I met Romy two years ago when I was helping out in an ACCESS English class. ACCESS is a micro scholarship program that prepares high schoolers to learn English. Romy is now in her first year of college and she works at a coffee shop to pay the bills. She’s an incredibly intelligent, kind young woman who also speaks better English than most Nicaraguans I’ve ever met.
One day, I stopped by the coffee shop for breakfast and Romy and I ended up chatting about self-esteem, which is a topic that I didn’t think would be of such interest to people until I came to Nicaragua. Find out what it’s like to for a young woman to navigate societal pressures, and learn from the advice she gives about avoiding toxic relationships.
Char: So, after you saw my blog post about my Japanese painting, you told me you wanted to blog about self-esteem. Why is self-esteem so important to you?
Romy: I’ve talked to lots of girls about this, and it’s a huge issue. It’s about seeing both your flaws and qualities and accepting yourself. It’s about how you show yourself to the world. If you have low self-self esteem, then people will see you in a negative light. Your self-esteem is the first thing people notice about you.
Char: When I first came to Nicaragua, I asked my youth group to choose a workshop topic. Out of all the topics, like HIV/AIDS prevention and goal setting, they chose self-esteem. I had no idea it was so important to people here. What affects self-esteem?
Romy: What your family thinks of you. You might have trouble at home and your family members might be affecting you in negative ways, but you might not talk about it with them. Negative people are often unaware of how they make others feel powerless. You have to know that it’s not your fault, and that you can’t solve everyone’s problems.
Not everyone tells me I’m “smart” and “mature” as you do, Char. Sometimes I’m around people who make me feel like I’m not enough, and that lowers my self-esteem.
Char: A lot of people gain self-esteem from other people. Do you agree with this?
Romy: Yes. Guys, society…all of this make us feel like we’re not good enough. For example, all of those models on TV make women feel like we’re fat or that our boobs aren’t big enough. When you “don’t have it,” you feel inferior. Also, when I’m on my period, I feel like I’m ugly and not good enough.
Once, I was with a guy, and I started saying bad things about myself. He told me that he hadn’t thought of me in those negative ways until I’d mentioned them, and our dynamic changed after that!
Char: Do you feel like you have a voice inside your head telling you to be more confident or less confident?
Romy: Honestly, yes. Half of the time I get down on myself, and the other half of the time I tell myself that I’m good enough.
Char: Same. Whenever I give myself negative self-talk, I have to tell myself I’m good enough. Sometimes, even before writing a blog post, I’ll think it won’t be good enough. Then, I ask myself “What would a white man think?” because they have so much confidence that society allows them to have. Then, I’ll get to work. How can women be more confident in themselves?
Romy: It depends on how you act with the people, like family members, who hurt your self-esteem. If you never tell them, it’s your fault. When my mom and dad were fighting for two years before they divorced when I was 13, I was exhausted. I realized that it wasn’t my fault anymore. It’s empowering to realize it’s not your fault and to tell people how they affect you.
I also write a lot. If you were to read my diary, you would think, Oh my God, this girl is about to kill herself (rolls eyes and shakes head).
Char: Really? I never would have guessed that!
Romy: Yes! You have no idea. Here, I’ll show you a poem:
Y quien quiera tomarse el tiempo para conocerme, Bienvenido sea, que me conozca y que esa persona ya decida si le agrado o no. No pretendiente ser quien no soy para agradarte, de mi boca siempre saldrá la verdad y mis ojos no te van a mentir.
Si vas a entrar a mi vida, por favor se directo con tus intenciones que me duele más un engaño que una verdad desnuda… se consciente de que tengo huesos fuertes, alma pura y un corazón frágil.
Eres Bienvenido pero no te aprovechemos de mi ingenuidad, te seré sincera y es que por desgracia me encariño rápido y me creo mil ideas, pienso que todos son ovejas cuando en realidad sólo me aparecen lobos con disfraces. Y en esta cabeza retorcida sólo hay una idea errónea de encontrar el amor, tal parece que todavía no he aprendido que ese tesoro no necesita de búsqueda, sólo de paciencia.
Ahora que ya sabes todo eso, de vos depende quedarte y seguir descubriendo mis colores o marcharte con lo que te dejé ver.
Char: Well, I write letters to people who I can’t or shouldn’t talk to, and they can get pretty ridiculous, too. Sometimes it’s more important to express myself than to be heard. I keep lots of negative things to myself and post more positive things on social media.
Romy: Exactly. Writing letters doesn’t really work for me, but I feel relieved after I write poems or draw. I love giving my friends advice and telling them they’re worth it. I’m good at comforting them and telling them that everything has its time.
I also love having open conversations with people. Not just conversations about the weather or about how our families are doing, but about things considered taboos, like tatoos, piercings, sex, and getting married. I have a friend who I can talk with about these things naturally. Once, we wondered what it would be like to be married and wake up next to them knowing that their mouth stinks.
Char: Do you have any gay friends? Being gay still seems like a taboo topic.
Romy: No, but my sister does. Well, I have one friend who’s bisexual.
Char: Do you think that things are getting better for gay people here?
Romy: Oh, yes. Ten years ago, they would kill people for being gay. It used to be illegal to be gay, I think.
Char: Yup, until 2008.
Romy: Now, in the street, if people don’t like it, then they will just say something, but they won’t do something about it. I have some very Catholic friends who wouldn’t say anything mean to you for being gay, but they still think it’s a sin.
Char: How does your family feel about sex?
Romy: Oh, they are very conservative about it. Ever since I was four years old, my mother and grandmother said that I had to cuidar mi tesorito (take care of my little treasure).
Char: Since you were FOUR!?
Romy: Yes! I mean, I didn’t know that they were talking about my virginity then, but still. Then, when you get older, the more and more you are told not to do something, the more you want to do it. My dad was the one who explained the myths about sex to me. He explained that yes, even if a woman is on top, she can get pregnant.
Char: Wow, it’s not common for fathers to talk about contraception with their daughters. I’ve heard girls think that they won’t get pregnant if they have sex for the first time, or if that drinking coconut water after having sex is a contraceptive.
Romy: Yup, there are all these myths, but my dad’s pretty open about me taking care of myself so I don’t end up pregnant. If I got pregnant, I wouldn’t want to work or attend school.
Char: He sounds SO different from a lot of men. Anyway, we’ve talked about how to raise our self-esteem: finding open-minded people, being aware of how you present yourself and knowing that you can’t control everything. Is there any other advice you’d give girls looking to boost their self-confidence? We’ve alluded to toxic relationships, too…
Romy: Yes, about toxic relationships, it’s super important to know that early on, if something is wrong, it’s not going to change. I had a boyfriend who was very jealous. He’d say things like “how can you go out in those shorts?” or he’d get mad if I was five minutes late to meet up with him. After a certain point, I couldn’t go on any further with him.
Char: Yeah, I’ve heard that a red flag is a red flag. Once you see one, it won’t go away.
Romy: You can’t expect people to change. My dad told me, “If you ever date a guy who starts telling you how to dress, leave him.” It will just get worse. I met a film director who came to the café once and we were chatting about this. “The worst mistake you can make,” he said, “is to think people will change. If they aren’t going to change for their own free will, then they ain’t gonna change.”
Char: Of course. You can’t wait around for someone to change if they don’t even want to. Also, I like how you said “ain’t.” You know so many colloquialisms!
Romy: Oh yeah, once I surprised my American friend when I asked him to be straight up with me! He asked me where I learned to talk like that.