The Barbie doll was blond, just like Jacqui (not her real name) who had been our friend. And blond like the girl in Heathers who died after being tricked into drinking Drano. In the movie, that blond girl is found lying on her bed with blue lips, her hair spread out on a pillow. We’d all watched the movie obsessively at a sleepover and started styling ourselves as thirteen-year-old versions of the various Heathers. They were popular, beautiful and cruel; the villains. And yet, they were the ones we wanted to be like.
On the morning of that same sleepover while Jacqui did her paper route, we decided she wasn’t our friend anymore and started a campaign to expel her from our group. It started with little passive-aggressive hints designed to let her know we didn’t want to hang out with her anymore and grew into something else entirely. In our last, worst act, we painted the lips of a Barbie doll blue, put a noose around the doll’s neck and coerced a boy we knew into breaking into Jacqui’s locker and hanging the doll there. I can’t quite remember what happened after that. I vaguely remember hearing that she’d left classes crying, and rumours about her wanting to change schools. By that time, we all knew it had gone too far and ended it there.
I am ashamed of this particular page in my story. I don’t like to think of this memory and I rarely talk about it. The experience taught me how quickly a group of insecure, afraid people can become vicious and I didn’t like what I saw in myself then. Yet, this all happened a long time ago. I apologized to Jacqui and have worked to forgive myself for it, so when the memory resurfaced and seem to set up camp in my mind a couple of weeks ago, it seemed odd to me that I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
In my life, in fact, starting from the age of about thirteen, you could say I have had difficulty asserting myself. I haven’t always stood up when I should and have tried too hard to mold myself into the image I saw reflected in other people’s eyes. Over the years I have worked to change this. I am better now than I was, but a part of me is still afraid to share an unpopular opinion or do something I think others might disapprove of. In the past couple of weeks, I have been thinking a lot about this in myself, trying to sort out why I might be this way. At the same time, the memory of Jacqui kept whispering in my ear, and I think I’ve figured out why.
I wanted to be like the Heathers because they had a kind of power that I longed for in a life lived at the mercy of my divorcing parents and teachers. I knew that bullying Jacqui was wrong, but I did it because it gave me a sense of strength that I didn’t feel in other aspects of my life. Yet this strength was polluted since it was gained at someone else’s expense. And so strength and cruelty became inextricably linked in my mind. Then since I so deeply regretted what we did to Jacqui, I tried as hard as I could to distance myself from any aspect of my personality that had contributed to the situation; including strength.
Of course real strength isn’t cruel. Assertion is not the same as aggression and in my conscious mind I know that. I don’t want power over others, I simply want to be able to stand firmly in my best self. Yet a small, wounded part of me (perhaps born in that earlier experience) couldn’t imagine having strength without believing that other people might lose something as a consequence. That part of me had seen what power used badly can do, and it was afraid.
So there I was with a conundrum. Knowing that in order to move forward, I’d need to embrace strength, but being afraid to do so. I was wondering how to resolve this when a little, wise voice inside me said, “Strong legs, open heart”. Now, when I say a voice, I don’t mean that I heard it outside my head. But at the same time, it didn’t seem to come from me either because it was so much wiser than my normal thoughts. Call it what you will – a higher self, perhaps, or a wiser self that I can only hear when the regular babble is drowned out. But there it was, this strange phrase “strong legs, open heart”, and it made absolute sense.
The phrase may seem awkward to you, but to me, it’s poetry. A perfect, simple image of the best kind of strength. Legs rooted to the earth, lending their support no matter how fierce the storm; able to withstand anything. But tempered with an open, loving heart; as willing to give as to receive, knowing it has nothing to lose. A heart that can listen. Strength accountable to and in service of compassion. In that context, power can be used only for good, and there is nothing more to fear from it.
I can’t say that gaining this insight has completely solved the problem. That fear is still there. But I have held this image close to me over the last little while, drawing on it when I need to speak up and don’t know how. It has given me a little map, something to move towards. Maybe over time it will get easier and I won’t even think about all this anymore. Or maybe it’ll always take conscious effort, I don’t know. But this little thing, this tiny little thing has helped immeasurably, and I’m grateful for it having found me.
Have you ever struggled with assertiveness? How did you deal with it? Have you ever been bullied or been a bully? What did the experience teach you? And don’t forget – our first Mother Sugar giveaway ends soon! Click here for more information!