I recently ran across an essay I wrote around 2002. I wrote it for myself and no one other than my wife has ever read it. As I read it with the benefit of experience, I was struck by how much writing it altered my life. I made a few career decisions since I wrote it and I can see the threads of the essay running through them. I also realized that it utilized a theme I had already experienced in my life (and one I would experience many more times). The essay concern one little girl and how she changed my life.
I wrote the essay during an interesting time. I was working at a company in Nashville the did magazine work. I survived a huge layoff and restructuring in 2001, but wound up on second shift working 4:00 PM to midnight. One of my responsibilities was retouching photos for the magazines. If you read any of several major magazine titles from 2001-2003 there’s a good chance you saw my work.
I initially enjoyed the work but, over time, began to have moral qualms about exactly what I was doing. I wrote the essay to help make sense of my thoughts and feelings at the time and present it now in the interest of, um, the historical record, as I originally wrote it.
One Little Girl
There is a little girl who lives inside me. She’s about 13 or 14 years old and I believe she is a part of my conscience. It would be so much easier on me if I had an animated insect prone to spontaneous musical numbers. I don’t though, I just have the one little girl on the verge of adolescence. I don’t know her name, but I do know that she seems to speak for every girl her age. All of them. It can get quite loud at times. She wasn’t always there ( I have a very developed conscience after all), she showed up one night when I was working on an image for a fashion magazine.
I had taken the woman on the screen and smoothed her flesh, taken care of her slight double chin, trimmed her thighs, smoothed her thighs, flattened her stomach, and trimmed her waist. I then sat back to make sure I had done a good job when I heard a small voice.
“That’s what I’m supposed to grow up to look like?” she asked.
“Of course not,” I said, “the art director just wanted this picture to be as aesthetically pleasing as possible.”
“If ‘aesthetically’ means ‘how I’m supposed to look’ I guess that makes sense.”
“It doesn’t mean it’s how you’re supposed to look . . .”
“The title of the article is This Fall’s Hot Look isn’t it?”
“Well, yeah, but you’re taking it too far.”
“Am I?” She hasn’t taken her eyes off the image on the screen, and suddenly her tone shifts to something akin to resolve, “Well, whatever, I’ll see you later.”
“What? Where are you going?”
“To the gym. I have a LOT of working to do.”
“But it’s almost lunchtime, it can wait a little while, can’t it?”
“Lunch? You’re kidding, right?” she says pointing at the woman on the screen, “ it looks like I’ll be skipping quite a few meals.”
“You can’t do that, it’s not good for you. Besides, you can’t possibly make yourself look like her.”
“Why not? You just made her look like that.” And then it hits me — she’s right. somewhere in a couple of months when this issue hits the newsstand, a young woman will see this woman in the magazine. She’ll read about the model’s wardrobe and makeup, and then she’ll do her absolute best to emulate what she sees. She will see it, try to to become it, and I just created it. It was not a good feeling.
We’ve had many conversations since then. Some of them are no where near as traumatic as the first, but some are much worse. Sometimes she shows up with puffy eyes from crying. “Why can’t I be so pretty?” she asks me then. Sometimes she looks exhausted from exercising so much. Once she even lifted her shirt midriff to show me her “progress.” Her ribs were protruding but all she had to say was, “She how thin I’ve gotten?” I didn’t sleep for days. Sometimes she is happy with me though, like when I volunteered to do the more “boring” tasks like burning CD’s to send to the printer. She always reminds me I still work there though. She never lets me off the hook. The best I ever saw her was when I had just spoken to a women’s body consciousness group. I told them all I knew and begged them not to buy into the fantasy that the fashion industry promotes in magazines. When I walked out of that auditorium she was a normal, happy little girl. She even held my hand on the way to the car.
“It’s good to see you smile,” I said, “I had forgotten how beautiful you look laughing.”
“You helped a little,” she said.
“I don’t even know if I reached any of them”
“Well, you can’t reach everyone you know.”
She’s right, of course, I can’t reach everybody. But I can’t help feeling the responsibility of somehow counteracting the images I’ve helped put out there. I may not make that big a difference, but I have to try. I have to for one little girl.
It may not be as well written as my more recent efforts, but it crystallized a desire for change. The day I finished writing that essay, I began looking for a new job. When I couldn’t find one, I decided to go back to installing closets, anything to get away (and ease my conscience).
I would like to say I walked away, but after turning in my notice, I was offered a different position (with more money of course) and I made the mistake of staying on. I rationalized that working for the same company was different than actually retouching the photos myself. The little girl who had taken the place of my conscience didn’t let me off the hook, however (nor did a few real people).
Less than a year later (almost exactly two years after I wrote the essay), I had a real little girl of my own. The first time I saw her laid on Chrisie’s chest moments after her birth, I knew I had to change. If for no other reason to ensure she didn’t become the same little girl living in my head.
It was a long road, but I was eventually able to leave the company two years later in 2006. I was much, much wiser (not wise per se, just wiser than before). Now, as I look back over the words I wrote so seemingly long ago, I am struck by a thread that appears to weave in and out of my experience. It is of one little girl altering the very course of my life in subtle yet extraordinary ways.
Obviously, it was an imaginary one that helped me process my thoughts through the essay, but it was a very real one that helped me see the world differently, another displaying the tender love of a child, and my own daughter who provided a new definition.
Even though I’ve written of this before, I can’t help but point out the ability laying dormant within each of us. The ability to alter, for the better, the life of family, friends, and strangers. The responsibility to improve the world lies not just with one little girl (though she may be far better at it), but with all of us. We become the story, an intricate tapestry formed from the threads running through all our lives. Or at least it will be if we follow the example of just one little girl.