Aware that an excessive workload and lack of money would soon eat into my social life, I crammed as many catch ups into my first week as I possibly could. A lecture in the morning and another in the afternoon left a decent timeslot in the middle of the day. Perfect for a quick drink at the uni bar with a long-term friend.
We’d been through many battles together and somehow had come out the other side fighting. In hindsight, our regular debriefing sessions, aided by alcohol and high-fat food, probably had something to do with it. It wasn’t planned but we’d ended up studying law together, albeit different units at different times. Still, in the first week, with no assessment due, it was easy to coordinate our schedules.
Laura accompanied me to the uni bar but wasn’t staying for a drink. I was impressed by her willpower; alcohol was something I’d yet to say no to. Two particularly dewy-faced girls with tans so natural they could only come from a high-end tanning salon sat near the entrance of the cafeteria, sipping vibrantly coloured juices. They giggled at us as we walked past.
I knew these girls. Well, I didn’t know them personally but I knew their kind. They were the cool girls at school. The ones everyone aspired to be but could never quite make it because being cool isn’t something you can fabricate. Being cool is something that you are.
That didn’t stop the 17-year-old version of myself trying my damndest to fit in. What I didn’t realise at the time was that trying hard only resulted in an equally opposite outcome. My continued uncoolness, now an embedded part of my identity, followed me to university, into my first job and even a little bit into my second.
I’d come a long way since I was at school but that giggle, combined with a well-timed snooty look, took me back. I noticed my arms, crossed – perhaps subconsciously, maybe self-consciously – and defiantly pulled them to my side, unwilling to regress but unable to help myself.
‘Just ignore them Laura, at least we can legally drink.’
I was disappointed in myself. I’d worked hard over many years to avoid making unnecessary nasty remarks. No, I’d worked hard to avoid making nasty remarks, period. I’d yet to meet a nasty comment that was in any way necessary. Genuine constructive criticism I get, but nasty is just cruel.
When the first glass of wine went straight to my head, making me feel woozy, I realised I’d not eaten since breakfast. I decided that food – available from the cafeteria just outside the uni bar – was in order before I even considered progressing to my second glass of wine.
I’d forgotten about the cool girls and was surprised to see them still sitting there, giggling and judging those who passed. And they had plenty of fodder. Hundreds of girls, varying in height, weight and body shape, spilled out of the cafeteria, some standing, some sitting and a few leaning. Then there was clothing choice, shoe preference, makeup (none, a little, a lot and way too much), hairstyle and accessories. The options for ridicule were endless.
Upon returning to the bar, bowl of nachos in hand, I received another giggle-snooty look combo. I had to give them one thing; at least they were consistent. This time, I slowed and looked them in the eye but instead of seeing the cool girls from high school I saw two insecure young women, desperately trying to make themselves feel better by putting others down.
And then I remembered… Being a teenager sucks. Being a teenage girl is even worse. It had been so long, I’d forgotten how rough it was spending more years of your life in a child’s body than that of a woman’s but be bombarded by images of the ideal female – a stick-figure with boobs, poreless skin and the perfect pout.
Although it was equally unrealistic and unattainable, I still spent many years striving to become someone I could never be. I’ve now realised those images only serve to make me feel terrible about myself. Sure, it took a few years but I ditched the fashion mags for cat videos and my body image continues to thank me to this day. Plus the cats make me laugh, which also helps with stress levels.
Giving up on being something I was not was liberating. It was now such an integral part of myself that I didn’t realise how far I’d come. I made eye contact with them and their giggle turned into a snigger. Grateful for the reminder of how far I’d come, I smiled at them. They didn’t smile back but were unsure how to proceed.
I’d learnt to love myself by being kind. In those moments when my inner voice would become nasty and cruel, I’d ask myself if that’s how I’d talk to a friend. The answer was invariably no. I knew that I couldn’t give them self-acceptance – it took me years to find it myself, there was no way I could gift it to them in a look – but the very least I could do was give them kindness.
I smiled again, this time without a trace of nasty, and returned to the uni bar with my nachos, my friend, a second glass of wine and a newfound respect for being old(er).