When I Was Confident and Didn’t Know It
This morning I Instagrammed a photo of what I was wearing to work with the caption, “Self portrait in black and white of a woman working on loving her body.” I was wearing black and white leggings printed in a sort of herringbone pattern, leggings I’d worn before. With a much longer top. I’m large enough that it’s hard to miss the shape of my body, but I don’t very often wear clothes that call attention to the fact that I carry a lot of my weight below the waist. I’m not that gorgeous fat woman you see in the catalogs showing off a great pair of gams in high heels and I never will be because genetics. Because I know a lot of lovely people, I received lovely responses, including one from my high school friend J who first knew me in all my skirt-wearing, hair always in a bun glory. She wrote, “I think of you at 13 as self confident and truly gorgeous. I see this always and still….”
My first thought was, “Oh, that’s so sweet, and I’m so glad I still know J.” My second thought was, “But that wasn’t self-confidence, that was just bravado.” And that’s how I always describe my younger self (and by younger, I mean my teens, my 20s, my 30s, my early 40s)—as an insecure mess covering it all with bravado.
I find myself wondering today, however, what would happen if I accepted that I was actually self-confident even back then? According to Merriam-Webster, self-confidence means “confidence in oneself and in one’s powers and abilities.” To parse it further, confidence means faith or belief in the rightness of one’s actions. It also means being conscious of one’s powers. All of which combined does describe me in high school. Of course, being a teenager, I didn’t actually know anything about myself, but I at least knew what I was good at, and what I was less good at. (Or, in the case of physics, terrible at.) I knew I was intelligent (over the course of my high school career I was ranked 5th, 4th, and 7th academically out of a class of roughly 700 despite routinely doing my homework on the bus or in the cafeteria before school each morning), I knew I could sing well, and I knew I was a good writer So, why am I routinely unwilling to accept that assessment of my younger self as self-confident?
I think in part, given how much fear I felt at home, and how much I hid from my friends about what my home life was like, I can only understand the dichotomy between me at home and me any place else but home if I call the any place but home self an impostor. Home was where I was trying to find a narrative that explained why my parents couldn’t nurture me in the way I needed, the way any child needs. Home was real life, and in that real life, the only story that made sense was that I was too monstrous for anyone to love. It simply never occurred to me that my real life was actually outside of home, when I was surrounded by people who were invested in nurturing me. That the me who pretended to be confident wasn’t actually pretending, but being who I was at my core.
And though I’m old enough now to see that at school I wasn’t actually pretending, but rather I was blossomed into myself—a little bit loud, a little bit outrageous, a lot boy crazy—I think it’s still hard to see myself as confident back then because of shame. If I was so confident, why did I let my parents bully me? If I was so confident, why didn’t I stand up for myself? And later, when I was away at college and later still starting my life as a working adult, if I was so confident, why was I always chasing men who didn’t want me and getting too drunk all the time and gaining weight and constantly being hounded by bill collectors cause I had zero financial management skills?
As I type this, I’m understanding that it doesn’t have to be either/or. That you can be confident and still be a hot mess. That I could’ve been a confident young woman and also still shaky from struggling to unwrite years of emotional damage for which I didn’t yet have language, or the ability to process it and begin to undo it. And accepting that, well, that’s a good start.