I have never been one to romanticize insecurity, but even still, I have always known that mine wasn’t the sexy kind. I’m not the Shy Girl behind doe eyes who, with every bat of her thick lashes, tells you to come even closer to hear her little voice. My discomfort with myself — the festering kind that we all live with to varying degrees — has always manifested like an animal pushed to the corner of its dirty cage. What I don’t like in me, I will hate ten times over in you. I will bite the hand that reaches for me in kindness, because licking my own wounds has always been better than letting someone see it long enough to put a bandage on it. Everyone deals with their strangeness differently, and some are able to transmute it into something beautiful and fragile and sweet. My jokes are the pre-emptive laugh, the first lines of defense, so that you cannot laugh at me first.
You would make fun of me if you knew how much stock I put into movies growing up. From the time I was old enough to brush my hair until it poofed just the way Ariel’s did in The Little Mermaid, I have wanted to be like the stars from my favorite films. And yet, no matter how varied my beloved female protagonists were in personality ticks, they always had the same flawless foundation: They were slender, they had clear skin and small noses, they had a soft manner that allowed their hero to project himself on them like a green screen. I grew so accustomed to this perfect image of femininity that even in my favorite books, when the women came with no mention of physical beauty, I would create an image of the heroine in my mind as movie-star beautiful. “She is the main character of a story,” the little me thought to herself, “She must be beautiful.”
When Disney became romcoms, the women never changed. They were live-action, but they were still as unnaturally beautiful. They were still crafted by a hand that didn’t want them to be full humans, only the best qualities from a few select archetypes. And still, I wanted to be like them. I wanted to have the girlish charm of Zooey Deschanel, the burning allure of Christina Hendricks, the sporty femininity of Jessica Biel. These women, these characters, did not live with the kind of insecurities that I and my girlfriends did. They did not bite the hands that reached into their cages — only gently kissed them — because there was no part of them that burned with fear of rejection. There was only approval, and serene knowledge that they were beautiful enough to be worthy. All of their problems were easily tied up into Tiffany bows at the ends of their films because they were never a problem of self, only a problem of circumstance.
These are the kinds of women you fall in love with, they tell us. The ones who are complete and whole on their own, who do not need your individual affection because they know that they already have the world’s. They are so beautiful as to forget it at times, and then feel it all rushing back to them when just the right man pulls them into his arms. They don’t have to make fun of themselves and try to guess an opponent’s insult so as to say it first. I have never seen a woman like me or my friends as the love interest a movie, and maybe that’s why our stories don’t end as neatly or feel as satisfying. Maybe that is why we are always in the process of questioning ourselves, and backing away, and rearranging our insecurities. Maybe if we looked like this star, and acted like that one, we would be able to fall neatly into the fairy tales we grew up waiting for.
Before I was even a teenager, I realized that I was not the Princess in my beloved Disney movies. While I was taught to buy Ariel’s costume from a Halloween store and imagine what it would be like to sing and dance with the fish like she did, I always knew on some level that I was Ursula. I was not pretty enough to be Ariel, not slender enough, not delicate and charming enough. I was full of flaws and felt flashes of rage or vengeance or deep sadness. My friends were the villains, too, scheming and working and making the most of their situations. They weren’t perfect, and couldn’t ride on their looks or charm, so they became enterprising. If I was going to be Ursula, I thought, I wanted to emulate her best qualities — entrepreneurial, independent, fierce. And while it wasn’t the ideal life of comfortable desirability that Ariel might get to experience, it created a sort of protective border around your life that you could build something interesting within. Just because Ursula didn’t get a love story, it seemed, doesn’t mean she shouldn’t get a story at all.