I wrote this article as I struggled to post a “then & now” comparison of myself, as trended on social media. As it took years to overcome low self-esteem, I couldn’t help but wonder what exact I was comparing. I now understand why.
My mother noticed a worrying trend circa spring 2003. I had a boyfriend the previous autumn and through my sister, my mother learned I exhibited behavior I unreservedly admit was not my finest. But the clarion for concern was my new interest in Cosmopolitan magazine, famed for its articles to command a man’s lust, among other things. With the money earned from an after-school job, I bought the magazine and for months, read articles no child should digest.
I did nothing with the information — but by happenstance. Or ancestral intervention. Even so, no tenth grader should read first-hand accounts and recommendations for oral copulation. For perspective, I was barely of age for a learner’s permit.
While straightening my hair one evening, my mother seized a rare bonding opportunity and said, “you know, Olorunbunmi — you have your entire life to be a woman, but only a very short time to be a girl.” With her limited budget, she bought me a Cosmogirl subscription, which I ferociously read for the rest of my adolescence. She threw in Teen Vogue for good measure.
I keep trying to participate in the “Then & Now” challenge, and initially it was my loathing of trends that stopped me. But there was something else. First, I kept looking at the photos of my adult self, with makeup and arched eyebrows, things I didn’t master until recently. Then I looked at my teenage self, sans makeup and arched eyebrows — because my household was having none of that. The juxtaposition is stark, and it should be.
The “then” Olorunbunmi is a child, and looks as a child should look. The “now” Olorunbunmi is an adult, and looks as an adult should look. The “then” Olorunbunmi didn’t have the financial resources for eyebrow threading, was too scared to tweeze, and once upon a time wore stockings with open-toe sandals. [grimace]. The “now” Olorunbunmi wears a full face of makeup at her leisure, patent leather stilettos to the courtroom, and outsources waxing and threading without a second thought. She didn’t “glow up,” she grew up. Child Olorunbunmi had acne breakouts, adult Olorunbunmi successfully manages them.
Second, I’m always taken aback by how young I looked and I juxtapose that with the attention I received from men. Many of age, where I was not. Undeniably, my “adult” face developed in my early twenties. Not a moment before. I remember being told as a child that I “looked older” because I was taller, which now doesn’t hold water.
I simply did not look like an adult. And even if I did, that didn’t make me one. I often encounter teenagers that are my height or taller. That makes them no less children; that makes them children with higher altitudes. A 5’7” 145lb adolescent is just as much of a child as a 5’3” 125lb adolescent. Any argument to the contrary requires examination with a mental health professional.
More so, I remember this being encouraged by girls my age, who eagerly internalized this mindset. Goading me to be thankful for attention from men which was resounding predatory and at times unlawful. We were so eager to be anything other than what we were. Wanting to be thinner, lighter, darker, larger breasts, smaller waists, etc. We knew we were the “then,” so desperate to be the “now.” I shudder at the contemporary version, with social media, endless filters, and camera phones.
I won’t examine adultification of Black girls, how poorly it reflects on Western societies, and the abuse and discrimination that inevitably ensues. That in and of itself is a dissertation. Though in retrospect, I see so much this in my own adolescence from my peers and more worryingly, the adults charged with my safety.
As a culture we need to shed many things. Chief among them is the notion that the “adult” and “more attractive” version of ourselves is somehow better than our former, “less attractive” version. What is the precise difference that we are applauding? That we no longer resemble the child we beautifully were? Or that we are closer to the aesthetic we can now afford? For the trite analogy of a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly, it invariably implies there’s something wrong with being a caterpillar. But without the caterpillar, the beautiful butterfly wouldn’t exist. Is it not worthy of just as much praise? Is it not just as beautiful?
Coming full circle, my younger self may find it ironic that her older counterpart has never bought Cosmopolitan magazine. When steered in the direction of healthier and self-esteem building habits, they stuck.
Going forward, let’s try a different challenge. To comprehensively love ourselves as we are, for who we are, at every age. To appreciate every one of our beautiful identities: then, now, and beyond. That’s a trend I can take part in; I hope we all can.