Growing up, I didn’t consider myself attractive. Blame it on the 70s or my lack of self-confidence, but beauty, for me, had nothing to do with being freckly and super tall. In my opinion, beauties didn’t wear size ten shoes either, nor did they slouch. Add shyness and social awkwardness to the mix, and you had me: the perfect storm of ugly.
I have clear memories of gazing around my elementary school, wishing I could trade parts of my face, body, and personality with other girls: knock-knees for dimples; bushy eyebrows for a cute little nose; skin that burned for skin that tanned; gawkiness for social graces.
But my idol was Stevie Nicks: the coolest, most gorgeous woman in the world. Stevie was crazy-talented, but also petite, delicate, mystical, and sexy. While I had only two good features: blond hair and blue eyes with long lashes.
In high school, things got worse. I decided that not only was I too tall, but also too fat, and started restricting food, then vomiting. But anorexia and bulimia are cruel diseases because although most people experiment with them hoping to look better, the result is almost always the opposite. I ended up bloated and acne-ridden, my teeth lost enamel, my hair grew dull. I looked so sickly in the professional graduation pictures taken for my high school yearbook that I asked my dad—an amateur photographer who understood the power of good lighting—to do a retake and chose a black-and-white version of one of his shots. I should note that my parents were concerned about me, but I kept my illness hidden from them, constantly lying and assuring them I was fine.
Years passed, and I remained ill. I took to wearing heavy pancake makeup, flowy dresses, and baggy camouflage pants. My teeth got worse, so I smiled less. But several people told me I had nice breasts; hence, I searched for clothes that fit tightly on top, but loosely at the bottom. My life did not improve. The men I dated didn’t love me for the woman I really was because even I barely knew her.
My first insight into a more meaningful definition of beauty came when I started working as a middle school teacher in Boston. I adored the job and the kids, and because I was so busy and challenged, I was also unable to obsess over my weight, teeth, and pimples for at least eight hours every weekday. I wish I could say I stopped binging and purging after school too, but I didn’t. However, I began to realize that the other teachers and students didn’t care at all about my appearance; what mattered to them were my words and actions. Never before had I believed I had anything real or useful to offer the world.
I stayed at the school for five years, then moved into marketing, where I enjoyed some success. Still, I believed I needed to look good to be happy. I worked out like crazy and tried to hide my bad teeth, which had been further damaged in a bicycle accident. Even after I found a great boyfriend who convinced me to get help for my eating disorder—probably saving my life in the process—I hated looking in mirrors. The boyfriend and I married and had kids, but I busted my butt to lose the baby weight. And when my “nice breasts” were reduced to nubs after feeding two voracious nursers, I wore padded bras, pushups, and underwires.
Then, in my forties, I started making rules for myself. For example, I wouldn’t leave the house without “real” pants or a skirt. In other words, sweats and yoga pants were strictly for exercising. Ditto for athletic footwear. I went nowhere without makeup, and my hair had to be blown dry. Whenever I got a glimpse of my graying roots, I’d run to the hairdresser or at least the drugstore for another box of L’Oreal. And although I ate well, I was extremely careful not to overdo it; thus, my weight stayed low. Dessert was always out of the question. I also ran a couple of miles each day, and in really bad weather, I’d run up and down the stairs in my house for about forty minutes. As for my teeth, they were becoming a health risk, so I began the arduous and expensive process of getting them fixed. But I wasn’t sure what to do about my skin. How would I afford a facelift? Because I’d surely need one soon.
Now most of my friends broke my “rules” every day, and I didn’t judge them. But I continued to judge myself quite harshly. I still looked nothing like Stevie Nicks, but I think I felt—in some sick way—that as I aged, maybe I was getting closer. I wasn’t competing with my peers, but as they let their hair go gray or white, gained weight, wore less makeup, and dressed more comfortably, I was (in my mind) doing better! Maybe I believed I was finally evening the score after all the time I’d spent wishing I could trade features with other girls as a kid. Hey! Look at me! I’m in my forties and wearing skinny jeans! And belly shirts too!
Now let me state for the record that I firmly believe all people should feel free to wear whatever makes them feel beautiful and comfortable, but I wasn’t comfortable in those clothes, and they didn’t make me feel beautiful either. I guess I was just trying to convince myself that I could do the hip, stylish thing. It felt weird, though, and unauthentic. I’d get home and immediately change into sweats.
Fortunately, I’ve come to my senses lately, and finally feel as though I love and accept my true self. I still color my hair, but quite a bit of time passes between dye-jobs. And although I appreciate fashion and makeup, I always opt for comfort first. Yoga pants in the grocery store? No problem!
People occasionally still tell me I have nice eyes, but my lashes are thinning, and my eyelids droop a little more each morning. All the exterior things I once believed were so important are disappearing. But I feel stronger. I’ve vowed never to have plastic surgery, and I love dessert. I still exercise—it’s healthy!—but with a relaxed attitude. You may not like my appearance—or me, for that matter—and that’s OK. I’m fifty-one, I’ll never look like Stevie Nicks, but I’m good.