To be Shiny


Last week, when I shared the Hudson pants, I was surprised by the number of people who commented on how harsh I was being about my (let’s face it), um, strong calves and other body parts. Of course, I appreciated how kind and encouraging the commenters were being, so I’ve done some thinking about that since then, prompted also by a conversation I had with K a few days ago. Here’s how the conversation went:

K: Mama, when you were a kid, did you have certain characteristics that you thought you would have when you grew up?

Me: What do you mean?

K: You know, did you think you would become beautiful or talented or something? Can you name three characteristics?

Me: Hmmmm…I don’t know…what do you think are yours?

K: Funny, musical and smart!

Isn’t that amazing? No hesitation whatsoever. And did you notice that I paused and deflected answering the questions? When pressed, I finally said, “smart, nice and creative”, though honestly, I wasn’t half as introspective as K is at her age so I was probably thinking about looking like Barbie. I noticed that something inside of me balked when I listed those descriptors. I’m sure it’s my Asian upbringing and general societal mores that frown upon tooting one’s horn, but I had a really hard time declaring positive qualities about myself.


At the same time, I find it second nature to point out my less than perfect attributes. Though I am much more comfortable with myself now than I’ve ever been and therefore can openly talk about any “deficiencies” with what I consider gentle mockery, I’m also aware that it’s a sort of preemptive shield. If I say it myself, I keep my fingers crossed that no one else will.

All this reminds me of a moment from a few months ago, when K saw a book I’d checked out from the library titled “Shiny, Beautiful” or some such (it was about hair — my tresses could use some boost in the shiny, gorgeous department). She read the title aloud and said, “I feel beautiful all the time, Mama.” I hugged her and laughed with delight at her confidence but a teeny tiny part of me thought that she shouldn’t go around saying that in public.

But why?

She is beautiful. She should feel beautiful all the time. We’re all beautiful in our own, unique ways. We know this deep down, but we’re not allowed to say it, really. I’ve been thinking about how scared I am of standing out, of being shiny. I sometimes wonder if I’m reinforcing in K the same withholding I’ve absorbed for decades. I’m an old hat at ameliorating and I try to quickly utter something negative about myself, believing that it will put others at ease. It probably does though sometimes it has the opposite effect, but it feels like it chips away at an important part of me. Does that make sense? That tenuous line between self-deprecation (not good) and self-acceptance (good). The ubiquitous Marianne Williamson quote holds steady because it rings so true:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?

And this is endemic among women. We’ve become masters at downplaying. We get fearful of envy and jealousy. Of outgrowing or losing friends and loved ones. Of not being able to handle “success”, however we deem it. Or, most terrifying of all is that we will embrace the belief of the brilliance, the gorgeous, the talent, the fabulous, and discover that it was all a self-help, mumbo-jumbo sham and that we’re less than we’d ever assumed. Somehow, I don’t think that’s the case though.


All the people — women especially — that I admire are the ones who are shiny and unafraid to be shiny. Not in a gold-plated-veneer way, but in a truly luminous and complicated sense, like the multi-layered sunrise I caught in the nick of time after climbing Mount Fuji all night (a pretty entertaining tale that I’ll share at some point). Brassy, bravado-infused glitter that doesn’t seem genuine tends to make me feel uncomfortable, and I do end up feeling inferior or somehow competitive. But the ones that really shine? They don’t go around announcing that they feel beautiful all the time, but you sense it in their word choices, their energy, the way they reach out to people unafraid to be exactly who they are. When someone is unapologetically themselves and I’m around them, I feel a little bit shinier too. Thoughts to ponder. I don’t have any solid answers on the how of achieving this luminosity, obviously, but I like to ruminate. And in the future, I will be much nicer to my calves.


29 thoughts on “To be Shiny

    1. So true, Jing! Don’t get me wrong, I consider modesty and humility to be important, but like Annette mentions, I’m wary of the “false” types or when we feel we need to tamp ourselves down needlessly.

  1. This post really resonated. Where I live (Belgium) it’s sort of frowned upon to be openly proud of your achievements, so most people habitually have this (false) modesty going on. I’ve always been pretty insecure, and even though it’s getting better I still find it hard to say ‘I look great today’ out loud, or just be proud of something I’ve made. At least I’ve gotten as far as thinking it though!

    1. I love your comment, Annette, thank you! I think it would be wonderful to be able to say “I look great today” out loud without feeling like we’ll be punished somehow for it. Or, even if we all don’t go around saying it, how awesome would it be to truly think and feel it? I read somewhere that less than 2% of women think they are attractive. Less than 2%!! Of course, I don’t know how valid that survey was, but I do believe it’s ingrained in us to focus on what’s not right about us, no?

  2. I’ve been thinking about the concept of re-parenting myself over the last few years and instilling more confidence – confidence that isn’t derived from what I’ve achieved, but just because I exist – has been a major focus. As both sides of my family emphasized humility and assimilation at the expense of self-actualization, it’s been a journey! Speaking of parenting, I think K’s confidence speaks highly of yours – how lovely that you’re bringing your expanding self-awareness into her upbringing. <3

    1. What a great idea to re-parent ourselves! I’m all for it. Our parents did our best, and as a parent myself, I’m trying my best too, but I know that I’m also probably messing up somehow. And yes, confidence not measured by external achievements — so good, Morgan! xo

  3. And your bum! Don’t forget to be nice to your bum too! The people that criticize your bum are behind you, and you are walking away from them! They don’t matter. You are moving ahead brightly greeting those people in front of you! People who are looking you in the face, laughing at your jokes, dazzled by your wit. You shouldn’t even know what your bum looks like! In your forward moving journey, who has time to try to catch a glimpse of their own ass?

  4. This is a wonderful post, and I think what you are describing applies to so many women, not only in our generation but likely throughout history. I actually feel lucky that, as a woman in a man’s world (I am a commercial litigator), I learned to let go of the self deprecation early in my career. I saw that the men around me were realistic and honest about their weaknesses, but didn’t dwell on them and instead played up their strengths. Why shouldn’t I do the same? I know many people talk about the gender differences and how that works for men and not women, but no one likes it when a women talks about her strengths, blah, blah, blah, but I have not found that to be the case. Maybe I work with a particularly enlightened group of men, though I doubt it. I also made a concerted effort to give up self-deprecating remarks about my physical attributes when I had kids. To them, I am the most beautiful woman on the earth, and while I know that opinion will change as they get older, I don’t want it to change because of comments that come out of my own mouth.

    I love K’s self-confidence. I hope that she feels beautiful every minute of every day of her life!

    It can be so hard to overcome upbringing and “re-parent” ourselves (good word), but when I see photos of you and read your words, what I see a is a beautiful, strong and creative woman who should be rightfully proud of herself and her creations. So I’m glad to see that you’ve decided to give your calves a break 🙂

    1. So inspiring, Katie! I love to hear about women shedding the all too common habit of minimizing that I’m prone to doing. And it’s so refreshing that you are surrounded by folks that find it to be the norm. That’s key.

      You will ALWAYS be the most beautiful woman on the earth for your kids, whether they consciously think about it or not and it will have nothing to do with physical or external attributes. This, I’m certain of. I still think my mom is.

      Believe you me, my calves are much appreciative that I’ve stopped whipping them to death – they’re looking quite relaxed these days 😉

  5. Haha! You used ruminate and calves in the last two sentences 🙂

    I feel like we’re emotional twins. I certainly haven’t given it as much thought as you have in this post, but it really, really, really, spoke to me. Self deprecating humor, deflection, etc. It’s my modus operandi. Some could put it as simply as: “Learn how to take a compliment!”, but it definitely goes deeper than that.

    Thanks for giving me and my daikon ashi something to ruminate over!!

  6. This is a great piece. Loved it all. In Australia we have this problem called Tall Poppy Syndrome and it sounds like it’s not unique to us. You don’t want to really blossom because there’s this fear that someone will come and chop you down. I think it affects people in different ways but for me I know I always like to be the first to get in and lumberjack myself, because it’s less painful than someone else doing it. Crazy!

    1. Oh, “Tall Poppy Syndrome”! What a visually arresting term. I imagine there’s a version of it in every culture because people do have to get along harmoniously after all, and if we all went around crowing about our greatness…well, wars have been started for lesser things, right? I guess I’m trying to figure out how to be okay. Okay with both the good and not so good without posturing or hiding or inflating or shooting myself down. Thank you Sophie!

  7. Oh my! Recently this was brought to my attention as well. Self deprecating humor is something I am very guilty of. After thinking it over I realized it’s ridiculous to stab myself just because someone else might. Breaking habits and the mindset that brought them about is difficult to do but with the Lord’s help I’m going to do my very best to break this!

    1. I’m a chronic self-deprecator and a big part of me wonders if my repertoire of humorous stories would shrink to zero if I couldn’t make fun of myself. I tend to get myself in the most ridiculous situations…but I sense the key lies somewhere in the degree of self-mockery and the intention behind it. Maybe? But I agree with you, Em, stabbing the self is a habit best broken!

  8. Oh what an interesting post!! I love you. I’m with Katie I think – being a commercial loan officer (VERY male-dominated) for ten years and having to interact with male customers, often much OLDER male customers, made me learn self-assuredness and to project my ideas with confidence…otherwise I would get no respect and no business done! They needed to trust that I knew what I was doing, so I had to act like I did. But after a while it’s not just an act, you know? Funny thing is, I was never a very good “salesperson” in banking like I am with sewing – it’s just much easier for me to speak frankly, to try new things, etc. in our sewing world. Maybe it’s because I feel like those of us making things for ourselves are just all figuring it out together, and the more we help each other the better…?

    1. I love you too! So, I’m seeing a great pattern here: the women who sustain and adapt in a male-dominated environment seem to develop that self-assuredness I would love to call my own. Most of my “career” has been in female-dominated (with a handful of equally female and male) fields, and the dynamics are VERY different. That’s a whole different topic, and the good outweighed the bad, but there were some major bads. I’m a big fan of the fake-it-till-you-make-it mentality for many things, and clearly your confidence is deep-rooted, Kristin!

      I think this sewing/maker community is unique and extremely supportive. It seems to take the best parts of a female-centric cohort and allow for growth and nurturing that’s very reassuring!

  9. Oh Sanae, you are spot on with this post! I can relate so much! On one hand, studies show that the ‘everybody gets a trophy/praise your kids for everything’ model results in kids with a very insecure sense of self. because, from what i have read, self esteem comes from, not being told you are good at something, but by actually being good at something. so millenials are more narcissistic, anxious and depressed than any other generation. And yet, there is a big difference between that and raising our children in a culture of unworthiness and shame. That was definitely the culture that I grew up in and it has taken me a good decade to move past that. i think a balanced person doesn’t spend too much time thinking of themselves – the good or the bad. I am always striving to improve, as a wife, mother and in my sewing and photography. But I also try not to get hung up on guilt and remember that each day is another opportunity to try, try again. And if someone compliments my sewing I can now just say ‘thank you’. which is a huuuuuge improvement from ‘nah, it sucks!’ like I used to be trained to say. But it’s also not ‘yeah, i know – it’s awesome right?’. i don’t want to get to that extreme either.
    i am still struggling with how to be honest without making other people feel bad. I definitely feel that burden. I have friends who have reluctantly moved past the baby phase and have a lot of baggage with that. It’s really hard for me to be honest that I am totally in love with my baby because I fear I’ll make them feel bad. But then I’m not being honest if I complain or pretend I wish to be leading a more adventurous life, because at this point I’ve drank the Kool-Aid and am so thankful for this season of being family-focused,knowing I’ll have many years to travel and focus on myself. I’ve been mentally trying to work through how to handle that.
    Anyway, you are way too hard on yourself. You look fantastic and I loved the outfit where you were critical of your calves. And actually I thought that outfit looked amazing on you! I meant to comment on that!

    1. Oh Rachel, such a heartfelt comment, thank you! I agree so much with you too.
      A) According to so many studies, praising innate/definitive traits like “smart” or “beautiful” often seem to have negative effects on kids because it doesn’t reinforce the value of effort and practice and patience. I often try to tell K that I love how she tries to figure things out rather than saying, “you’re so smart!!”

      B) So important to get away from the shaming! My childhood was like an Olympic training ground for passive aggression and guilt! I could have won a gold medal, but I’m constantly monitoring myself so I don’t fall into familiar patterns.

      C) Gauging social appropriateness is hard, and receiving compliments is part of that, I think. Why is it so compelling to knock down compliments? I also know that feeling of holding back my enthusiasm for something to avoid making others feel uncomfortable…the fact of the matter is that not everyone will share our happy feelings, even close friends. I think you hit it on the nail with not thinking too much about ourselves and maybe it can apply here too? I’m certain you’re not going around rubbing it in people’s faces because you’re too considerate for that. When I found out I couldn’t have kids after K, it was a little hard to be around friends with babies, but it was also good for me, you know? I never want other people to feel like they’re unable to express their true feelings around me, so I try to always be open though I might modulate the level of my zest, despair, etc.

      And thanks! The hudson pants are getting a lot of wear!!

  10. love your ruminations. such truth you speak. and if we struggle ourselves with self-worth as adults, how much harder it must be for the tween/teen set! thanks for once again giving me some important words to ponder.
    oh, and love the watercolor of K and her three best attributes! Please hang that in her room to remind her daily of how truly special she is!

    1. Teens! Oh Lucinda, how will I survive teenhood? I need to get crackin’ on the whole self-worth business stat. And I’m glad you like the little watercolor illo – it might be fun to do a whole collage of K illustrations 🙂 Thank you!

  11. Swoon! I am aching with how beautifully this is written! Or beautifully written it is! But so lovely & thoughtful and perfectly in line with a lot of my thinking lately. I love seeing people shine, and I think letting yourself shine in an authentic way is one of the loveliest parts of being alive. Far too often we stamp it down for all the wrong reasons, and I think it just results in incremental degrees of misery. So happy I just discovered your shininess!

  12. So wonderful to read up on all the thoughtful comments and your own thoughts. What an important topic, especially for women and girls. At my work many of the girls have a low self-esteem, sometimes installed in them by their culture or religion. I am often faced with the dilemma of helping them spread their wings and open their eyes and minds and of what their families and culture expects of them. I don’t want them to turn away from where they come from and I also want to help them grow and have more self-esteem. It is difficult. I have struggled with my self worth all my life, it has been better and it has been pretty bad. When I did an ayurveda therapy in Sri Lanka many years ago, a woman said to me, that I have a strong light, but I cover it with a lid and don’t let it shine. I have thought about this so often. I would love to become one of those women you spoke about, who are unapologetically themselves and dare to shine. It gives me hope to hear about K and to see my dear Zoe who is also so good at telling herself how great she is. Thank you for starting this discussion.

    1. I love hearing about the work you’re doing, Ute – it sounds so very rewarding and meaningful! And I agree that you have a strong light – that woman knew what she was talking about it! And I have to say that your kindness is contagious!

  13. isn’t it amazing how our kids can bring out the best in us, by innocently challenging our long-held beliefs about ourselves? i’ve been really self-conscious for ages, so i’m a pro at self-deprecation. i do it instinctively, automatically. i suppose, like you, i do it to protect myself. now that i am a mother, i am becoming acutely aware of what i am projecting to my daughter. in trying to ensure that she loves herself and lives confidently, i’m having to uncover my “little light”, so i can show her how to shine. i’m going to keep in mind your ‘shiny’ sketch – it captures all of this so well. thanks for sharing these thoughts!

    1. Thank you so much for your comment, Karen! K is like my little teacher, reminding me of all the things I’ve been doing unconsciously, and though it’s not always comfortable, it’s extremely eye-opening 🙂

  14. I came to this post through the lovely Heather’s round up from a while back, and I have to say… this resonated with me so much, so thank you for writing it. When I got to this part, “Or, most terrifying of all is that we will embrace the belief of the brilliance, the gorgeous, the talent, the fabulous, and discover that it was all a self-help, mumbo-jumbo sham and that we’re less than we’d ever assumed.” I had to re-read it multiple times. It’s like you’re in my head! My mother never told me I was beautiful growing up—beauty isn’t something she values, and she thought that by not ever instilling that kind of value in me, I’d be stronger for it. But I grew up thinking I was ugly. I still have trouble when people compliment my looks in some way, I don’t know how to respond. But even more than looks and beauty… I find that I’m always second guessing myself in my work, or my creativity. And that line about discovering that it was all a sham and we’re not actually great at all… that’s my greatest fear. Because sometimes I do think I’m good at what I do. And sometimes I do think I’m pretty. And then this voice inside me instantly rears up and says, “oh no you don’t. You be quiet now. Unless someone else tells you you are, and that someone else does not love you or know you for any reason whatsoever (and is therefore not biased, right), you’re not allowed to think that.”

    But you’re right, being around those people who believe great things about themselves and just exist with those positive thoughts in their minds… it’s magical. They’re magical. They’re the kind of people I want to be around all the time. But it’s so much easier to build up others than ourselves, isn’t it?

    Anyway, great post. That’s all I meant to say 😉

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