Finding My Voice – and a Red Lipstick

by Sarah Hoffman

As a kid my parents nicknamed me “the little teapot.” When I was nervous or I’d meet someone new, I’d physically lean away from the interaction and the shape my body made would resemble the teapot character from the Disney song. My feet stayed planted but the rest of me was trying to escape.

I had always been shy, the perennial late bloomer. I was just a year too young for my grade, but it was a crucial one, especially for me. While all the other girls were experimenting with their moms’ eyeshadows in middle school I was still waiting for all my teeth to come in. I had eight teeth pulled in high school; in my senior prom photo I was a human jack-o-lantern.

I went through puberty extremely late, wearing double training bras to conjure the optical illusion of a chest. I eventually did grow, about 8 inches in two years – so fast that I needed to wear knee braces when I played tennis.

Tennis was my escape from high school. I was one of the top ranked tennis players in the country (the only way in which I peaked in high school). Every weekend was spent traveling around the country in a converted camper van going to tournaments.

I loved that with tennis you got out what you put in; preparation and practice were what you needed to succeed. My shyness became mental toughness; keeping my emotions from my opponent was a strength. The adrenaline rush that paralyzed me in social situations fueled me on the court.

Tennis was where I stood out. In pretty much every other respect I tried to blend in. I’d often wear my tennis clothes to school so I could do drills during lunch. When I did finally learn how to use concealer to cover my acne, I’d forget I was wearing it and wipe it off in long streaks on my tennis whites. In class I’d get good grades but downplay knowing the right answers.

During college I discovered beer. Ah beer, the magical elixir for the socially anxious. I was confident. I was the life of the party. For the first time in my life I could command a room. But like with any drug, the effect becomes more and more fleeting, a bandaid over a bullet wound.

A few years out of school I had gained 25 pounds. I wasn’t a tennis player anymore, so who was I? I’d lost the care and attention I had always given to my body as an athlete. I was mentally and physically tired.

I decided what I put in and on my body needed to be better. I got back in shape, this time for me, not for tennis. I got promoted. I took the GMAT and got in to my dream school. I even started wearing mascara every once in a while.

When I started at Stanford Business School last Fall and walked into that first gladiator stadium of a classroom with the “world’s future leaders,” I was frustrated to find myself becoming the little teapot again. I’d worked so hard to get here, and I wasn’t acting like I belonged. I had a phobia of public speaking and avoided presenting to large groups at all costs.

Adrenaline rush. Doubt. Avoidance. Repeat.

After a few weeks of mastering the art of blending into the background I’d had enough. Years of those defense mechanisms, hiding myself, and putting in the work but not reaping the rewards caught up to me.

The answer had been sitting in front of me all along: preparation and practice.

Finding my voice has been a lot like training for tennis. Train and flex the muscle; do it over and over again; be brave.

I took a public speaking class. I entered a case competition and won it. I pitched a startup idea.

The adrenaline rush got smaller and doubt and avoidance followed suit. I learned that even if my identity wasn't defined by my appearance, looking the part did enormous things for my confidence. Exercise, self-care, and clean make-up became part of that pre-match routine. Power blazer. Mascara. Lip gloss. Game on. 

I’ve done the fitting in – I’m ready to try on standing out. In the Fall I signed up to tell my life story in front of 400 classmates. I’m ready to show the real me. And this time I’ll be wearing a nontoxic bright red lipstick to do it (with all my teeth I might add), made by a company I’m helping to build.

Leave a comment:

Related Posts

Find my perfect picks