This Essay is by Elephant Rock's new intern, Evie Samuelson. Read more about Evie at the end of this post.
WHEN I WAS in the fifth grade, my teacher was into the concept of “militant self-love.” In the middle of her lessons, she drank her tea out of Mason jars with a twisty straw, so make of her life philosophy what you will. The point is that I, at the age of eleven, came to vehemently disagree with her. What was the point of doing anything if things were fine the way they were? What was point of life if not self-improvement?
I decided to ignore her when she told us we should "respect ourselves" and "pay attention to our dreams.” It didn't help her cause that I was desperate to please everyone, or that fifth grade was the time that people thought they ought to start telling me what I should do with my life. Nevertheless, I was fairly happy with my high-achieving, eager-to-please ways, and since my elementary school is still affectionately referred to as "the hippy granola school," I got along fine.
This is the story of how, five years later, that teacher and her Mason jars proved me wrong.
I ATTEND A Catholic college-prep school in Minneapolis. It's a good school, and when they write my biography they'll say I was lucky to go there. And I am. However, my classmates and I are all unhappy, in some way. The ways we have of being unhappy are unique, yet universal. Academic and peer pressure, feeling socially ostracized, made to feel guilty for the way we present our bodies (what we call "slut-shaming"), or just plain listlessness are all common ailments. This isn’t the school's fault (at least not completely), but at the same time there's little anyone can do to help it. Some people switch schools, states, or even countries in search of greener grasses. The truth, however, is that it's adolescence, and nothing and no one (with the exception of time) is gonna make that better.
Anyway, this explains why—as I was leaving for Washington, D.C. on the eve of my spring break—self-love wasn't high on my list of things to deal with during my time off. The powers that be, however, had other plans.
FROM THE MOMENT you disembark from the plane (or whatever other mode of travel) and step into Washington D.C., the place infuses you with an anticipatory air of something really wonderfully important happening, and makes you feel that you, even with nothing more than your presence, are a part of it. I fell madly in love with the city. The independence the Metro allowed for, the gentle slope of the brightly painted brownstones on Capitol Hill, the warm spring air; all of it served to further infatuate me. And it gave me rest and a restoration of my sense of grand ambition. All of which was good. But it was not, I would learn, the end of my strange road.
I have always had a healthy appreciation for myself and my abilities. I have not always had, however, a healthy appreciation for how I appear. I hate looking at pictures of myself, mostly because how I've imagined myself looking in that moment comes nowhere close to how I actually look. I am unnaturally short, at exactly five feet tall, with terrible skin that reacts badly to anything but fresh Alpine breezes and 100% cotton. I have small eyes and a round face that doesn't quite sit right on my neck. My teeth, currently decked out in braces, are crowded, twisted, and crooked in every which way you can imagine, with a bite that doesn't touch in the front. I have large, dexterous fingers on even larger hands, with feet to match. I have wide hips and shoulders that take up far too much of my upper profile. Maybe, someday, I could learn to love these features as though they were my children, but for one problem: when I feel myself walking down the street, you know, that sense that you get of your own body as it lives in the world? When I feel that, I'm feeling a five-foot-eight ballet dancer that can kill you with her forearms.
You can imagine how viewing a picture of myself might present problems for me.
All of hit me in a spectacular fashion as I sat on the hotel bed viewing photos of my day trip to the National Mall. I had just finished talking with some new friends in an online feminist chat forum, and all through the chat I’d been running into posts about positive body image and loving yourself. It brought me back to the Mason jar-drinking teacher urging us to pay attention to our dreams. It also brought me back to every time I had ever watched the unhappy boys at my high school sizing up the equally unhappy girls on a sliding scale of "one to ten of hotness." I don't think I was even mentioned.
Viewing these photos of my day in the city brought me back to every lost friendship or missed opportunity, every time I had been passed over for what I could only assume was someone more beautiful. But what viewing these photos really showed me was what I myself lacked: self-respect. That night in Washington, I recognized that all day I had been taking pictures of this beautiful city, but I was not in a single one. I was not imagining myself in it. Because the city was beautiful, and I was not. And that made all the difference in the world. I sat on the bed, dumbfounded, not quite sure what to do. I took out a piece of paper, and started to write.
I wrote, "Evie Samuelson is the most beautiful, talented, intelligent, desirable mother****er this world has ever encountered."
TRUTH BE TOLD, there was (and still is) only a small part of me that believed what I wrote. But that small part is enough. Because you've got to have something. For me, that something is the person I'm on my way to being. Through volunteer work and this internship, and maybe even real-life work, I've begun to use the incredible gifts and privileges I've been given to become a part of something greater. And who knows? Maybe it'll be my wide shoulders and crooked teeth and big hands, and my old teacher with her Mason jars and twisty straws that will carry me through.
It's not the kind of self-love anybody ever taught me, but I'd like to think that that's precisely the point.
My name is Evie Samuelson, and I'm Jeannine Ouellette's new intern at Elephant Rock. Ms. Ouellette (as she will forever be affectionately known to me) was my elementary school teacher for half a year, after which she taught my class English for another year. Since that time, she and I have kept in touch to talk about writing, books, and life. Last summer, I attended an Elephant Rock day camp for young women writers and I loved it. My internship now is in part a contribution to my attendance at the Madeline Island Writing Intensive for Young Women this July. I love the work I do for Elephant Rock, and I can't wait to write and read and learn on the lovely Madeline Island with an incredible group of people. I hope this essay helps to show that it's okay and natural to sometimes feel uncomfortable in your own body, and that self-love is not necessarily about always loving yourself, but rather, appreciating yourself however you can. I hope my story can find a place in the heart of the reader looking for someone else who has been there.
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