I’ve thought a lot (lot lot lot) about this post.*
I’ve thought about the point of it, and the importance, and about what I want to say, because I think I’m about to bring up something that would be good to talk about and I don’t want to screw it up.
The autumn of my senior year of high school is pretty dismal (maddening? miserable?), because I hate how I look.
That sounds both simplistic and kind of juvenile. But it’s not.
I’ve mentioned it before—the way that in the span of a few months, I’ve become completely unrecognizable to myself. I look in the mirror, and I hate my face and my hair and my teeth and the way that my nose has clearly (clearly) been broken more than once, and it kind of ruins my day.
Which, I have to be honest, feels like a total rational and feminist failure on my part, because I’m supposed to be way smarter than that. (Also, I don’t know who decided that. I think I did. Which does nothing to improve my day-to-day impression of myself, because thanks to the transitive property of equality, I am now both ugly AND stupid. Yay.)
For the first couple months of school, I think about how much I don’t like how I look, but never really address it head-on. I write about it some—a little—but not really. It’s like this looming, shapeless thing that I can kind of recognize, but can’t quite articulate.
This changes one afternoon because it’s been bothering me for so long that I get to this weird, desperate point where I suddenly feel like I can’t not talk about it. Which is actually a pretty impressive development, considering that during this particular era of my life, I never really talk much about anything.
What happens is, Wit is lying on his back in the hall by my locker. It’s during third hour, which means I have a free period and he has an English class he never goes to.
“You don’t look very happy,” he says.
“I think I might have become ugly,” I tell him, and am immediately shocked at how unbearable the words sound, all raw and stupid and pointy. Rolling the idea around in your head for months is one thing. Saying it out loud hurts more than I would have expected.
(Brenna from the future says, Oh, get a grip—you are not UGLY! You just don’t look like such a little kid anymore!)
(Which Brenna from the future totally fails to grasp is a huge part of the problem.)
While Wit doesn’t exactly confirm my deepest-darkest suspicions, he also doesn’t leap up to reassure me. Naturally, I conclude that he knows I’m hideous and is just too nice to say so.
“Well, it’s not like you’re freakish or deformed,” he says finally. “$%&@, you don’t even have a mustache.” Then he smiles and rolls his eyes. “See, without a mustache, how can you be ugly?”
He’s being lighthearted and goofy, not taking me seriously, and doesn’t he see that this is no laughing matter?
So, in an effort to make Wit listen, damn it, I say the bad, shallow thing that shames me even when I just think it privately to myself. “Boys used to ask me out last year. Even guys I didn’t know. But now no one does.”
Lying flat on his back in the locker bay, Wit is unimpressed. “Yeah, because you always said no. Look, if you went up to someone and asked for their number and said you wanted to hang out with them sometime, they’d be happy. They’d say yes.”
In this awkward, cinematic, vaguely Wes-Anderson-esque interaction, Wit is the voice of reason, even though he’s speaking to me from the floor. He is being totally, 100% sensible, but I don’t want to hear it because I don’t want the prospect of all future social and romantic successes to be predicated on my taking any sort of actual risk.
“Okay.” He sighs, rolling his head back and forth on the floor. “Okay, you look a little different—I think your face is bonier. I don’t think I used to be able to see your cheekbones as much. Maybe that’s just from this angle. Also, I can see up your nose, which is unattractive on anyone.”
“But I do look different, though.”
Wit laughs and shakes his head. When he stands up, there’s a big smear of dust on the back of his shirt.
I hook my fingers around the chain of my necklace and stare up at the skylight so I don’t have to look at him when I say the next part. “If I were like Cobalt, this wouldn’t even be a problem. If I liked a boy, all I’d ever have to do was flip my hair around and stick my chest out. I’d always know exactly what to do about everything.”
This is not only a pretty egregious logical fallacy, but also evidence of a kind of catty jealousy that in my previous incarnation as Ice-Girl, I would have scorned so hard. Like, this is the kind of pointless self-deprecation that is the sole province of girls who actually think about these things. Also, who am I?
Wit stares back at me like he also does not know who I am. “Cobalt?”
“I thought she was hot. I thought all guys thought she was hot. Here, you have dirt on you.”
“You don’t want to be like Cobalt,” he says as I scrub at his back. “She’s always trying to get people to look at her all the time, and she always acts like she has sex with more guys than I think she really does.”
“Am I as pretty as she is?”
“No,” he says, because he is unfailingly honest. “But it doesn’t matter. The kind of guys who’ll like you aren’t the same ones who will like Cobalt.”
And because he sounds so thoroughly sure of what he’s saying, and because it actually makes me feel a tiny bit better just to have said all this out loud, I nod and shrug into my coat and we head off down the hall together and go get coffee.
Okay, before we get into the actual hard part of this post, I need to point out that there are two different things going on here. Well, three. There are at least three different things going on here. Or probably more.
For the sake of organization, though, I’m going to start with the first one.
First. (She says to her teenage-self …)
If, for some reason, you find yourself feeling profoundly ugly—especially if you’ve gone from essentially happy with yourself to utterly undone in a fairly short period of time—it might be worth the extra few seconds it takes to step back and do a quick situation-check to see if anything else is going on in your life.
Because I have a budding theory, based solely on personal experience, that sometimes the issue of how you look might just be something concrete to focus on so that you don’t have to think about a whole mess of other things.
Like, for instance, how one of your closest friends refuses to eat anything and is starting to look seriously sick, or the fact that you like a boy who smokes a lot of pot and never talks and who terrifies the hell out of you, and the only friend you can really communicate with openly and honestly calls you every night and most of the time that’s fine, except that sometimes you catch him acting really weird and a little bit like he might possibly have a crush on you and you’re desperately scared that something is going to go wrong and then he won’t be your friend at all anymore, because that totally just happened four months ago with your last boyfriend, who currently refuses to even look at you.
Or, you know, also maybe just a bunch of other different things that are more specific to your own situation. But it’s worth it to step back and take the inventory. Then remember that concrete considerations like your face and your body are way easier to obsess about than these other things, which mostly exist outside of you and often seem completely beyond your control. Sometimes these things are big and daunting and messed-up. Sometimes they’re really scary. But don’t go confusing your appearance with something that’s actually bothering you in your brain.
The second thing I want to say is pretty inconveniently tied up with the third thing, so I’ll do my best to disentangle them.
To start with, I have something very important to tell you, which is that right now, today, this minute, someone thinks you’re beautiful.
For a lot of you, you might be perfectly comfortable with that. You might even nod and smile and think of your person fondly and then go give them a hug.
However, because life is complicated and the media in particular is not in the business of making us feel good about ourselves, there are probably some of you who don’t believe me. And this is where the problem lies. This is where points two and three are pretty tightly intertwined.
Someone thinks you’re beautiful, and also there’s a whole chorus of other insidious voices out there (mostly trying to sell you something) telling you that they don’t and that they shouldn’t.
On the one hand, I feel like most of us have grown up being reminded that self-esteem is important and that we should embrace our individuality and recognize our own unique beauty. On the other hand, sometimes that’s really hard. Because often, we’re confronted with insanely mixed messages and a very narrow standard of what is considered beautiful. Which makes it difficult to actually put any of these ideas into practice, and some days, all we can do is try.
So I have something specific for you to try, which is this: try to remember that all the noise in your head is still just noise, and that someone in your daily world thinks you’re beautiful, and watch, I will prove it.
Right now, you have a friend who is completely smitten with someone who just doesn’t do it for you.
Right now, maybe there’s a celebrity you’ve drawn a billion pictures of, or made into a billion animated gifs, and even though you might be deeply infatuated with that person’s quirky fashion sense, or the way they smile infectiously in that one animation, I can pretty much guarantee that there’s someone else out there on the internet who just squints and says, “Really?”
Beauty standards are arbitrary. (Beauty standards are sometimes freakish and bizarre.)
Beauty standards are complex constructs that directly reflect elements of the society from which they arise and also make interesting terms papers, but they aren’t really useful on a day-to-day basis.
What I’m saying is, there are perfume commercials and Dolce & Gabbana ads and pop stars who work out eight hours a day and still get photoshopped into oblivion every time they’re on the cover of anything, and then there’s real life. And real life is where you’re attracted to people just because you’re attracted to them, and not because they look particularly like something out of a magazine.
It’s where sometimes you think your best friend is the most beautiful person you’ve ever seen because you love the way he sings along to the radio, or because of how excited she gets about vintage motorcycles or puppies or differential equations, and not at all because they have the clearest skin or the best posture or the straightest teeth. It’s where you get all pink-eared and smiley over that guy who doesn’t even come close to corresponding with the generic picture of the “ideal” guy that you have in your head, but so what? There’s just something magical about him anyway, and when he feeds squirrels in the parking lot and thinks that no one’s watching, he’s completely beautiful, and your heart beats like crazy.
And because this is happening all the time, everywhere, to a whole array of different people in different situations with different styles and personalities and different objects of affection, I can safely say, with very little room for error, that someone out there loves how you get excited about things, loves how you sing along to the radio or always do your homework or never do your homework, loves how you nervously doodle rabbits on scratch paper and how I grow venus flytraps in glass jars and dream about octopuses and can rarely find my keys.
I can safely say that someone thinks we’re beautiful, and who are we to tell them that they’re wrong?
*That’s probably how it got so long.