When I was a little girl, I took my cues from the closest person to me — my mother. She was unapologetically large, both in personality and size. She made no qualms about getting what she wanted, whether it was a perfect medium-rare steak (she’d send back a steak as many times as it took to get it right), or a goal she was trying to accomplish. Nobody got in her way. She was fierce, loud, strong-willed and she didn’t take no for an answer. Good luck to anyone who tried to bully her.
She raised me to stick up for myself in the same way. I made myself heard. Loudly. I was a no-holds-barred know-it-all who dominated at sports, read three grades above my age and felt absolutely no qualms about leading in groups. I was bossy. I was precocious. I was strong. I was curious. I was convinced I could do anything: sing, dance, invent, act, practice law, write novels, create art. I wanted to master it all.
Alone in my basement, I created science experiments, breaking into my brother’s big kid chemistry set to pilfer supplies. I checked out books at the library about building tree forts as well as sewing and baking. I aced Tech Ed in school and beat the boys at gym. I was our school band’s second chair flutist and chosen to read my essay at elementary school graduation.
In middle school, the bullying started. And so, too, did my self-awareness. I began to notice how many people looked at my mother with contempt. I observed their posture, and the looks on their faces when they spoke to her. They hated her. Even when she was being nice (which she mostly was), she seemed to rub people the wrong way. Especially men. It always seemed to me that most men couldn’t stand my mother. After all, she had a triple whammy of “unlikable” traits: she was fat, outspoken and female.
The woman who was once my hero, the woman who I once painstakingly modeled myself after started to seem a lot less aspirational. I didn’t want to be hated. I wanted to be liked — desperately so.
My mother would tell me to ignore the bullies; “They’re just jealous!” she would say, “you can’t hold yourself back to appease others!” But I was hearing a different, much stronger message: I was annoying. I was a show off. I was too much. I needed to tone myself down.
I eagerly sought friendship and approval. After getting straight A’s my entire life, I realized in high school that getting straight A’s doesn’t make you prom queen. It makes you a threat. It makes you full of yourself. It makes you stand out in all the wrong ways. To be a woman who makes herself large, I learned, was a grave mistake.
I didn’t want to be alone at the top of the class. I wanted to make myself easy to digest. And so began my long descent into mediocrity.
I morphed myself into whoever was around. I used to be very bad at playing these roles, which at first made me even more annoying than my overachiever self. But I got much better as I went along.
In high school, I was a basketball playing hip-hop head, who’d fervently trash any other girl to look cool around her guy friends.
In college, I became a rugby playing, toga-wearing, beer funneling, “easy going” party girl.
In my young twenties, I shaped myself into the quintessential cool girl, complete with Jennifer Lawrence-like schtick: “who me?! I just happen to be hot, funny, whip-smart AND self-deprecating enough that I present no threat.” I spent an ungodly amount of energy being approachable and pretending not to care about things.
In law school, I decided to be the comic relief slacker, despite receiving a scholarship for having one of the highest LSAT scores in my year. I skipped class, went out drinking, and blatantly and boldly told my professors I didn’t do the reading when called upon.
People liked me. Of course they liked me. I was giving them exactly what they wanted: a diluted version of myself. I did everything a woman should do to be liked: I apologized profusely for taking up space and trimmed myself back until I was a shell of a human being — an easy pill to swallow.
Since my mother’s death, I’ve become more “myself” than I’ve been in decades. I no longer work so hard to keep up a facade. My priorities have shifted seismically. These days, it feels foolish to waste my energy molding myself to please people who couldn’t care less about me in the long run. I now try to focus on the people who matter; who like me both in spite of and because of my flaws. I know my bold personality is not for everyone. I know I can be polarizing. I always have been, despite bending myself to the point of exhaustion to be liked. About half of the people I grew up with still hate my guts to this day. I’m learning to be ok with that.
Yet as much progress as I make, resisting the pull of being liked is still a struggle. Social media isn’t exactly a bastion of authenticity. We all want those “likes”; that validation that we matter. Even in my writing, I find myself pulling back from certain topics and thinking more about my audience than what I’d really like to write. I am constantly vacillating between making my voice heard and diminishing myself to convenience others.
But I am sick of playing by the rules. I am sick of worrying about what people will think, or say behind my back. I am sick of holding back my opinions and refraining from going after what I want. I am sick of making myself small.
Nobody likes a know-it-all. I know, because my mother was one. Sure, she could be frustratingly obstinate, and she definitely needed to learn to apologize and admit when she was wrong. Yet despite her flaws, I can’t help but admire that she never dumbed herself down or shrunk herself for anyone. Their opinions be damned.
I think my mother had it right. I, too, am done with being likable.