and we all have that awkward middle school phase …
… but overall, I was a decent looking kid. So when I say I grew up ugly, what I mean is that I grew up feeling ugly.
One reason for this is that I was super smart; I was always the kid in class that set the curve and knew the answer. So I always thought of myself as The Smart Girl, not The Pretty Girl. And you can’t be both; you only get one label in school.
My mother never encouraged vanity. I only remember her commenting on my looks when I would ask directly, which in hindsight was a very smart thing of her to do. She always made sure to emphasize that a good personality, intelligence and kindness to others were more important traits to have. Of course, she told me I was blessed enough to have all three.
(Funny side story: I actually learned how to tell which friends of mine were prettier than me by her response to questions. I would ask, “Mom, do you think so-and-so is prettier than me?” If she thought I was the cuter one, she would say so. If not, she would remind me that, while I was very pretty, other things were more important.)
That’s another reason I never felt pretty when I was younger: I grew up in an area of Southern Ohio during a period of time that had perhaps the highest concentration of ridiculously attractive high school girls in one place, ever.
My best friend in junior high was particularly stunning. Lisa* had the attention of all the boys, boys that were The Cute Ones, the ones everyone had a crush on. I would tag along on all her adventures, basking in the glow of the attention that I never got.
I was The Friend. The companion to The Pretty Girl. I didn’t have boobs, my eyebrows were still unshaped blocks of thick, dark hair, and I hadn’t yet learned how boys likes their girls to behave.
I learned by watching Lisa. She had a way of looking out of the top of her eyes, head slightly bowed, a smile always tugging up only one side of her mouth. Her laugh, breathy and shallow, never too loud. She walked with her ample breasts out, straight back, hips swaying slightly, taking light steps, abandoning the slouch she so often had when it was just us two. She had an aura that compelled all the boys, and even me. Not in a sexual way, but in admiration of what she could accomplish. I was drawn to her, like all the others. She was an artist. I observed her constantly, picking up the subtlest of body postures, the smallest change in tone of voice.
I also watched her dumb herself down. She never offered opinions contrary to those held by her latest admirer; actually, I never heard her offer much of an opinion at all around boys. She was never angry, never upset, never offended. She was always pleasing, teasing, extracting favor by giving it. She was exactly what guys wanted her to be in every situation.
These things were harder for me to master. I learned to artfully arrange my posture, my mannerisms and my facial expressions, but more difficult to control was my tongue. I had always been proud of my brain, and I used it to form opinions. Unlike Lisa, if I thought one of her boyfriends was doing something morally or philisophically wrong, I told them so.
So I became The Friend to Lisa’s boys. I became their friend. To Lisa, they gave their attention and affection, but to me, they gave their secrets. They talked to me as an equal.
Of course, that all changed eventually. I learned to keep my opinions to myself, to tone down the harsher aspects of my personality, to defer to the men in my life to keep the peace; boyfriends, friends’ boyfriends, peers, bosses.
But that came much later. In the years that counted, I developed a personality. I wasn’t labeled as one of The Pretty Girls, so I tried on all the hats I wanted; Smart Girl, Funny Girl, Nice Girl, Crazy Girl, School Spirit Girl, Involved Girl, Christian Girl, Nerdy Girl. No matter what label I was wearing, I was 100% myself, expectations be damned.
Those years were good practice for being your own person, which most people get to do in childhood and then again much later, with a period in their teens and 20s where they are someone else; Who Their Parents Wants Them To Be, Who They Think Should Be, or Who Society Tells Them To Be. If you stock up enough of what psychologist Meg Jay calls “identity capital” in your formative years, then you can navigate that teen/20s malaise much more quickly.
That’s the way I’m hoping it will be for me. I’m going to become who I want to be by remembering who I was.
Because I liked that person.
She didn’t take shit; she stood up for herself. She was kind and funny and had a way of encouraging others when they needed it the most. She believed in things; love, hope, happy endings, and — most of all — herself.
You might think I am exaggerating by saying that growing up ugly saved my life. But I’m not. Here’s why:
I focused on school instead of boys; I got a scholarship to college.
I joined a million clubs and charity organizations; I developed leadership skills and learned how to work with others.
I had friends instead of boyfriends. Some of those same people are still my friends; a few of them have visited me in Colorado, which is great, since I’m short on friends here.
I earned the respect of my teachers, which won me several awards and scholarships. I even got to travel the world as a student ambassador. Seeing the rest of the world made me realize there was more to it than southern Ohio. So I got out, and my economic opportunities expanded exponentially.
Lisa stayed in Ohio for college. She was married and divorced before we turned 26. Small-town drama means several of our classmates no longer speak to her.
On the other hand, she has an adorable child and a decent job. She is as beautiful as ever, and I’m sure she’s very happy with her life. I continue to wish her all the best, as I always did.
But that’s not the life I want for myself. And thanks to all those years I spent figuring out what I liked and didn’t like, trying new things, developing ambition and practicing independence, I know how to get it.