On a recent trip home, I greedily snatched my mother’s February issue of Vogue, lying half-open next to her ritual cup of coffee.
I tucked it inside my laptop case to return with it inconspicuously back to NYC. My mother likes to read magazines by story rather than page number, and I had the suspicious feeling I might’ve duped her out of a “Dressing Like the Dickens” story.
When I finally sprawled out on my white duvet and opened it to devour pages of high fashion and this month’s cover girl, Lena Dunham, I noticed my mother was one step ahead of me. Fully knowing that I would go ahead and help myself to her magazine, she dog-eared a quote from Dunham’s exchange with Anna Wintour:
“Guilt and shame can eat away at smart girls, but remember that mistakes are what create smart girls.”
If you’ve watched “Girls” you are no stranger to this classic Dunham moment in which you’re taken aback at the concise, unflinching realness of her quote. This one really stayed with me for just that -- its spot-on authenticity.
My life and much of what I like to write about is built on 23 years of mistakes and experiences, but there wasn’t always a time I was as forthright with my blunders.
Everyone who knows me knows I am my own harshest critic and a way too tough one at that. So when it comes to making mistakes, I’m very quick to let the self-condemnation and remorse that Dunham speaks of wash over me.
Dunham’s profundity, however, and my mother’s thoughtful bookmark are wildly comforting to people like myself who not only go through life committing the most embarrassing of mistakes, but who also genuinely believe that our greatest knowledge evolves from these unintentional wrongdoings. You just have to get over the humiliation and contempt first.
For some reason, after I read that quote, I immediately thought back to my first experience with slut-shaming. It was the first time I truly felt what it was to be a "dumb girl."
I was 13, right around the time when boys and girls start noticing each other sexually, and somewhere between sixth and seventh grade, sitting on a guy’s lap takes on new meaning, as the equivalent of sleeping together.
My school had our first overnight class trip to Washington, DC. Like any sheltered public school kid, the combination of parental freedom and co-ed activities had turned on my troublemaking side.
During the entire four-hour bus ride, I was getting comfy in each pubescent boy’s lap until I got tired and wanted to flirt with the next one, like some horny Goldilocks.
I was definitely sitting in the wrong bear’s lap because when Wee Bear’s velour-tracksuit-girlfriend (hey, it was 2002!) came over, she really let me have it.
The girls banded together under common disapproval of my flagrant behavior and made it clear they wouldn’t associate with me.
For the duration of the trip, I pretended to be unaware of the middle school cattiness and continued to align myself with the boys, which I fully knew would exacerbate the sneers, but felt I had no other choice.
When we returned back to the reality of my small town, however, I had to face the backlash of all the twisted rumors. Somehow, my actions were turned from playful misdemeanors into vilified offensives.
I spent weeks regaining all my girlfriends from my so-called crude behavior on the bus that day. And for a long time afterward, I abstained from so much as even glancing at the boy’s table at lunch.
What scarred me for many weeks following “The Bus Incident” (as the boys called it) were intense feelings of disgrace and mortification. After I had royally pissed off my friends, I succumbed to thinking I couldn’t right my wrongs.
This is where Lena Dunham’s quote, once again, nails it. When you commit an error, first you feel guilty at the time of responsibility.
Then you feel shameful, like you should've known better. The last part of the process -- this is where the difference lies between smart and stupid girls -- is having the guts to learn from these mistakes.
So that’s what I did. Instead of letting the guilt and shame eat away at me and scar my next grade-school encounter, I chose to move forward and take something away from it, to make me smarter for the future.
After The Bus Incident, I realized very early on the double standards tied to a woman’s sexuality, and furthermore, that girls can be more damaging to other girls than men. I started writing my experiences, and here I am now sharing all the details of the boy’s laps I still sit in.
When we think about it, smart girls commit the most mistakes of the bunch. How else are we supposed to grow from our experiences?
Sharp women are the ones who don’t cower from their faults, but rather, embrace them in order to be better next time. The stupid girls are those who go through life without any blunders.
It’s hard to admit that at one point I kept all these mistakes inside because they’re embarrassing or make me look stupid. I’ve now realized that this lifetime of mishaps and goofs not only makes me wiser, but also shapes who I am, and I’m proud to share that.
To the women who feel like their flubs are holding them back, who feel like they won’t amount anything; to the girls who can’t escape a hell of their own making, who are bogged down and dragging themselves down further still, who feel as if the whole world is against them and hiding is the only option: Help yourself to this knowledge.
Dog-ear this page. Tuck it in your laptop case, for a moment in time when humiliation and contempt get the best of you, and revisit it when you need to remember, “Guilt and shame can eat away at smart girls, but mistakes are what create smart girls.”
Top Photo Courtesy: Img Fave