Of late, I have spent some time reflecting on my physical appearance. This is not uncommon for me, but as I approach my 24th birthday, it occurs to me that I’m in my prime, that this is going to be as good as it gets – unfortunately, I’m not sure I’m happy with this “good.”
I will always remember one comment made about my looks. Well, two. Both of them echo in my mind to this day, some 11 and 5 years hence (respectively). One comment was made while the marching band was lining up for a parade in 7th grade. There I was, forcibly clad as unattractively as possible in a tucked-in white polo shirt, pleated white shorts, white ankle socks and white saddle shoes. The girls also were forced to wear their hair pulled back if it was long enough, so mine was plastered back in a greasy ponytail, my hair not quite the luxuriant (ha) quality of today. I’m sure my face was dotted with acne and related scars, I was sweating in the summer heat and I was wearing unflattering glasses. And I was large. Middle school and high school were my biggest years, though high school definitely won out in that respect. However, in middle school, I had no waist and huge feet, so I was forced to wear men’s jeans and shoes to compensate.
As I lined up alongside my then-best friend who played saxophone (my being the least talented trumpet player came in handy sometimes, as I got to bridge the gap between the two sections), one of the other band people called out from behind us. In my general direction, she shouted, “Hey! Are you a boy or a girl?” Mortified, I said nothing; I acknowledged no one; the sweat on my brow grew as bandmates turned to look at me, at her. My friend turned toward her and said, “What??” And the girl responded, “I’m asking – is your friend a boy or a girl? Because I really can’t tell at all.”
My physical self-esteem issues started well before this point in my young life, but this defining moment did nothing but stoke the fires of self doubt for me. Seventh grade was actually the worst year, because it was the same year, and actually the same group – band – that spawned the sideburn comment (in which I was compared to another female trumpet player who – gasp! – did not have sideburns), the open mockery and reading of the Valentine card I had a friend deliver to my crush, the last tidbits of torment by one Sheresa Roberson and one Robert Gray and the loss of my two best friends at the time through the hit-and-run delivery of a cruel note the last day of band camp. Middle school was rough overall, but seventh grade? Well, had I had access to weaponry or drugs stronger than Ibuprofen, it could’ve killed me.
Anyway, that was one of the comments that stuck with me. And, honestly, it took a great many more years before the impact of that comment really hit home. Mostly because it didn’t occur to me until college to see a doctor about those idiosyncrasies that made me different from other girls I knew. It took me that long to be (unofficially) diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) and to put a name to the hirsutism and male stature.
(Oh, wait, I thought of a third comment! Though because it came from a small child, I don’t blame her. However, you never want to hear, “You have hairy arms like my daddy,” when you’re a sophomore in high school. Still hurts.)
The second comment came in college, from a friend of my first real boyfriend. I can’t remember if the friend was Jeff or Reid, but he told Jason, “Emily has a really pretty face, but her body…” And the worst part? JASON TOLD ME. I didn’t overhear or get the information from a third party. He told me to my face. My apparently pretty-by-comparison-to-the-rest-of-me face. If anyone saw my Twitter post the other day about having a Butter Body, that’s what I was thinking about at the time. And considering the proportionality (as I said there) of the face to the body, that’s pretty depressing.
In light of all this, I was thinking about the idea of God giving us only the heftiest burden we can handle without breaking. Now, on one hand, I’m a little sad that God thinks I can handle only being really ugly, but on the other, I’m glad I’m not dealing with more hurt and difficulty than I am. I don’t want death and destruction and further sadness in my life. However, when I think about this, I really wish God had chosen another route for the hardship. Why my appearance? Why all elements of it at once? Because, if you want to know the truth, having 50 negative physical traits all at once is pretty much a spirit breaker 7 days a week. It is. I wish I just had a set of fat thighs or mosquito-bite boobs. But my list is much longer.
And it’s not about interpretation. See, every time I say I’m ugly, people think I just look in the mirror and see some skewed reality that comes with having low self esteem. Untrue. I’m talking tangible things that are considered bad in mainstream society. I’m talking the half-hour showers spent shaving that I STILL have to take (even after the laser treatments) to make myself look like a normal female. I’m talking the linebacker (oh, wait! Fourth comment! Chris Kinaschuk, also in 7th grade. Mrs. Strahler’s science class.) physique, which doesn’t do me much good since I’m too worried about the state of my knees to play powderpuff football. It’s fine to be a strong woman, to have broad shoulders or distinct facial features or big bones. But to have all of them at the same time? And with hairy arms, chest, cheeks and neck mixed in? It becomes unbearably heavy, unbearably unfeminine. I just want to be a GIRL, folks. Not a girly-girl, but a girl. I want to feel like I’m enhancing my beauty by putting on makeup and blow-drying my hair, not that I’m doing it to avoid looking like a full-on dude.
But, you know, one of the biggest parts of this struggle is something that seems so small – so insignificant and petty – but hits me so hard that every time I think of it, I get teary eyed. It’s that nagging reminder in my head that every man I meet will have to be one of the world’s most understanding to hear my story and not run away. I was so lucky with boyfriends past – especially Tod – and I feared so much giving them up and having to start again. Because I won’t let a man touch my face or my neck without telling him the whole story. I can’t bear the thought of having them find out in a moment of passion or sweet caress that I have stubble just like they do. It would kill me. And while I know that any man who’s so shallow that he would walk away because of that should be thrown off a bridge, and definitely doesn’t deserve my company, it still makes me sick to think of it. It makes me want to avoid intimacy forevermore. I know that’s a silly avenue to take, but it’s one I have seriously considered because of the ever-present fear of being found out.
I do feel lucky that I’m not a hermaphrodite. Because at least I can camouflage some of my problems. At least if I had a couple thousand dollars to spare, I could try a second time to eliminate others. And while I’ll never be able to shave off my shoulder blades or pare down my man legs, I can still accentuate the other parts of me that should be emphasized – my chest, my hips – and try to detract from the crazily ill-proportioned remainder.
I guess this has come to mind because of all the time I’ve spent at the gym, my recent haircut and my unsuccessful indirect pursuit of the opposite sex. As I’ve said many a time in this very venue, being the pursuer sucks. Or at least it sucks for me. If you’re on the domination train, ride on, but I am not a willing passenger. I want to be asked out and flirted with. I want men to wink at me or ask for my number without shame. I don’t want the only guys who will give me the time of day to be the stereotypically ugly ones (bless their hearts, as RP would say to relieve his consciousness after saying something bad about someone). Do I need to bare my cleavage to do that? Wear short skirts and toss my hair? Bend over at just the right moment, then wink and walk away? I don’t want to do those things. Not ever.
I got my hair cut just for a change of pace. But when I looked in the mirror, I saw something much more defiant than I had originally planned. After years of being told that men generally prefer long hair, I felt like my semi-short bob with all its flip was a slap in the face to men everywhere: “I don’t need you,” it said. “I am independent and fiery – you do nothing for me.” It made me a little afraid, because I don’t really want to slap the men of the world in the face. But it also made me glad, because it let me stand out for a few moments, to have so many people tell me I looked sassy, spunky and “really good.” That time has passed now, but I still like to think the cut is flattering, more so than my previously unstyled look.
However, I don’t see this new element of my look garnering me any more attention from the stronger sex either way. I don’t want to change myself anymore, and yet, I feel like my looks are outside the realm of desirability for all men. If I could look in the mirror and see a woman who I thought was attractive to some group of guys out there (other than the pervy chunk-lovers, of course), I would try to keep hope alive and wait for them to turn up as the years wear on. But I just don’t see that. I see a woman so far outside the realm of normal female beauty that I’m no longer touching any part of what makes a woman truly lovely. It hurts me now to think about it. It hurts me every day to see it in the mirror, to know that I will be looking at that same reflection for the rest of my days on this planet.
I don’t want sympathy or outcries of, “But you’re pretty! WTF are you talking about??!” You’re my friends, and I appreciate those thoughts and affirmations. However, it’s just not so. I know the key to solving this problem is looking within myself, discovering the beauty I do have and getting to a point where I feel strong enough to stop caring how the world sees me, how men see me. And I need to get to a point where just because I like this guy or that guy and he won’t give me the time of day, or treat me as anything but a young girl who works nearby, that’s OK. I’m OK. Life will go on, even if it doesn’t happen instantaneously. I keep thinking, “If I could go out on one date, that would be enough for me…” Would it? I guess I can’t say. But it sure would be nice to be wanted for a day. To be openly sought after and obviously desired. To not know what to do with myself, I’m so blatantly attractive and pleasing to every male eye. Ha! Gosh, that’s a funny mental picture. Anyway… it would be nice. Until then, I have some more reflecting to do.