I was standing in the living room at a family friend’s house. It was Christmas. Growing up, our family was very close with a couple other families in our neighborhood that were, well, just like us. Boisterous, fun New York Italians with last names ending in vowels. A friend of my parents came up to me and said, “You know, Vanessa, you’re going to be so pretty someday.”
But someday is not now. Someday connotates the future, not the present.
I must have been about 11 or 12. Old enough to know that even as a compliment, it was a backhanded one. I’m sure it was meant to be a nice thing to say and there was no harm intended. It was pretty much understood in our families that I was the ugly duckling. I think some of the adults felt genuinely sorry for me. They saw how the other kids teased me. It was meant to try and make me feel better. What I heard was not the compliment.
What I heard was the painful truth that I already suspected: I was not pretty. I was…not pretty.
I was an exceptionally awkward-looking kid. I grew fast and was taller than most kids in my class. All my classroom pictures look the same. Two tall boys in the back row and then me. By the time I was 12, I was 5'6" and weighed about 96 pounds soaking wet.
My hair was a course, partially wavy/partially straight Italian mess. I inherited a classically Roman nose that wasn’t large per se. It was just different. But my teeth. Dear God. I had a serious overbite and a gap in my front teeth that would rival that of the Wife of Bath.
In the 5th grade, when we had picture day, the photographer would not let me smile without closing my mouth.
Adding to my already nosediving self-esteem was the fact that my sister was absolutely adorable. Petite, with freckles and a button nose, naturally curly hair and perfect teeth. In class pictures, she was always in the front row. Legs crossed at the ankles with her hands folded perfectly in her lap. To say I wanted to punch her most days of my childhood would be an accurate statement.
My sister was cute. I was….Jenny’s sister.
I carried “pretty someday” for longer than I ever thought I would. Each year that passed and “someday” never happened drove the knife just a little deeper.
I’m not sharing this with you because I want sympathy. I am way past that point and grew out of my awkward stage around age 22. I’m not kidding. 22. My ugly inner child got her revenge twice later in life when boys that teased her in middle school later asked the now-adult her out and she got a laugh and say no.
I learned how to deal with being the awkward kid. It made me funny. When you’re aware at a very early age that you’re never going to get by on your good looks, you find other currency to use. Funny became my currency. It still is. But there is a reason I’m sharing this:
I’m sharing this because we say things to kids that should never be spoken.
The problem is that kids listen. They hear you. Your words reach deep corners of them that you don’t even know exist. My dad gave me a multitude of nicknames growing up. Nothing that was meant to tear me down but all amplified that I was a tall, skinny kid. I was wildly aware of this fact and tried to forget every single day. Then I would come home and my dad would call me Spokes or Slats or Bones. It didn’t help. I never said anything about how much it hurt or how mad it made me. I still never have.
Just let them be kids and let them have their innocence. They’re not small adults. They can’t process things like you can. The world will toughen them up in due time. You don’t need to help.