “FINISHED” at the top. That assurance is admirable.
There are few things she committed to like expressing herself. This girl felt her feelings.
She dreamed of becoming a rockstar. She formed a band, “Spinning Jenny” and created the album art. The only problem was the lack of musical ability. She orchestrated–not songs, no–but the band practice room and where everything would set up and tear down. She tried to write tabs, without actually knowing how the play the guitar. You try telling that girl she would be better suited for behind the scenes and management… just try.
She could never make it down the half pipe. But she at least got up there.
Kissing boys was literally one of her favorite things. There was actually one boy who was seriously the sweetest little boyfriend. Her pick-up line? Doing something clumsy, then when she saw he caught it, pointing at him and saying “I’m cool.” [pretty sure this is still my go-to]
She couldn’t afford a wardrobe full of brand names like most of the students at school. One day, tired of being bullied relentlessly, she took permanent marker to an unassuming gray T-shirt. On the front she scribed, “Abercrombie & Fitch.” And on the back, “Am I Popular Now?” MIC DROP.
It was her favorite shirt to wear, with a close second being the yellow shirt with a cartoon cow saying “please don’t eat me.” It didn’t stop any bullying, clearly, but to her it communicated a disinterest in normal. And that was enough.
Still, no matter how wondrous I was, the obstacles I ran day in and day out trained me to hate myself. The only reason I am, was, or have been, ashamed of myself at this age is because I was conditioned to be.
Almost 30, I’m done hating such a significant part of my story. And it starts with unapologetically loving the hell out of her.
She knew so much that I think I’m still figuring out. She stood up for herself, unafraid of consequences. She was wicked witty and smart. She actually finished poems. She treated her evenings, her creativity, as sacred. She took her art seriously.
Now, as I sit and write poems and light incense and express myself again, I feel like I’m sending signals back in time, or maybe we’re sending signals to each other. That it’s okay. We’re all good. I’m validating how awesome she is. She’s reminding me of exactly the same thing.
This will take practice and intention to reframe my experiences of this time and heal the wiring in my mind. But I’m committed to it and will be putting this picture on my altar. What version of yourself is hardest to love? I challenge you to dig out that image of yourself, clear the fog, and see her with new eyes.
In true emo fashion, I will leave you with lyrics:
“And I am flawed, but I am cleaning up so well,
I am seeing in me now the things you swore you saw yourself…
It dangles on a string,
Like slow spinning redemption.”
Vindicated, Dashboard Confessional