The only thing that got me through my three-year battle with orthodontic equipment, cystic acne, and ill-fitting glasses was the promise that one day I would be pretty. The palate expander and braces would come off, and my teeth would be straight and white. My acne would clear up, if I only followed the ever-changing advice of my dermatologist and used my products religiously. My face shape would grow into itself, and I would finally find glasses which didn’t sit so strangely on my uneven nose. I am now 24, and I still have acne, and I also battle with rosacea. I was not as religious with my retainer as I should have been, and my teeth will always be slightly off as a result. My face shape has not changed enough to make glasses fit much better, even if I have improved at picking flattering frames (although I mostly just avoid wearing them and deal with less-than-perfect eyesight).
I know that, speaking in generalities, I look much better than I did back then. Depending on how much effort I put in, I range from “average” to “pretty,” and I can feel the palpable difference in the way I am treated when I put myself together well. But, like most human beings who did not win the genetic lottery and look as fresh-faced and captivating no matter the time of day, I have to work at it. I have to put my best foot forward, and try to work with the qualities I do have to whatever extent is possible. And, like most human beings, I feel a rush of affirmation and joy when I am treated like a pretty person. The world is simply a nicer place to live when you look good.
When people insult my appearance in the comments section here — and to be fair, it’s rare, and most people are very kind — I have become fairly impervious to the pain. A “chubby cheeks” that might have destroyed me in 10th grade now largely rolls off my back, and is put into a greater context of a life that I am proud of. Although we are all judged on some level by how we look, the things that I contribute to the world and am represented by have nothing to do with my body or my face. I sit behind a computer screen and create a voice and persona that I allow to speak on behalf of me, and a few filtered photos and videos get let through every now and again. In many ways, I am in the best position to be insulted via comment section. After all, how well do they really know me?
But in real life, over a disapproving glance or the presence of someone so unquestionably beautiful as to render me invisible, I am much more sensitive. I worry about how I look when out at a bar, or with friends, or meeting someone new for the first time. And even though I know I have met the quota of “reasonably put-together and inoffensive,” the longing for that affirmation of pretty is very real. Every woman — and I imagine every man — knows what it feels like to want to be just a notch or two more beautiful than you are, and no matter how relatively unimportant attractiveness is in comparison to sense of humor, intelligence, or kindness, it’s a trap that everyone falls into now and again.
My grandmother, before she passed, talked to me often about being a “beautiful young lady.” She was model-beautiful when she was younger and was one of those older women who remained a size two and styled her hair to perfection even when going to the grocery store. I sometimes wonder how she would have responded to me if she had seen me go through my decidedly un-beautiful teenage years, given how tough she always was on my (inarguably lovely) mother’s appearance. The version of me she knew was slim, porcelain-skinned, auburn-haired and button-nosed. I wonder if, in my youthful face, she was able to ease her death-grip on the physical appeal she once effortlessly carried. While she was not, by most standards, ruined by her beauty, she was certainly heavily invested in it. Even at 10 years old, I knew that I had to look good around her.
Through her, though, I was able to see the end result of a life lived through physical beauty. Her obsession with her own and her children’s prevented her in so many ways from living the life that she might have otherwise. As funny and charming as she could be, those were not the qualities on which she hung her hat. And no matter how honed her beauty regimen was throughout her life, she could not avoid the reality of being older and simply less attractive as a result. Like everyone else — though much later — she faced the gazes of people who were not impressed by how she looked. It was no longer a foundation on which she could build, it was a life vest that had been taken from her when she was already out to sea. Her face, and the sadness behind it, should have been reason enough for me to reject the idea of investing too much in what I look like. It should have been a cautionary tale.
And yet, there I sit in front of my mirror, agonizing over the angle of winged eyeliner. While some of my exploits in makeup, clothes, or personal styling are purely for my own amusement, there is a crippling fear that comes with realizing you will never have the advantage of complete beauty. When I force myself to think about it, I am always more interested in being just one notch funnier or more compassionate than one notch prettier, but I don’t always take that time. Too often I confuse the approval I receive when I look better for real acceptance of who I am as a person, when all it really is is a thank you for being aesthetically pleasing to their eyes. Because no matter how beautiful I will myself into being, it will never be who I am. It will never come with me through the years and make me into someone more worth getting to know. And maybe if my grandmother was told she was smart instead of pretty, she wouldn’t have looked in the mirror with such sadness, wondering why the greatest thing about her was the only thing that left.