real life

'My mum destroyed my self-esteem in 18 words. I haven't recovered a decade later.'

I still remember with vivid clarity the day that my mum tore my self-esteem to shreds.

She had just picked me up from a sleepover at a friend’s house and was driving me home.

“That Megan is a pretty girl,” she said.

“She’s the kind of girl who doesn’t need to wear makeup,” she continued, “whereas you, you know… You probably do.”

I was ten years old and it felt like my mum had just stabbed me in the heart.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d copped a lot worse from the kids at school. I’d begun to experience the joys of puberty at an early age – breakouts, weight gain, hair growth, overall greasiness, all the fun stuff -and those bodily changes had earned me some wonderfully creative names in the playground, such as ‘pimple face’ and ‘ugly.’

Bec Sparrow opens up about the war she is fighting to feel like her body lives up to media and society’s standards. Post continues after audio.

Mum had always told me to ignore them. Sticks and stones.

But to have the insults of my peers reaffirmed at home by the person I thought loved me most cut deep. My mum’s words hurt more than those of any other person, because although I ‘knew’ that I was ugly, based on the taunts of all those kids at school, I had always hoped that she didn’t see it. I thought that maybe, because she was my mum, I was beautiful to her regardless.

I already struggled with my self-esteem, but things got worse from that point onwards. At the end of that year, in my Year Five notebook, I scrawled out my resolution for the new year: ‘Try to look a bit better.’ I chose my words carefully.

In my mind, ‘try to look pretty’ seemed a like an unrealistic goal.

Many times after that, I took to my face with the clothes brush from the laundry, hoping that if I scrubbed and scrubbed, my skin would clear up and my appearance would be vastly improved. I started dabbling with mum’s makeup, smearing on eye shadows, foundations and blushes that were completely inappropriate for a child’s skin because, despite her comments, mum didn’t buy me my own. For many years, I made sure that the bathroom light was off whenever I went in to wash my face or brush my teeth, as I hated seeing my own reflection.

I’ve started to think about those times a lot more lately as my partner and I have discussed having children. We’re at an exciting point in our lives, talking about our plans for a not-too-distant future. But I also feel a little scared. I know that being a kid can suck a lot of the time, and I want to be able to help my children navigate the minefield that is growing up. I want them to be able to block out the negativity and feel good about themselves. I don’t want them to feel the way I did. And I certainly don’t want to do or say anything that might make it all worse for them.

So I often find myself wondering, how could my mum have felt right telling a ten-year-old that they should alter their appearance? Won’t the world point out a child’s imperfections enough, without their parent adding fuel to that raging inferno of low self-esteem that so many young people experience?

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I understand now that my mum made a mistake. When she said those words to me that day, she probably thought she was making a helpful suggestion. She was probably trying to find a way to help me with my plummeting confidence, and she didn’t know how to broach the subject. I think her heart was in the right place.

When she said those words to me that day, she probably thought she was making a helpful suggestion."

These days, those dark feelings of self-loathing no longer wriggle their way into my day-to-day thoughts, the way they did when I was younger. Into my twenties, I’ve slowly rebuilt my confidence. I’ve learnt to place more emphasis on the parts of my life that make me happy, of which there are many.

Yet even now, the self-esteem issues of my childhood and adolescence still lurk in my life. I still won’t take a step outside the house without a layer of foundation on my face. Sometimes, I’ll stand in front of the mirror for half an hour before bed, assessing my own appearance and picking at the imperfections on my skin. And I always think twice before doing something that might mess up my makeup, like going for a swim with friends. My makeup is still my mask, which I use to try and hide not only my blemishes, but my feelings and my insecurities, too.

I wish that we didn’t live in a world that tells young girls that their physical appearance is a measure of their worth as a human being. I wish that we didn’t have to tell our daughters that they are beautiful for them to feel good about themselves. And I wish that my mum never made me feel that my own face was less than perfect.

But reality is cruel, and we live in an image-obsessed world. Even now, more than a decade later, the memory of my mum’s suggestion that I needed to work on my appearance still hurts.

Sticks and stones may break our bones, but our parents’ words can hurt the most.

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