Sex + Love

See Through Me

If no one notices me, do I even exist?

Collage by Sonja.

Collage by Sonja.

I’ll never forget the first time a guy flirted with me in middle school. Mike, a kid that I kinda knew, came up to me in class, smiled at me shyly, and gave me a cool neon pen that wrote in four different colors.

“What’s this for?” I asked, confused.

“Nothing,” he said. I felt my heart racing—I’d seen other girls in my class flirting with boys, turning them into their boyfriends, and sometimes even kissing them, and I had long wondered if those things would ever happen to me. When Mike presented me with this token of his affection, it seemed like it might finally be my chance to find out what that kind of romance was all about. I was beside myself with excitement and nervousness, like I was peeking into a great and lovely unknown.

I spent the rest of that day examining Mike like he was a science experiment. Did he like me? Did he love me? Or did he just think I needed something to write with? I analyzed every single interaction we’d ever had, searching for clues as to how he felt about me, and watched whom he interacted with during the rest of the day, trying to figure out what I had in common with the girls he talked to. These observations revealed nothing aside from the fact that everything Mike did was pretty amazing. I didn’t know what I’d done to earn this pen, but I wanted to find out, so I could do it again.

That night, a friend called to tip me off: I needed to tune in to a local radio station that took caller requests. I sat motionless, holding the radio in my hands, until the corny DJ announced a song dedicated “to Emily, from Mike.” The band was Nelson, a hair-metal band that played rock ballads; the song was “Love and Affection.”

LOVE. AND. AFFECTION?! I was a goner. Starting the next day, when we awkwardly said hello to each other at school, then locked our clammy hands together, I made being Mike’s girlfriend my full-time job. I mentally archived every conversation we had and took exhaustive notes about his preferences in a journal that I kept solely for figuring out the whole romance thing. Any time he complimented (or even commented on) something I did, I made his comments into my bible, and I was devout. Once, he mentioned that he liked my hair in a ponytail. I wore my hair in a ponytail for days on end, swinging it around in front of him as if to say, “See, I paid attention!” This did not increase the compliments, but he didn’t seem to hate it, either—I took notes on that, too. Looking for Mike’s approval wasn’t limited to dictating what hairstyles I wore: I would do anything to experience how amazing it felt to have Mike smile at me. When he looked at me, held my eternally sweaty hand, or kissed me, I felt like a worthwhile human being, and feeling worthwhile was a whole new experience for me.

Throughout my teenage years, I didn’t like myself very much, and I was too obsessed with my own insecurities to appreciate how I did in school, my friendships and family, my love of animals, or anything else I used to adore. I clanged around loose in my own brain like the last Tic-Tac in a pack…until Mike smiled at me. I felt seen, and it felt good. Oh, I get it, I thought. That’s why people like dating so much: It’s how you become a person. Having guys find me attractive was the only thing that made me feel wanted, and I would do anything to sustain that feeling. I would make sure they loved me. Because if someone else could love me, clearly there was something in me that could be loved—even if my personality was specifically tailored to their interests, instead of my own true feelings.

For many years after my time with Mike, I treated relationships like lost-and-found bins where I might come across myself. The complicated and gorgeous feelings that were sparked by being with boys made me feel more alive than anything else ever had. I abandoned female friendships and made my boyfriends into my new besties. I clung to guys who didn’t always treat me wonderfully, grateful to be seen, sometimes carrying drum equipment into and out of venues while my boyfriend flirted with other girls. I felt pretty only when boys told me I was pretty. I quit dance class, something I’d been doing for five years, in order to devote more time “to myself,” meaning “with my boyfriends,” who dictated my entire personhood: Was I into [a popular TV show]? I don’t know, is Tyler into [that same TV show]? Was I an angry, street-smart tough girl, or a sweet, naïve do-gooder? Ummm, unsure, let me check with Chris. Sometimes I’d even go further physically with guys than I’d planned to because I was worried that if I didn’t, they might leave me. I probably don’t need to explain that this is an incorrect way to go about both dating AND figuring out one’s own personality, but that particular insight was completely lost on me at the time.

This behavior probably could have gone on forever—and I imagine it does some people—but it was around college that I made my first incredibly close female friend, and she showed me a different kind of identification and support. She snuck past my “I only have time for boys” defenses with her intelligence, wit, and worldliness and by forcing me to go out to lunch with her and then somehow keeping me intrigued without talking about boys at all. We watched movies on the mattress that served as her couch. We went to the grocery store, found weird recipes on the backs of soup cans, and then made them together, giggling hysterically. We shopped for clothes together and went to pet puppies at the pet store. Mostly, we talked about everything we believed, and she didn’t judge me or act as if her attention was dependent on how cool I was.

I started noticing that those good, anchoring feelings of self-esteem I’d gotten with boyfriends also seemed to be happening with her. At the end of a day spent with her, I’d see myself as worthy and cool through her eyes. All this made me wonder: Were there perhaps other paths to self-esteem that didn’t involve dating guys who may or may not have deserved me? If I felt good from hanging out with a friend, was there a chance I could feel good about myself…by myself? I decided to take the big leap into singlehood. The guy I was dating at that moment, in a hilarious sign of where we actually stood, didn’t seem to mind too much when I dumped him. And so I went, bravely and terrifyingly, into yet another period of trying to become a person—but this time, I was architecting myself alone. I broke the pact I’d made with myself to stay a silent and accommodating mirror, and, with my friends’ encouragement, started talking about me.

I deconstructed myself piece by piece, examining every inch of my personality the way I used to examine the boys who had served as my self-esteem salvation. Was this piece of my persona really me, or was it formed in the hope of making others like me? Did this other piece bring me joy? Did that one make me feel like a fulfilled, whole person, even if no one else liked it? Am I wearing this ponytail because I want to put my hair up?

It was about then—not at all coincidentally—that I started writing, and I took pride in the things I created, like, How cool am I that I made this? I began taking dance classes again, made new friends (both male and female), and discovered that those delicious being-seen feelings could come from almost anywhere—a comment on a blog post I’d written, an outfit I’d put together, a happy dog, a long walk, hearing my sister laugh. Instead of focusing only on making dudes feel good in hopes that I’d get some of the runoff, or on how much any one friend appreciated me, I was passionate about what made me feel good. I felt like a kid again, rushing around from one activity to the next, amazed at what the world had to offer—all the things I’d been ignoring to make sure other people still liked me. Slowly, slowly, I figured out who I was when I was alone, and then reintroduced that person to the rest of the world: a girl who exists—even if no one’s looking at her. ♦

14 Comments

  • Me_Magalloway April 29th, 2014 8:11 PM

    Wow, I loved this.

    (Especially that video! I wish that was my life…)

    I’ve been feeling a similar way lately, but not with boys. I’ve just been looking for some validation that I’m not a loser, and I’ve been trying really hard to get someone to tell me so.
    But I know that I don’t need it- I’m still right here.

    Thanks for this article.

    http://navigating-fairyland.blogspot.com/

  • kiki_diane April 29th, 2014 9:14 PM

    You know that feeling when you’re waiting for a piece of art or music to affirm/validate how you’re feeling? THANK YOU ROOKIE for doing that with this article. Thanks for posting the right thing at the right time for me :)

  • katrinaandthediamonds April 29th, 2014 9:21 PM

    This article is very important! I hope everyone remembers that they are somebody special and they don’t need another special somebody to tell that they are. People always say that their significant others complete them but I think they only added on to them. The truth is, they were already whole to begin with and so many people just need to realize it! Emily, I’m happy you realized that and then wrote this article n_n

    http://www.katrinaspice.blogspot.com

  • pmc April 29th, 2014 9:24 PM

    This is really wonderful.

  • georgiinnaaa April 29th, 2014 9:46 PM

    this is awesome. I seriously love this blog.

  • Maria_G April 29th, 2014 10:06 PM

    Man, what a gorgeous post, Emily. I really love your writing and I can relate to this SO hard as I’m sure many will… even down to the “loving animals” thing. It was weird, midway through college, I started to find dogs and cats adorable again, and I was like “what the heck?! I totally forgot how much I love animals!”

  • bella_lmh April 30th, 2014 8:06 AM

    LOVE this piece and I can’t stop rereading it- one of the best yet! thanks again rookie :)
    I write a bit on a fashion/travel/music blog and I would love it it anyone checked it out
    http://www.neophytekid.blogspot.com

  • Berries April 30th, 2014 10:16 AM

    Wonderful, and I needed this! I had this tendency with my friends when I was a teenager – I was so in friend-love with both of them that it didn’t matter what we did, as long as I was with them. They treated me pretty good, but I did feel like I should like the same things as they did (gangster rap, Hillary Duff, casual fashionable clothing, skate-boarding, make-up and boys) although I was not (really) into it. I sometimes tend to do this, even though I’m not a teenager anymore, because I romanticize friendships like others romanticize their relationships. I really want to be seen as well, especially because I thought (and still think sometimes) that everyone will forget me very easily. Still working on it.

    It also helps me to realize that what I admire in others, that those are the things that are INSIDE OF ME that I can develop – everything is already there.

  • heather_smiles April 30th, 2014 1:56 PM

    This touched on my own experiences. Except I didn’t actually happen to be a ‘relationship’ with any of the men whose attention I craved and chased in order to feel ‘real’ or ‘worthwhile’ .. Thought I’d moved past it since I’d came to college. Lately I’m not too sure.
    But life’s a learning curve I guess.

    Ironically as I read this after listening to love and affection I played this song by Lauryn Hill. The lyrics stood out to me as pretty similar to what was being said in the article ‘I have no identity’.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pb7KjMTgK-Q

    Thanks for sharing by the way! Beautifully written and witty. Made me smile :) x

  • Flossy Mae April 30th, 2014 5:22 PM

    I love this and I can totally relate! Xx
    http://quiettea.tumblr.com

  • amelia3 April 30th, 2014 8:55 PM

    I’m showing this to my little sister :)

  • TheWriterMo April 30th, 2014 11:40 PM

    That is a fitting article since I just began reading Dirty Little Secrets, Breaking the Silence on Teenage Girls and Promiscuity by Kerry Cohen.

    Many of the girls in the book are obsessed with getting the attention of boys or men; however, unlike Emily they haven’t found an alternative. Like Emily wrote, “This behavior probably could have gone on forever—and I imagine it does [for] some people…”

    http://www.TheAllureofNymphets.com

  • Emily May 1st, 2014 12:12 AM

    I feel like this is the exact opposite of me, which in itself struck a chord with me. I really struggle to give a shit about any dude. I just like doing my own thing, and all 17-26 year old men at my school are, under a thin shell, pure unadulterated douchebags- but i’m really not interested in dating anyone older than that because although they might not call all women ‘bitches/ratchets’ like the 17-26 year group, they are so much older than me that I feel like they have some nasty Lolita thing (gag).
    I guess I just don’t feel like wasting time getting to know someone who will ultimately disappoint me by revealing their true, vile, core.

    Also! Followup question! Does anyone else find the whole concept of kissing completely repulsive? There was an arc from 13-16 where I just desperately wanted to kiss boys and never did, and now at 19 I have no interest? Can we all just eskimo kiss? Butterfly kiss?

  • kolumbia May 1st, 2014 4:44 PM

    This hit so hard. Thank you.