Every time I show my children a picture of my 1976 kindergarten class, they inevitably point to the very cute Jayme Gilday and ask, “Is that you, Mommy?” Needless to say, they are always surprised and visibly disappointed when reminded that their mother is the girl with horn-rimmed glasses, a shampoo-n-set hairdo, and a broken shoe. “Oh, yeah,” comes their chagrined response as they examine the picture in disbelief. Then, because they are kind children, they deliberately refrain from stating the obvious—that I was an ugly child.
At this point, one might expect that as a confident adult woman I would launch into the story of the ugly duckling who becomes a beautiful swan. But that would be a gross exaggeration. I also refuse to tell my children the notorious lie that grown ups have been perpetuating for years--that looks don't matter. Why? Because it's not true. Any red-blooded American who has been half way coherent for the last century knows that in our society, whether they should or not, looks do matter. So rather than fill my children with a delusional outlook on life, I give it to them straight and let them know the truth: It sucks to go through childhood thinking you are ugly.
Now, before I tell my ugly tale, I do need to add one disclaimer. In retrospect, I would describe my childhood appearance as “goofy” more so than ugly, but let's not get hung up on euphemism. The fact of the matter is that I grew up with two extremely handsome parents and was surrounded by four siblings who were equally blessed with aesthetic appeal. Plus, none of them had to wear dorky glasses from the time they were five. And therein lies the real problem—my glasses. I don't know anyone who can feel attractive when wearing thick, dark, horn-rimmed spectacles. See what I mean? The very word spectacle connotes ridiculousness. I suppose if I were one of those 'glass half full' kind of people, I would point out that at least I only felt ugly when wearing glasses. The problem is, I had to wear them every waking hour of every day, so no matter how full the proverbial glass, this meant I felt less than beautiful every day of my childhood.
About the time I had made peace with my need for glasses, I began to realize that I had other less-than-comely physical features. One evening while eavesdropping on my parents' conversation, I heard my dad say, “Hey, Reb. Big Ears is listening.” Knowing he meant me and not realizing that he was alluding to my new-found habit of eavesdropping, I ran to the mirror in my room only to have my reflection reveal what my father had just said. Not only did my glasses make me ugly, but my ears were huge, too! A few weeks later, when my brothers began calling me Dumbo at the pool, it only confirmed what my father had said, sparking a campaign to hide my big ears at all cost. Eyes. Ears. What else about me was ugly?
The first confirmation of my ugliness outside my familial sphere came from my fourth grade teacher who sat me on his lap in an effort to console me after a rough bout of teasing on the playground. Mind you, this was back in the day when men weren't fired for 'Santa Claus' conferences, but I do remember feeling a bit uncomfortable as he halfway hugged me and asked why I was so glum. I must have said something to him about being ugly because the exchange that followed is one I will never forget. It went something like this:
“Oh, sweetie, I think you are beautiful. In fact, I think you look like a famous movie star.”
Feeling a slight rise in my self esteem, I wiped a few tears and looked up at his smiling face, eager to hear more. “Who do I look like?” I asked, preparing myself for a much desired grown up lie.
“Do you know who Barbara Streisand is?”
He wasn't lying.
Mistaking the disgusted look on my face for one of confusion, he immediately continued, “Oh, honey, you must not know who she is...”
“Yes, I do,” I interrupted. “She's the lady with the big nose.”
“Oh no...well...she might have a larger nose, but she is the most beautiful woman in the whole world. And I think you look just like her.”
I can't remember if I said thanks, but I do recall walking away feeling more violated by my teacher's 'compliment' than by the fact I had been sitting on his lap. Great. I now had a big nose to go with my stupid glasses and Dumbo ears.
The only place I ever felt cute was at church because it was one of the few places I remember receiving compliments about my appearance. But I didn't believe them. Who can trust church goers? They have to say nice things about you; it's their obligatory Christian duty. So I didn't trust anyone from our congregation, even though I did feel halfway attractive on Sundays. I think it was due to the fact that my hair could actually stay curled for the time allotted to church services, and the fact that I intentionally 'forgot' my glasses from time to time helped too. The problem was, there was no one at church I wanted to impress, so (ironically) it all seemed in vain. Wasted cuteness. That was almost as depressing as feeling ugly most of the time. I wanted something permanent. Something that the kids at school could appreciate and admire. Was that too much to ask? Apparently it was.
This too was confirmed by my brother Scott, who, on the eve of my seventh grade year, told me that boys in junior high would probably look at me and say, “She's okay, but she's not girlfriend material.” Not realizing that 'okay' was the closest thing to a compliment I would ever receive from Scott, I went back to the mirror hanging above my dresser and vowed that one day, even my brother would think I was beautiful. But until that day arrived, I had to sit through his football and basketball games, certain that the cheerleaders were all looking at me when they chanted, “U-G-L-Y! You ain't got no alibi. You're ugly, yeah, yeah, you're ugly!” I hated cheerleaders—especially the ones who told me I looked just like my brother...only in a dress.
My insecurities had reached such epic proportions by the time I was in high school, that the day my mother suggested I could be a shoe model, it only confirmed what I had suspected for years. Even my own mother thought I was ugly. Why else would she suggest that I model an accessory so far from my face? (Never mind the fact that at the time I wore a size five shoe, had cute toes, cut calves, and unblemished knees) I knew what she was really getting at. She picked the one feature of mine that was the farthest from my beak nose and Dumbo ears and tenderly recommended that my focus lie safely...at my feet. Mom was always good about softening blows to the ego, and this time was no different. I just wish I hadn't been so copped on to her real intent as it only reinforced my previous beliefs about my appearance. Shoe model? She may as well have put a paper bag over my head.
Such was the thought process of an insecure teenage girl. Thankfully, I grew out of my insecurities, but not without a little help.
About the time I was twenty-five I was told by my eye doctor that my vision had been corrected and I probably hadn't needed glasses for quite some time. Problem solved. Later that year, my sister-in-law gave me a makeover that completely reversed all of the inner criticisms about my looks that I had listened to for nearly a quarter of a century. Granted, it took her about an hour to transform my face, but, for the first time in my life, I looked in the mirror and told my reflection, “Wow!” Maybe there was something to the swan story, after all.
About the time I turned thirty, another sister-in-law taught me how to dress and accessorize the “skinny-ass” body I had been blessed with. She will never know how much her do the best with what you have and make no apologies philosophy has meant to me.
By the time I was thirty-two I felt confident and for the first time truly believed my husband when he called me beautiful. I guess you could say I had a good seven year run in which I fulfilled the promise to myself that one day I would think the reflection staring back at me was, indeed, attractive.
On my last birthday I turned forty. I have developed a sunspot mask on my face, the crow's feet are deepening, and dry crease lines are forming around my unpuckered lips (foreshadowing the need to rid my cosmetic drawer of all feathering red lipstick).
I still don't believe the grown up lie--that looks don't matter, but you won't find me lining up for Botox injections or laser sunspot removal. Nor will you hear me trying to placate myself by saying that I love the lines of wisdom forming on my face. The fact of the matter is that on any given day, no matter how old or young we are, we can all feel ugly or beautiful. The trick is to do our best with what God gave us, make no apologies, then look for the beauty in others—realizing that beauty is a feeling we emit to those around us rather than a confirmation offered to us by a sibling, a teacher, a parent, a spouse or a reflection in the mirror.
I try to tell myself this on my ugly days. And if that doesn't work, I simply take off my shoes and socks and think to myself: Hey, all is not lost. I still have cute feet.