This essay was written by our summer Writing Intern, Kate.
One of the most devastating insults I have ever received came from a cute little eight-year-old at summer camp. My friends and I were in that awkward pre-teen stage of being just too old to be cute and still too young to be “big kids”, a struggle we remedied by taking younger girls under our wings with an almost motherly zeal. On this particular day, we had invited a cute little girl named Emily to sit with us at lunch. Confident and openly judgmental in the way children naturally are, Emily made a point of giving flowers to people she liked.
She bestowed one upon each of my friends, whose faces lit up as if they had won the lottery, but she pointedly skipped past me. In the awkward silence that followed, my friend asked, “Why doesn’t Kate get a flower?” Emily gave me an appraising stare and replied, “Well, look at her!” I froze, suddenly horribly aware of my appearance. My greasy ponytail, pimple-ridden skin, and bulbous nose stood out like a blot on the landscape among my effortlessly gorgeous friends. How had I not noticed this before? For the first time, I wondered: was I ugly? Scrambling for a witty comeback and finding none, I felt tears welling in my eyes, stubborn and unrelenting.
This past winter break, I got another glimpse into the younger Kate. My family has a Christmas tradition of watching home videos starring my twin sister and me at various ages. As I watched six-year-old Kate rocking a blonde bowl cut while cheerfully acting out How the Grinch Stole Christmas, I was struck by how joyful, how utterly fearless I was. Even in middle school, I paid no attention to the standards of popularity and wore my plaid Bermuda shorts, pink Sketchers, and low ponytail parted in the middle with no hint of self-consciousness. Yet this confidence proved as fragile as it was fierce, for Emily’s offhand remark was all it took to send it tumbling down. All of a sudden I was irreversibly aware of every deficiency of my appearance and how I was treated because of them. I noticed everything – every critical glance, every subtle pursing of the lips, every mumbled comment. I took to positioning my lunch box to hide as much of my face as possible, and after seeing a video of myself laughing in which I looked like a convulsing dolphin, I began to suppress my laughter, along with other displays of emotion that I thought drew attention to my more unattractive features. The fearless girl with the cackling laugh I had once been was buried under my growing self-consciousness.
The day I entered high school as a new sophomore was an emotional roller-coaster. The hours I had spent eagerly planning my grand entry into the endless slumber party I assumed was boarding school proved worthless when my cheerful facade crumbled half an hour into opening day. Orientation week felt like a constant barrage of self-assured people, and I was quickly overwhelmed by the appearance of their effortless beauty. The constant small talk necessitated by meeting new people was especially exhausting for me as an introvert. As the year went on, I found it difficult to speak in class without writing down exactly what I was going to say beforehand, and walking into the dining hall alone required monumental courage. I remember walking to a club meeting for something I had always loved only to turn away at the door, too bone-tired to brave the sea of unfamiliar and judgmental faces. Throughout that year, I felt both judged and invisible, and I’m not sure which felt worse.
In books and movies, there is a recurring connection between ugliness and nerdiness – the classic awkward, introverted, and unattractive girl tends to spend most of her time reading and studying. This stereotype is not wholly unfounded, I found out, for there was no better refuge for me during the first couple months at boarding school than my own mind. I read voraciously, whizzing through everything from young adult fantasy to creative nonfiction. Some days went by like dreams, spent in a delicious haze of a book. Reading was like entering an alternate universe, one where I could do anything, see anything, be anything. I loved wild, unrestrained, even ridiculous books, whose characters were not limited even by the basic rules of reality, let alone something so insignificant as the way they looked. It made my concerns seem so petty. I’ve always preferred books to movies because it strikes me as so incredible that by looking at what are essentially nothing more than pieces of dead trees with symbols scrawled on them, we can enter a vivid imaginary world. In books, we aren’t immediately distracted by the hero’s physical appearance; a character’s likeability is almost entirely determined by their actions. In this way, reading was uniquely refreshing.
As the year progressed, I found that schoolwork opened up a similarly limitless world at my fingertips. Behind all the tests and quizzes, there was an endless adventure, a rich world begging to be explored. Foreign languages in particular struck me as uniquely expansive – boundless realms that could transport me instantly, press me up against the window into another culture. I found infinite beauty in everything from nuanced German poetry to elegant Spanish prose. My studies made my mind a bubbling, fiery, and colorful place, liberating me from a narrow focus of concerns about my physical appearance.
Looking back on that day at summer camp, the humiliation has long since faded. However, there are still days when someone holds the door for my gorgeous friend and lets it slam in my face, and for a moment, I feel like that little girl again, overcome with shame for something out of my control. The now fleeting feeling of shame is accompanied by a spark of indignation. Judging others based on physical appearance strikes me as far too primitive and illogical of an instinct to be as prevalent as it is today. No one has a say in the appearance they were born with. The fact that a person is physically attractive says more about the results of a random gene pool than any deed of their own, yet most people act as if it is something to be praised, something to be valued over even character or personality. We shamelessly rank others on the basis of something that, for the most part, is out of every single person’s control. What a senseless way to live, and how sad that so many extraordinary hearts are missed out on because of an ordinary exterior.
I have often wondered about the hypothetical solution to this problem of focusing on physical appearance. I still think it would be cool if people somehow looked like their personalities, or even if everyone was ugly. There was a time when I thought that it might help if everyone looked the same, but not only would this be incredibly creepy, it suggests that our bodies have no value. Our bodies do have immense value; but when we narrow our judgments based on the shape of our eyebrows or the size of a thigh gap or the curve of our nose, we risk undervaluing the many ways in which our bodies do matter. Holding ourselves and others to these arbitrary criteria limits what a face can actually tell us. By judging my face aesthetically, for example, you would never know that I am a hopeless romantic who hates romantic comedies, or that I’m a homebody who can make even the most stoic people laugh. You might overlook that I am an ardent feminist, or that I’m like a hamster that has to run every day to avoid getting irritable. My round nose, deep-set-eyes, and acne-scarred skin cannot capture my lifelong love for peanut butter, or my nerdy obsession with Star Wars.
But if you looked more closely, and with new eyes, you might see how my face lights up when I talk about my favorite book, or how my eyes spark at a Harry Potter reference. How my face can express that feminism means joy about femininity as much as it means anger about inequality, or how my cackling laugh shows that I consider life far too short to take myself seriously. So, what I’ve concluded since that day at summer camp with Emily is not that we shouldn’t look at each other’s faces, but that I wish that we looked at them differently, and that we saw more.
Are you passionate about inner beauty? Comment below!
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