When I was little, I thought I was freakish. Not ugly; freakish. I would look at people who were not conventionally attractive–people with distinctive noses or curious fat deposits or faces far from the Golden Ratio–with envy. I wanted to look like them, because they were normal. Not like me. I was freakish, disfigured. Grotesque.
Now, decades later, I understand intellectually that I had (and have) a mental illness that caused me to see myself in the mirror in ways that I was not. But it’s not like age, wisdom, and better styling have fully cured me of these impulses. In some pictures from my childhood, I think I look cute. But in others, I still see flaws: my head is large and block-like. There is too much fat under my chin. You could show movies on my forehead. My eyebrows do not start at the inner corners of my eyes where they are supposed to. My eyes are too small, my face too long, my cheekbones indistinct. My nose needs work. I am covered with tawny freckles. Even in the fullest flower of my youth, I was never a pretty girl.
Of course, this assessment assumes a singular and universal definition of “pretty.” But by the standards dictated to me in my middle-class, midwestern suburb as a child, I did (and do) not measure up. Compounding the problem, I have always been highly susceptible to negative assessments of my appearance. I internalize them effortlessly, involuntarily, like a form of respiration.
My sister played the strongest role, but there have been others. She teased me relentlessly about being ugly from my earliest memories until she mercifully left home after my freshman year of high school. Her abuse was so faithful that I remember it not as specific insults but as a condition of our relationship, like sleeping in bunk beds or wearing the same Grandma-made rompers at Christmas. I was also teased at school, for being tall and overweight, for the odd proportions of my face, and especially for my freckles. They were all that I saw when I looked in the mirror. My Grandmother “helped” by sending astringents to lighten my “blemishes,” and I tried the Jan Brady lemon technique, to no avail. I fantasized about inventing a magnetic device to disperse my mutated melanin deposits, but eventually I just learned not to see them.
Over the years, other people weighed in. Even if they didn’t mean their comments maliciously, I remember them with distinct clarity, as though the critique was rendered yesterday. For example, when I was in college, I took a course on theatrical makeup. We had to create a line-drawing of our faces on which we would then design three makeup treatments to make us look pretty, old, and like an animal. Class was held in a room filled with tables and large makeup mirrors framed by lightbulbs. The instructor circled the room and examined each student’s drawing, making simple corrections as she went (she was an excellent artist). She looked at my self-portrait for half a second, then she glanced at my face in the mirror, then she start erasing my left eye.
“You left eye is smaller than the right,” she said bluntly. “And crooked.”
I looked down at the drawing. Thanks to her correction, my face was staring back at me. In less than ten seconds, she had altered both my self-portrait and my self-image. I think of that moment, and the millimeter asymmetry of my left eye, every time I put on makeup.
Likewise, I never realized there was something wrong with my nose until Jean C****r called me “Big Nose” during a playground argument in fifth grade. I started saving coins in a wine bottle for a nose job right after. A couple of years ago I had a small windfall, and I considered using it on plastic surgery to finally pare my schnoz down to size. I screened plastic surgeons online, I examined my health insurance coverage, and I looked at a million before-and-after rhinoplasty photos. In the end, I decided against it. Deep down, in the dark bile where the monsters lurk, I believe the “problem” of my face is just too extreme. Unfixable. In that sense, I feel a certain kinship with Tori Spelling, a woman with strong natural features who underwent multiple plastic surgeries starting when she was still a minor. I worried that if I started messing with plastic surgery, I would end up like Tori, with a strange face halfway between myself and beauty, but with all of my insecurities exposed.
This is the part where people who love me weigh in and say, “No, no, no, you’re beautiful.” But there is no evidence to support that contention. From certain angles, yes, I am attractive, and a smile is every girl’s best accessory. But I am not a woman who gets glances in bars, except maybe a familiar, quizzical stare from someone trying to figure out what to make of me. No man ever launched even a single ship over this face. No woman ever handed a picture of my nose to a plastic surgeon and said, “Make it bulbous and hooked like hers.” I am tired of pretending that my appearance conforms to expected norms just because acknowledging otherwise makes people uncomfortable.
When does it become ok to say, “I am ugly, let’s move on?”
I am being hard on myself. But at least I know this. In the past, self-abuse felt normal and deserved. At present, I recognize that it is wholly unproductive. But my project is not so much to convince myself that I am beautiful, as it is to convince myself that beauty doesn’t matter. I have been working at it for decades. Sometimes I am close, sometimes I am adrift on a sea of self-loathing. But I have come really far.
When I was in elementary school, I lulled myself to sleep with elaborate stories of my future, but they starred a woman from an entirely different gene pool. She was slim yet buxom, raven-haired with creamy skin and bright blue eyes–a mashup of my girl crushes on Vivien Leigh, Lynda Carter, and the very best Angel, Jaclyn Smith. By the time I was in middle school, I imagined my future self as me, but with major improvements–perhaps the cumulative effects of puberty, being allowed to wear makeup, and massive plastic surgery following a devastating but ultimately productive car accident. (I’ve always had a flare for the dramatic!) By college, Future Me looked like present me, but having her best hair, makeup, and lighting day ever. And for the last 20 years or so, Future Me is just everyday me: when I fantasize a movie for myself, I am finally its star. I suppose, as I start to show my age, that Future Me might come to look like Past Me, because I increasingly wish I had the skin, blush, and ass of my twenty-something self. It’s funny and a little sad.
It’s also progress! More often than not, I am satisfied with my appearance now, even though I am at my heaviest weight and have a rat’s nest of hair. What a shock to my 10-year-old self, for her to meet me as an adult!
“I hoped you would look different,” she would say.
“We don’t get to choose,” I would answer. “Just learn to do the best you can with what you have.”
That is the answer for so much of life, and yet it is such a challenge to remain in a state of grace. I learned just how hard last summer, when my up-and-down relationship with J* reached its nadir and became entangled with insecurity about my appearance on the way down. Months after he jettisoned our romantic bond, he began dropping hints that I did not know the real reason for his withdrawal. Finally, in a paroxysm of honesty, he told me the truth: He was never attracted to me.
“Never?” I asked plaintively.
Not once. Ever.
Not when we had sex, not the first time we kissed, not the first time we stood near enough to feel each other’s warmth. We hugged goodbye after our first date, and I was so excited to have met him that I drove halfway home with my emergency brake on. Only the smell of burning rubber jarred me from my reverie, so I pulled over to call my friend and tell her all about him.
I guess he drove home that night and thought, “I really like that girl. But I don’t want to fuck her.”
Not ever. And yet, he drew me into a long-distance something, he pulled me close and pushed me away, he castigated me for wanting to cut ties if we weren’t going to date, and he breached the physical divide between us again and again. To learn, after a solid year of ups and downs, that he had faked every moment of attraction, that every compliment about my appearance was a lie, that my body was not something he enjoyed but rather something he endured, absolutely gutted me. I felt embarrassed, humiliated, violated, betrayed.
And also uglier than I had felt in years. The progress I had made turned to ashes. I looked in the mirror and saw what I presumed he saw: a big, dumpy, shovel-faced old woman with stooped shoulders, mousy hair, a hooked nose, gapped teeth, pores you could drive a train through, and on and on and on. A woman no one could ever want. A woman no man would ever love.
He was contrite, though he declined to ever fully confront the pain that he had stirred in me. “I wasn’t attracted to you ‘that’ way,” he explained in a text, after I excoriated him for his cruelty. “But in many other ways.”
My friends thought I was nuts for even speaking to him again, let alone spending time together as friends. (We continue to do so.) Even my best friend, who has a pathological ability to find the good in everyone and to endure the worst of boyfriends, finally broke. “I’m starting to think maybe he isn’t good for you,” she offered gently.
I could see where my friends were coming from, but between the eccentricities of my friendship with J* and the logistical complexities of the city we live in, none of them had ever met him. If they had, they would have witnessed the simple fact of our bond: We really like each other. Love, even. We get on great, we make each other laugh, we delight in talking to each other, we share similar tastes, and we’ve shared nearly every story. He appreciates my intelligence and wit, he affirms my kind intentions, he holds me accountable when I fail to live up to my ideals, and he teaches me about corners of the world that I will never know. I hope I do the same for him. True, he never made me feel desired, because he didn’t desire me. And it pains me that I was never beautiful to him, not even on my best day. But if my project is to render beauty irrelevant to my self-esteem, shouldn’t I pay attention when someone constructs an elaborate lie–“I want to be your boyfriend”–just so he can spend time with me? When I look at the arc of our time together, I felt–and feel–valued. Isn’t that the point of being beautiful anyway?
Even so, I was angry. I thought about cutting J* out of my life, denying him my friendship as punishment for failing to be attracted to me. But, after feeling so worthless for so long, I had to concede–J* wanted to be part of my life, and he made it demonstrably clear in a way that old friends sometimes forget to do. (That’s actually the great thing about old friendships. They are like hearty desert plants that don’t require much nourishment, but with such capacity for splendor when it finally rains!) Every time he detonated a mine in our tangled shared perimeter, I remained calm and still. And every time, he eventually circled back around to me. I realized that it took more effort to “hold the line”–and beat myself up for not being able to–than it did to open my heart and enjoy his company. I am happier when J* is in my life than I am when he ricochets into parts unknown. That’s all there is to it.
Before you ask, I have dated other people since J*, and I got invested enough in one situation to be deeply hurt when it ended. That man had great chemistry with me, and months later he still sends me naughty overtures. I also have a FWB who drifts in from time to time, which stirs feelings of desirability that I maintain apart from my general self-esteem. And yet, I lament to anyone who will listen that I wish I could meet a man who just wants to spend time with me–as though I never had.
But I do know what that is like, and it was J* who taught me. He is one of the great loves of my life, and yet it is “just a friendship.” I hoped this love would look different. I hoped I would look different. Frankly, I hoped he would look different. And I definitely hoped he would look differently at me.
But we don’t get to choose. And you learn to do the best you can with what you have.