"I can’t recall the exact moment I began to feel like everything I did wasn’t good enough (or at least, I wasn’t supposed to take any pride in it or myself) but I think it was probably around 8 or 9".

"I can’t recall the exact moment I began to feel like everything I did wasn’t good enough (or at least, I wasn’t supposed to take any pride in it or myself) but I think it was probably around 8 or 9." Photo: Getty

For the last week or so, I have been visiting my gentleman friend's family in New Zealand. He has a six-year-old niece who delights me with her joie de vivre.

She draws pictures constantly, carefully selecting the best colours for a ballerina’s skirt (fluorescent pink) or choosing frames from her Tin-Tin books to re-imagine. She loves to dance and sing, popping on her toes to mimic the Let It Go sequence from Frozen. She freely believes that she is in control of the card tricks I perform for her, the magic spewing forth from her handmade wand. And she knows how to take a compliment.

I noticed this first when I was talking with her mother and we were both watching her draw. “That’s a good ferris wheel!” her mother said. “I know,” the child replied. “You’re a good drawer!” I piped in. “I know,” she said again, in a matter-of-fact way. She repeated the same sentiment whenever I threw a compliment her way.

You’re very good at dancing, Frankie.

I know.

Your hair looks nice today, Frankie.

I know.

Frankie’s self-confidence shocked me not because it was audacious, but because I’m so unused to hearing girls or women accept praise without complaint. I can’t recall the exact moment I began to feel like everything I did wasn’t good enough (or at least, I wasn’t supposed to take any pride in it or myself) but I think it was probably around 8 or 9.

Prior to this, there are home videos of me mugging for the camera, singing along boisterously to the soundtrack of The Little Mermaid, my chubby little body un-selfconsciously tucked into lycra bike shorts and T-shirts that were not designed to hide my rotund tummy.

With the onset of puberty came self-doubt. My T-shirts grew tent-like, chosen for their ability to conceal. I began picking out flaws in the mirror, comparing myself with my peers and finding myself significantly lacking. Compliments were brushed off, partially because I no longer believed them, but mostly because girls weren’t (and still aren’t) supposed to accept praise for anything.

Graciously accepting a compliment meant you were "up yourself", a stuck-up bitch who thought she was "so good". Girls like that were dangerous. They didn’t know their place, and everyone hated them for it. Instead, it was expected that you reject any positive comment outright.

You’re very good at dancing.

No, I’m terrible at it. I can’t do it properly.

Your hair looks very nice today.

No, it looks shit because I’m so fugly it’s not funny.

The unspoken rules of girl-on-girl warfare meant that it was our peers who largely policed this self hatred. Together, we kept each other’s self esteem in check, the call-and-response activity designed to test our loyalties to the Girl Code. 

You’re so pretty. I wish I was pretty.

No, I’m not! I’m disgusting! YOU’RE the pretty one. You’re so thin. I wish I was thin like you.

No, I’m so fat it’s disgusting.

I spent much of my 14th birthday party engaged in an activity like this. My friend Kate (who was and still is a marvellous human being) and I, in penance for having eaten too many M&Ms, lay in self-imposed disgrace on the sofa bed while we categorised our individual failings.

We were both decidedly more repulsive than the other, each protesting our own behemoth size in contrast with the other’s sleek and svelte frame. So comprehensive was our comparison that at one point we ran to fetch a tape measure so we could settle the argument of who had the fattest feet. Feet.

The unfair and unfounded fear of fatness in high-school girls is a travesty that has lasting impact. So what if one girl is fatter than the other? Why is this one of the benchmarks by which we judge our worthiness, as if our right to feel valued (and valid) decreases with every inch further that our bellies protrude?

So many hours consumed writing checklists of all the things wrong with us. At 32, I still find myself deflecting compliments with self-deprecating humour.

When I was congratulated for being drafted to a home team in my roller derby league, I found myself joking that it was probably because they were desperate for numbers. When people ask me what kind of writing I do, I sometimes say that I “just” write for a women’s website.

How much different would we all be if we hadn’t had the self confidence we felt at 6 beaten out of us by society and each other? Imagine responding to compliments about work we’re proud of by saying, “I know”.

Somewhere inside us all, there’s a six-year-old who wants to dance unselfconsciously to show tunes. We’d probably be very good at it indeed.