Let’s revisit your school picture from seventh grade, shall we? No doubt, it’s tragic. Beyond the unfortunate hair, what you probably see is a very uncertain self lurking behind that all-too-eager smile.
For many of us, life took an abrupt left once adolescence reared its awkward head. Maybe we were one of the cool kids. Maybe we were irretrievably awkward. In either case, we were filled with self doubt. Self-definition came in the form of how someone treated us at lunch or whether the phone rang that night. So silly. And yet.
You have to wonder how much of that insecure self stays with us into adulthood, whispering in our ear, making us second guess our decisions, and nudging us to replay invisible patterns etched long ago. Are we still looking for approval from erstwhile best friends? Is there a part of us that still wants to please the arbiters of seventh grade taste — or show them up? Hello there, mean girls! Take a look at me now!
This all came to mind this week, thanks to two heartfelt essays by screenwriter Taffy Brodesser-Akner, who clearly took a hit once she hit double-digits. In the first piece, from the LA Times, she addresses her battered high school self:
To describe me as unpopular is an insult to those who were chess geeks and 98-pound weaklings. I was friendless; I was hated. I spent four years eating lunch alone, sitting by myself, feeling alienated. All this time later, I am still unsure of the subtlety that separates the girls who attract from those who repel. But anyone who has experienced the narrowed eyes of someone regarding you with contempt, or understood that the two girls whispering nearby were talking about you, knows when a cause is lost. My social status was assessed immediately. From my first day at school, nobody greeted me. Nobody offered to show me around. When I asked a preppy-looking girl where chemistry was, she said, “Up your ass, loser.”
The second essay, which ran a few days later in Salon, provides the backstory of how she went from popular to pariah the summer between sixth and seventh grade, and then jumps into the present, where Brodesser-Akner reveals that she is now friends with her tormentors on Facebook:
After accumulating college friends and ex-boyfriends, as we all do when we join Facebook, I took a chance and looked up Barbara. With the nervousness that accompanied me on every bus trip to school following my fall from grace, I pressed the button that would send her a friend request. Immediately, I received confirmation: She had agreed, finally, to be my friend. Brave now, I found Alison, then Amy, then Nancy. I was euphoric. Here I am, back in the inner sanctum. I sort through their pictures, their posts, their lives. I cheer their triumphs, their babies’ birthdays, photos from their ski trips. I cobble together the story of how life has been since we knew each other, deliberately, forcefully forgetting how it was we parted.
I check their updates and their statuses with eagerness each day. Like an addict, I am euphoric when I am practicing my addiction, remorseful and self-hating when I’m not. I am shocked at how easily I have forgiven these people. I am filled with the warm light of acceptance; I am wrapped in the cozy blanket of belonging.
Happy ending, right? Except for the fact that she has been pummeled by many of the anonymous comments that followed her essay.
Which leads me to wonder if our inner seventh grader is an indelible part of our iconic self. Could that tattered adolescent baggage be one reason we are so eager to please? Why decisions come hard? Why we judge ourselves by others judging? Is there still a tiny part of us that worries about being mocked by the mean girls?
I can’t help thinking this lingering desire to fit in impacts women more than men, especially as we navigate the somewhat unfamiliar turf of the workplace. Because we are unsure of the rules, do we take reactions more seriously? Are we more tentative? Continually looking over our shoulder to make sure those jerks in the corner aren’t whispering about us? Worse yet, do we avoid even putting ourselves out there, sticking with Mr. Safe Path, so we can avoid the risk of rejection?
I wonder. But meanwhile, even as I type this, I hear an annoying little voice, whispering in my ear: What will (choose one) think? To which the only possible answer is: Who cares.