Jan Roberts Culpepper is a mother, a pastor, and a writer. She is the single mom of three kids: Anna (20), Gus (9), and Mia (8 “But please say I’m almost 9 because my birthday is next month.”) She serves as a PC(USA) pastor in Charleston, SC, alongside the resident Morkie, Rookie, who is also known as the Associate Pastor of Paws. A resident of South Carolina since the age of five, she loves equally the hills of the Upstate and the beauty of the coastal region. She loves stories of all kinds – books, movies, blogs, and the kind you hear while sitting on the front porch as you take in the evening breeze.
Trigger note for readers: In this post, Jan briefly and circumspectly mentions her personal story as a victim of abuse.
x’s and o’s, friends. x’s and o’s.
The Thief Who Stole My Identity
These are my girls. Aren’t they beautiful? I mean, I know I’m a little prejudiced, being their mother and all. But truly, they are beautiful – inside and out. The thing that makes me so happy is that right now, they both know they are beautiful. And not just beautiful – smart, creative, fun, and adventurous. As of today, my girls know who they are and are confident in themselves.
I am pretty sure that Anna, my oldest daughter, isn’t likely to lose that. She is a junior in college. She is an independent, non-needy kind of girl. If her boyfriend is unavailable, is in a bad mood, or wants to spend time with friends, so be it. She enjoys being with him, but she doesn’t have to be with him in order to be happy. When she goes on vacation with a friend and snacks her way through a week of junk food, she doesn’t fall apart when she sees the number on the scale. She runs a little more, throws in a few abs workouts, and eats right. No problem.
For Mia, my youngest, I am a little more concerned. My almost nine-year-old will be a fourth grader in a few short weeks. I sense that she is entering a critical time in her young life. An article I read recently cited a national study showing that for girls, fourth grade is the peak year for self-esteem. Nine-year-old, fourth grade girls tend to feel great about themselves. For ten-year-old fifth graders, however, it is different story. Just before junior high/middle school, girls begin to focus on their bodies, their appearance becoming the measure of their self worth. Typically, self esteem plummets because they feel they can’t keep up with the models and actresses they see in magazines and on television. When I think of all my youngest daughter will face in the next few years, I cringe inside. So many changes. So many challenges. So little I can do to protect her. I do remember those difficult years.
I entered McCants Junior High School thinking I was ready to take on the world. As a twelve-year-old, I joyfully beat boys at footraces in gym class. I remember laughing because one guy always got so mad at me about it he wouldn’t speak to me for days at a time. I exited junior high as a fifteen-year-old so unsure of myself physically that I wouldn’t try out for sports teams in high school because I was sure I couldn’t make the cut. I pretended I just wasn’t interested. The fact is, I would have given anything to be on the team. When I look back at myself as a young teen, I wonder, “What happened, Jan? Where did you go? Why didn’t you believe in yourself anymore?” The teen me stares back disbelievingly and responds, “Don’t you remember?”
And so I search my memories to find the thief who stole my self esteem. Bits at a time, I remember.
It was in junior high that self-segregation began. No longer was it a free-for-all on the school playground where you could giggle with one set of friends on the swings one day and play a rough game of dodge ball with a different set the next. No. Now there were the cheerleaders. The jocks. The popular group. The geeks. The wild kids. The band nerds. Boundaries that were once permeable became fixed, immovable. Girls who once were your friends no longer looked at you, much less spoke to you, because you weren’t one of “them.”
It was in junior high that the dynamics between boys and girls began to change. Sure you had boyfriends in elementary school. Usually that meant you whispered with your best friends about how cute you thought a guy was and smiled shyly across the room at him, just to see him roll his eyes or stick out his tongue at you in response. In junior high, it got serious. You had to talk to them. Sometimes you wrote notes that you prayed no one would intercept and read aloud at the lunch table. The really sophisticated girls held hands with their boyfriends and boasted of more after the weekends. I learned about “s-e-x” from George and Brian in the band room. No, it wasn’t like that. Pegging me for my naiveté, they routinely cornered me after band class and told me dirty jokes. They laughed hysterically at my embarrassment as I figured their jokes out. The longer it took for understanding to dawn, the harder they laughed. Sometimes it took me awhile. I mean, really? People actually did that stuff?? I realized that having a boyfriend meant that something more was expected from you, both physically and emotionally. Who was ready for that?
It was in junior high that my body betrayed me. While it was a long, long time before I had any real curves, I did have to wear a bra. I started my period – cramps and all. I got zits, some of them so big I was sure passengers in the airplane flying overhead could see them. I was growing, but not proportionally. Some days it seemed like my legs were ten feet long, while the rest of me stayed the same. Any single thing that set me apart from anyone else became an object not just of my own obsession, but of everyone else’s. Kids that age are notoriously cruel with their jokes. Why couldn’t I be pretty like Sarah? Or have bouncy hair like Jane? Or be graceful like Pam?
It was in junior high that I learned that sacred trust could be betrayed. The father of a classmate, a deacon in his church, a respected businessman in the community, took advantage of my awkward innocence. I was taught to respect all adults, to be obedient, and to do as I was told. I learned that there are times when those rules can and should be broken. Unfortunately, I learned too late to escape the shame of being violated. I never felt the same about men or about my body after that.
Yes, I lost my self esteem in junior high school. I learned to put up a good front, so that no one ever really knew how out-of-sorts I felt. If you looked closely, you probably could have guessed. I was insanely skinny and a dysfunctional eater well into college. I thought I could prove my worth if I kept a boyfriend. I’m sure many thought I was just boy-crazy when really I was just looking for someone to tell me I was worthy of their attention – just as I was.
I was thirty before I began the long journey back to myself. I am now forty-eight. For the first time in thirty-six years, I’m beginning to feel like I’m ready to take on the world again. I am comfortable, most days anyway, with who I am. I treasure my body not just for how it looks, but for its strength and functionality. I like my personal idiosyncrasies and have found friends who appreciate them as well. I don’t have to have a man in my life to prove that I’m a worthy woman, although I’ll never fully give up on finding a man worthy of my attention. It may or may not happen, because my standards are high. I recognize that not everyone can be trusted, I’m much more likely now to break the rules and make my voice heard.
As Mia inches closer and closer to the challenges and transformations that await her in adolescence, I pray that she will look at me and see her mother as a confident woman, a role model to lead her through the rough spots. I pray that she will be surrounded by people who will affirm her worth with encouraging words and actions – assuring her not just of her physical beauty, but of her kind heart, her sharp mind, and her spirited nature.
I wish this not only for my daughters, but for all girls out there whose self esteem is threatened by media, gender wars, and the minefields of growing up. May they learn to be confident in the infinite value and beauty that is uniquely their own. May junior high NOT be the thief that steals their self esteem. And may we – the women who have been there and remember what it is like – cheer them on as they make their own way.