When I was a kid, a common mantra in my home was, “But what will other people think?” It was something my mother said often, reminding me that I shouldn’t stray too far out of society’s norms, because, after all, being liked was way more important than being yourself. She didn’t tell me this to be cruel; in fact, quite the opposite — I think she did it as a way to keep me from standing out and becoming a potential target in a sometimes harsh world. Blend in, don’t draw attention to yourself. Make sure that you’re friendly and likeable and above all else — be nice, no matter what!
The childhood training I received worked well. A little too well, in fact. At 40 years old I still sometimes struggle with being myself and err on the side of blending in. I still feel an awful initial pang when I realize that someone doesn’t really like me all that much. I am sometimes nice when I really don’t need to be – or possibly even shouldn’t be. I hear my mother’s voice asking me, “But what will people think?” when it comes to things like second weddings and orange wedding dresses. I wrestle with that voice more often than I would like. Thankfully with the support of certain people *cough* CBG *cough* I am victorious more often than not these days.
But honestly I just wish that dang voice would go away completely.
I do my best with my own girls to encourage them to be exactly who and what they are. Obviously, at 9 and 11 they’re still very much figuring that out, but at every step along the way I make sure I tell them certain things. Like they are wonderful and amazing just the way they are. That there’s nothing wrong with standing out and that standing up for yourself is a good thing. That “being nice” isn’t the same as being a good person and that sometimes NOT being nice is the best course of action in a situation.
Last week my youngest daughter, Lil’ Mo got the haircut that she’s been talking about for months now. A while back she got the idea that she wanted to have the left side of her hair shaved. At first I said that would be a great hairstyle for her when she was a little older, but it kept nagging at me, particularly since she kept talking about it (in the whole, “this will be so awesome when I’m old enough to get it done” way). I started noticing lots of people around with similar hairstyles and reminded myself than in a few years, it might not be a popular style anymore.
And then I remembered something else important – it’s just hair. I realized that my hesitation regarding Lil’ Mo’s hair had more to do with my dear old mom’s mantra than anything else. What does it really matter how her hair is styled? She’s nine years old. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. So we marched ourselves into that hair salon and she got the hairstyle that she’s been dreaming about for months now, showing the world that she’s the kind of person that does what she wants. Sure, it was just a haircut, a relatively small thing in the grand scheme of things, but for me, the smile on her face once it was all said and done reminded me how important it is to be true to yourself — always. Because nothing can replace the happiness and satisfaction that you feel when you do.
I’m 40 years old and I’m still growing and learning. And my nine year old daughter is one of my heroes. Some day I hope to grow up and be just like her.