The teenage girl stands in front of the vending machine, a frown on her face. She scans the snack selections uncertainly. Several minutes tick by. She is unaware that anyone is behind her. I am a few feet back and notice her thin shoulders.
She has lost a bit of weight in the last year. She has a new boyfriend on her arm. He is not with her now, but even though she smiles when she is with him, I notice something worried in her expression. I see a bit of a desperation in the way she clings to his hand, attaches herself to him in her every spare moment.
She surveys the snacks carefully one last time and selects a bag of chips. I get the impression that she is choosing carefully — that perhaps this one item will be all she eats today. Although what I am thinking is merely conjecture — I see myself in this girl. No, not in the selection of Doritos or the rapid weight loss — but in the fear. The desire written all over her face to be loved. The fear that maybe he’ll find out she’s not enough.
And I know he will — not because she doesn’t have enough to offer — but because she doesn’t believe that she does.
Another Story of Broken Self-Worth
I think back to 18-year-old me. I am excited. Cheeks flushed. I am packing to go on a trip. A trip to see a boy that expressly asked for me. But as I pack, I am also worried. He hasn’t seen me in a few months. Does my hair look all right? Do I look too thin?
I have never flown across the country alone before. I combat my nerves for seven straight hours with each dip of the airplane. I have written dozens of letters to this person, but I have never met his family. I haven’t been alone with him for more than a handful of hours. I want this trip to be amazing. I want everything to be perfect.
When I get off the plane, I look around expectantly, but I don’t see him. After waiting for some time (this is pre-cell phone era, people), I notice that no one is standing around.
I walk in the direction of the other people. I don’t know where I am supposed to meet him. I am not even sure I remember what he looks like. At last, just when I am getting a little panicked, I see him standing by a wall in a sweater I would never pick out. I go up and hug him, but things feel awkward and off right away. He tells me that his mom bought him the sweater. I decide that I don’t like it. I keep my opinion to myself. Tacky sweater or no, this boy is the boy of my dreams. I figure that we just need a little time to warm up to each other again.
But that doesn’t happen. In fact, the whole visit, it feels like he drifts further and further away from me, and I can’t get through to him. He is distracted, busy. He tells me he is going hunting with his friends. He has a doctor’s appointment. He doesn’t want to walk outside in the snow even though I ask. He beats me in checkers every time and laughs at the way I try to lift weights. I feel stupid. Inadequate. In the way.
At the end, when it is time to say good-bye, he hands me a letter. There is no explanation in it — just a “sorry” that is vague. He tells me that he won’t be riding with me to the airport. He is going to sleep in.
I call him twice more — once when I get to the airport and once more when I get home. I can tell he doesn’t want to talk. What did I do wrong? I obsess. Was it the way I dressed? Talked? Acted? When he doesn’t call again, I let him confirm what I was afraid of all along.
Moving On: Finding Self-Worth in the Wrong Places
I start college with high hopes of stepping out as a new person — in leaving behind the past, but I am immediately pursued by a boy I don’t even like. Initially, I go out with him just because I don’t know how to thwart his advances, and I am flattered by his attention.
We enter into a relationship. But he, too, helps to dig my self-esteem further down. He is critical of me. One day when I don on shorts (I was already self-conscious about my skinny legs), he squints and tells me he notices some cellulite forming on my thighs. (I laugh now when I write this because I definitely had nothing like cellulite on my legs at the time. Now might be a different story!)
He flirts openly with other girls on campus, and he discusses different features of attractive girls in my presence. I feel insecure and plain in comparison. I put an end to the relationship. I make the decision right then and there that I don’t care what happens to me. I don’t care if I just throw myself away.
Not too long after that, I meet a young marine. He pays attention to me. He is kind. He has money to pay for his bills. He doesn’t talk about other girls in my presence. He never makes fun of me, and I never worry that he wants someone else.
I am not ready for marriage. I am too young, but I say “yes” when he asks. He is going to have to travel a lot, and he wants to move to Georgia when he gets out. I think about how wonderful it would be to run away from my problems and be loved for the rest of my life.
But I quickly find that my problems follow me. After marriage, I find myself homesick and depressed. My husband’s love isn’t enough to convince me of my worth. I keep striving and seeking. I remember getting a break-through one day at the altar when I go forward for prayer. God tells me to forgive the boy who hurt me all those years ago (and I conclude later that that includes the others who have hurt me as well) — and He tells me something else: Carol, it wasn’t your fault.
The Question Every Woman Asks Concerning Her Worth
In Your Captivating Heart: Discover How God’s Love Can Free a Woman’s Soul, Stasi Eldredge asserts that women go through life asking this question: “Am I lovely?” The problem is that they take this question to the wrong people. I took my question to the boy in another state, the boyfriend in college — and I let them answer it for me. And the answer I got back was this: No, you are not. You are defective. You can’t hold a man’s love. Other women have something you don’t. As Eldredge notes:
You see, every girl is asking one fundamental Question, a question that is core to her heart. Little boys have a core Question too. Little boys want to know, Do I have what it takes? All of that rough and tumble, all that daring and superhero dress-up, all of that is a boy seeking to prove that he does have what it takes … Little girls, on the other hand, want to know, Am I lovely? Do you see me? Am I worth fighting for? The twirling skirts, the dress-up, the longing to be pretty and seen — all of that is about seeking an answer to our Question.
What if, instead of taking our question to bosses or fathers or boyfriends, we take our question to God? What if we let Him answer it, and it is from that place of security that we are able to operate out of a stable identity?
Yes, I believe that God designed a woman to want to be noticed and pursued by a man, and it’s not wrong for us to want to be what Eldredge describes as “captivating” to that special person in our life. But what if we decide to see ourselves the way God sees us so it won’t completely derail us when someone doesn’t treat us the way we should be treated or offers an opinion about us that doesn’t line up with God’s?
As Eldredge asks in a book she co-wrote with her husband, Captivating: Unveiling the Mystery of a Woman’s Soul, what if the truly most unbeautiful parts of me or you aren’t the flaws others have pointed out in us or we have imagined in ourselves, but the belief in us that says we are not enough? What if the way we can be the most beautiful is to be us without trying to morph into a more polished, prettier, smarter version of us?
Because here’s the thing that I wish I had known as a young person, and I wish I could tell the girl at the vending machine and all of us desperate women unhappy with ourselves: that we have to risk sharing our beauty with others knowing that not everyone will affirm it or acknowledge it (Eldredge, Captivating).
But if we are firm in our identity and beauty because we are daughters of God, even if another person rejects us, they can’t convince us that we don’t possess beauty or worth. Because we are too convinced (based on the fact that One bigger and more important has already convinced us) — that we do.