I remember clearly the day I stopped feeling beautiful. I was in 9th grade when a boy (why is it always a boy?) thought it would be oh-so hilarious to pull a chair out from underneath me as I sat down in science class. I must have looked like a deflated stilt-walker as I toppled from my confident upright position to a heap on the floor. As a teenager you have no option, of course, but to dust yourself off and laugh along with everyone else. But inside, something shifted…
‘I am not worthy of a seat,’ was the message I received. And because it was a boy who had played this trick, the thought crept into my heart and lodged there like the splinter of ice that chills Gerda’s heart in “The Snow Queen.” And worse, it spread; feeding itself with the desire to understand.
Until one day, I understood: ‘I am not pretty enough to be worthy of a seat.’
After this realization, things changed. Where once I had held my head up high and teased the boys and laughed loudly at mine and my friends’ jokes, now I kept my head down, ignored the boys and when I laughed I covered my smile with my hand or arm, embarrassed because my teeth were crooked and I had an overbite. I turned this into a grotesque party trick that people would ask me to do: laugh with my hand over arm and turn three times around in a circle.
Instead of taking pride in my looks or experimenting with hair and makeup the way many teenagers do (and who, I think, are wrongfully accused of narcissism) I took a different course and ignored my looks altogether. I tamed my brown frizzy hair into a ponytail every day and avoided looking in the mirror when I could. And when I did it wasn’t to check on my appearance, which I had learned not to care about. It was to check and see if anyone else was looking at me.
Things got worse when the one place where I felt beautiful and at home in my body – ballet class – became instead a place of fear. My teacher began to admonish me for my ‘thick’ thighs and too-big boobs. Once, I had been light on my feet and confident in my movements. Now I was so aware of my body and its ‘wrongness’ for the task, I stood at the back of the class and prayed the teacher wouldn’t notice me. Even switching ballet schools did no good. Perhaps out of jealousy, or simply spite, the girls at my new school decided to ignore me completely, and as my misery increased so my passion for dance faded.
It wasn’t until much later that I began to feel beautiful again. I was at University, at a party where I knew no one: every fresher’s nightmare. Everyone was dancing wildly to the music (Pulp, if I remember rightly) and I was trying to be brave, repeating like a mantra that University MUST be fun; that all I had to do was loosen up and get to know people. Of course, I knew that this wasn’t going to happen –at least not here, not now. Suddenly, a guy walks over and asks, “Why is someone as gorgeous as you all on your own?” I knew he was just flirting, but he said it with compassion and a conviction that moved me. The shard in my heart moved a little, and I began to question the rightness of my long-held belief, ‘I am not pretty.’
What if…what if I was?
I won’t say that overnight I turned into a confident, strong woman. I wish that were true. It wasn’t really until I left University that I managed to find my footing in the world and figure out who I was and what I was worth. But I did start to feel that fairy-light feeling that young women feel when they start to realize they are beautiful; that they are worth looking at, and that, yes, it feels good.
We like to preach that beauty doesn’t matter. That only inner beauty counts. Try telling this to a teenage girl. Try truly, deep down believing it.
What I will say though, is that outer beauty follows inner beauty as sure as night follows day. I know it because I lived it. As soon as the shard in my heart melted, as soon as it stopped being truth, I felt easier around men, and they noticed me more, complimented me more, and I met my first serious boyfriend…who is now my husband.
It’s a rocky road to acceptance, and the people around us don’t always make it easy. But hang in there. Because one day, that little piece of ice in your heart that seems so much a part of ‘you,’ will melt, and you’ll realize that you are beautiful. You are worthy. And the girl who tumbled to the floor? She will stand up, brush herself off, and get on with what she was doing without giving it a moment’s more thought.