In third grade, I decided that I wanted to be a paleontologist when I grew up. I stacked my room with thick, heavy books about dinosaurs, delightfully spilling my knowledge on which creature belonged to which period to whoever would entertain me. The adults in my life, while surprised that I had shown disinterest in Disney princesses and Barbies, continued to put up with my dinosaur fixation, letting me return home with my clothes muddied from “digs” and allowing me to watch a very heavily cut rendition of Jurassic Park. For a brief moment in time, I felt like the smartest kid on the planet, mainly because I knew that Allosauruses and T-Rexes were not the same thing.
But, just as kids learn to let go of dreams of being princesses or superheroes, cracks started to form in my perfect paleontologist future I had created in my head. After excitedly showing one of my parents’ coworkers my own artistic rendition of an Ankylosaurus, I was met with a half-hearted smile and a pat on the shoulder.
Gently, they questioned me if I had any other interests; dinosaurs were a boy’s thing, after all. I protested angrily, confused as to how liking a group of dead reptiles was exclusive for just one gender. But as I started to grow up, I realized eventually that, in my weird fixation with dinosaurs, I was not what people wanted me to be – cool, feminine, proper, and favorable with boys, everything that my dirty cargo shorts and uncombed hair was not.
Of course, I only speak for myself and my situation. Girls are allowed to like dinosaurs. But the sting of having a purpose being yanked away from me continued to creep back into my thoughts occasionally. I realized that, if I wanted to be what people wanted me to be, I was not allowed room to grow into my own person.
After dinosaurs, everything I did was filtered based on if it made others happy. I pretended to like certain bands to relate to my friends when I felt nothing hearing their songs. I wore skirts to look more feminine when they just made me uncomfortable. I watched BBC Sherlock and didn’t understand a single thing about it (I still don’t, really). Everything about me was made of patchwork, and I had no idea who I was or what I wanted in the future.
Then, deciding to take a chance, I wrote a column for this paper about my struggle with an eating disorder. Writing was something I could do decently, but I had never taken it seriously in the past. Essays written in English classes were always rushed and never given any real thought or depth, and I had never bothered to put any effort into it before that year.
The day the column was released, I got a multitude of support. It was the most vulnerable and honest I had ever been with anybody up until that point, really. My baggage was finally emptied – everyone knew this terrible secret that I had kept down for so long in order to make myself likable to others.
What really stood out to me, though, is that by being vulnerable, I had inadvertently helped others become more vulnerable themselves. In the weeks that followed the column’s release, handfuls of people messaged me or stopped me to tell me how much reading it had helped them with their own eating problems or negative self image.
I was, in all honesty, shocked at how something I had written for my own gain had left that big of an impact on others.
The irony in all of this was that I was still appealing to others by nature, but this time I was doing something with a new purpose. My vulnerability in writing not only helped others, but most importantly, it helped myself.
If what I wrote for my own peace of mind was able to resonate or make an impact with anybody as an added bonus, then I realized that I had found what I needed all along. I had found something that had made not just other people proud, but myself proud.
It might not have been dinosaurs, but after a period of digging through dirt and dust, I had finally found something important.