You hear a lot about self-esteem, and apparently you’re supposed to have it. A lot if possible. I have always found this tricky.
Of course, I’m old enough that when I was little, no one ever talked about self-esteem. On the other hand, not being too big for your britches, not acting conceited, those messages were heard loud and clear. (I think in elementary school, at least among us girls, “being conceited” was the worst thing of which you could be accused.) At home I got the distinct impression I needn’t think too highly of myself, and tamp down whatever exhilaration any little girl grade success might bring on. When I was put in a gifted program I knew not to discuss it much at home so my brother’s feelings wouldn’t get hurt. I could have easily risen above all this accept for the fact that the accomplishment that meant most to me was being loved, being liked – or at the very least not not-liked. And so began my diligent immersion into self-effacement.
Don’t get me wrong; it was no act. While I could probably have pointed to a few positive traits, if pushed under pain of torture, the qualities I felt I most needed were sorely — achingly – lacking. While empirical evidence suggested I was smart, slim, and well-behaved, I was absolutely positive I was not only unlovable but ugly, thus assuring I would have no way to capture any love in the future.
But here’s the thing: yes, I was ugly and unappealing…but I was also oddly optimistic. Devouring books about old movies and vintage glamour I ran across 2 things that let me from throwing in the towel:
1. In reference to Diana Vreeland and other stylish gals I learned the phrase “jolie laide.” Apparently there was a breed of ugliness that might actually prove attractive. Perhaps my pathetic unsticky paper might be able to win some discerning fly one day.
2. Gloria Swanson. I read in “Four Fabulous Faces” that although she may not have had Garbo’s raw material, by sheer will Gloria Swanson turned herself into a glamorous movie star. I could see that Barbara Streisand and other unconventional- looking actresses had done the same. (In “Funny Girl” Fanny Brice got the handsome guy despite being, well, Fanny Brice.)
Maybe I was ugly, maybe I was weird, but there was still some hope. Genetically I didn’t look the way I should, and constitutionally I couldn’t see my way to acting like I should (like other people), but held out hope that to someone, some day, that would be alright. I just had to be patient.
So life was painful, feeling ugly and unloved. But that glimmer of hope made all the difference. What I did have was a brain, moxie, a unique style and a way with words, and like Gloria I was determined to make it work. And work it.
Isn’t that a kind of self-esteem? A dogged insistence that though, yes, I’m utterly ugly and unworthy, somehow I am still somebody, I still have something, and you’d be crazy not to like it.
Besides, as my friend Laurie Rosenwald writes, “All the wrong people have self-esteem.”