Disclaimer: It’s been a rough day and I’m feeling a little broken, so this is going to be a doozy of a blog. It’s going to be long, deeply personal and emotional. In short, it’s gonna get ugly.
You have been warned.
Sara Bareilles recently released her memoir, Sounds Like Me - My Life (So Far) In Song. I wouldn’t be the true, rabid fan of hers that I am, if I didn’t rush out to go buy both the hardcover book and the audio book. I’ve never bought an audio book before, and the audio version has her narrating the story, as well as singing some of the songs that she’s written, in support of the stories she tells in the book. BONUS!
So I sat down this morning at my home office, audio book fully downloaded, and got to work on my day job in animation looking at pretty drawings. I hit ‘play’ on my iPhone, ready to get lost in Sara’s stories and in her voice.
Bad idea to do this while I was actually trying to get work done. Horrible idea.
Worst. Idea. EVER.
I should have known better. I should have known that this woman would turn me into a blubbering, hot mess, crying all over said pretty drawings. Her songs have been responsible for my undoing on more than one occasion, why wouldn’t her written word do the same? Keep in mind I made it HALF WAY through Chapter 1 before I couldn’t listen anymore and just had to give in and start bawling, frantically searching for some sort of semblance of a Kleenex before settling on my arm to wipe my face off. I’ve been broken ever since.
Why, you ask? Oh, SO MANY reasons.
In Chapter 1, Sara jumps into it right away and gets personal, talking about her family dynamics, and how in the 3rd grade, she was labeled ‘The Fat Girl’ by her classmates, and it’s been a stigma she’s carried ever since. She then goes on to say that to this day, she sort of grossly relishes telling this story to people, because she likes hearing people’s reactions of ‘No way! Fat?? I don’t see you as that girl.’ It’s a weird way of getting some sort of validation that she’s not fat, and that people don’t still view her as that, even if at the end of the day, when she looks in the mirror, Sara still sees herself as “The Fat Girl.”
When I was in the 7th grade, a girl named Adrienne came up to me with her friends and said, “Charlene, you are so ugly.” Nothing prompted this. She just walked up to me, said it with a horrid snide look on her face, and then walked away with her little friends.
I didn’t have any friends in middle school – no exaggeration – I had NO friends. But I was ok with that. I kind of embraced the fact that I was a loner and that was just going to be how it was going to be. (Thank you, books!) I went to a small Catholic school, and it was easy to get pigeon holed into whatever everyone else deemed you to be. I was the loner girl, and that’s how I would be to all these people, always. I got that part and was ok with it. But after Adrienne said that vile comment to me, I then became ‘The Loner UGLY Girl,’ and the stigma stuck.
I was ugly, truth be told. I swam every day, so I was unnaturally dark, almost purple, which is no good when you go to school with kids who for the most part were blonde and milky skinned. I had horrible buck teeth, with an overbite so bad I couldn’t close my mouth properly and could almost stick my whole thumb under my two front teeth. I was gangly, never quite making it past the 87 pound mark, and had ginormous size 8 feet that didn’t compute with my 4’10” frame.
I never felt like I fit in, but I never felt ugly. Not until Adrienne said it to me.
Hearing Sara’s story of her own trauma as a child brought all of my own trauma right to the surface again, hence the beginning of the downward spiral.
And during this downward spiral, I realized that I can’t remember ANY of my classmates last names from the 7th and 8th grade. I initially blamed it on mommy hood sucking my ability to remember anything past yesterday, but then I realized it wasn’t mommy hood at all. It was because every single person in my class had power over me – much like Madonna, or Cher or Prince. These celebrities only need one name for you to understand who they were and be overwhelmed by their awesomeness.
My classmates only needed the one name for me to get the message, and I heard and embraced Adrienne’s message loud and clear: I was ugly.
As I listened to Sara’s words, I realized that I fell into the same hole that she had: I LOVE telling people my story of the hateful little girl who called me ugly. I’ve told it a million times, and I secretly relished telling it. I didn’t realize why till Sara shared her reason: like Sara, I needed to hear someone tell me I was wrong, that I wasn’t ugly anymore. That there was no way you could look at me now and reconcile that with me being ugly, ever. When I tell this story, I’m not fishing for compliments - I’m fishing for validation. I’m fishing for someone, anyone, to tell the little girl in me that Adrienne was wrong.
It’s sort of a false form of validation, because just like Sara, these validations really don’t change things. At the end of the day, I can still look in the mirror and see the ugly girl peering from around the corner, the same way that Sara still sees that fat girl.
But that revelation wasn’t my total undoing.
No, my undoing was when Sara went into the trials and tribulations of writing her book. She said, “Who was I to think that I should be writing a book?” It’s a question I ask myself every damned day. Who the hell do I think I am, writing a book?? Now add to it that the only thing Sara wanted during this awful time, the only thing I ever wanted during that time, was to DISAPPEAR. Not to be skinny or pretty, necessarily - but to not be noticed. To just fade into the background so no one noticed my imperfections, so I could JUST BE. Writing a book is the equivalent of me standing in the middle of a crowded mall and yelling at the top of my lungs, “I have a story to tell! So pay attention to me, dammit, and NOTICE ME!”
Who wants to be noticed when you’re ugly?
All my insecurities and fears about writing, being myself in my writing, and hoping that people accept my truths and want to hear the stories I have to tell, all came to the surface listening to Sara’s audio book.
So, yes, I was a hot mess. Still am. And I’m sure that I’ll continue to be a hot mess, the further I dive into Sara’s book, because that’s just the kind of relationship she and I have. Her words and melodies break me, and then rebuild me back up again so that I’m more whole than I was before. It’s totally F’d up, and something I wouldn’t change for the world.
So damn you, Sara Bareilles, for ripping open an old, painful wound, but THANK YOU for helping me to understand a little bit more of what makes me, me. As always, you rock.
Throughout my writing journey, Sara helped me sound like me, and for that I will be forever grateful.
I have to add this though: I do consider myself a pretty well balanced, confident individual. As horrible as that comment was, I think it actually made me a better person. It made me invest in things that mattered, like my writing, my reading, my becoming a better, empathetic person. Someone who would never want to hurt another individual as much as Adrienne hurt me. In time, I realized that as in literature, beauty is in the eye in the beholder. And most days, when I look in the mirror, I’m pretty pleased with what I see looking back at me, both inside and out.
On that note, I will leave you with the lyrics to one of her songs that I listened to over and over again this morning, accompanied by sloppy tears in my eyes and hiccups from being too emotional. These lyrics pretty much nail on the head all of the hurt and pain I was going through during that awful time. Despite all the cruelties that my classmates heaped on me, I managed to make a brand new ground for myself and at the end of it all, I ended up feeling more than enough.
I want to darken in the skies
Open the floodgates up
I want to change my mind
I want to be enough
I want the water in my eyes
I want to cry until the end of time
I want to let the rain come down
Make a brand new ground
Let the rain come down.
So bring it on, Sara. With Kleenex now firmly in hand, I think I’m ready to move on to Chapter 2.