A few months ago when I was volunteering at my son’s school, I overheard a conversation between two 9-year-old girls. One of the girls was ranking the children in class in order of her favorites. She talked nonchalantly about how a new boy was number one on the list as she explained her new favorites.
The other girl listened intently, and then I heard her ask, very quietly, “What number am I on your list?”
What number am I?
I don’t even have any daughters, and I didn’t know either of the girls particularly well, but when I heard this girl ask where she fit on the list, my heart broke a little. I wanted to grab her and pull her in close for a hug, and whisper in her ear, “No no no no no! You do not need to be a number on someone’s list!“
I wanted to tell her over and over and over again, “Love yourself. Value yourself. Your worth is not based on what number someone gives you.”
My heart broke for that sweet girl and all the other girls like her in the world who are asking their own variation of that question. My heart also broke for the little girl in me, because have been that girl. I spent decades basing my worth on numbers and approval, whether real or imagined. I have asked that question — what number am I? — a million times in a million different ways.
When I heard this little girl’s quiet question — one with such loud implications — I was sad and angry and frustrated and worried. I wanted to do something to make this girl and all the other girls like her realize that a number — whether it is a number on someone’s list or the number on the scale or the number on a paycheck — can never measure your worth. Never.
But I also knew that this realization isn’t something someone can ever tell you. It is something you have to learn on your own. It is something we need to learn again and again and again.
What I’ve realized in the months since I overheard this conversation is that, in some ways and on some days, I am still that girl. There are still days when I feel like I’m asking “what number am I?” to a variety of people — whether it is a number on the scale, or the number of Facebook likes, or the number of invites to moms’ night out parties. In many different ways, too many grown women are still asking, “where do I fit on the list?” of too many people for whatever real or imagined list there may be.
We tell ourselves that we don’t give a fuck, and most of the time we probably don’t. Most of the time, we can look past the bullshit and drama, the mean girls and the mom bullies.
But in some ways and on some days, we are all still that little girl asking where she ranks on someone’s list.
Unfortunately, there will always be those people who — intentionally or unintentionally, whether through words, actions or inaction — are all too quick to offer a reason why we aren’t good enough, why we don’t measure up.
Why do we do this? Why do we value our worth based on where we stand in the eyes of someone else? Why do we measure ourselves according to a number? Why?
And perhaps even more importantly, how do we stop this cycle?
I don’t have a formula, a magic pill, or a how-to guide to end this bullshit cycle of approval and measuring and list ranking. But I do know that if we don’t ask the questions of why and how we won’t find a solution.
It takes us acknowledging the idea that, despite the fact that we give far fewer fucks now than we used to about the opinions of others and the various numbers in our life, we might still give a few more fucks than we’d like to. I think it takes admitting this truth, openly and honestly, so that we can acknowledge the toll that this desire to measure up takes on a woman’s life — and on women as a collective gender.
I think it takes fighting back against all the measuring sticks and lists of favorites we see in the world — whether it is the so-called ideal body type or number of Facebook likes. I think it takes listening closely to other women asking, softly and meekly, Where do I fit? What number am I? And it takes a whole hell of a lot of practice, determination, and commitment to ripping those lists to shreds, to lift each other up and say to ourselves and to each other, “No no no no no! You do not need to be a number on someone’s list!”
We’re all that little girl, at one time or another, whether we want to admit it or not. But maybe if we all admit it and work toward changing the question from “where do I fit on your list?” to “how do we make this stop?” we can collectively move toward taking those first steps in making this change.
Maybe asking the question itself is the start — because this cycle of measuring, evaluating, and judging has to stop.
If not for our own sake, then for our daughters’ sakes.