When I was little, my older cousin became a Supermodel and TV personality.
I grew up seeing her impact everywhere.
Men adored her; women half wanted to be like her, half hated her. She looked at me from the cover of magazines, and from the first page of the newspaper. We could never tell where she was because she was always traveling.
Teenage boys, pimply-faced and awkwardly hiding their crushes, would come up to me when she was in town and ask for introductions. I did, whenever I felt charitable. But mostly, I kept her to myself and basked in the knowledge that we had the same family name, and so I could maybe be as beautiful as her one day.
If you asked me back then, I would have told you that I wanted to be her when I grew up.
Her success loomed large and alluring, like a shadow, and we couldn’t escape her. And she made it seem like so much fun!
I remember the clothes the most. Finely made, unique, expensive, she would let me keep them when she was done with them because I was the only one nearly tall and skinny enough to fit into them. But there was also the free food, the nice ladies who would do my hair when she took me to her photo shoots, and the many, many men who bent over backwards to cater to her – and by extension, my every whim.
I wanted the power she had so badly, I became obsessed. I did things that in hindsight were not advisable.
At six, I burned my hair with the clothes iron to make my hair as straight as hers; at eight, wore saran wrap around my waist to make my tummy look smaller; at ten, I refused to eat anything but avocado, eggs and water for a whole week. My mother put an end to that real quick.
At fourteen, I developed an eating disorder. Only the intervention of a family friend and a stern talk from my father saved me from spiraling out of control.
At fifteen, I saw my cousin for the first time in years. She looked the same as I remembered her, as if time hadn’t dared to touch her. Her dark hair fanning out behind her like silk, she bent a little to hug me, voluptuous mouth spewing all the platitudes that you tell someone you haven’t seen in years.
My mom and she got to talking, old friends finally catching up after a very long absence, and I awkwardly sat there wearing an old men’s t-shirt and converse shoes wanting her to call me beautiful and amazing.
Did she notice I developed hips? What did she think of my hot pink nails and my poor attempt at wearing mascara?
Let me tell you how this story ends: my cousin broke down in front of us.
Not the wailing and crying you would imagine, but a quieter, deeper thing… and all the more heartbreaking for it. She admitted that she was lost; had been lost for a long, long time.
She had barely graduated high school before being thrust into the spotlight, and had been unprepared for the emotional toll fame gave her. Her entire life revolving around her outer beauty; she had been in many abusive relationships without our knowledge and dealt on and off with eating disorders. At almost forty, she hadn’t been able to achieve any of the life goals she had envisioned in her twenties: a college education, loving marriage, having children.
While her sisters and friends all settled down, bought houses and adopted dogs, and worked on their careers, she floated from place to place, unable to figure out how to start fixing her life.
Only knowing that she wouldn’t look beautiful for much longer.
And so, like the magician who shows you what lurks behind the curtain, my cousin destroyed the entire life I had been obsessing over for years. Word by word.
Suddenly, I was able to see all of those men who had been in and out of our lives for what they were: disgusting men who only wanted arm candy and were willing to lie to get it. The friends she’d made during her modeling days left as soon as the perks stopped coming.
And, as a new generation of prettier, fitter, younger girls came onto the scene, she was quickly forgotten.
What a miserable life to have, I thought, horrified, thinking back on the teenaged boys in my neighborhood befriending me to get to her.
Now I know what the younger me couldn’t begin to comprehend: we all hide our burdens.
The dream life I thought would bring me power and attention turned out to be full of smoke and mirrors. And it makes me wonder, what burdens are other people carrying?
I look at my friends, mentors, and even strangers, and try to imagine what they do for a living. Do they enjoy it? Would they want to be someone else for a change?
I look at my uncle, who by most standards is the walking definition of success; an executive manager at a Fortune 500 company who travels internationally for work all the time… and wonder if anyone knows just how much he lost to get to where he is.
I look at my best friend who’s attending grad school on a scholarship, and wonder if anyone besides me knows that she worked herself so hard to get perfect grades that she sent herself into anxiety attacks and made herself sick with stress and lack of sleep.
I look at my Facebook feed, at all of the pictures of engaged couples and smiling faces in front of gorgeous sunsets and professional workshops, and imagine what they are not showing us. The tears, the anger, the despair and the helplessness.
And then I lower my head and I focus on me. My work, my passion, my life.
Because, at the end of the day, that is all I have.
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