When I was 15, I went to two medical appointments, one right after the other. The first was to the orthodontist to get my palate expander installed, a cold metal bar that runs between your two back teeth and is turned nightly with a small key that allows it to spread apart your skull bones. The other was to the dermatologist, sitting under the kind of unflattering fluorescent lighting I’d learned to avoid at all costs, having a man prod my face with rubber-gloved hands, making my cystic acne throb in pain from the lightest amount of pressure. They both offered me long-term solutions that would pay off if I was diligent enough, over the course of six-or-so months, to make a real change. One day, I would have straight teeth. One day, I wouldn’t need to apply my foundation with a spackle knife.
On the ride home, I scanned through every possible insult that could be hurled my way. I’d already learned the ones about being flat-chested or bushy-haired by heart, but now I would need to memorize the barbs based on my mechanically-induced speech impediment or the medicated creams that would leave my face even more red and peeling. I pictured all of the things that would be said to me, all the things I would have to defend myself from, and I turned each into a joke. “If they are going to call me ugly,” I thought, “I’d better find something that rhymes with ugly.”
At 20, when I set up my OKCupid profile for the first time, I filled out each section in less than two minutes. I wrote furiously and flippantly, hoping that, at the very least, the men stopping by to browse my pictures and gauge my real-life level of hotness could get a little laugh. I still have the original profile saved, and when I look back on it now, it only makes me sad. In every word, I can feel myself pre-empting the potential insults, letting whoever was going to hurt me know that they would never be able to do it more efficiently than I could. I can’t imagine how many kind, normal people I turned away simply by being so needlessly acerbic to an online dating questionnaire. Only a few years out of high school, I still carried with me the same burdens that consumed me on that car ride home from the doctor. You could feel it radiating off the screen.
“You’re funny girl,” a guy told me on one of my first dates off the site. I didn’t know whether or not that was a compliment. When we made it back to my house, one of my roommates — a man who, to that point, had never had a serious girlfriend — quietly mentioned that the guy was really good-looking for me. It would be our only date.
When I would look at his profile when I couldn’t sleep, months after our only date, I would think about what he told me. I was a Funny Girl. He was good-looking, likely too much so for me, and I was able to make him laugh. It made me think of all the Funny Girls I’d ever known, all the times I’d seen them spin straw into something they could live with, and how much I loved them. I wondered how many of them must have been like me, alone at three in the morning, wishing they could trade a little humor for a little beauty.
I know a Funny Girl when I see one. The body language and urgency of the comebacks and the anxious need to always be on are recognizable to anyone who lives it themselves. I know who they are, and what their mannerisms are really saying, and how badly they wish that they could simply grow out of the part of them that needs to be on defense. Funny Girls, the ones who recoil at the compliments about their sense of humor because they imagine, on some level, that it’s mutually exclusive with being beautiful, are my favorite girls. In the weedy growths of their painful adolescence, there is often something so strong and so resilient. There is a need to be heard, mostly because they feel they will not be seen. They will make you smile and wince in equal measure because they have never been able to soften their feelings with a pleasant package. Their humor is in their rejection, and their triumph will be in getting everyone else to laugh with them.