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I Was Never Ugly

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I borrowed my mom’s photo album of my kid/teenager photos last week, as part of my attempt to come to terms with my childhood and figure out how I got where I am today. One thing struck me when I was leafing through the album: I was never ugly.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve thought of myself as ugly. As a young kid, I had a major overbite that required a purple nylon headpiece that I wore through my first years of school. Then, when I was ten, I developed acne that has never really gone away. I took Accutane for a year or two, which stopped the worst of it, but never eradicated it completely, in college. By then, I had already developed a self-identity as the “ugly girl,” at least in my own head. I thought of myself as this impossibly ugly monster girl, who would never be loved by a man and would forever be an outsider, in the shadows. In addition to the overbite and the acne, I was pathologically shy, almost autistic, as a young girl, and so I really never had many friends and never had a boyfriend until I was in college. This only served to prove to me that I was too ugly for the rest of the world.

Even now, at thirty-nine, I struggle with my self-image. I still think I’m ugly: big, hulking, tall, big-boned, long-nosed, scarred, lanky-haired, ugly. I know I’m not, really, but it’s hard to shake that self-identity. But when I looked at my kid pictures, I realized: I never was ugly. It was all in my head.

It makes me smile in relief, but it’s also very, very sad. I think about the quarter of a century that I’ve spent hating the way I look, when in reality I was a very cute, smiling, eager, blond-headed kid, not very different from most kids. In fact, I recognize my expression in some of my kid pix in the expressions of my beautiful, whip-smart, five-year-old niece. I just wish I could go back in time and say to myself, in some way that I would really believe it: “You’re not ugly, you’re beautiful and vibrant and everybody can see it but you.”

Now I have a task cut out for me. I have to get off this self-imposed trip about me not being attractive. It’s been a chip on my shoulder for my whole life, and now it’s time for it to get off and go take a hike. It’s the story I always tell myself about myself, and it’s never been true. And it’s so hard to get rid of.

When I’m with my female coworkers, I always feel like I’m the “big girl.” I feel sort of clumsy and unkempt next to them, unfashionable. When I see pretty, stylish girls, I always feel like a troll next to them.

In relationships, it comes up, too. I’ve not had many relationships, and I always used to blame it on the fact that I just never was as cute as the other girls. “Guys are so shallow,” I’d say to myself, “They just want the cute, tight little mini-skirted girls, and can’t deal with an intelligent woman like myself.”

But what if A) it was more complicated than that, and B) I actually DID get interest from guys, I’ve just most often been the one not interested in THEM? That means I have to change my whole self-identity, from the victimized so-called “ugly girl,” to the one who has always had the choice as to how my life has turned out. Shit.

That means I can’t blame anyone else. I mean, I could blame society for feeding me media images of women who represent unattainable beauty standards (and believe me, I have), but I’ve always been smart, and started calling myself a feminist at nineteen, so really I always had the tools to look past that crap. I can’t blame my parents, because they, or at least my mom, always told me I was beautiful.

And I suppose blame isn’t really important, anyway. The point is for me to start constructing a new story about myself. One where I am the heroine of my own life, which is what I always fantasized about as a kid. I always wanted to be the straight, tall, proud warrior-woman (with a big white horse, of course!) who did battle when necessary, wowed people with her various skills, and inspired courage in others. Wait a minute…could it be … that I really AM that woman (without the horse, of course)?

Constructing a new story about ourselves is healthy, for us and for the people around us. I’ve dated several men with chips on their shoulders, and it’s no fun. I know the one I’ve been carrying around has caused its share of problems with the people around me, most notably my boyfriends. The question is: how do we even start rewriting our own personal stories? It’s so easy to repeat the old stories, I mean it’s second nature by now, right? Most of the time we don’t even realize we’re doing it.

I’m not sure how to start, except by being aware when I go into that old headspace again, and consciously rewriting what I tell myself about myself, until that new story becomes second nature. I don’t want to spend another quarter-century telling myself something about myself that’s untrue.

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