She wore a long, white sparkly ballgown with sequined gloves.
Her long hair washed down her shoulders and her skin glowed creamy underneath the hot, fluorescent gym lights.
I watched her model on stage and remark about her hobbies—volleyball and petting animals. Apparently, weeks ago some of the most beautiful, popular, and well-positioned girls were invited to be a part of the fourth grade pageant. I wasn’t asked.
Sitting in the crowd on the night of the pageant next to my mother and my best friend’s mother, observing the music and the pretty girls on stage, I quickly gathered that my feet must be too big, my skin too dark—my body altogether wrongly formed. Therefore I must be wrong.
My best friend won first prize. The announcer pinned a white sash dressed in red sparkly glitter that declared “Ms. Elementary” across her thin athletic body. I immediately followed my mom and her mom onto the stage. The mothers asked me to hold her prize-winnings: a huge white teddy bear the size of a kindergartener and an envelope with the words “Ms. Fourth Grade” in bold italics containing prize money and a gift-certificate to (ironically) my favorite toy store.
As I stood there with my beauty-queen friend—a monster of a bedazzled crown toppling sideways on her small head—watching parents take pictures in front of the musty elementary gym’s 1980s-decorated stage, I started to believe that I was destined to be a wallflower. Wallflowers are, of course, invisible and definitely unworthy of love.
Many of us wish and search endlessly for the kind of love that takes our breath away—some to our dying day. We crave those butterflies, that numbness in the pit of our stomachs, the nervous chills that crawl through our insides.
Few of us come to realize, though, that arriving at such a love requires murdering the belief that something or someone outside of us will or should bring a sense of contentment and completeness.
Yes, self-love is this dire, this important, and this brutal.
My fourth grade self could only envision love through the lens of the mirrors held up to her, and they were not flattering ones. Seemingly, black girls with acne, corny glasses, wiry legs, chubby knees, and fat thighs were not good enough to be chosen as queens for a day. You only got to wear a sash if you were lighter-skinned, smaller framed, prettier, and more popular.
There I stood, like a statue in the shadows, with swollen eyes and a broken heart. I longed for a sash, a flowy dress, a stuffed-animal prize, and the flash of a mother’s camera focused on me. Being left holding my friend’s winnings led me to believe that I was more suited to being a third wheel than the celebrated girl of anyone’s dreams.
I have been on a long journey since that moment.
Self-care is something I now practice daily; dating myself on a Friday night by preparing a special nutritious meal; taking daily walks in nature, and warm baths following naps on fragrant sheets. These are some of the things that bring me respite.
But self-love is not to be compared with self-care. Self-love is far more challenging than taking a nap on a cold evening or treating oneself to a massage. Significantly passed fourth grade, I am learning that the act of self-love is the radical revolutionary belief that you—as you are today—are enough, and always has been, and always will be.
This is something all fourth grade girls deserve to be taught. But instead, we often fail them, nurturing in them overstuffed desires to be rewarded for their appearance alone.
So this is my reminder to all fourth grade girls, to my own fourth grade self:
Another girl’s pageantry spoils
don’t make you any less of a queen.
Your chubby cheeks and large, flat nose
have always been enough.
Your smile, despite the playground taunts of,
“weirdo,” is evidence of your bravery.
You are loveable.
So create your own sash, and
wear a ball gown to the grocery store.
Stuff your pockets with multi-color bubble gum, and
begin to smell the sweetness of your mother’s garden.
Make sure you remember that your body is yours,
and so are your passions.
Take plenty of naps, and draw
on sidewalks with pink and purple paint.
Write secrets in your locked diary, full of
stick figures and bubble letters traced in black.
Hide your crush’s name underneath your bed,
taped to the mattress.
Live each day on your own terms.
Dress up your black girl-magic,
braiding your hair in any pattern you choose.
Loosen your shoestrings only
to dance with the wind.
Let feather-light girl-steps carry you
into your own brightness.
Explore the corners of your uniqueness.
Become the kind of dark girl-genius who shines—
even when the moonlight dies.
Author: Salaam Green
Image: Author’s own
Editor: Khara-Jade Warren