A Letter to Insecure Teenage Girls (from Someone who Used to be One)

girl with dolphin

Dear Insecure Teenage Girls,

Whether you’re reading this at 13 or 19, you’ve probably experienced quite a ride already. I’m sure you heard plenty of advice, jokes, and stories from your parents and other people older than you before entering this stage, but it’s still nothing like they talked about. Sure, they got braces like you did, then eventually got them off and felt the wind brush against their metal-free teeth as they left the orthodontist’s office. Yes, they failed their driver’s license test three times, and you may have failed it once or twice yourself. And of course, they, too, felt anguish over their college choices (or lack thereof), clenching their teeth as they waited for acceptance letters and FAFSA approvals to come through. They’ve been there. They’ve done that. They know how it feels to be a teenager. But what about being a teenage girl in 2015?

Being a teenage girl in 2015 is just like being a teenage girl in 1975 or 1992, I suppose. Except now you get to worry about how many Instagram followers you have, how many friends you have on Facebook, and how many people retweet your tweets on Twitter. Speaking of the internet, there’s nowhere to hide – online bullies lurk on every corner and will pick you apart for doing so much as breathing. People will come out of the woodwork to say something negative knowing that their biggest consequence will probably be being blocked. Meanwhile, you’re knocked down yet another peg and questioning your value to humanity.

There’s also the added joy of keeping up with the impossible beauty standards that permeate society. God forbid you don’t weigh 100 pounds or don’t know how to contour like Kim Kardashian. It’s no fun wondering how – if ever – we’ll match up to the girls guys say they fantasize about. Even if they’re just saying that they fantasize about them to fit in with their friends. And even if beauty is 100% not a one-size-fits-all thing, and no two people will have the exact same tastes.

I know, I know…I can feel your eye rolls from here. Am I sounding like a typical counselor right now? Well, it might be better if I talked a little about who I was as a teenager (something I’m not *great* at, so bear with me). Maybe that’ll give some weight to what I’m saying, yeah?

(Disclaimer: The rest of this letter gives an extremely personal view of your author. Believe it or not, this letter doesn’t even go into half of what I experienced as a teenager, but I wanted to keep it brief…ish. Also, I noticed reading through it that it seems fairly heteronormative and cisnormative, which is unfortunate. I want this to be as accessible as possible to all women of any sexual orientation or gender status. In fact, I would love for this to be accessible to people beyond just teenage girls, but I feel I have the most experience with this age group/gender identity and can address them a little better. No matter who you are, I hope you enjoy this post – and maybe even get a little something from it.)

The Wonder Years

Let’s go back a little further than teenagedom for a second. Not to be conceited, but I was a freaking adorable kid. An awesome, spritely little ball of light who had no qualms about admitting she was a part-dinosaur, part-cat dynamo bent on writing stories and proliferating the language she created (Boodisce).

goofy kids
Me with my two younger brothers, showcasing my second- or third most prominent face of the era.

Do you think I cared about how I looked, or if boys liked me? Not a chance. Boys were gross anyways, unless they could climb trees or play video games. Then they were cool. I guess. But kissing them? Echk. BRB gonna go barf.

But in 4th grade, girls started liking boys and boys started liking girls. One day, I saw a boy who I wanted to start sitting next to and drawing pictures for, even though I had no idea why. Once 5th and 6th grade happened, I finally got a grip on what was happening: this was starting to sound like the “love” and “dating” things I had seen with my parents and learned about on TV. This is how it all started. People “like-liking” each other.

In 7th grade, I looked like this:

girl with dolphin

You can’t tell in this picture, but I have braces and exceedingly frizzy hair. Shortly after the time that this picture was taken, I also developed some decent acne. Given my naturally translucent, pale skin, my acne looked 10x worse on me than it did on other people with darker skin (read: everyone other than me, including most of my red-head friends). My body also decided to grow faster than my head, so by this age I was about 5’6″ and 100 pounds with virtually a grape for a head. On this grape of a head sat an enormous nose and even bigger ears. Never mind the fact that I had no idea how to use makeup or do something about my unkempt eyebrows. Yeah. There’s awkward, and then there’s me.

Right before the time that this picture was taken, a boy at a nature camp I went to found out I liked him. I had, in fact, told my best friend to relay the message to him somehow, as I would not dare talk to him. In fact, I would have eaten sand before talking to anyone I had romantic feelings for at that time. After receiving this message, he took to AOL Instant Messenger (I picture all my 90s kids smiling) after the camp was over to let me down easy: “No offense, but ur probably one of the ugliest girls Ive ever seen. And I already have a gf. Thx tho.”

I still remember this exchange like it was yesterday, because it helped kick off a deep insecurity that would last me the majority of my life to date.

Caught in the Middle

With middle school getting off to such a great start à la the above exchange, it only proceeded to get better from there. There was a defined set of people deemed “popular” by everyone else and not a single one of them acknowledged me in a positive way. In fact, many of them made fun of me.

When I wore a shirt that said “Princess” to art class (like we all did, I’m pretty sure?), I recall one such “popular” girl complimenting me in a deceptively kind manner on it, only to conspicuously whisper to her friend next to her, “How is she seriously wearing that?,” and bursting into laughter with her. In PE a few months later, I had an excruciating sunburn that had developed into a rather nasty peel. Most of this peel was concentrated on my neck and looked like psoriasis. Several of the “popular” girls had taken notice and initiated a very audible group discussion over the matter: “It looks horrible…That’s so gross…Do you think she, like, knows?” Popular boys would scoot closer to me with their desks in French class and fake “hit on” me, with prettier and more popular girls unsuccessfully attempting to suppress raucous laughter from across the room.

Then, there was Ella*. Ella came to our school in the middle of 7th grade from another school. She had bleached blonde hair and wore thick, black eyeliner. I had never seen someone so stunningly beautiful who was my own age. I wanted to be her.

Ella quickly climbed the ranks as a popular girl and, in true form, latched onto me as a victim as many of the others had. After all, I was sensitive, awkward-looking, and blatantly insecure, so I have to admit that I made the perfect scapegoat. She sat behind me in math class in 8th grade and would tell me my hair looked bad. Somedays I would try and be nice and ask her a question. She would either ignore me or laugh at me. One day, she told me she liked my skirt. I had to do a double-take: she gave a compliment? To me?

She then asked me where I got it. I told her I got it at a local store in the town we lived. Her response snapped back at me like a rubber band: “OBVIOUSLY YOU GOT IT THERE. THAT’S THE ONLY PLACE YOU CAN BUY THOSE.”

As 8th grade ended, I started to feel like I couldn’t afford to be myself anymore.

No More Mr. Nice Girl

The first few months of high school saw me slowly creep into a state of veering away from my true self, both internally and externally. I finally did my eyebrows. I put highlights in my hair – many more than the half-assed ones my mom let me do a few years prior. I started fake tanning (the bottle kind, not the bed kind – though you probably knew that by looking at me). I wore more makeup than a drag queen. I’ve always loved drag queens, but this was not even well-done paint. I just wanted every feature on my face covered into oblivion.

You have no idea how long that orangey blonde shade took. No idea.
You have no idea how long that orangey blonde shade took. No idea. (I’m the third from the left, not including my infant brother sitting on my other brother’s lap)
femme couple
So very natural-looking.

The appearance changes weren’t the worst part, though.

Suddenly, I became cold. I became distant. I felt it more and more every day. Growing up, I was generally kind, considerate, sensitive, and resistant to gossip or disdain towards others. Dissatisfied with where being “sweet” had led me, I tried to turn into the complete opposite of myself in my mid-teens.

The dissatisfaction with how I looked manifested itself in worse and worse ways as the end of high school loomed. At 17, I couldn’t leave the house without makeup or a full coat of fake tanner and I had even started lying about my ethnicity to convince people I was naturally tan (spoiler: nobody believed me). One day, I was part black. The next day, half-Mexican. It sounds pretty funny and borders on Rachel Dolezal eccentricity, but at the end of the day I truly felt ashamed just to be myself. I just wanted to be pretty, exotic, and to be known as the girl who was naturally tan. As if being tan was the pinnacle of my identity.

tan girl
Note: This picture is actually from mid-2010 (right before I quit the tanaholism), but this is exactly how dark I had to look every time I left the house between 2004 and 2010.

In high school, my primary hobbies were essentially shopping, tanning, and trying to get attention from people, especially guys. Gone, for the most part, were video games, writing, and art, my favorite hobbies when I was young. I maintained some friends in high school, though I wasn’t above occasionally trying to “one up” them or berate them for “making me look bad!!!” if they dared to post a picture of me on social media without my permission. Any pictures posted of me had to be doctored into oblivion before I put them up. My edits of choice were generally a thinned nose, bigger lips, and, of course, darker skin. At 10 I used Photoshop to add color to my anime drawings; at 16 I was using it to turn every picture of myself into a botched Cosmo cover. I wish I were kidding.

I often ditched friends for romantic conquests at the drop of a hat. I screamed at my friends if they tried to criticize my bad choices; “Who are they to judge me?!?!,” I would think. Gee, just people who love and care about me and would do anything for me despite my utter asshat-ness. But what would they know.

I had alienated all but a couple people by the near-end of senior year. So much, that a school counselor even approached me and asked me why it didn’t seem like I had any friends. In typical “High School Haley” fashion, I retorted in a defensive manner. I “had plenty of friends outside of school” (I didn’t, besides guys I was talking to in the hopes that they would continue to validate me) and “felt more mature than many of the people at school, so I couldn’t relate” (yeah…that’s some well-polished bullsh*t). The conversation ended, and I left with nothing. I felt a little worse, though, which was ironically a start.

Building up to a Breakthrough

Unfortunately, much of my histrionic, high-maintenance behavior continued into the first and second years of college. I improved slightly by becoming more knowledgeable about local politics and more involved in school clubs, only to negate such involvement by doing things like distributing test answers to my sorority and verbally accosting people who didn’t agree with my political views. Watching me debate gay marriage (which I fully support and spent a lot of time defending the past few years) with an opponent was like watching me set fire to a blasphemous heretic in Medieval Europe. I cared deeply, but I couldn’t have cared less if I acted irrational in order to prove my case.

When I was 20, I briefly returned to modeling, which I had dabbled in in high school. Modeling, as many will tell you, has the power to either make you feel incredibly confident or like a steaming pile of feces. Amazingly, one particular assignment had a peculiar effect on me.

A vampire-inspired shoot was advertised that called for someone with black hair, alabaster-pale skin, and blue eyes. I knew that if I took a break from my by-then signature faux-glow I would fit the criteria perfectly. Sure enough, I reached out to the photographer, scrubbed off my Oompa-Loompa coat, and made it happen. The pictures turned out spookily AWESOME, and amidst that fake blood in front of that abandoned house, a new me started brewing.

vampire girl
Am I cooler than Twilight?

Fast Forward

I gave up the fake tan officially when I was 21, never to return to it again (well, except for maybe one or two times for special events). I gradually stopped wearing a MAC store on my face. I got more involved in things I cared about and started treating people with the same graciousness and compassion I had in my early life. I thought long and hard about the person who I was on the inside and made developing that a priority. And in turn, my life started changing.

Over the next few years, I ended up being the President of my business fraternity, completing both a Bachelor of Science and a Masters degree in accounting, and passing all four sections of the CPA exam. I contributed countless hours to volunteer projects I was passionate about. I studied abroad and went to many other countries for fun. I got a job at a prestigious “Big 4” accounting firm and went onto complete two years in the job before moving onto a web development/curriculum gig at the university near my house. I fell in love with writing and art all over again. My relationships with family and friends became the closest and healthiest they’ve ever been, and today I tend to only hang around people who are kind-hearted, positive, and understanding.

girl at macho picchu
That’s more like it! (me at Macchu Picchu in 2010)
curly red hair
Me and one of my best friends, June, in Scotland with the rest of our squad.
girl with owl
Some of the people I hang out with…are owls in Tokyo.

I know what you’re thinking: “Great, now she’s pattering on about her accomplishments. Typical older person looking back on their life, blah blah blah…”, so I’ll stop there. The point to me telling you all of this is not to bore the crap out of you. It’s to let you know that when you start caring about the important things in life (family, friends, being involved, self-actualization), your focus really does start to shift, and you tend to worry less about the things that don’t matter as much (money, possessions, looks).

This is not to say that I never have my insecure moments any more – far from it. Ask my boyfriend, ask my friends, ask my mom. I’m a long way from being fully secure, but the difference now is that I recognize my insecurity and I don’t let it control me or hurt the ones I love. Does my insecurity have its way some days? Admittedly, yes. Some days, I’m the heavyweight champ, and other days I’m the scrawny out-of-shaper who’s on the brink of a KO. Most days, though, I get to be the champ.

I’d also like to add that just because I don’t revolve my life around my looks anymore doesn’t mean that I don’t care about how I look. It’s not like I one day decided to focus less on looks, put on a burlap sack, and never brush my teeth or hair again. Like a lot of girls, I still love makeup, dying my hair, and wearing rad fashion. But I do it for me, not for others’ validation of me. Okay, and maybe I like to impress my boyfriend sometimes. Caring about how you look and being a well-adjusted, secure adult are not mutually exclusive – there’s just a balance.

To Put it Simply

I suppose if I could sum up this letter into a few key concepts, it would be these:

  • I tell my story because I was an exemplary insecure girl. So much, that it even pains me to write about some of the stuff I used to do and how I used to be. Let that be a litmus test for you; ask yourself if you’re acting like me and, if so, try and find out why. Is that really who you are?
  • If you feel like you’re not beautiful, just know two things: (1) you’re beautiful and someone is looking for someone just like you [whether for a one-time photoshoot or for a lifetime relationship] and (2) even if you/your parents/an internet random/some dumb guy or girl doesn’t think you’re beautiful, guess what? Being beautiful isn’t a ticket to success, health, or happiness. Being beautiful isn’t going to help you code a new app, or perform heart surgery, or run an animal shelter. It’s not going to let you spend time with family or help you make new (true) friends. Only by developing our inner selves can we get that happiness.
  • One thing I didn’t mention up in the main part of this letter is that when we are insecure, we try and fill up a proverbial hole; we try and make up for something we’re missing in our life. Some people, like me, do this by over-focusing on our looks. Some people buy a lot of fancy cars and purses and jewelry. Some people turn to excessive drinking or drugs. Many of us turn to relationships. I’m a big “why”-asker, so my question to anyone struggling with this is to always ask why you’re doing something, especially if it’s causing harm to you.

Look, guys, I’m no therapist. I’m not even that much older than you. Heck, I could be talking out of my nose right now and someone much older and wiser than me is reading this and going “Wrong, wrong, wrong…ugh, this is so horribly written…oh, yes, another typo…rubbish…”. But that’s okay. I’m willing to take that chance.

Be yourself, and if you don’t know who that is yet, that’s okay. Go experience life and find out.

Oh – and feel free to ask me anytime if you have questions. I may not know you, but I’m here for you. Always.

Love,

Haley

*It should come as no surprise that “Ella’s” name is not really “Ella”. But I’m not gonna lie – it would be nice for her to read this some day.

4 thoughts on “A Letter to Insecure Teenage Girls (from Someone who Used to be One)”

  1. OMG Hales!! So well written and such great advice , that will definitely help me through my teen years!! Love you so much!! YOUR AMAZINGGGG!! ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

  2. Very nice Haley. Well written and very thoughtful.
    Debbie and I had many exchange students in our home over the years. One year we got quite close to a Swiss girl who happened to be very beautiful. At one of our meetings we were talking and I asked her if she disliked all the shallow attention from all the boys just because of her external beauty. She thought for a bit and said No, she liked it. It must be nice to be beautiful.

  3. Oh, Haley, this makes me so sad! I *love* the picture of you with the dolphin. That girl is beautiful!
    I wonder if you would have felt differently if you had grown up here. Most people in Minnesota are pale, and we’ve long since given up worrying about it. It is just part of us, not good, not bad.
    You are lovely. More importantly, you have so many talents and you demonstrate kindness and compassion, which are so Important (and, sadly, too rare).
    I have a 10-year-old daughter who is experiencing similar r thoughts and issues right now. I’d love to share your wonderful letter with her.
    I think you are amazing in every way.

    1. Thank you, Carita! I often wonder the same thing. Growing up in California was wonderful in many ways, but it’s a tough place for a young person. LA is essentially the U.S.’s capital of material wealth, glamour, and a set of specific “looks”, so if those get flashed around too much, you start to think that they are what matter. It can take a while to undo that mindset.

      I’ve grown to like simpler living (I prefer reading, hiking, camping, and biking to traffic and access to clubs/bars) so my partner and I are strongly considering a move after he’s done with school. We still want to be close to family, but it would be cool to be one state away and actually be able to afford a house in the near future. 🙂

      I do hope you share this with your daughter – 10 was a fun age but it’s right before things get tough. I think she’ll get a kick out of my weird photos. 🙂

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