Open letter to a teenage misfit

Dear Bullied Teen Girl,

Don’t change who you are in response to the words of the assholes who make fun of you. Bullies are drawn to the traits that make you stand out. It may seem a good solution to change yourself or your traits so you stand out less, like the girl in this story, who had plastic surgery to make her nose smaller so kids would stop teasing her about it. In the short term, sure, it might stop the harassment, but for what? This girl will now live out the rest of her life with one fewer defining trait; one fewer way to stand out.

It turns out that standing out can be vitally important for success in adult life; both in your career and your personal life. Dating site OkCupid recently posted another one of their OkTrends articles, this time looking at what kinds of women get the most attention from men on the site. As it happens, women who have distinctive traits, and whose attractiveness men disagree upon most widely, get contacted at much higher rates than women who are rated as universally good-looking.

My experience on the site has fit this pattern as well. I was bullied a lot when I was in school, and called various permutations of ugly and fat. I have a very prominent, beak-like nose, and sharp features, and my social awkwardness made me an easy target for teasing. Since joining OkCupid, I’ve had consistent compliments on one feature: my nose. The one feature I’d always thought of as ugly, and probably the only thing I would have ever considered changing about myself, has now become something that makes me desirable. As a teen, I never would’ve imagined that this would be the case.

Of course, there’s more to life than dating success. But I acknowledge that how you are viewed and treated by the members of the sex you find attractive is a hugely important part of most people’s high school experience, and I think this is a great example of how success in high school does not necessarily translate into success in adulthood, and how, in fact, sometimes the things that make one unsuccessful in high school can be the very things that bring success in adulthood.

I’ve come to value my outcast experience very highly, in retrospect. I know it’s hard to see right now, but these experiences can help to shape you into a unique, independent individual who finds value in herself because she cannot count on others to find it for her. Try to look beyond the immediacy of the seeming importance of things like popularity and social acceptance. Cultivate in yourself a fearlessness; a lack of regard for the ways in which the cowards around you will attempt to pull you down with them. Find inspiration in the stories of successful women throughout history who have leveraged their own arguably undesirable traits into enduring legacies. Pursue your interests, fiercely.

I’ll let you in on a little secret: the kids that teased me in school? They’re mostly living boring, conventional lives, and few of them have left the small town we all grew up in. They peaked in high school. Your best days are still ahead of you. Don’t sabotage your future self so you can blend in and avoid a few years of teasing. Yes, it sucks right now. But I cannot express to you how satisfying it will be in 10 or 20 years when you see them at reunions or on some future version of Facebook, and realize that you wouldn’t for a billion dollars trade your life for theirs.

Don’t settle for ordinary. Find the courage to become extraordinary.


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  1. Also, when you need a little something extra and the Judy Blumes aren’t working any more – reach for “Freak Show” by James St. James. It’s a “weird kid wins” story that works all the cliches into fresh form.

  2. Hey, thanks for writing this… Im in high school and i wouldn’t describe what i go through as bullying, but it is definitely not an easy time what im having… And even though all im doing right now is doing the best i can in order for things to work out *after* HS it is sometimes hard to realize this will end at some point and things will be better… It’s really nice to hear (read) from someone else what i tell myself every day to get through… so… just… thanks!

  3. Great post.

    I was teased a lot during Jr. High and High School, but eventually the teasing went away and I became more and more successful.

    Like Carrie said, at my 20 Year High School Reunion many of the people who had teased me were still living in the same town and never strove to expand their lives. Many of them were very jealous that I had stuck to my dreams to be a part of Show Business.

    To anyone being teased or bullied, hang in there. It really does get better.


  4. Carrie mentions something I’ve noticed, too. As a kid, my ridiculously thick eyebrows were maybe my only physical trait that led to mockery.

    (Not because the rest of my traits were perfect, by any means, but more because I was self-deprecating and used humor to point out my own flaws before anyone else could. And I’m speaking in the past tense WHY, exactly? I STILL do this…)

    Anyway, as an adult, my bushy brows have brought more compliments than any other trait.

    Odd how that works… have the rest of you noticed similar things?

  5. I guess I am just too plain looking. I was never made fun of because of how I look.

    A strange name and a shy demeanor were sufficient.

    I did not get bullied after 7th grade or so.

  6. Thanks for this post.

    I was a bullied kid all the way through school until I graduated high school. It shaped who I was for a very long time. Since I was an only child, I had a vocabulary that most kids didn’t understand. I was also the fat kid, so that didn’t help either. Add to that, social awkwardness, extreme introversion and a bizarre sense of humor and you’ve got a girl with a Bully Target painted on her forehead.

    The great thing is that it DOES get better. It took some time but I finally realized in my late 20’s that I’m a pretty friggin cool chick.

    I really think that a big part of this lesson is learning to accept ourselves for who we are. Don’t change to please others. It will only hurt you in the end. Learning to be you is one of the most valuable gifts you can give yourself.

  7. @Carrie: Bravo! What a wonderful post. I will be reposting this.
    I don’t recall being made fun of too much for my looks when I was younger, but I was very badly made fun of for just about everything else; personality, talkativeness, opinions, lack of opinions, etc. I wish I had had advice like this when I was that age because it is exactly right. I love who I am now and I know that the people who love me wouldn’t have it any other way.
    And even though I didn’t get this advice when I was younger and even though I’m not a teenage girl, I still appreciate hearing it now.

  8. This is a nice article, and I agree for the most part, but I don’t think that anticipating the dreary humdrum existence of their nemeses is a laudable goal for bullied teens. In my high school, the popular crowd ended up being successful and good-looking doctors and lawyers, for the most part, who’ve moved elsewhere, while I live within 3 miles of my former high school. (I had a decent career in engineering, but now I’m a stay-at-home mom who does occasional part-time work in technical documentation, rendering my degree virtually useless.) But it would be a brittle kind of happiness that is affected by irrelevant external factors like the relative success of former high school bullies.

    What I do think is that bullies prey on insecurity, so it’s important to develop self-confidence through the pursuit of activities you are really passionate about, especially if they have a wider social implication – although honestly, for many people awkwardness and insecurity are just an intrinsic part of adolescence, especially if you are in any way different. Adolescents, for all their outward rebelliousness, are the most conformist bunch of people I’ve ever seen.

    I have few fond memories of my teenage years, but I think it was mostly because of a crappy home environment than anything else. It’s hardly the most uplifting sentiment, but buck up – high school is just a short, albeit potentially quite shitty, chapter in one’s life and will be over before you know it.

  9. I was teased all through school. 7th grade I skipped so much school I was put in a Christian private school through 8th grade. My elementary and high school was very snobby. I was told I was ugly and fat. I was 5’8″, had D cups, and a curvy body. I was suicidal and just wanted to be left alone.

    Now 15 years later I look back and I was hot. I was a threat to others and I had been bullied for so long I didn’t stand up for myself. I wish I could go back and tell them all to piss off.

    Once I went to college my world changed. Guys hit on me but since I never had the chance to develop my sexuality in high school (meaning thinking I was pretty and guys could find me attractive) I would shrug it off. During college I realized I was an attractive woman but still rather be the chick that was into gaming and all things geeky.

    I am happy now with my life. I have a wonderful husband and 2 beautiful girls. The classmates who picked on me are another story. One ODed on heroin, another has been working at a gas station since graduation, and the head cheerleader now is very overweight. The kids that were picked on have been the ones leading interesting lives and are happy.

    To those being picked on, you are learning something the jerks aren’t. They get whatever they want and that doesn’t happen in the real world. You on the other hand are learning to take the punches and be a stronger person and are more well equip in the real world. High school sucks but it doesn’t define who you are for the rest of your life. Life begins after high school. You will find others who are like you and make great friendships. Look at this blog. It is a geeky blog full of cool geeky people.

    Don’t be like me and cower. Look in the mirror and tell yourself you are beautiful. Look at the stuff you are interested in and find others in your area through facebook, livejournal, and yahoo groups. Your world doesn’t have to be limited to your school or town. Thankfully I was in school when the internet first hit it off in 1996 and all of my friends were online. You are a cool person and they are picking on you because you are a threat to them. <3

  10. @bubblecup: i didn’t mean to suggest it was a laudable goal. my intent was to point out that the same cowardice that leads to bullying often (but not always) also leads to unambitious life choices and accepting the status quo.

    and, for the record, i don’t think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with choosing to settle down and have a family in your hometown. you’ve clearly chosen that for yourself, after going to school and having a successful career. the difference is that you went out into the world, and figured out what it was all about, and made a choice about the kind of life you wanted. you didn’t just do it because that was what was expected of you.

  11. This was an absolutely, positively, wonderful post! I know we have the quotes of the week, but this was one of my favorite posts , amongst many, EVER!

    Very well done, Carrie. Truly.

    Even the replies have been uniformly sensatonal!

  12. Great post.
    I was mostly bullied over my race as I was growing up, but one comment some girl made about my tiny boobs made my self image crumble. Thankfully my mom is sensible enough to not see my body as being the problem — if I had brought up getting plastic surgery, she probably would have thought I was going crazy.

    So I still have my tiny tits, but I don’t see it, nor my disproportionately (according to media) large ass as being a problem. I’m so glad I have supportive parents…they were a big part of why I don’t have many body image issues now. :)

  13. “Try to look beyond the immediacy of the seeming importance of things like popularity and social acceptance. Cultivate in yourself a fearlessness; a lack of regard for the ways in which the cowards around you will attempt to pull you down with them.”

    Very well said Carrie. I have nothing but fond memories of hanging out with my fellow nerdish friends and not giving a damn about being popular or caring about what’s cool.

  14. Since you didn’t mention it I will: This is the type of story the It Gets Better project is all about. While it was started to help bullied LGBTQ kids know that things get better after highschool it has grown past that to encourage ALL kids regardless of sexuality or gender expression that highschool sucks and adult life really does get better.

  15. Well, that took me down memory lane. I was bullied at school primarily because I was too smart and not interested in the latest teen idols, or the same music everyone else liked. I actually read books because I wanted to *gasp*. I could be found reading Shakespeare in the original version when English was just a foreign language and everyone else in my class was still working on subject-verb agreement. My hair was very curly, and when I started school my mother had it cut short (not quite a buzz cut, but close enough) because she didn’t want to deal with my curls. She made me wear it like that until high school. I went to a barber for trims. That’s how bad it was. I hated it with a passion. So naturally, the boys who felt threatened by the fact that I was smarter than they were in a world where they were supposed to know best loved to make a great point of debating whether I was a boy or a girl. Short hair, must be a boy. Earings, must be a girl. Smart mouth, boy. Wimpy, girl. And so on, and so forth. Then I developed a figure, and they moved on to just pushing me around because it was a popular spectator sport.

    My experience was, of course, different from yours or anybody else’s. I can vouch for most of what you said, but I would like to say this much:
    I was in 7th grade when my epiphany hit. I was standing in the middle of a crowd, and knew with utter certainty that if I were to drop dead right there no one would care. Then I realized I cared. I became my own best friend that day. The other kids went through high school trying to have the right image, so they could have the right friends. I went through high school looking inside, deciding what I liked about myself, what needed improvement, turning myself into a person I could respect, a person I could be proud of. The more I discovered about myself, the more people flocked to me for advice. I was still pushed around on a daily basis, but it was different now, because they couldn’t get me to doubt myself. At first, every bully in the place wanted to be the one to make me fall apart. They did their worst. But I knew exactly who I was and who I wanted to be, and soon it became obvious that rather than making me fall apart, they were making themselves look stupid.
    So, the first thing I want to add is this: care about the person you know is in you, even if no one else sees her (or him). At the end of the day, there is only one person you can’t escape, and that’s yourself. Love who you are, and half the battle is won.

    The other thing I want to add is this: Learn to tell the difference between malicious behavior and a reaction brought about by a misunderstanding or fear, or hormones, or whatever. All those other kids are just that. Kids. They have the same doubts, fears, hormone issues that you do. They’re not perfect either. Some are genuine bullies. But if there is a chance that it was just a bad day, or a bad moment, give them the benefit of the doubt.

  16. Thanks for the post Carrie, it’s so true. @gwenwifar that’s really good advice.

    It’s also very true that sometimes the features that get picked on in HS become attributes later in life. I always thought I was fat, but now I’m in roller derby, and my size is totally an advantage. All sizes are an advantage in derby in one way or another, which is awesome. I think derby is one of the best ways to find out what’s positive about your body.

    I think the great thing about becoming an adult is that the world opens up to you. Some in HS are lucky enough to force it open, but not everyone has that experience.

  17. Firstly I have to apologise in advance for being negative, but …

    I think this is all rather overly simplistic.
    The suggestion even sounds very much like a common film plot: ugly ducking makes good, all the bullies from school end up in dead end jobs, etc.

    Personally I think it’s quite harsh to basically tell someone to get some self confidence, courage, positive self image, etc., because that is precisely the problem.

    Not everyone is strong and some people never will be, no matter how hard they try. Now I would not suggest that insecure people rush to a surgeon to solve their problems and I do not know how long the girl in the news article suffered for before going under the knife, but for some people it’s a viable solution if other attempts fail.

    Everyone is different physically and mentally, assuming because you have the courage and determination to survive a particular trauma then anyone can is naive, some people just can’t do it that way.

    I also think it’s harsh to suggest that people shouldn’t change due to social pressure. It’s actually a very fine line between the way that many people will change in a perfectly normal way to fit into social situations (for example the simple politeness of avoiding blasphemy in front of religious people) and the sorts of pernicious changes that can end up as emotional self-harming.

    As with many things, it’s not simple.

    Of course it’s good to encourage people to try to take control if they can.

    But I think it’s better to offer sincere support and refrain from issuing judgment calls, lets face it one of the core problems is that some people think they can arbitrarily judge others. Give them honest advice and let them make up their own minds (e.g. surgery will change what you look like but will not change your personality).

    Also, as someone else has referred to; using schadenfreude or jealously towards bullies isn’t a good way forward in my opinion. Ultimately the end goal is to forget about the bullies, whether they are happy, successful or dead it shouldn’t matter. The sooner you try to stop letting them influence your life in whatever way the better. Not that it is at all easy, but dwelling on their future isn’t going to make it easier.

    (BTW for the sceptics, yes I was bullied when I was young and no I have never had surgery.)

  18. @RavenInTheHedge:

    The classmates who picked on me are another story. One ODed on heroin, another has been working at a gas station since graduation, and the head cheerleader now is very overweight.

    Yeah. I know. Fat people are the worst. You really won against her. No way she’s a happy or productive member of society. Fatty Mc Fatsalot. I bet she can’t get a job because she doesn’t fit through the double doors! Or the garage door! She had it all when she was hot and in high school. She thought she was all that and now she’s stupid and lazy! BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

    Good thing you’re still hot. Now you can be anything you want. And point out how people who are fat are huge losers.

  19. @MrOverall: nothing anyone ever writes will ever appeal to everyone. if we tried to do so, we’d never be able to say anything meaningful. i wrote this letter with my teenage self in mind, knowing that i would have found comfort in the words, and assuming that at least a few others currently in such a situation would as well. based on the feedback here, that is indeed the case. maybe it’s simplistic; maybe it’s naive, but it has helped at least one person feel better about her situation, and in my estimation, that makes it worth writing.

  20. I guess my point is that regardless of how professionally successful, thin, and good-looking they become, or in what exotic locales they settle, ultimately it’s irrelevant.

    All the kids I went to high school with are probably pretty happy and successful, with beautiful families (according to the photos they post on Facebook – although a small handful of them are divorced), but the important thing to me is that I am deeply satisfied with the life I chose.

    The ones who weren’t very nice then are probably not very nice now, from hearsay and my limited observation, but most of the kids I went to school with are decent people. (And it’s worth stating that the not-so-nice ones came from not-so-nice families, and so had their own stuff to contend with.)

    No doubt there are rotten kids for whom bullying others in high school is just sharpening their teeth on the way to becoming a total sociopath, but most teenagers are just thoughtless little beasts who don’t consider the impact their actions have on others who may be more emotionally fragile. The pressure to conform is enormous in adolescence and making fun of those who are different or exhibit any kind of insecurity is one (admittedly not very nice) way to relieve it.

  21. @Elyse: Bullies seem to think it’s a zero-sum game, that they can only be happy if someone else is not. But of course this isn’t true. Raven should be happy for what she is, not for what other people aren’t. The ring-leader of the kids who bullied me in middle school ODed in high school. On the other hand, another kid I really liked and who never bullied me at all also ODed shortly after graduation. Both events are tragic.

    Also, it is a logical fallacy that fate somehow equalizes things in the end. The only thing that can do that is us, human beings, and we usually aren’t very good at it.

    Several of the comments here remind me of the Church Lady’s Superiority Dance. (Sorry about the Hulu, it was hard to find good clips.) In view of the above, I absolutely deny deriving any pleasure at all from the plight of her guests on this segment. (Is there a smiley for “snicker snicker”?)

    BTW, Elyse, I’m hanging this off your comment, but it is really directed at the people who you are arguing against.

  22. @Elyse: I never said I was still hot. After having 3 pregnancies then going through depression after losing my son to SIDS I now weigh 230 lbs. I was trying to get the point across that even though the cheerleader made fun of people for being fat she ended up becoming what she made fun of. I have too though but looking back I wish I would have seen I was pretty back then as I feel I am pretty now though I wear a size 20 jeans. I also never said that she was stupid or lazy. I am actually friends with her on facebook now as I am with a couple other people who picked on me in high school. Goes to show even though people can be hateful in high school once they have a few years under their belt in the real world they may realize what they did to others and that causing pain to another person isnt worth it in the end.

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