One thing that I think was pretty central to my experience growing up was always knowing I was different. I’ve always felt separate and apart from everyone else and wasn’t ever totally sure why. But one element my young self thought a possible explanation for my alienation was that I was ugly. It was a thought that my young brain accepted and then guarded like a pit bull for most of my life.
“Ugly” as an explanation made a sort of sense if you built your understanding of the world on what you saw on television (like I tended to as a child). On television people who were “good,” well-liked, and valuable were always beautiful. The only “ugly” people were villains. Instead of understanding that this was a result of our culture’s obsession with beauty and long-standing tv casting protocol, I assumed that there was some kind of truth to this.
In the era of COVID and being comfortably isolated in my home, I’ve certainly had much less of a reason to reflect on my ugliness or lack thereof, but that changed recently.
In the process of cleaning I came across a box of old photos and one photo in particular that really got me thinking about the whole issue again. It was a photo of myself in a bridesmaid’s dress, standing next to 3 other bridesmaids and of course the lovely bride. I hadn’t thought of this wedding in a long time – it was 15 years ago now. Looking at it, what I remember most of all is the searing, almost unbearable feeling of insecurity I suffered during that time, and especially at this wedding.
As a child, teenager, and even young adult, I felt myself to be ugly. More than that, I “knew” it, just as much as I knew the sky is blue and I was born in October, it was just a fact. I had a huge mane of frizzy hair, chronically red and broken out skin, and I wore glasses. I was the “before” of every teen makeover movie – but tossing my glasses off didn’t improve matters at all, and without the internet to teach me ironing my hair or makeup application, I was very literally clueless about ways I might have “improved” matters.
Add in the fact that I was socially awkward, intellectually precocious, and perhaps too passionate about strange interests, and you have a recipe for an existence without many friends, and exactly zero love interests.
By the age of 20 I had never had a boyfriend, never been on a date, and never been kissed.
Both of my best friends (my only friends) had long term boyfriends all through high school, and though I didn’t even really feel very interested in boys or in having a boyfriend, I did feel self-conscious and alienated. I knew that being seen without dating was bad, but what could I do?
Then in the year I turned 20, both of my friends got married. What had been a nagging feeling of not keeping up exploded into an emotional crisis.
The stress I’d been feeling from trying to navigate young adulthood while still living with my parents and a demanding pre-medical college course load gave way to a full blown eating disorder. I felt like life was out of control and sought to regain it the only way that made sense at the time. I had simultaneously found a way to punish my body for its part in my being ugly and unlovable.
I lost a lot of weight quickly, but my self-perception, if anything, became worse. This is actually very common for people suffering from eating disorders, that despite thinking “I’ll feel better when…” the truth is that the behavior itself ensures you only feel worse. My inner critic and I were so fused that a running tape of put downs and insults didn’t feel like something a voice was telling me, it was just me running through the facts of the situation. And the situation was that I was the ugliest girl in every room, if not the whole town or beyond.
In the present day, holding the photograph, the specific memory that flashed into my head was the night before the wedding. The bridesmaids were having a sleepover in one hotel room, while the groomsmen were having a sleepover in another room. The bride’s sister, bored and mischievous as always, started texting the boys, suggesting a game of “sexy” hypothetical questions. She started polling them questions, “which of the girls has the best butt?” “Which of the girls would you rather kiss?” and so on and so forth.
I remember the floor dropping out beneath me and breaking out into a cold sweat. I felt so humiliated, knowing “for a fact” that I was the ugliest, least attractive girl in the room and here we were playing a game where it was about to be talked about. I “knew” that in the next room over they were laughing about me, just as much as I knew any other fact. I knew it through and through. Finally after some back and forth texted jokes, the boys refused to answer the questions fully. I “knew” it was because they were trying not to be cruel to me, but still felt a sense of relief that at least we weren’t going to talk about it.
But now fifteen years later, looking at the photos, I’m surprised I could have thought that. I don’t see an ugly girl at all. Yes, I wore glasses. Yes, my skin was often red and imperfect. Yes, my hair was so unruly it was simply braided because nothing else could be done with it. But I had kind eyes and an easy smile. My hands may not have been tapered, thin and elegant, but they were hands that lovingly held a camera and joyfully took photographs at both weddings, one as “the professional” and one just behind the scenes as much as I could (and I volunteered hours of photoshopping after the fact).
I was not, in fact, the ugliest girl in the room because there wasn’t one.
In real life, that is, not television, the “beauty myth” works in a kind of reverse. Instead of people being good because they are beautiful or evil because they are ugly, the way we see people around us changes based on our feelings of them. People we like and love become more attractive to us because we like them as people. People we dislike, because of being cruel or mean or whatever reason, become less attractive to us because we don’t like them as people. While there definitely is a prejudicial halo effect around people who are more classically beautiful (perhaps the topic of another essay), for the most part in our day-to-day lives how our friends and family and neighbors and coworkers look doesn’t matter because the more we know about another person, the more we “see” those traits shine through a person’s outer appearance.
I was so consumed with the desire to just be seen as good enough and accepted by others, I was literally punishing and destroying myself. When I looked around I didn’t see anyone else living the life I was living, looking the way I was looking, and I assumed that meant there was something wrong with me. I felt isolated and grasped any explanation I could find – in the era before widespread internet, looking to television and beauty mags for advice made a lot more sense.
I wish I could tell that girl in the photograph that it doesn’t matter what people think. That you don’t need a boyfriend to be good enough. You don’t need any of those markers of success (a husband, a baby, a car, a house, a prestigious job) to be good enough. A lot of what I’ve done in my life attempting to be normal and grab for those things that everyone is “supposed to” want has actually made me less happy.
You don’t need to be “normal” to be good enough.
And even if you can make yourself normal, even if you can get all the things you’re “supposed” to have, to be exactly what you think you’re “supposed to be,” they still might not like you. Not everyone is supposed to like you – humans can’t agree on a favorite color or pizza topping, why would they agree on little old you? The sooner you accept yourself the way you are the sooner you can live the life you’re supposed to live (hint: your OWN).
I think the mainstream sees self-love or even self-acceptance as indulgent and selfish. But look how completely self-absorbed I was when I hated myself. In my head everything revolved around me: I assumed everyone was judging me, hating me, and I spent so much energy trying to get other people to like me. Me, me, me. Hating myself left very little space for a true connection with other people.
On the other hand, learning to accept yourself even when other people don’t accept you is tough. Learning that you can both be “good enough” and also feel separate and isolated from other people, and that’s not necessarily a problem, is tough.
I’m still learning these lessons, a little bit every day.
I don’t think that self-acceptance is something you can just decide to do and never have to think about it again.
This is another thing that runs counter to what we see on television: I think on tv when someone has an epiphany of insight, like the one above, it changes their world forever. They never have to think about it again and that’s that. Next week they grapple with another issue.
Self-acceptance is a daily practice, not a belief, meaning it’s something I have to work at every day.
Every day old patterns are still being tested. My automatic reaction at times is to be hard on myself and assume other people are perceiving me negatively. My automatic reaction at times is to feel my own separateness from other people and desperately want to do anything to feel less strange or out there, to hide myself.
While I can look back on this fifteen year old photo and measure the distance between here and there as being vast, that doesn’t mean the work is done. In fact, it’s not done not by a long shot!
I should take another photo today and put it in a time delayed email: in another fifteen years I wonder what the older and wiser version of myself will have to say about the me I am today.