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?