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Matters of Life and Steph: “Are You For Real?”- Musings from a Children’s Writer

When I was younger, I remember that I desperately wanted to be like everyone else. I wanted to fit in, rather than stand out. Like most children (and frankly, grown-ups), my desire for acceptance often meant saying and doing things that I thought people expected from me. But as much as I believed that I wanted to be just like everyone else, I was never fully able to follow the crowd.

While I was fairly skilled at presenting “Polished Steph” at the moments when it counted (like how you behave at a job interview or meeting someone new for the first time), “Authentic Steph”—the most genuine version of me—almost always seemed to find its way to shine through.  

Perhaps that’s because, from an early age, I couldn’t help but do things my own way.

This brings me to the lesson I  learned as a child but didn’t fully appreciate until well into my adulthood: living a life that’s authentically yours is more fulfilling and rewarding than trying to be someone you’re not. Even if it doesn’t always feel that way.

If the shoe fits (in)

In a previous blog, I shared how I’ve gravitated towards sports throughout my life. During the 1970s and early 80s, there weren’t a lot of girls playing sports. Consequently, most of my friends were boys. I didn’t feel like I was missing out on close female friendships. Authentic Steph—who gladly played any sport, any time without a second thought—was generally well-liked amongst both boys and girls.

In ninth grade, I became more aware that Authentic Steph’s interests weren’t like most of the other girls my age. Authentic Steph was easily accepted on the athletic field, but that wasn’t quite the case on the social field. Initially, I didn’t mind. 

But as social lives started picking up outside of school, I started feeling like I might be missing out. I wasn’t invited to sleepovers and movie outings, or meet ups at the Poughkeepsie Galleria Mall.

Looking back, I wonder if the “girly girls” (whom I’d unscientifically define as those who personified “girl” stereotypes) might have resented me. I wasn’t exactly bullied. But every so often, those girls made their feelings about me pretty clear. And even though they were only words, their sentiments still stung.

I recall some pointed comments from my female classmates, ranging from, “why do you hang out with the boys all the time?” to the crueler, “why do you dress like a boy?” There were other variations of the same views, but I’ve long since forgotten about them. At the time, I remember being slightly bothered by their condescension. On the other hand, I wasn’t bothered so much that I was motivated to change who I was.

As it turns out, sporty Authentic Steph was miles ahead of everyone else. Nowadays, athleisure apparel is one of the most popular—and comfortable—styles of clothing. I’ll even go out on a limb here to suggest that, in a way, athleisure could even be considered modern “boy clothes” equivalents.

You grow, girl

I won’t lie. Sometimes it was hard to reconcile Authentic Steph—the one who just wanted to play sports—with Polished Steph, who just wanted to belong. Why didn’t I make myself wear pink instead of my favorite color, blue? Why didn’t I feel compelled to hang out with more girls instead of just hanging out with the sporty boys? Why didn’t I put a greater effort into my appearance rather than just glance quickly at the mirror before leaving home?

Perhaps it was because I didn’t know any better. (This is despite having a more stylish older sister; see photo above for confirmation. Ha ha!) More likely, when it came down to it, in my heart of hearts, I just didn’t want to be anyone other than me.

You see, Authentic Steph ultimately didn’t care what those superficial girls thought of me. If they wanted to be rude because I wasn’t wearing the latest fashions, so be it. Let them feel better about themselves by fitting into someone else’s mold. Authentic Steph was much happier doing what I enjoyed and looking how I looked.

I just didn’t have it in my DNA to completely conform.

Prom-ises, prom-ises

Another emergence of Authentic Steph came at a pivotal time in my young life: the eleventh-grade prom. Like many of the wonderful 1980s adolescent coming-of-age movies (thank you, John Hughes), the prom was the pinnacle of teenage social acceptance.

The battle between Polished Steph and Authentic Steph occurred when I was somehow named as a member of the Junior Prom Committee. Trust me, I couldn’t believe it either.

The best part about being on the Prom Committee was hanging out with my friends. I didn’t fully appreciate that once planning was complete, it would soon be time for the actual event.

So when prom tickets went on sale, a glaring problem emerged: I didn’t have a date.

Several days passed by. Still, no one asked me to the prom. Even the Exchange Student somehow got a date. And he could barely speak English.

I remember how awful it felt as all of my friends got (or found) prom dates. I decided that if no one was going to ask me, I’d need to take matters into my own hands. I mustered the courage to ask J, a boy that I was sort of friendly with. Authentic Steph thought J would want to go with me because we were both funny. Ding dong.

J flatly rejected me with some lame excuse about planning to go alone. (I wish I had been independent enough to go alone. Turns out J wasn’t either. He ended up asking someone to be his date the following week.)

Three weeks before the prom, I was in a full-on panic. Thankfully, one of my best male friends came to the rescue. He offered his much shorter (though still handsome) younger brother. I readily agreed.

Lady in red

Now that I had a date, there was one more hurdle to overcome: what would I wear? I knew that 99.9% of the girls would likely be wearing a satiny or sparkly dress. And given that this was the age of girls showing off their emerging curves (not me!), the dresses would probably be form-fitting. I didn’t have the figure or self-confidence to pull off any of those looks.

Instead, my mom and I headed to one of our favorite discount department stores. We had one mission, and one mission alone: find a dress that I’d feel comfortable wearing. (Did I mention that I still hated wearing dresses?)

After scouring the aisles for at least an hour, we finally found a red shift dress with a sequin blazer. This outfit checked the boxes on everything. It had a bold color, sparkles, and was feminine, but not too revealing. Had I been thirty years older, I would’ve knocked ‘em dead in the boardroom. But even though I wasn’t dressed like a typical teenage girl, the look worked for me.

Being “full” of yourself

I don’t recall much about the prom, other than validating that the majority of the girls looked nearly identical in their attire. Also, the chicken was a little rubbery.

Was it the most magical night of my life? No. But it was a night when I felt and looked a little more grown up, and I spent it with a group of friends who liked me for me. Score one for Authentic Steph.

Years later, one of the teachers who chaperoned the prom, ran into my mom at the supermarket.

“I still remember your daughter’s outfit,” the teacher said to my mother. “Steph wore that stunning red outfit to the prom. No one else looked like her, and she looked like a million bucks.”

Even though my peers weren’t always that kind (or forward thinking), hearing that Authentic Steph had shined through was validation enough for me. It’s a good reminder that if you stick with who you are, someday the world just might catch up with you.

What childhood lesson taught you the most about yourself? Please share your stories with me in the comments section.

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