My niece’s nickname is Water Lizard. She is a ten-year-old ball of fire, from her flaming orange curls to the neon pink polish on her tiny toes. She is beautiful, intelligent, and sassy. I was seventeen when she was born. I held her in my arms and stared down at her angelic little face and I wondered: How will I protect you from becoming the self-conscious, insecure wreck that I am?
I watched her grow and I worried.
When she grew taller than her peers like I did, I worried. But she was okay.
When she got glasses like I have, I worried. But she was okay.
When she told me she doesn’t like to wear shorts because the other kids make fun of her because she has hairy legs, my heart shattered into a million pieces.
“I know when other kids make fun of me, it’s because they’re unhappy with themselves,” she says.
“I know they have problems at home,” she says.
She’s a good actress, my little Water Lizard. She’s learned the lines her mother taught her. I recognize them. They’re the same lines my mother taught me. They’re the same lines you learned, too.
“That’s very true,” I tell her, “but that doesn’t make it hurt less in the moment, though, does it?”
Her little eyes widen in surprise and recognition. I’m not a parent. I haven’t been indoctrinated into the Parent Club where you have to keep Parent Secrets and adhere to a collectively constructed version of life where all bullies are cut from the same cloth and if you just pity them their words lose all their power. I am free to join her in the real world, and tell her the truth.
I tell her kids can make fun of you for literally anything – your boobs are too big, they’re too small, you’re too tall, too short, too anything convenient. You might as well just do your own thing and be confident in the setup you have, because no amount of shaving or hunching or sucking it in will protect you from every mean comment.
I tell her the older she gets, and the more confident she gets, the less things people say will affect her.
I tell her someday she will be able to look a bully in the eye and say “Fuck off”, and in the meantime we can work on comebacks together. For now I will arm her with the same weapons I developed – a sharp tongue and an icy stare – and someday she will don the armor of confidence and self-love I wear.
I tell her people still make me cry sometimes. She’s shocked, but I tell her it’s true. I’m human, I have feelings, it’s okay to feel them and honor them. Just keep going after.
Last weekend she found an old dress in my closet, an ancient prom dress I picked up at a thrift store in high school for my friends to wear in photo shoots. I guess I always had a thing for photography. The dress is dark red, long, with a netted overlay of black velvety roses. It’s got sparkles and the back laces up. Pulled tight, it fit the Water Lizard like a glove. She didn’t want to take it off, so I let her choose my dress and do my makeup and I whisked her off to a fancy dinner downtown. I wanted to give her that feeling so she can remember it when the insecurities come creeping in. You know that feeling. It’s a combination of fairy princess and warrior queen, regal badass, untouchable. I can’t protect her from becoming like I was, but I’ll teach her how to protect herself.