When I was 13, I was a pretty good tennis player. I spent summers as a child at Camp Birchwood for girls in Vermont, where most of my time was centered on playing tennis. The lake was filled with seaweed and fish, I didn't like volleyball, and rest period, when I could read comic books and write letters, only lasted an hour, so tennis was my thing. I was never particularly athletic, but tennis was one sport I not only enjoyed, but seemed to be able to do reasonably well.
One day, the (male) director of the tennis program said this to me:
"You'd be a great tennis player if you'd just lose 15 pounds."
Now, this jerk was probably right. In the throes of adolescence and puberty, my body was changing and growing at a rapid pace, and those 15 pounds were, more or less, the bane of my existence. I probably could have moved faster and followed through on my swing better if I dropped some weight. But at that time, it had never occurred to me that those 15 pounds were such an obstacle to my success, and the shock of what he said resonated deep inside of me.
Not that I even aspired to be a great player. I just wanted to have fun. I just wanted to play tennis. But still.
I've never forgotten that moment. I went from being a girl who liked playing tennis and did it well enough to enjoy it to seeing myself as a chubby girl who was missing out on athletic achievement all because of some belly fat. As I've gotten older, his words have gone from being traumatizing to being idiotic. I've come to realize that what he said was not only insensitive but stupid, and my 13-year-old self has let it go. For the most part.
Words stay with us. The words that sting, whether well meaning or said with malice, can be blows to our self-esteem when we're young and impressionable or depressing and hurtful when we're adults. We carry words with us in our heads and hearts for a long time (in this case, all my life).
There have been other things said to me that have been equally as insulting and inappropriate. For example, the grocery checker who asked me when my baby was due when I was buying diapers for my two week old. My postpartum body was nowhere near back to normal, and I did still look pregnant. Fortunately, by the time I was 28, I had developed a little bit more of a tough skin and didn't take it too hard — but I did learn to never ask a woman if she's pregnant, even if she's clearly ready to pop.
Why people feel the need to comment to strangers on things that are none of their business never ceases to amaze me. When my son was a baby, he had a lazy eye and wore an eye patch and glasses from the time he was 18 months old until he was three. It was hard to see my beautiful boy wearing that patch and going through surgeries to correct the problem. To have strangers make comments (what did you do to him?) and not punch them in the face was a genuine exercise in self-control. But I learned from that experience. I learned to keep my mouth shut.
Now that I'm older, the slings and arrows of others have little effect on me. At midlife, I know myself well enough that other's insults — whether intentional or inadvertent — mean nothing. Learning to not say everything that comes into my head has been one of the great gifts of aging — there is very little I regret having said anymore, unlike when I was younger and far less self-aware.
Everyone has said things they wish they could take back — often we don't even realize how hurtful our comments can be until long after we've said them. If we would all just wait … one, two, three seconds … before we speak, the world would be a better place.
And if you ever want to tell a 13-year-old girl that she should lose 15 pounds — for any reason — don't. She probably already knows.