I was sixteen and the cutest boy in school decided he liked...me? I was over the moon. I developed a spring in my step that screamed, “I am young! I am in love! It is so beautiful to be alive!” Every time my phone chimed, my heart started beating like I’d slammed 10 cups of coffee in one sitting. For a brief moment, the world was my oyster and I felt like a goddamn pearl.
The elation deflated quickly as "The Love of My High School Life" moved on to bigger and better things; namely, a girl with a bigger and better butt. And he didn't want to do long distance from NYU...or whatever. Looking back, it’s easy to laugh at my ridiculous pining and desperate attempts to make him fall hopelessly in love with me, but at the time, the heartbreak that weighed on my chest felt insurmountable.
I recently revisited the spoken word pieces I wrote during high school and my freshman year of college and I could physically feel the pain of my past rejection radiating through my screen. I wrote about being dumped in a metaphorical ditch, getting left in the cold, practicing self-harm because I couldn’t cope with the anxiety pulsing through my veins. Suddenly I realized the extent to which I had let myself be taken advantage of, simply because no one told me I deserved anything better.
At sixteen, I threw my whole self into ensuring that people liked me. Ensuring that my teachers gave me As, that girls would want to be my friend and, above all, that boys would like me. And they did. I knew what to say, what to wear, how long to wait between texts. And I was fucking proud of it. I got attention from the boys I liked, the boys I didn’t like and boys that dragged me down to the lowest lows I’d ever experience. My misplaced energy would eventually come to a head when I found myself in a sexually and emotionally abusive relationship with someone who only kept me around for his own entertainment.
My experiences are not uncommon. I’m three years out of high school and I still watch my peers run themselves ragged chasing after people who don’t have the maturity or emotional capacity to love them back. In middle school, we learn about periods, deodorant, how to have safe sex (or more frequently, how to not have sex at all), that boys were going to want to rub their junk all over us for the rest of our lives and that that was a good thing. In the midst of so much societal emphasis on how to make yourself desirable, you’d think our teachers, our mothers, our sisters, anyone would tell young girls that our magnetism to men does not determine our intrinsic value. It's incredibly difficult to fully understand since sex and relationships seem to be the end-all, be-all in the majority of mainstream media. I just wish I had been told that my worth was not decided by how many people wanted me.
I feel extremely lucky that I learned this lesson at a young age. Growing up in a suburb that fit every stereotype of a suburb, I saw my friends’ mothers do everything in their power to keep up appearances--their houses, their honor-roll kids, their book clubs and their boobs. Once, I heard my best friend’s father screaming at his wife from two floors away. How anyone could stay with that asshole? I didn’t understand, and yet I found myself exhibiting the same submission to abuse because I couldn’t bear to imagine being perceived as undesirable to anyone. To be single and alone was to be unworthy.
At nineteen, I finally broke the surface and gasped for the breath that reality supplied. I saw my relationship for what it was: abusive, toxic and above all, not worth my limited energy. I’d like to say I ended it with an enormous feminist bang, but it was more of a tearful fizzle. I cried for weeks. I felt worthless. I thought the abuse I suffered was the love I deserved. And honestly, I couldn’t tell you how I eventually climbed out of the pit, but somehow I picked myself up by my harem pants and moved forward. I discovered the wonderful types of love I’d discounted as irrelevant: the love for creating art, for good friends, for my family, for learning to be okay with being alone. So, I learned. And I sold all the stock I put into the need to be desired and began investing in myself.
In sum, you are more than your cleavage, the size of your waist or the minutes you count between his texts back. You are more than the number of boys you’ve dated, kissed, slept with, or given your soul. The people from whom you seek love do not determine your worth. A person’s worth lies in his/her skills, values, passions and any and every accomplishment. When Fall Out Boy released “Save Rock and Roll,” I didn’t understand what Patrick Stump meant by, “you are what you love, not who loves you.” I’ve learned that my intrinsic worth does not lie in the hands that dragged me down to my lowest lows. It lies in the love I have to give.