I was too young to have school allowance beyond P20, but a currency I did know the importance of was beauty and, by extension, male validation. I was already aware I wasn’t conventionally attractive, even in elementary school standards.
Teachers would try to tame my uneven eyebrows or frizzy hair before class. Relatives would compliment my confidence when I smiled with my infamous crooked teeth, or when I said I wasn’t ashamed (yet) of having darker skin.
I had a feeling there was some ulterior messaging underneath these comments; when I reached high school and my social circle was getting attention from male classmates—something that was never extended to me—I confirmed what I suspected. And if I couldn’t be the prettiest, I wanted to be the smartest and the most interesting, always at the expense of the other girls around me.
And so it begins.
I kept mental scorecards between me and literally every girl I met. It was a knee-jerk reaction, sizing them up and drawing conclusions on how I was different and therefore better. Whenever I was successfully promoted from nonexistent to friend, I made sure to point out how no other girl in class shared our passions. I believe it made me irreplaceable, or at least valuable.
‘Choosing someone pretty over someone smart is not love at all; in fact it’s giving love a bad name,’ I wrote in my beat-up journal at 14. I loathed anyone with glossy lips or a pretty outfit.
As an adult, I often joke that I was doomed to be a culture writer because I couldn’t remember a time when I didn’t equate my taste with my self-worth.
“Choosing someone pretty over someone smart is not love at all; in fact, it’s giving love a bad name,” I wrote in my beat-up journal at 14. I loathed anyone with glossy lips or a pretty outfit. You’re in school to study, I thought to myself with the intense eye-rolling required of a high schooler. Being smart was something I never willingly attributed to any other girl—they may be pretty, but being smart is my thing. Once everyone is done dating the pretty girls around, they’ll see me and finally realize just how much they were missing out on.
Notions of acceptable femininity were so narrow that at the time, I had no choice but to fashion for myself this new definition while simultaneously lumping everyone else, these “other girls,” separate from me.
I hated them for allegedly having what I could never have: conventional beauty, and therefore male attention, and therefore self-worth. I found no solidarity with the girls who felt the same either; in fact, I hated them more. I was on alert for and already angry at any girl who chipped away at my value by being remotely similar.
Hindsight makes it easy to spot my glaring insecurity, but frankly, I had every reason to be insecure. Now I know that the worthlessness I felt was not due to some inherent lack in my personhood, but an incongruence with the female ideal shaped by male desire.
The intense internalized misogyny I learned is blatant proof that our patriarchal society prioritizes male desire, even in relationships that don’t involve a man. We rank what men want so highly that they need not work for it anymore—women and girls are conditioned to carry out the work on their own. We even made it into a competition, an impulse eating away at us and irreparably damaging our relationships with the only people who could fully understand our plight.
It never occurred to me then to condemn the patriarchy for the innate pain of girlhood. Media that made me feel good about myself tore other women down in the process. “You don’t know you’re beautiful, that’s what makes you beautiful,” I was singing in sixth grade. “Once a whore you’re nothing more, I’m sorry that will never change,” I was singing in eighth grade when I “outgrew” One Direction for the more male-approved Paramore.
And so I trudged on, desperately hoping boys liked me even if I didn’t necessarily like them. I habitually ditched my friends for someone who made fun of things I liked. I stayed up until 4 a.m. on school nights because a male classmate would only text me during those hours; I studied Arctic Monkeys’ discography beforehand to prepare. I tried my best to be the girl they had never met before, who was cool, who was game, who listened intently and recalibrated her personality to match theirs.
This persisted in college, where it led me to unsafe situations—I subconsciously saw male validation as worth whatever harm I might experience. I would think, Finally, I’m with a man! Even if that man violated my boundaries, or disrespected my emotions, or disregarded my pain.
I’m reminded of a passage from Tracy Clark-Flory’s book Want Me, where she talked about life passing her by while living through a boy. “Subsuming my identity to some boy: I had spent most of my life doing this. I was never alone. There is always a fantasy of some boy watching and wanting me, making me better. Making me whole.”
I realize now that when I wanted male validation, what I actually wanted was self-actualization. But as a young girl, I had no idea how else I could achieve it; I was led to believe a man would come along and be the catalyst to the life that awaited me.
So I wanted to please every man I met. I wanted them to see me as the best, as not like other girls. I wanted them to choose me, so I could finally stop wallowing in my incompleteness and start living because I had won; it was finally over. But as bell hooks wrote in her book All About Love, “It is silly, isn’t it, that I would dream of someone else offering to me the acceptance and affirmation I was withholding from myself.”
Right now I’m working towards decentering male approval in my life, which is of course easier said than done. I realized how much I was self-policing, propping myself up for some boy, and how exhausting it was. I speak more candidly with my female friends about the anxieties we silently nursed in high school.
I’m relearning my interests; back then if my hobbies didn’t help me gain male approval I felt like they didn’t matter, that I shouldn’t be spending so much time on such things. These are all small steps, but I’ve already found so much joy in this inner world I’ve built—a joy that doesn’t feel fleeting, as if it’s in the hands of someone else.
Still, it’s heartbreaking to look back at my teenhood and see most of it as time wasted. If I could reach across time and do everything differently, I would. I don’t think my being cruel to myself and so many other girls was necessary for my growth. Often we think we have to endure so much pain to learn, to be the people we are today. But I find that sometimes this conveniently excuses the trauma we’ve been through. I didn’t need pain to unlearn internalized misogyny. I could have just not learned it in the first place.