Among my old family papers is a folder containing a handwritten document by my grandmother Helen, in which she described herself. She wrote it in April 1931, when she was 23 years old, in her senior year at St. Olaf. It's about 25 pages of handwriting; about 3,500 words, so it would be about 10 pages of a paperback book. I've now transcribed it.
(Content warning: Includes some negative self-talk about body-image issues.)
It's pretty long, so I'll give a quick outline to start:
She starts with a very detailed physical description. Then she talks about her habits, her faults, the kinds of foods she likes, her talents, her interests, and her studying ability. Then she describes her preferences around social activities, including a remarkably wide variety of sports. Then some things about religion, and finally a discussion of what she wants to do with her life, including thoughts on her future career(s) and family.
Okay, onward to the actual document.
My Present Self
Station LIFE coming on the air in March 1931. Radio audience, you will now have the unusual and interesting experience of listening to a novel program by one person, whose ultimate aim shall be a thorough understanding of that bit of humanity identified by the label “Helen Corine Hanson”—more well-known as “Me”. She is, I believe, the hardest person to become intimately acquainted with, so for that reason she shall endeavor to picture herself both from her own and others' standpoint. Here she is!
How do you do, dear Listeners. Do you care to know how I look? Well, I am five feet four-and-a-half inches tall and weigh approximately one hundred and forty pounds. I think I am about average build, though perhaps a few pounds overweight. My feet are neither large nor small, so I wear about a six-and-a-half size shoe—or sometimes a seven, double A. I have found out through experience that long, narrow shoes are better-looking and better for the feet. I have always worn a Cuban heel until this year, as my ankles seemed to be weak, but I am at present wearing higher heels and having no trouble. To me, my ankles seemed a bit large, but others have thought they were slender. However, I must say, without bragging but because it is true, that my legs are fairly well-shaped and are “just right”.
My hips are rather large in proportion to the rest of the body. My waistline is extinct, having been displaced by a roll of fat. And I am “plump” as far as bust measurements go, though in general I am well proportioned. My head is slightly large—but that is a good thing, for I should hate to have a small head sitting on top of my “plump” body and neck.
There is one defect that I hate—it is a lump of fat at the back of my neck, sort of between my shoulders. However, if I exercised correctly and enough, it would very likely disappear.
The hardest part of me to describe is my face. My eyes, which are the most outstanding feature, are an average distance apart, being about two-and-a-quarter inches between. Some colors bring out the blue in these “windows of the soul”—then they are pretty. Most of the time my eyes are designated as “laughing”, though they are very expressive of my innermost feelings, so sometimes get dreamy and sad-looking. The eyebrows that shade these eyes are quite straight and not very thick. Above them, my forehead—which is average—is nearly covered by “dips” or waves of light brown hair. My hair is naturally straight, but that must have been a mistake, for I look positively hideous without any wave. This hair is terribly thick and quite soft, grows very fast, and is easily managed except just after it has been shampooed. By the way, it is long, so I comb it down around my face and back into a “pug” at the left side of my head. My ears are rather large, with well-defined lobes,—some of my friends say large ears mean generosity, and that may be very true. I have rather high cheek bones, but they are not prominent because of my full cheeks. My nose maybe called a “Nordic” nose, I guess, as it is quite straight and narrow, and does not turn up at the end. Fortune favored me by giving me a distinct “Cupid's bow”—the only redeeming feature of my full and too-large lips. I can also be thankful that I have a decent chin—neither too pointed and sharp nor too prominent—but that good point is off-set by the fact that I have a double-chin. However, that fault is a result of laziness—of not holding my head up a little.
I have a soprano voice, which is “big,” as Dr. Christiansen analyzed it. I very naturally put quite a lot of expression into my speech—but just lately I developed quite a “brogue”. My smile, until recently, was cynical and skeptical, even though genuine—but a friend was kind enough to tell me I smiled “crookedly”—or with only one side of my mouth—so I am now developing a more sincere and happy smile. Oh that schools offered courses in learning how to laugh! I have a laugh for every occasion—sometimes it is high and shrill, and again it is deep and melodious—but it is so coarse or “horse-laughey” that I am usually very self-conscious about it. Nevertheless, I like to laugh and never let self-consciousness stop me. This embarrassment is hard to explain, as I would never need to be afraid to open my mouth because of poor teeth. I have had a lot of dental work done, so have several gold fillings and crowns—but just a few days ago, the dentist said “If everyone had teeth such as yours, I would have to be a plumber!”
I believe I have forgotten to say anything about the greatest tools on earth—hands. Mine are usually quite soft and white, and I have rather long, slender fingers with well-shaped nails (in which the half-moons are very clear)—but my large and sort-of-crooked knuckles detract a lot. My wrists are flexible from having taken piano lessons and from typing, but they are weak as a result of a bad fall several years ago.
My fingers are strong, particularly in the ends, where there are slight “cushions.” The following diagram is of my left hand.
[Text written on image: “Well-defined lines here.” “Blood-vessels show quite clearly here.”]
[Text written on image: “My profile as drawn from a silhouette.”]
And now I must tell you about some of my habits—those little things that “give away” just what a person may be. As far as health is concerned, I am quite faithful in either carrying on good old habits or forming new. My health at present is excellent—in fact, I have always been well, except for a few children's diseases. So I keep my lungs, heart, liver and entire organism working by feeding it the proper kind of food, by giving it restful sleep, and by stimulating it with exercise. I am an old “crank” about keeping windows open at night and also about taking baths or showers regularly and often. There is one thing I must confess to ere I forget (even though I should like to pass over it in a hurry.) That is this—I walk with my toes pointed out—in a hideous fashion, thus:—
Now, in justice to poor Me, I ought to say to that I am gradually bettering this fault.
In regard to likes and dislikes, I am in a “bad fix.” It seems that I am going through a change—for foods I have previously liked I now dislike, and vice versa. However, I like fruits and vegetables—and always have one good meal a day—and although I like rich things, I am tending more and more toward the coarser foods. I think one reason I like these good nourishing foods is that I exercise a lot and prefer active sports to the more quiet types. These games usually mean good appetites. Here again, my love for sports creates in me a desire for loose, simple clothing that is not too gaudy but very practical.
These points, then, are ones that tell you something of my physical self. The next few pages will be devoted to Me mentally.
Mental traits!—Just what are mine, I wonder? Well, in the first place, I am just as mentally alert as any average person, and probably just a bit “brighter” than my fellow-students, because of the fact that I am a bit older, and have had a tiny bit more experience. My greatest trouble, I find, is my lack of memory. This may be due to inability to concentrate or observe well. With a little work, I presume I could remember as well as anyone else. Next, I believe I have a very good mind—for I figure things out quite awhile in advance; in other words, my reasoning power is well-developed. I have very decided likes and dislikes. A good book; a radio, phonograph or piano; a piece of embroidery; or a project for painting or decorating—all are my favorite enjoyments, and the things which make my life happy!
In school, my particular line has been English. The only way to account for this fact is that I have always read a great deal—and get a great satisfaction from literature. I know I did not pursue this subject because it was easy (for I have had some pretty “stiff” teachers)—nor did I continue with English because I liked it the best. (I am fond of sciences, languages and divers other subjects, too.)
I do not think that I have any unusual talent, although I sing a little, give readings occasionally, and play the piano. I must say that I am a good housekeeper, a fair cook, and a fine driver of cars. These, I suppose, are not talents—they are really accomplishments, but all come under mental traits, I'm sure!
As for studying—well, I can grasp a great deal in a short time, so I often study only a few minutes when the rest study a long time. I have one of two methods of study which I generally follow—either concentrating hard for a short while—or reading slowly and deliberately. Needless to repeat, I am one who concentrates for a short while. Then too, I am practical-minded, so figure out a great many things just for myself—the idea of analyzing and forming conclusions is enjoyable. I don't know where the failing is—but I have one bad one. —It is that of being late or tardy—whether it is something due, or an appointment. I am sorry about this fault, and have earnestly sought to remedy it——and I am succeeding! By the way, that is one of my hobbies, sort of—the attempt to conquer things, whether it be Me, someone else or something.
Perhaps you would like to hear that I have the collecting instinct yet.—I gather together various stamps—and find it profitable as well as enjoyable. As far as the fighting instinct is concerned, I must say I have that too—in the form of a bad temper. However, it doesn't “run wild” very much. As for chumming—I like one or two intimate friends in preference to many mere acquaintances. This is almost a fault, I have come to believe, for if anything happens to the “one”, I am lost! And I crave companionship!! There are times I am happy when alone, but that is not the general rule. I do find, too, that I can confide in boys and strangers to a great extent. Is that a fault or a blessing? I imagine it, like other things, can be both! I have another big failing—that of seeking adventure. I seem to be happy most of the time—yet my whole being cries out for change, variety, new people and new “thrills.” I do not worry greatly about this fault, for it is inherited from my Dad—who, though the adventuresome type, has managed very well to be permanently settled now for some fifteen years! I find that as I grow older, I am beginning to feel more of a longing to get established and permanently located for more than a brief year. And I must add that I have never felt that “call of the wild” while at St. Olaf.
I must have a great love for beauty, for I enjoy art, music and particularly nature immensely. At the same time I loathe snakes and angle-worms—and get fairly ill when I see a specimen from either species. In conjunction with this hatred comes a lack of self-control, which shows itself in a scream or nervous condition. However, I used to abhor mice—and now I do not mind them at all. Also, I find great satisfaction in the fact that I have at last learned to find some good in nearly everything and beauty even in the prairies and sage-brush of Montana.
To sum up my mental life, I believe I could say that I am usually in favor of constructive, rather than destructive, thinking. But again, the mental life is so closely allied to the social that I must go on to this new phase before passing judgment on any other section of my life. Because these two (mental and social) do overlap considerably, I shall omit some things that I briefly referred to previously.
My companions sometimes follow and sometimes lead me. These are a few of the contradictory traits within me—love of leading, yet having a certain timidity; wanting to manage things, yet shrinking away from responsibility. I am very affectionate and demonstrative—yet I hate to see people who overdo things—the “flashy”, “showy” type, I mean. For these reasons, I must have friends who are true-blue, who never desert me, but who are able to help me and advise me carefully, yet well. I put a great deal of faith in my associates, and I am broken-hearted when they prove untrue to my ideas of them. I can forgive and forget quite easily, if approached rightly. In fact, I can't “hold a grudge” against anyone for very long, for it hurts me—it bothers too much! My real requirement for a friend is sincerity—and most all people have that. I prefer to know the truth at whatever the cost—and friends are one's very life when it comes to things like that.
Amusements! What a variety of pictures flashed through my mind when I wrote that word. Yes, I may as well say I like to dance, but even though I dance very well, I do get dreadfully tired of that one thing at a steady diet. I also like to play cards occasionally—but I become bored with them in just a few moments. I'll again be frank and say I like bowling—but I've never done a great deal, so I don't know if I'd get tired of that. I do know that I enjoy the movies or the “talkies” but I become sick of them—“fed up” on 'em in a very, very short time.
I like to dress in formal attire and attend grand parties occasionally—but I would be a “bear” if I had to do it often. Again, I enjoy “coffee parties,” “teas” and so on—but not for long! Yes, I can hear you say—“why, what does the girl like?”—Well, I like recreation—tennis, golf, baseball, swimming, archery, croquet, hockey, (but not hiking). Aren't any of these a problem for solving—one that requires hours of time, yet is beneficial? And—I mustn't forget to say that I do get a big “kick” out of the socials given by the Luther League—I like games, tricks, and guessing contests very much. I believe I can honestly say I never get tired of playing simple, childhood games. I have neglected saying that I like just getting together in a crowd—and going picnicking, boating, canoeing or any such thing. In fact, one of the best times ever had was at a party where we made candy and popped corn. Simple entertainment, yet fun!
As to religious scruples—well, I think people are entitled to their own ideas, for people see things so differently. Personally, I believe that “forced” Christianity is a detriment to anyone—I never get anything out of Church when I have to go. I like to think of Christ as being a real Friend, to whom I can go in prayer (which to me is a long bridge, over which my thoughts travel to Heaven) and to whom I can tell anything—yes, even those innermost things which can't be breathed to human ears!! I like to think of Heaven as being the most wonderful place I can imagine—a place where there is no worry or “hurt”—and I like to think of Jesus as the One who does things that may be to our sorrow if so doing is best. I like to think of Christ as my daily companion—cheering me, seeing me, helping me—knowing and understanding me better than ever before. To tell the truth, I could endure life no longer if I did not always think of a Higher Power guiding me on!—
I may be “broad-minded,” but I see no terrible sin in dancing, card-playing, petting, smoking. I do not do these things myself regularly—for I cannot enjoy any of them—but I have tried a cigarette or two and found I didn't care for such coughing! I have already said I hate too much of anything—so that explains my attitude. However, I do not condemn a person who does these things—and I do not think they are bound straight for Hell, either. Nevertheless—I surely wouldn't encourage a single person to do one of these things—for I know they are not what one would call beneficial. Personally, I hate cigarette smoke and ashes, and cannot understand why perfectly decent men spend money and time on the things.
I am indeed interested in matters of government—for our future depends on our authorities and officers. We owe it to ourselves and “ours” to vote for the best man—in order that we as a nation and as individuals may go on, ever upward and onward! And is it not just as important to notice the activities of other nations? Of course—for we are interested in all humanity.
Now, in summing up a bit about my social life—just what shall I say? I am interested in other people—so of course other people are more or less interested in me. And because I am interested in people I hate to see them ruining health and happiness in wrong living. So, by my example, and perhaps my proof from other people's experience, I shall try to show at least my relatives and friends how they might better live—by taking proper care of “God's temple,” which our bodies are called, and by deep conviction that there is One who can help us at any and all times. I fear that I am often very serious about this whole affair—and that is a fault which I shall have to overcome, for people hate seriousness.
Because of all that just precedes, you may already have guessed what my life work is to be. I do not think it is confined to anyone field—for one can teach others how to find happiness in any branch of life. This is one of the biggest factors in my choice of a profession—which will for the time being be teaching. Later I may switch into Social Service work, or even nursing—in either field, there are given possibilities and opportunities to do good, and to help others. I have all my life wanted to help other people—and it is only recently that the idea came to me that one is doing that in any situation. (If he is not hindering, I might add.) Perhaps after five or six (or maybe more) years, I shall find a man who will suit me, in which event I hope to settle down and make a nice home for a man and some children. And should anything happen that our home cannot be blessed with our own children, I shall certainly help some one else's poor child to live better—and to be happier. At any rate, whether I be teacher, nurse, social service worker, or homekeeper,—whether I be forty or sixty years of age—I shall always keep before me the idea of helping other people to live better lives and thereby to be happier people! In the meantime—I have much to do!—I must keep on learning and above all I must keep on studying myself in order that I can better live and better do the work which awaits me.
And now, as I conclude this little radio talk to you, I want to thank you from my heart for helping “Me” as much as you have. You have all been very patient and have listened well to what has probably been tiresome to you—but I thank you for you have helped “Me” see herself better and see life more clearly. I hope you have enjoyed this analysis as much as I have. Thank you from “Me.”
Station LIFE now signing off until the future, when we again hear “Me.” Until the next time then, goodbye!!!