I am a people-pleaser. At certain times in my life, I have lived for words of praise, a nod of approval and public appreciation. As a performing arts major in college, I literally measured self-worth in applause. To this day, it is a challenge that regularly comes up in self-reflection. Whose approval is more important: my own or my coworkers? How do I measure my values: by my personal convictions or by my best friends? I still get it so jumbled, and I am just now starting to figure out where this identity crisis began.
Like most 13 year olds, I was self-conscious and uneasy growing into my new adult-sized body. The summer before eighth grade I stood tall at five foot eight inches, and I was well over what I should weigh by society’s exclusive measurements. My family and I moved from a small, middle class neighborhood in Canada to a rich, new, pleasantville suburbia in Connecticut. I would spend my last year in middle school as the “new kid.”
I wish I could say that my new friends and I bonded over our mutual love of Hanson and Starbucks Frappuccinos — but this was not the case.
Towering over my peers, double their weight, and before the God-sent invention of the straightening iron, I was not popular. I did not make friends. I was different.
I spent a year sitting at a separate table at lunch amongst a handful of students with disabilities and their adult teacher aids. I felt comforted by these kids, because they were accepting, enjoyed my company and didn’t shift their attention away from me the moment they could escape. I enjoyed the company of the adults and their conversations.
The next summer, I drew the line. When I started 9th grade, I was going to make “cool friends.” In a single decision, my priorities shifted from grades, teacher approval, health and comfort to looking good at all costs.
When I set my mind to something, I am successful. As I felt my pants loosen and sizes drop, I felt like I had finally figured out the key to success. The smaller I got, the more motivated I was to starve. Sadly, I made my dream come true, and new “cool friends” started chatting with me on AOL instant messenger every afternoon.
When I returned to school in the fall, I had lost a significant amount of weight. I would purposefully sleep in to skip breakfast and throw my sack lunch away. My body felt cold every day, I was physically exhausted, it was hard to keep my head up in class, my hair began to fall out and I eventually stopped getting my period.
In contrast, according to my new standards of success, I was thriving. Girls who never spoke to me before would stop me in the hallway to tell me I looked amazing. I walked proudly through the halls arm-in arm with my new, senior boyfriend. My clothes were so big I had to buy a whole new wardrobe. I had done it. Life-makeover achieved. I had won the attention and approval of my peers.
Looking back, I think the most damaging were the compliments from teachers. I remember my 9th grade, high school english teacher stopped me in the library to gush, “you’ve really grown up this year Amanda! You’ve slimmed down since the fall, and you look so put together.”
My chorus teacher on a different afternoon: “Look at you skinny mini! Where do you get your highlights done?”
Then there was my incredibly inappropriate, male PE teacher who took every opportunity to mention how attractive my “strong form” was to men. Sure, I may have flunked that last paper, smoked pot with my boyfriend before the last choir concert and skipped PE most days, but their words were all I needed to hold on to my newfound success.
My grades, my self-esteem and the core of who I was as a person drained away slowly with every nod of approval.
Years after, in remission, I would refer to my high school experience as a failure. I felt deep shame about the fact that I didn’t try harder academically. I considered myself a “slacker” and would tell people I was a vapid loser in high school. Ouch.
I know now that my misled actions were for survival. I did what I needed to escape what I had believed, and what my peers confirmed, which was massive, social failure. An eating disorder is all-encompassing, and there was no way for me to mentally and physically handle all my responsibilities, so I prioritized. Losing weight won. In fact, in a twisted way, I was pretty damn successful.
I wonder what would have happened if my body was not subjected to ongoing commentary? I wonder what would have happened if my English teacher had complimented my effort in previous assignments rather than my appearance? I wonder.
My mental health challenges are not anyone else’s fault. I take full responsibility for my own self-care and journey. But I do believe that outside factors, and “toxic compliments” exacerbated my struggle.
After many years of trying to figure myself out through the lens of others, I finally made a decision for myself. I finished my teaching credential in special education. I now spend my days hanging out with the most wonderful, unique students for no other reason than my own enjoyment and a sense of fulfillment. When I look my students in the eyes, I tell them that I appreciate their opinions and enjoy their company. I compliment my students on their perseverance, compassion and other positive, intrinsic qualities. I tell them they will make awesome, contributing community members one day.
I am so grateful to sit at their table, and I know that my words and compliments might help shape their future, so I choose my words carefully.