How We Learn To Put Ourselves Down

Question to just about everyone out there, but particularly women: what do you respond when someone compliments you for your appearance, intelligence or merits? Do you say  “thank you” and leave it at that? Or is that “thank you” followed by “but it’s just…”: just shooting down the compliment and yourself in the process?

At what point did we learn to become so critical of ourselves that we do it automatically, without giving it a second thought?

I’m pretty sure it’s not in the womb. When babies are born, they’re almost invariable considered  “the cutest thing in the world”, and any criticism towards the child will only be met with horror.

Later on, as toddlers, we become aware of ourselves in the mirror early in our lives, but we don’t really stop to think about appearances in the beginning. It’s later. As we hone our powers of observation, we copy and mimic. It’s animal nature: adults are our models, and our survival instincts dictate that we follow suit in everything they do and say to ensure our own development. Girls learn from their mothers and other female role models in the family. Aunts, grandmothers, big sisters, cousins…  And what we observe invariably leads to this: a female adult looking in the mirror and tearing herself down bit by bit. Hair, face, nose, eyes, chin, neck, breasts, arms, thighs, stomach … no parts are exonerated from this process of self-annihilation. We observe this. We copy this.

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In the best of cases, this lesson of self-hate runs counter to what our parents tell us (you’re beautiful, you’re smart, your worth does not depend on others…) This is usually not the case. When I turned 8, my body started storing what they call “baby fat” (why “baby”? this is an ailment that plagues us in our puberty, more than a few years too late to be described as “baby” anything … ). Soon enough, the females in my family started treating my weight and appearance as a problem. They started marching in with food scales and Weight Watchers programs, grapefruits and yogurt, measuring tape and modeling classes… The tearing down of me was a coming-of-age ritual filled with criticism and self-hate.

This was a ritual that never let up. ‘Til the day she lost her memory to Alzheimers, my grandmother had a one and only topic of discussion whenever we met: my weight. At some point it was too low, then too high… I was never asked about my studies, my career, my interests. As a matter of fact, I was never asked anything. Every family reunion was an opportunity to pass judgement on me. Well, in our family, it is always an opportunity to pass judgement on one another. My mother meets with her sister (whom she hasn’t seen in over a year)? First and foremost topic when telling me about it: her weight. Same goes for any poor lost soul who may pass her on the street. Weight, clothes, hair, demeanor… all are torn down systematically by my mother and her kin. My sister and I have lived through this. No wonder our way of rebellion has been to not give a fuck.

But ours is close enough to a worst case scenario. What about the rest? The euphemism for the destruction of the female psyche and self-image: humility. We’re taught to never praise ourselves, lest we be thought of as conceited. Compliments and commendations should be met with a gentle rebuttal for the same reason. It all stems from I don’t know which fucked up Rules Book from the 50s, and it reeks of patronizing bullshit. We have assimilated this conviction so well, that we even shoot each other and ourselves down whenever we have the audacity of thinking something kind about ourselves. Case in point?

Me. Ninth grade. After P.E., girls would swarm around the one full-length mirror to apply makeup, gossip and examine themselves destructively in front of each other. You know the drill: “my thighs are too fat,” “my hair is so bleh,” “my shins are so skinny”… etc, ad nauseum. And yes, guys, these comments are a fishing pole for compliments. That’s the only way we have learned to actually get a little bit of positive feedback on ourselves. Of course, the cycle goes like “oh, no, your thighs are fine, but look at my stomach! it’s sooo flabby!” We profer a compliment and pour some more shit on ourselves, expecting others to take it upon themselves to build us up a little while they tear themselves down. We never take it upon ourselves. And if we do … I dared take it upon myself one day, when one of the girls asked me why I didn’t wear any makeup. My response: “I don’t like it. I’d rather let my natural beauty shine through.” The general reaction was mockery and derision. My own effort of loving myself a little was shot down collectively by the pack. I was brought down to my level, in a sense.

So it follows that there is no place in society for people with a healthy self-image. If we so much as insinuate that we entirely approve of ourselves, someone somewhere will inevitably try to challenge that. So our way of coping: beating them to the punch. Even the healthiest of egos will put themselves down over one tiny detail or another. We all do. This is what society expects from us.

Today I found this:

 

 

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And I realized some of us DO notice the vicious cycle of self-hate taught upon us by our mothers, grandmothers and so on. “Never love yourself too much,” is the lesson. Akin to the shaming we go through regarding our own sexualities, masturbation, our yearning for more knowledge (if it is deemed sex- or age-inappropriate), etc. We are kept in line to fit in with society.

How about let’s not? How about we decide to fuck it all and start loving ourselves as we are? Fuck the media and their message that our bodies are not good enough, that thinking outside the box is undesirable, that deviating from the standards assigned to our sex is an aberration. Fuck that shit. And fuck them all: society, the media, the powers that be, our families, coworkers, friends… fuck EVERYONE for telling ME how much self-love is enough! How about we finally arrive to the conclusion that we’re worthy of ourselves more than anyone else will ever be? Be your own lover and admirer. Cherish yourself today.

Self-Esteem-i-love-myself

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Verónica

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Back in 2009, my life was entirely changed by this woman. Thats me, on the right. Not my best shot, I agree. Also, that would be my  Hot-Topic-Employee attire, not a complete departure from my usual style, but I digress. The girl on the left is Vero. We met at the end of 2009. She was hired to replace one of the assistant managers that quit to go live in Miami. I remember her first day clearly. It was a Black Friday, and I had been assigned to be seasonal keyholder, starting that week. She came in at about 9am looking all nervous. We immediately clicked. I showed her the ropes on how to work around the documents and cash register. In return, she stole my heart. A week later, she was calling me ‘wife’. Three months later, she was moving in with us. For all intents and purposes, it was a torrid romance–without the sex.

 

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We shared some things: our love for Harry Potter (which brought about a huge weekend-long marathon of all 7 parts that were out by then), our love of food, Caprica, art, smoking … We spent countless hours just shooting the shit in our living room: me, pouring my heart out over a cigarette and a Coke; she, drawing her soul into countless lines and dots on paper, while a watery Coke and a half-burnt cigarette waited on the sidelines. I finally got in her what I had yearned for in so long: a close female friend, someone I could go places with and make fun of stuff and just be generally silly together. We did all that stuff: tandem supermarket visits (including some light thievery), visiting Walmart to drool at the bikes (and then unhooking them and riding them around the aisles), brunch (and mimosas!), weird dates (hers) in which I was the third wheel (and surreptitious chaperone), the Kitty Kitty Dinosaur podcast … Tons of things I never thought I’d be able to do with a girl friend. But she came into my life, and we did.

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We shared an unparalleled love for coffee. I used to brew coffee every morning, just for her: a tall take-along mug she would finish off throughout the day (well, in the first few hours, actually). I didn’t share her obsession with sunflower seeds, carrots, or broccoli. We saw eye-to-eye in our love for queso del país and bacon (and Colombian sausage, oh! those were the days…)

 

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We also shared our love for Bob. And the three of us became quite inseparable. Trips to the beach became silly photoshoots, long drives to Mayaguez became a shortbus of strays on the way back … and through all the thick and thin of it, we stuck together. In spite of my (back then) unmanaged mood swings (later diagnosed as PMDD), in spite of her habitually short temper and tolerance (which she stuck out and worked with just for me) … we remained friends and living partners.

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She also did wonderful things for our home. Our walls became the perfect canvas for her to bring life to some of the things she had in mind: a blue-haired cry for help in her room, a redhead dreamer in our kitchen, and an unfinished tree-sprite in our hallway. Constant reminders of how much she suffused herself into our lives.

 

 

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Then an odd thing happened. Vero fell in love. She had been looking for it in all the wrong places, suffering all unwanted advances, rebuffing guys that would’ve been good to her, wallowing in her own misery when the ones she did go after treated her like shit … And through it all, the one thing she thought she’d never get kept her spirits up, I’m sure, at least a little. And then the coin dropped …

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…and Julius came into her life. And it was inevitable: she moved away.

I’m glad for her, for them. She’s happy, they both seem to be. Parachuting, living in the woods, getting a corgi … all the awesome stuff she wanted to do for a long time (and some extra awesome stuff she probably had NO idea she wanted to do) … all of it came into fruition. And she looks happy. She has looked this happy ever since they finally got together. It’s good to see.

From a slavery to retail (ended mainly by an unjustified firing from Hot Topic, complete with an acrid denouement of a lot of the relationships that had been established due to her work) to an absolute freedom and rein over her own life …. It’s been a hell of an era for -veedot.

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This is the last picture I took of her. She had come back after practically having moved to Boston, just to celebrate my 34th birthday. And she baked one of  her delicious beer-can chickens for me. She was always that thoughtful.

They say hindsight is 20/20. This is true. The more you learn with the hard knocks of life, the more you can contextualize your past. For example: I’ve learned in the last few months about the many people I came to love, but never came around to telling them because I myself hadn’t noticed. It’s been oddly liberating, finally understanding where my feelings stem from and how they work.

And I’ve also redefined my way of loving. Loving not to do with sexuality as much as knowing that you’d do whatever in your power to make that person happy. In this sense, not many people remain in the list of “loved ones”. But Vero is one of them. What I have come to define as “people I’ve fallen in love with”. She may not know, and it’s okay. She already gave me what I never thought to ask of anyone: her devotion, her friendship, her love… and her happiness.

Those were fun times, and now we’re having our fun times apart. But to adapt what Rick Blaine once said to Ilsa Lund: “We’ll always have the supermarket.” And that is that.

Still… I miss you, Vero. And I hope you’re always as happy as you are now.

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I, Interpreter

It’s been 9 months since I began working as a phone interpreter. It’s what other people would call a “cushy” job: I get to work from home (in my PJs–no–in the NUDE if I so wish to!), I don’t have a physical supervisor hanging onto my every move, I can work while petting my cat, I barely have any gas expenses… All in all it’s a pretty good deal.

The job has also taught me a lot about how most people view the work of an interpreter/translator. Whereas I get a thumbs-up email every once in a while (which means a client has called into HQ to commend my good job), most of the times we interpreters are dismissed as just an inconvenient necessity. Calls take a longer time to complete, sometimes we make mistakes, and there are a few days in which no one  in the three-way call is in any mood to take the others’ shit. This is day-to-day life for interpreters and customer service in general. We deal. We move on. No one takes personal insult to it.

This was pretty much my Xmas Eve
This was pretty much my Xmas Eve

I spent Xmas Eve sitting in on a long-ass 8-hour shift (and blessed be the 3-hour break in between those kinds of shifts!) taking not only the shit of callers and clients alike. It developed beyond that into a consistent stream of panicky 911 calls full of noise and screams. I wasn’t at my best that day, what with having to forget about any festivities other family members and loved ones were partaking from, but I completed the job and didn’t feel unappreciated. I know my job that night was an important one, just like the jobs of the 911 operators and the on-call nurses.

But what happened last night was something worth writing on this blog about. It started as a pretty textbook call: a client calling to make a car rental reservation. Those tend to be pretty effortless: the questions are the same all the time, people are pretty businesslike throughout the whole transaction, and unless there’s a complication to the call, it takes no longer than 5 minutes. This one caller started by asking whether an online reservation timed out after leaving the computer unattended for half an hour. He was an old Puerto Rican man. Some Puerto Ricans (and this I know, for gossakes, I was born here, and still live here!) tend to be very talkative. The reservations clerk, however, didn’t seem to be in the mood to take any unnecessary talk from anyone. As the call progressed, I realized this guy must live alone, cuz boy was he talking his ass off! So I tried to summarize his ideas into succint  expressions to help the call along. But here’s the deal: the guy mentioned at some point that he is a regular customer for that car rental company. This is a repeat customer, which–and I think most business-minded people will agree with me–is the most valuable kind of customer there is. He asked if I’m Puerto Rican (given my accent, etc) and then he started talking pleasantries, to which I yielded for a moment, but then reined it in, mostly because the clerk was already interrupting us with protests in annoyance. In the end, in spite of her insistence to end the call, because apparently, for her, the transaction was going nowhere, a reservation was made. The guy thanked me profusely and hung up none the wiser to the barrage of scolding I was gonna get in a few seconds.

Her points: I wasted a lot of her valuable time (the call took all of 18 minutes, my goodness!) and, after explaining the situation to her, she said “I understand the connection, but you have to learn how to keep the conversation focused on help me do my job.” I would understand and agree with her if the reservation hadn’t been made. But I spent those good 18 minutes keeping a customer happy by making him feel catered to, like any regular customer should feel. And in the end, a reservation was achieved. Now, I don’t know how that isn’t helping her do her job, but I will humor those who don’t quite get it yet or have arguments against my case.

Shit comes in, shit goes out
Shit comes in, shit goes out

The main purpose of an interpreter is to bridge the gap between two other people who do not share a common language. The most traditional view of good practices for our job (which is the view adopted by the agency I work for) is that interpreters should only translate that which is spoken, no less and no more. Basically, we are viewed as a voice-recognition software, a brainless drone only there to translate word for word. But the reality of human communication is so much more complicated! Not only is it that differences between languages compels translators to be a little more creative to achieve a sense-for-sense translation (which is what a translation should be within this context), but there’s also a culture barrier as well.

My clients are American companies for the most part. Their representatives tend to be pretty businesslike and to-the-point in their interactions, which is all and well when the other part knows this and takes no offense in it. But some people DO take offense. I’ve noticed that other cultures tend to be less formal in their interactions. Some are incredibly verbose (most Mexicans, for example,) and others can seem downright rude (Argentineans, I’m looking at you). Puerto Ricans tend to be in the middle of the spectrum: not too verbose, but not rude either. Loud, yes. Informal, yes. And we have a culture all our own, in which whenever an old person talks, you respectfully listen, and if they’re being nice to you, you nod and say thank you. It’s a cultural issue. We are in a multicultural world, with multicultural businesses, and if you want to do business with a Japanese person, you make like Don Draper in Mad Men and learn your target culture, and you do the job right.

La Malinche was also maligned for this shit
La Malinche was also maligned for this shit

Some people say translators and interpreters will become a thing of the past thanks to translation and voice-recognition software. But something a computer could never do (for now) is recognize a difference in culture and bridge that gap as well. This is where we, the translators of this era, become invaluable. Our ultimate goal is to help our clients do business, and a translation drone will not cut it for this job. We have been emissaries for millenia, helping build relationships (business and otherwise) where there would be none. I view my job as this: not only do I translate, I also help people do their work. And this rental clerk definitely needed some help. Her urgency to end the call because it seemed to be going nowhere wouldn’t have helped her in the least. Her little gestures of impatience could have done a world of harm in this regular relationship the car rental company had managed to achieve. But I turned it around, and the man was more than grateful. He felt listened to and taken care of. He gave me his blessing and literally said “If it wasn’t for you, this reservation wouldn’t have happened.” Thank you, good sir. No good intention goes unpunished, they say. This one wasn’t the exception.

I truly hope that a few customer service representatives will read this and realize that interpreters are there to help too. We may depart from the word-for-word approach to a transaction, and it may seem risky, but some of us know what we’re doing. We’re helping you build and sustain relationships. Again I say, if the reservation had not been made, I would’ve totally agreed with this woman and taken the reprimand quietly. But the transaction was completed. Tomorrow, this car rental company will be $30-something richer and  get repeat business from this customer, aside from the potential good word-of-mouth. I made good business. I helped. But if these companies keep basing their business models on let’s-keep-the-calls-short and let’s-call-1,000-customers-in-one-day, they are the ones doomed to extinction. In a world of advancing technology, human contact is the key to making a difference.

Next step for translators...
Next step for translators…
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Isn’t it ironic?

Most people are obsessed with the notion of ‘being unique’. We look for ways to set ourselves apart from our peers, creating online personas via photos and shared media, letting the world know that we have our own personalities. The fact that everyone is doing this has led me to believe that even the weirdest of us has shared traits with a group of others, things that instead of setting us apart, draw us closer to belonging to a certain demographic. So I’ve set out to prove this point: I’m sharing here some of the most personal/offbeat/unheard-of details of my life. I’m pretty sure someone else has at least a similar story or two to share. 

1) The day I met my wife (the official term of endearment between my ex-roommate–and one of my closest friends– and I) I was wearing pajamas. Funnily enough, I started taking pictures of her that same day!

One of the first pictures I ever took of her. Can't find the very first, though.
One of the first pictures I ever took of her. Can’t find the very first, though.

2) Marriage is not a part of the plan I have mapped out for my life, but this was not always the case. I have been engaged twice in my life (coincidentally, both engagement rings turned out to be cheap pieces of tin). But I only made plans in the traditional sense for one. I was 16, and I wanted my wedding dress to be red and black, and I wanted to walk down the isle to the Imperial March. I wonder if any of his weddings (he’s had 2) turned out to be this awesome.

I also wanted this skull cap included in the design. Silly little me.
I also wanted this skull cap included in the design. Silly little me.

3) The worst falling out I’ve ever had was with my mother (we spent more than a year not speaking to each other). It was over the fact that she had read my diary, which I felt was a crass violation to my privacy. Five years later, I started keeping a public blog.

4) Back in 2004, I was ready to move out to North Carolina. Although truth was that I was running away from a very noxious relationship, I convinced myself and others that the actual reason was I had gotten fed up with the incestuous nature of the local social scene. Almost 10 years later, I’ve found that this incestuousness is what has made my social life so very fascinating.

5) The first cigarette I tried was a regular Winston. A single drag turned me off smoking for 4 years. I’ve never had a Winston cigarette since then.

6) I really like cold climates, but I cannot sleep in an air conditioned room. If I do, I wake up with a nasty case of allergies.

7) My first alcoholic drink was not beer. It was a sip of whiskey, and I was 4 years old. To this day, I hate the taste of whiskey.

The SECOND drink I had was this. Got hooked on alcohol right away.
The SECOND drink I had was this. Got hooked on alcohol right away.

8) The first time I celebrated Halloween, I decided to dress up as Darth Vader. I became thoroughly discouraged when I found out there was another kid in the party dressed up as a taller and much better executed Darth Vader. I went back home and switched the Darth Vader mask for a witch hat. I spent the rest of the night harassing the poor kid dressed as Darth Vader.

9) My parents built up my self confidence so well that I grew up with the conviction that I had been a great dancer and a great painter. Later on in life, I learned that I never had any rhythm and that my first art teacher complained to my parents because I had no talent. C’est la vie!

10) Even though my first doctor-and-patient game was with my (male) cousin, the first time I played husband-and-wife was with my (female) childhood friend. We were around 10 years old. I think we were both somewhat aware of what we were doing.

11) My brother started out his early adulthood in job as an interpreter. He’s got around 5 languages up his sleeve. I only have the two (English, Spanish) plus a smattering of French. My first career (for about 9 years) was as an IT professional, same thing I studied in college. He has a Bachelor degree in Philosphy and pretty much all the credits necessary for a minor in Modern Languages. In the last few months, I’m soon to finish my Masters degree in Translation and I have a job as a phone interpreter. He’s finally got a job he enjoys as an IT professional.

 

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I Wish I Had Been Born a Boy

Sometimes I wish I had been born a boy.

When I turned 11 years old, I had my first boyfriend. Nothing incredibly serious, or at least not any threat to my livelihood (regardless of what my mother might have thought at the time.) He was best friends with the first boy I ever had a lasting crush on. In the process of trying to get closer to boy #1, I ended up being close pals with boy #2, until one day I realized boy #2 was way more interesting, charming and compatible with me. So the inevitable happened: little notes got exchanged in between classes, and we became “and item.” For three months I was living in a pink-cloud dream, like any preteen girl would. And then we broke up… and got back together the year after… and broke up again… and then something interesting happened: he came out to me. He told me he was gay, very gay. I don’t know why we ended up giving it yet another try as a couple. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t interested in changing his sexual preferences. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t about sex at all. I guess I just thought it would be cool to hang out with him for a while. This last time happened during my sophomore year in high school, and the breakup was so definitive, that we lost contact with each other for the following 7 years.

We reconnected in my early 20s, and the coolest moments of my youth ensued. And among the many things we talked about during our catch-up conversations, he said “If only you had been a boy, we would have been so happy!” And I agree. Our friendship is the longest one I have: 24 years and still going, still seeing each other whenever we can. We get along fabulously, and I’m pretty sure, just as he was, that if I had been born with XY chromosomes instead of XX, our story would have been different.

For a while now, I have been reminiscing about past romances, and I’ve noticed that a few of the other guys have also turned out to be gay. These are the ones, almost exclusively, with which I still keep contact. I’ve also noticed that, as of late, I’ve been more compelled to surround myself by people with flexible sexualities. The gay men I’ve met lately have been far more fascinating than any others I may have met before. Coincidence? Maybe. But there’s something about an alternative sexuality, a propensity to go against the grain of our conservative society, that makes me go gaga for people. It won’t come as a surprise then that, after having spent a year-and-change adapting to certain unexpected policies in my main (open) relationship, the latest crushes I’ve had are with gay or non-conventionally-sexual men. …of course, me being a girl and all that, this makes my chances of actually being reciprocated pretty close to zero.

So, sometimes I wish I had been born a boy. I know relationships are complicated no matter the sexual orientation, that “the grass is always greener…” etc. But given my current propensity to being caught in the webs of charm of gay men… well, it would have made things much more viable, huh?

But I have no regrets about being a girl. I like being a girl. Sometimes … And sometimes … Well, I guess that’s what makes me–my sexuality, my identity–not quite heterosexual, not quite bisexual, not quite polysexual, asexual, pansexual … queer? And maybe not quite, or maybe more than that? I’ve come to the realization that sexuality, just like all other aspects of humanity, is fluid, a scale of countless shades of gray (DAMN that fucking book!), changeable, mercurial, ephemeral. Labels be damned, I’ll just do my own thing.

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PS: Nothing against women, of course… Truth be told, women intimidate me. I would make a cowardly lesbian, definitely single until death do me part from my herd of cats. Any psychoanalyst would have a holiday with me…

 

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