My childhood photo albums are filled with your typical baby photos. There are the pages of professional photographs showing a curly-haired, wide-eyed Isabelle pretending to water some flowers or sitting on a velvet chair with my chin in my hands.
Then, mysteriously, around the age of eight, the photos stop. The album ends with dozens of empty plastic-lined pages—sheets that should have been filled with my elementary school graduation, my middle school chorus concert, and the numerous musicals I was forced to play a boy in.
The reason for these empty pages? I was not cute anymore and would not be cute again until I shed my baby weight, learned how to use a hairbrush, got the metal pried from my mouth, and someone could take a picture of me without the lens breaking.
You may be thinking, “Aw, but everyone goes through their awkward middle school years!” and to that I say, “No—no they don’t.” A few pimples don’t count. There were girls who made their braces look cute, who chose all the right colored rubber bands and breezed through their preteens, writing and receiving adorable love notes and generally winning. And then there was me, wearing khakis, an ill-fitting polo shirt, and weird-ass wooden clogs.
But I am here to say that the years of “coincidentally” leaving to go to the bathroom during the slow songs at middle school dances, enduring nicknames such as “Frizzy Izzy,” and being generally invisible to members of the opposite sex were a blessing in a very pathetic disguise.
I am not in any way comparing my unbearably awkward adolescence to the very real and serious bullying that occurs; I am simply saying that I am grateful for my ugly years and especially grateful to my mom for retiring the camera during a time in my life that should not have been documented. Below is a list of reasons why living the ugly duckling fable (substituting the swan bit for something a little less glamorous like a nice sturdy goose) may be the best thing that can happen to you.
1. You do not crave the spotlight.
Years spent in the darkness have made me not unlike those bats that spend their lives in a pitch-black cave. They do not crave the light because they do not know the light. I do not crave the spotlight because I never basked in it, with the exception of my stage debut as a “Papa” in Fiddler on the Roof. I was never the friend who had any sort of buzz-worthy news to dish; I was never the hot topic everyone was talking about in the cafeteria. Because of this, I became a listener. I was the one my friends went to with their latest boy drama or earth-shattering fight with their BFF. They were able to vent to me uninterrupted because I had no relevant anecdotes of my own to add or interject. I have found being able to patiently and quietly listen has served me tremendously in life. Listening is the most natural thing in the world to me. I don’t sit through stories only to wait for a long enough pause to begin my own. My years of literally having nothing to say because my life was boring as hell has made me genuinely curious about the lives of others and happily able to be at the receiving end of a conversation.
2. You’re not a bitch.
Because I did not immediately look like someone who you would want to be friends with, I was forced to develop other aspects of my personality so people would want to talk to me. I did not have the privilege of being the bitchy mean girl. I didn’t get away with being an asshole like so many of my other side-banged, Abercrombie-wearing peers. In short, if I was a bitch, life was a bitch back, and as a result, I am not a bitch today.
3. You don’t take yourself too seriously.
I’ve learned that life is much easier when you can laugh at yourself. I was extremely aware that boys didn’t like me and while the cool kids were busy holding hands in movie theaters, me and my equally awkward best friends were busy being fucking hilarious. Instead of passing love notes to boys, we were passing portraits of ourselves to each other that made us laugh so hard the teacher told us to leave the classroom. Laughter was our distraction and our savior. We laughed at ourselves before anyone else had the chance to. Later in life, this skill has made it easy for me to turn an embarrassing story into a funny one, to laugh about that abysmal job interview instead of cry about it. It has translated into thick skin in the workplace and has helped me deal with criticism and kept me from taking catty remarks and disagreements personally. It is due to my years as what my guy friends might call a “swamper” that I credit my ability to bounce back from the frequent embarrassing moments I find myself in.
4. You aren’t shallow.
When I was 12 years old, I could not afford to be shallow. I was nowhere near a position of being able to judge myself and others based on appearance. I could not judge a book by its cover because if I was the equivalent of the first edition of a Judy Blume novel, its cover would be half torn off and its pages would be dusty and yellow from lack of use. Honestly, not dismissing people based on their outward presentation should not be considered a “quality.” Years as a troll should not have given me special Shallow Hal-like goggles. Everybody should be equipped with them, but sadly they aren’t. Sure, I admit to having a series of preconceived notions about the dude wearing a puka shell necklace, but I am willing to table this flooding of stereotypes and I am willing to throw them out as soon as I am proved wrong. How one looks has rarely, if ever, gotten in the way of truly getting to know someone.
Furthermore, no matter how much of my ugly-duckling suit I shed, I will never think of myself as a “hot girl.” There is a part of my self-image that is forever molded by the unphotographed years of my adolescence. My ego can only inflate so much because it has gone through years of malnutrition and its growth is stunted.
5. Friendship is everything.
My identity has never been tied up in my romantic relationships because during those formative years, I didn’t have any. This may or may not have caused subsequent years of extreme sluttiness because I had no idea how to handle the sudden and surprising attention, but I am going to focus on the positive for now. While everyone else was making out in the backseat of their boyfriend’s 1998 Honda station wagon, I was hanging out with my pals. My friends were everything; I didn’t (more like couldn’t) ditch them for my current boyfriend, letting ties slowly dissolve due to time and absence. I hold my friends close because they are keys to my happiness. When there is no significant other in my life (which is more often than not), I am more than content to sit down to a marathon of The Bachelorette with my best friend. (I didn’t say middle school improved my taste in television.)
Making it through those awkward years with your humor still intact, with some friends to look back and laugh with and a sense of self that is not contingent on your physical appearance, is character-defining. A month or so ago, my friend and I were discussing good baby names and tangentially, she said, “God, I hope I don’t have ugly kids.” I thought the opposite. Bring on the ugly kids, send them off to school with a bull haircut, and give them two thumbs up when they pick out that terrible graphic tee for their first day of school. What doesn’t kill them will make them stronger.