I have two sons and rarely deal with issues that come from raising girls. The other day, though, my friend’s daughter came home from school terribly upset. She’s in middle school and, as most of us remember from our own tween years, it can be quite a transition. On this particular day, she was upset because someone had called her “ugly.” Her gorgeous mother was at a loss. I told my friend I had plenty of experience in this department and happily took over.
I sat on the girl’s bed while she sorted her homework pages, and told her that I was fifteen when someone first called me ugly. Before that, I had always thought of myself as kind of cute. I had unruly hair, braces, and way too many freckles, like her, but so did a lot of my friends. In junior high, boys made fun of my skinny frame and flat chest, but it wasn’t until high school that someone actually spelled it out for me. “You. Are. Ugly.”
This surprised her. “You’re not ugly, Katie. You’re so…together.” I chuckled. “Oh, this lovely creature you see before you wasn’t always so lovely.” Besides, that guy may have been the first, but he certainly wasn’t the last. Another guy on a motorcycle pulled over once while I was walking home from my part-time job at McDonald’s a few years later. For a moment I thought I might get abducted.
“You are really ugly,” he said, before laughing and speeding off.
In his defense, I was wearing polyester pants. After that, a popular wrestler and about ten of his friends barked at me in the hallway. I held my head up, found my friend Cathy behind the auditorium, and told her about it as I cried and blew my nose. Cathy lit a cigarette for us to share, and said,
“What do you expect, Katie? You look awful.”
She had a point. Rather than hearing these insults and doing my best to look presentable, I went the other way. Oh you want ugly? I thought. I’ll give you ugly. I teased my hair until it resembled a rat’s nest and then shaved a path around one ear, down the neck and then back up to the other ear. Not a hot look. I refused to wear makeup or tweeze my eyebrows. Big t-shirts with catchy slogans like “Leave Me Alone” went well with black combat boots.
I had lots of friends, but only one boy ever asked me out on a date in high school. He took me to see Pretty in Pink and then drove me home afterwards without a kiss or conversation. He was never heard from again. Nobody asked me to homecoming or prom.
My friend’s daughter failed to see the upside to all this. I told her that I learned how to be funny, I read a ton of books, and I graduated without a venereal disease. How’s that for an upside?
This trend continued into college. My first frat party, someone called me “Flat Ass.” My friend Julie correctly pointed out, “It’s better than Fat Ass.” Everyone was having sex. Everyone except me. Cathy once asked her Ouija Board, loudly during a party, if I’d die a virgin and then pushed it to “Yes.” This intrigued guys, but by then I was so challenging, they lasted only a few weeks before moving on to girls who liked dark rooms and small talk.
Then I met Marc, who would later become my husband. He got a kick out of me. One day, after a few dates, he saw me on campus and said, “Do you ever wear makeup?” I scowled at him in my oversized purple tie-dyed shirt and yellow striped pants. “Or different clothes?” he winked.
I launched into a tirade about how if he didn’t like me for my mind, or sense of humor, or desire to change the world, which was my personal mission, not being a pretty doll for him to parade around, then he could piss off. I’d be just fine on my own. He smiled. He joked and teased. Then he held my hand and we went for a walk.
After college, I found a good hair stylist and a pair of tweezers. I learned how to rock nice clothes, high heels and some eyeshadow. I discovered I could look pretty, and like it. I never really shook the fierce personality. Or the humor. Or all the knowledge I’d gained from weekends spent reading rather than dating.
“So when teenage boys say you’re ugly, you should continue to do your own thing? Even though you might not have many dates, because then you have a good personality and are smart or something? Is that what you’re telling me?” she asked.
I nodded. That was it exactly. Then I told her some more.
“One day you’ll get your braces off. You’ll find a style that’s right for you and your hair will begin to calm down. And you’ll be smart and funny and doing great things. That’s one potent combination. Oh, and when you see those boys again, they’ll be selling used cars when they aren’t attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Trust me.”
She got herself together, smiled a little, and started her homework. I noticed my reflection in the mirror on her wall and smiled a little myself. No matter how sophisticated or lovely or together I am, that ugly girl is always inside me, defiant and bold, making sure I never forget she’s there. Ever. I hope I never do.