You are not fat, you are smart, it’s OK to be afraid, and have lots of sex.
Dear Younger Self:
I know you’re sitting in your basement room, or listening to melodramatic music in the rickety lofted bed in your college dorm room, or ruminating in a cracker box apartment with the heat or the air-conditioning cranked up in yet another city, and I know that these are the top five thoughts you’re most likely having at any given moment, any random slice of time.
- I’m fat. (You are having this thought after an obsessive workout).
- I’m ugly. (This thought is constant, and due, in part, to what a relative once told you. It’s a good thing you’re smart, she told you. Because there’s not a lot going on in the looks department.
- There’s no way I will ever be able to write anything that anyone will ever read, and because I will never be successful, I will end up poor and destitute and depressed.
- I will always be single.
- I’m not really an artist.
Although I know you occasionally tempered these harsh words with therapy; heart-to-hearts with the group of friends that has shifted and changed and grown but remained rock solid faithful to your weird ways and wild journaling (that didn’t help much, did it? Nope.), I also know these five things are a kind of ticker tape that was both a torment and a comfort, and that it was often difficult to tell the difference between the two.
Here’s what I have to say to you, approaching 40 (yes, this will seem ancient to you, author of the initial list), as a direct answer to these thoughts:
- You are not fat, nor have you ever been, and this whole conversation is annoying and self-indulgent. Air-brushed models in magazines are not the ideal for anyone, and you don’t have to be perfect because you have an artificial leg. You write about this, think about this, talk about this, but you don’t ever fully believe it. Believe it now. And stop reading fitness magazines. Immediately.
- The person who told you to abandon all hopes in your looks was speaking from her own sense of self-hatred and misery and a misguided view of the world that has tormented many people. At 14, there was no way for you to know this, but at nearly 40, you should be able to let that go. Do that. Beauty is not determined by another person’s measuring stick. And you are smart. And that’s a good thing.
- Writers are people who write. Rather than worrying about your fame and fortune, worry about working hard. This is not a problem for you in any other area of your life, but writing only gets done with work. You’re afraid? So what. Sit down and do it. Later, people will tell you that you are fearless, but know that you are full of fear. This is OK. In fact, this is very human. I should mention that it’s OK to be human, not super crippled, not super girl, not super smart, not super anything. I’m human. Make this your mantra and have it printed on a T-shirt that you wear often.
- Stay single longer than you think you should, all through your 20’s and 30’s when you join fleet after fleet of bridesmaids in other people’s weddings. You’re not going to be single, but you’re going to make some spectacular mistakes. Make them. But don’t make them multiple times. Wait until you’re 40 to get married. Seriously. Wait. In the interim, have as much sex or as many boyfriends as you want, but wait.
- You’re an artist. Not because of what some teacher somewhere told you, or an accolade or an award, but because it will be the thing you do when you think that all goodness and happiness has gone out of the world. It’s hard to imagine this now, but when that day comes, you won’t care what people think of you. At all. That will feel like a miracle. You’ve earned it.
You don’t have to prove anything. Believe me. Or at least pretend that you do.
Emily Rapp, a regular contributor to Role/Reboot, is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir (BloomsburyUSA, 2007) and The Still Point of the Turning World (Penguin Press, March 2013). She is a professor of creative writing and literature at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design in Santa Fe, New Mexico.