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  • Writer's picturetatum van dam


Updated: Nov 5, 2019

Tatum, don’t sit like that. That’s not ladylike.

When I was little, I would sit with one leg crossed over the other -- but not in the way that the right leg is hanging over the left, dangling slightly above the left foot that is flat on the ground. I sat in the way that kind of makes the shape of a “four” -- with the right ankle hitting just above the left knee, placing all the pressure onto the left calf. The kind of position that causes your right foot to fall asleep after all the blood has decided to rush down your leg and into that foot. The kind of position that was, apparently, deemed as “not ladylike.” I couldn’t help myself -- I grew up in a house with three brothers and a father who all sat with their legs crossed like that. And because I was supposed to “sit like a lady,” I had to refrain.

Don’t get stains on your shirt. That’s not ladylike. Don’t slurp your drink. That’s not ladylike. Don’t say that word. That’s not ladylike.

The phrase “that’s not ladylike” became a recurring statement throughout my childhood, despite the fact that most of these not-so-lady-like actions came as derivatives from growing up in a household predominantly filled with boys. We would skateboard around the neighborhood, collect peacock feathers in the creek, play video games until our Xbox got the red ring, run around in the sprinklers with water guns, and bruise our legs by climbing up the hill behind our house. I mean, not to be that girl that claims she’s “one of the boys” (or to perpetuate gender stereotypes) -- but that’s exactly what I was. One of the Van Dam brothers; or, at least, that’s what I thought I was until I got a tad bit older. And, by that, I mean when my body began to change.

What I’m trying to get at here is that I did not really understand the phrase “that’s not ladylike” up until the point I realized that I was, indeed, a lady.

Why am I getting these horrible cramps? Where did this acne come from? Is everything supposed to be hurting all of the sudden? Am I supposed to be wearing a *voice quivers* bra like my mom does?

My body was different from my siblings’ and no matter how many baggy sweatpants and hoodies I wore or how many of their video games I at least attempted to play, there was nothing I could do to change about it. I had a hard time adapting to the adjustments a girl faces when she is developing into a woman, and I did not know how to handle any of it. I was too scared to speak up to my mom, my other female relatives, or even my closest friends, so I tried to figure it all out on my own. As a result, I became self-conscious about the way I look and the way I present myself to this world. And as much as I can keep reminding myself that beauty is subjective and the way I see “Tatum” is entirely different from the way others see “Tatum”, I can never a hundred percent accept me for me.

I suppose we will start with the very beginning -- elementary school. After two years of transferring from a private school where I was too young to dress myself into the plaid dress and white collared button up girls had to wear, my wardrobe had developed into nothing short of different pairs of the same, baggy sweatpants and zip up hoodies from Target. It didn’t matter if it was hot outside, I was not going to take off that hoodie. I remember seeing other girls wearing dark brown culottes and foamy platform sandals and those ringer shirts that said something like “my brother is bananas!” I wanted to wear stuff like that, but I didn’t know how to.

I remember going to the mall with my mom and asking her if I could buy something unbeknownst to my torso: tank tops. These weren’t even the spaghetti strap kind with the lace trim from Abercrombie & Fitch -- I’m talking regular ribbed tank tops with two-inch straps. I bought a few fun prints, one of them being light pink with pastel colored ice-cream cones (very on brand for such a young age). When we got home from the mall, I went to my safe haven known as the bathroom to try on my newest fashion statement. I looked in the mirror, and I kind of liked it. “Well, it’s not bad,” I thought to myself. I walked outside of the bathroom, heard footsteps of my oldest brother coming upstairs, and immediately (but silently) stepped back into the bathroom, locked the door, and changed right back into the hoodie that protected my oh-so sacred shoulders. “Nevermind. It’s bad.”

Looking back on it, it wasn’t bad. Like, at all. It was a perfectly normal tank top for a second grader to be wearing. It wasn’t the slightest bit risque, but it felt like it. Anything that showed off the fact that I was a girl made me want to hide it from the world. And this only got worse in that one phase of life that no one likes to look back on called middle school.

Ah, yes, the sweet, sweet reminiscence of the oh-so-sanitary P.E. locker rooms.

Picture this: you walk into a musty room lit by the two working light bulbs and the strip of the 2 o’clock sunlight beaming from the single rooftop window. The air appears to be foggy, and this is due to the lovely aromas of twenty different Victoria’s Secret fragrances being circulated throughout the space. You hear the sound of the “warning bell” muffled by the loud chatter of preteen girls talking about the new cute boy in their core class, that one kid who rigged the election votes for Sixth Grade Commissioner, and, of course, how Susie and Josh got back together -- again. Again?! The chatter is followed by the slam of lockers shutting and locks clicking as the army of girls shuffle out the door sporting their oversized “Los Cerros Panthers” t-shirts (the perfect shade of gray to sweat in), rolled up gym shorts (because if you didn’t roll them up, they’d fall mid-calf), and a not-so-wide assortment of Vans and Converse (running shoes to P.E.? No thank you).

Though the locker room was essentially a giant bathroom, this one, in particular, was not my safe haven. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

Seeing other girls changing in the locker room taught me everything that I was doing wrong (but was too scared to change on my own): I should be shaving the hair on my body, wearing a *voice softens* bra, and maybe I should try wearing the kind of underwear that looks more like a piece of string. I mean, my friends and classmates were doing these things, so shouldn’t I be, too? Did their moms just sporadically provide these things to them? How are they so nonchalant about it all? Am I the only one who can’t say the word “bra” at a normal auditory level?

Consequently, as a product of being too uncomfortable to ask my own mother how and if I should be doing these things, I tried to do them on my own. Shaving: used my older brother’s materials, and resulted in a thousand cuts. Bras: did not have one to steal from my brother, so I wore multiple camisoles to suffice. Yes, like -- one on top of the other. That lead to a lot of bad back-acne that persists to this day. That certain kind of underwear: tried on one of my mom’s and immediately wondered how it was classified as wearable clothing. After making my best attempt to adhere to what I thought was the norm, I became even more uncomfortable with myself and this weird body I was put into. Those five-minute locker room changes were easily the worst part about middle school -- not only did I have to expose my body to other people, but I had to expose the fact that I wasn’t yet doing everything at the level they were.

A couple years passed, and I was now about to be a high schooler. In the months prior, I began to take an interest in fashion (which, I’m sure, my trendy mother was stoked about). My wardrobe had transitioned from skinny jeans, Hollister shirts, and hoodies into colorful dresses, skirts, and blouses. Now that I could bond with my mom over fashion, I finally worked up the courage to present her with a few of those “locker room problems” I was continuing to face. She, like any mother should be, was more than happy to help. She was also sad (rightfully so) that I had been too shy to bring them up earlier.

Ultimately, things were starting to look up… until I continued to look down.

I went on a vacation to Hawaii with my family. There is no way you can go to Hawaii and not go to the beach. Generally, when twelve year olds think of the beach, they think about swimming and body surfing and collecting shells and letting the pressure of the waves bury their feet into the quicksand; however, in my adolescent eyes, going to the beach meant exposing my body to the world, and even worse -- exposing my body to my family. (Maybe that’s why I prefer cold weather over the heat -- because I prefer to bundle up as opposed to dress down.)

Remember the kind of tank tops mentioned earlier that I bought in second grade? The cotton ones with the two inch straps? Every time we went to the beach on that trip, I wore one of those over my two-piece bathing suits and into the water. Not only did I wear a non-waterproof tank top into the ocean, but I also wore board shorts that gave me burns from the wet fabric rubbing against my dry thighs. I became so self conscious that I was willing to look and feel like an absolute fool in front of the people who, I know, accept and love me the most.

I eventually overcame the swim suit obstacle, but I wouldn’t be telling the truth if I said part of me still feels a little too imperfect and a little too self aware to be revealing that much of myself to the world around me.

Post-Hawaii meant I was also a post-middle schooler. In High School, things continued to improve in the realm of fashion, but it didn’t help that I was now surrounded by plenty of older, makeup wearing, bubbly personality-ed girls who somehow managed to always look like the Danville kid’s standard of perfect.

I remember trying to match this level of “perfect” by applying makeup for the first time. A few years back, I had attended a birthday party where the party favor was a little makeup kit with a few different colored eyeshadows and blush. I put on a slightly noticeable amount of the blush with the tiny plastic bristle-haired applicator, escaped the bathroom, and went downstairs to present my newest upgrade to my family. Without having said a thing, my mom asked me why my face was so red, and my face became even more red as I ran back upstairs to her bathroom -- in search of her makeup remover before she could realize I had tried to put some on.

Obviously, high school Tatum didn’t know the first thing about applying makeup, and my personality was a result of my bubbled-up self conscious thoughts. Timid, uneasy, and only funny when I wasn’t trying to be. Thinking back on it, those girls at school were “perfect” because of their confidence. It wasn’t about their new clothing or their pin straight hair or their mascara-filled eyelashes -- it was the fact that they weren’t afraid to be themselves on the inside and the outside. The inner me was starting to come out, which I have the Monte Vista Drama Department and Mr. Connor to thank, but the terribly awkward outer me acted as an antagonist. I knew I was a bright person on the inside, but why did I struggle so hard to show it?

At last, high school came to an end, and now, it was time to experience life away from home. I chose to attend The American University of Paris. The results of being in another country at a new school with foreign people were shocking: you can be yourself and people will accept you for you.

This realization didn’t come right off the bat; however, it did come faster than usual due to the fact that I had an immediate roommate named Anni. Anni was like the sister I never had -- truthfully. She taught me how to properly use a hair straightener, how to apply makeup in a non-clownish way, how to rock a pair of sneakers with any outfit, and, most importantly, she taught me to learn that I am enough.

Spending a year away from home in a foreign country taught me a lot about myself… and just when I thought things were getting better, they began to revert back to normal when I returned home -- away from Anni and away from the streets and people of Paris.

Among other important scholarly things, my first year of college taught me the do’s and don’ts of properly applying makeup (with just the right amount of blush), and my self conscious self inadvertently taught me how to become completely dependent on wearing makeup in order to feel like I looked socially acceptable. Post-Paris, I wore a full face of makeup every day**, even if my only plan was to take my dog on a walk or get a coffee down the street. I couldn’t stand how bare my face looked without it. Looking in the mirror and seeing my face without makeup felt like I was looking at an entirely different person -- and not an attractive one.

So, for the next year, I continued to wear a full face of makeup every single day.

(**By the way, there is absolutely nothing wrong with wearing a full face of makeup daily. In my case, I became a little too dependent on it to make me feel like I looked nice. And I began to think that, without it, I was unattractive.)

It wasn’t until my skin started acting up that I decided that I was going to stop wearing so much makeup. After a week or so of wearing a for-the-most-part clean face, I realized that:

1. Nobody noticed a difference aside from myself, and

2. There is no point in worrying about what other people think.

I was right, and I am right. Literally nobody sees my imperfections aside from myself. I am my own worst judge.

I mean, obviously, I still find myself caring about what other people think. I’m just trying to figure out how not to overthink things so much in order to overcome my insecurities, and maybe writing whatever this thing is will help.

Last year, I went to Europe with my brothers and we got dressed up to go out (definitely not to bars or clubs or anything of such matters…). I had forgotten that, because I am away at college for three quarters of the year, they haven’t really been exposed to the way I dress (which is much different than the hoodies and skinny jeans they were used to). That night, I wore platform sandals, a plaid skirt, and a see through glittery long sleeve. My oldest brother told me that I looked “really pretty,” and that stuck with me… given he was the same brother who I hid from while trying on that two-inch strapped tank top in second grade.

Another thing he told me on that trip was that I am “so nice and kind to everyone” and that I “deserve the world and more.” Oddly enough, that stuck with me a liiiittle bit more.

The other day, I watched one of Thoraya Maronesy’s YouTube videos where she asked strangers about their biggest insecurities (I highly recommend her channel). After realizing that all of us -- strangers and friends alike -- are all fighting our own little battles, I decided to write down a list of my insecurities. The list went as follows:

Things I Am Insecure About

  • My skin

  • The shape of my face

  • My hair

  • Almost everything concerning my outward appearance

  • My social anxiety and nervousness

  • How ^^ causes me to get really hot and red

  • My nose

  • How one of my front teeth is higher than the one next to it

  • Looking young

  • My body

  • My niceness and being taken advantage of

  • My calves

After that, I decided to write down a list of things I love about myself. And that list took nearly three times as long to write.

Things I Love About Myself

  • My eye color and my eyelashes

  • My style

  • My ability to empathize

  • I am very giving and nice

  • My creativity

  • My need to explore

  • My open-mind

  • My drive to do well

  • My height

  • My ethnicity

Note how nearly every single thing on the first list has to do with the way I look, and nearly every single thing on the second list has to do with things that cannot be judged by the human eye and the subjective mind. The second list is filled with important qualities that will take me far in life, and the first list is filled with things that, if adjusted to what I perceive to be as "better", will only bring temporary satisfaction.

The only person who needs to learn to love myself is, well… myself.

I have a best friend who will hype me the f**k up any day, I have five housemates that are like sisters to me, I have a boyfriend who loves me just the way I am, and a family that supports me in anything and everything I do. No one likes hearing the person closest to them say they don’t like themselves. Especially if that “person” is their best friend, roommate, significant other, daughter, or sister. And, personally, I sure don’t like acknowledging the fact that I just can’t ever seem to fully like and accept the way I look.

Trust me, I am trying to work my hardest to convince myself that I am just as beautiful on the outside as I am on the inside.

And, hopefully, putting my thoughts on paper will be a start.

P.S. -- Thank you to everyone who has taken their time to read this article! I appreciate each and every one of you :-). I also encourage you to send this to your younger siblings, friends, cousins, neighbors -- anyone (and everyone) who might need to hear that they aren't alone and that we all are battling our own insecurities.

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