If you lived in a small town pre-internet and f’d up your future by worrying more about your father killing your mom than your grades, you had four job options post-high school graduation: salesperson at the local mall, burger flipper at a fast-food franchise, pump jockey at a gas station, or kennel assistant at a vet clinic.
Since a Newfoundland nearly raped me at Amherst Animal Hospital, I’d set my fingernails on fire during chemistry, and a food-service position was unwise for a woman with binge-eating disorder, I took a former sociology classmate’s sister’s suggestion and applied at Macy’s, where she worked. But this wasn’t an easy decision. The thought of having to approach every customer who entered my department, make eye contact, and smile was just as nerve-racking as giving an oral report had been since I suffered from low self-esteem, courtesy of:
- stuck-up Amherst students who’d shunned or made fun of me since fourth grade
- a father who called my mom ugly, which, I believed, made me ugly by default
- a brother who brought home chicken pox that left a lunar crater on my cheek sophomore year
- a complexion prone to Proactiv commercial-type breakouts before Proactiv existed to help me, and
- a flat chest.
After tossing and turning a few nights, the only thing that got me into Macy’s training room was the infamous plant experiment in which the plant that was insulted withered while the plant that was complimented thrived. When I was 4 and my parents needed money for my newborn brother’s medical bills, my mom took me to a modeling agency that wanted to sign me until I suctioned myself to her leg and started screaming that I wanted to go home. As my mom escorted me into my first day of kindergarten, a blond boy approached us to say, “You’re perdy.” Years later, a little girl came up to me as my parents bowled in a league and said the same thing but pronounced the word properly. I remembered being happy back then.
If I can find people who are nice to me, I’ll be okay, I thought.
And ultimately, retail restored my self-worth and changed my life in three long-lasting ways.
First, Retail Enabled Me to Give Myself a Makeover
From fifth grade through high school, long before Target entered northeast Ohio with fashion-magazine-worthy designer collections, my parents took me to Kmart to buy back-to-school clothes. Worse, my mom sometimes shopped for summer clothes solo, so anytime it was warm, I was forced to sport leopard-print T-shirts or tops adorned with almond-shaped eyes and glittery whiskers because the only thing she knew about me was that I liked cats.
I knew she meant well, so I felt bad for making her cry during an emotional—and probably premenstrual—tirade at age 13. But her realization that classmates were taunting me prompted her to take my Christmas wish lists a little more seriously since, despite raising me with an abuser like her father, she’d always wanted me to have a better childhood than her own.
Unfortunately, as the Fresh Prince said, parents just don’t understand. So instead of popular-and-pure-white Princess Reeboks appearing beneath the tree that year, I eagerly opened a Reebok box to a pair with peach stripes because “they were prettier.” Then, because social isolation had turned the girl who’d walked on wooden cable spools with a friend in her former neighborhood into a klutz who frequently “forgot” her gym clothes to get out of having to participate, I bumped a bottle of red paint during art class, and it spilled onto my left shoe. Not only did I regret ruining a present, but every time I tied my laces, the stain reminded me of the locker room scene in “Carrie.”
With those memories fresh in mind, I used my employee discount to reduce the price of Nine Wests and spent the remainder of every paycheck on classic pieces from The Limited. I also taught myself to walk like a model via mirrored pillars throughout the store, hoping my hips, pretty clothes, and high heels would divert attention from flaws.
Twenty years later, I still get compliments on those clothes, my taste in shoes, and my walk, which inspired a boyfriend to put Pet Shop Boys’ “Domino Dancing” on a mixed tape—and possibly prevented me from being assaulted on the street. When you project confidence, you look tough, “and a tough target never gets picked,” self-defense expert Tony Stengel told Oprah in the ’90s.
Second, I Flourished as an ESFJ
As 16personalities.com says, “ESFJs love to be of service, enjoying any role that allows them to participate in a meaningful way, so long as they know that they are valued and appreciated.” I’ve enjoyed helping people since my third-grade teacher gave me dopamine rushes by letting me fetch the gym closet keys from the principal and redecorate her classroom, but I couldn’t do a damn thing to help my mom. So you can imagine my elation when the assistant store manager promoted me from the sales floor to customer service, where I:
- balanced the registers and vault to prepare the bank deposit
- sold Ticketmaster tickets
- resolved customers’ complaints
- answered phones
- made change for sales associates
- paged stock guys, and
- announced Lancome bonus gifts over the PA system while wrapping vacuum cleaners in flimsy tinfoil bridal registry paper.
I smiled the rest of the day when customers I’d made Martha Stewart-esque bows for in the past told me they’d waited for me to return from lunch or break instead of settling for someone else’s handiwork. Consequently, I left that job knowing I needed a creative career that provided both positive feedback and a variety of tasks that would distract my brain from whatever might be going on at home since there was nothing I could do about it at work anyway.
Third, I Made Friends
When you feel good about yourself, people enjoy being around you, so I attracted a diverse cast of characters, including:
- a flamboyant 50-something-year-old gay guy who took me to a wedding reception as his date because I was “the classiest woman” he knew
- a guy with strabismus who could see straight enough to win drag races at Norwalk Raceway and strapped me into his passenger seat one weekend
- an adopted drug addict and troublemaker who looked like Jose Jalapeno on a Stick and became my drinking buddy
- a Valley girl-sounding nursing student who did coke and turned me onto bronchodilators to stay thin
- a mild-mannered black woman in the lingerie department who kept me sane while I was stuck across the aisle in children’s, and
- a feminist college student who read me an abortion story I’ll never forget.
I had no shortage of interesting people to talk to, but old-timers Jude, Joan, and Betty were my favorite. All three are long gone, so I sometimes wonder if Jude’s looking down at me, still disapproving of my dating decisions by running his hand over his face and saying, “Oh, for heaven’s sake.” I’d like to think Joan, a spunky 67 year old who’d divorced an abusive husband and regaled me with road-trip tales from her 20s before moving back to Nevada, and Betty, a pocket-sized, silver-haired southern belle who divorced an abusive husband and moved back to South Carolina, watch over me with a smile as I travel by myself. If it weren’t for them, I never would’ve had the courage—even after meeting men who’d f’d up their own future, expected me to restore their self-worth, and made me want to run far, far away.
The Risks of Basing Your Self-Esteem on External Factors: Some Advice for the Selfie Generation
A 24-year-old woman told the Guardian that if she only gets two likes for a picture she uploaded to Instagram, she wonders what’s wrong with her. Another millennial said she deletes selfies that garner less than 140 likes “because I think I probably didn’t look good enough for my followers.” I wish women could see how sick that is. But little did I realize in my late teens and early 20s that basing my self-worth on my appearance, job performance, and friendships was like building a house on sand because:
An illness would later cause half of my hair to fall out in two weeks’ time.
A distracted Volvo driver would ruin my runway walk for six months by forcing me to limp and then cause osteoarthritis that generated swear words with every step years later.
A scary lump would crop up overnight.
A sudden, severe wheat allergy would turn my complexion from this:
into a two-month breakout like this:
and a year-long scar like this:
Nor did I realize that future employers would lay me off, twice while I was on vacation, or that technological advances would rob friends of any manners they once had.
It was a long and painful road to get there, but I’ve reached the point that I no longer care what people think and say about me. Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate compliments as much as everyone else. But sharing embarrassing stories and photos may help others overcome their self-esteem issues, and I’d rather be remembered for empathy than vanity. Besides, as T.D. Jakes once said, “You’d be surprised how sexy ‘nice’ is.”
Case in point, inspirational speaker Nick Vujicic, who was born without limbs:
So remember that the next time you’re stressing out about filters, angles, lighting, and likes.