6 Things You Learn When You Didn’t Peak In High School

1. How to rely on your personality

Everyone should be able to hold a conversation, and it serves us all much more to be witty and engaging rather than simply nice to look at, but a lot of the time, that just doesn’t hold true. We live in a society that often defers to the way people dress and how they look in ways both large and small. We know to dress nicely for interviews even though experience and personality ought to count for more than our appearance does, and we want to look presentable when we meet our family’s significant others. Because it’s quite literally at the surface of who we are, our looks play a part in whether people pay more or less attention to us. And if our looks didn’t draw someone all the way in from the start, we have to make up for that extra ground. Where one of the pretty kids in school might have reeled people in, the less attractive kids had to earn attention. We were the funny friends, the class clowns, the sympathetic ones who always gave good advice and would listen to our friends’ plights. This is not to say that attractive people can’t do these things, too—and truly, some of the prettiest people I’ve ever met have also been the kindest—but when you have yet to grow into your looks, you can’t rely on looks as a handicap, only to follow through with your sparkling wit. You have to throw your all into your personality from the get-go.

2. What it’s like to second-guess yourself constantly

You can usually tell a late bloomer by the way they always seem so unsure in their appearance. It’s not really based in narcissism, but rather this sense of unease that something isn’t quite right and that they have to fix it before anyone else sees them as a fraud. When you spend years of your life as the ugly duckling, you become accustomed to people saying offhand remarks about other peoples’ looks, and you begin to feel inadequate. And if and when you finally do blossom into that beautiful butterfly, you realize that you’re still the very same you with all the same insecurities, except now these insecurities are compounded by the fact that people will think you shouldn’t feel that way anymore. In reconciling your past with your present, you realize that not only is your “problem” not really a problem, but one that other people would like to have. But you don’t wake up and suddenly feel differently. You still have to deal with the same anxieties and same issues at home and you’re just as smart or dumb as you were before. You have never seriously considered yourself as pretty before; what if you’re doing it wrong? So you constantly try to keep yourself in check, because the habits of trying to make yourself look as presentable as possible are still as deeply ingrained in you as they were when you were awkward and gangly and had acne, except now you’re nursing a phantom limb.

3. That dating does not get any easier

Maybe it’s because we’re largely suspicious of people’s ulterior motives, but dating really doesn’t open up the way movies always say it does after a big makeover scene. For one, having spent so much time in the friend zone leaves you with very little actual experience as to how you should react when someone flirts with you. Your radars are all crossed because you’ve never experienced this before, and you’re constantly doubting whether the person who seems so interested in you actually is. When you’ve spent so much time pining after all the crushes who see you as “just a friend,” it’s hard to imagine that your new romantic interest won’t eventually shuffle you off into that same box as well. Compound that with the poisonous little question about whether you’d be getting the same attention from the same person if you were still that awkward teenager, and you’ll never feel like you measure up. It’s almost a scarlet letter: a big U for “I was once ugly,” and though it may not reflect what we look like today, still we cower under that sentence. It’s as if we could make one mistake and revert back to that same ugliness, and we might lose the person we’re dating as a result. It’s that suspicion that will ruin a relationship far more quickly than any weight gain or hair loss might.

4. How to navigate the constant reminders of what you used to look like

When you used to be an ugly duckling, people will love reminding you that you were a little dumpy or had weird teeth or acne for days. They’ll divulge what nickname they gave your headgear and won’t be able to mask their shock when they see you again after ten years have passed. In a lot of ways, you’re getting a second chance at a first impression. While some people are good at moving forward, a lot will want to stay with what is comfortable to them, which is their past memory of you. As such, they’ll marvel and congratulate you—on what exactly? Finishing puberty? Aging the way your genetics dictated you would age?—and juxtapose that with tons of “Hey, remember when”s to ease themselves as they relegate your past into a memory instead of reality. And you will learn to smile and be gracious and thank them for their compliments, as you should, but still you’ll wonder where there is such a premium on this one aspect of your past. Nobody focuses on the job you had in high school as opposed to the career you have now, and you’ll learn to steer them away from the topic of your appearance as best you can unless you’d like to grin and bear constant reminders of how awkward they thought you were.

5.That, often, it will feel as if you can’t win

The people you meet after high school may make blanket statements about how you don’t know what it’s like to not be attractive because they won’t have known that you weren’t. And while you may have shifted somewhere along the line of puberty and haven’t been considered an “unattractive adult,” chances are good you still see yourself as the unattractive teenager. You feel strangely when people lump you into the prejudices they have towards people who are attractive without giving you so much as a chance to explain that you know what it’s like to be snubbed, too. It may seem petty and like a minor grievance—after all, it then seems like we’re holding onto the past when we jump at the chance to proudly say, see, I was a weird-looking kid, too!—but it also makes you feel like you struggled pointlessly. But by that same token, it will often seem like bringing up what you used to look like is just as futile, because you worry that people will see you as an impostor, and like you’re humblebragging by comparing yourself to yourself when you’re trying to relate as best you know how.

6. That in the end, what you look like really shouldn’t matter

Looks are fleeting. Even the people who were attractive in high school fear how they’ll age and lose the good looks that won them so many dates and smiles and friends and favors. There are always going to be four sides to the story: how you used to look; how you look now; how you think you look, which often veers more towards what you once looked like; and how other people think you look. There is no one right answer, because the four facets all come into play in different ways and will uniquely shade how you feel about yourself on any point of any given day, which goes so far beyond empirically knowing that society now finds you conventionally acceptable.

Just as you’re now second-guessing yourself for not believing that the person staring back at you in the mirror is actually you, you’ll also second-guess yourself for even caring. It shouldn’t matter, after all. You can know that you’re kind and smart and funny and engaging and a good person, and you can wholeheartedly believe that there is so much more to you than your appearance. And yet that second-guessing goes far beyond having low self-esteem because you may feel guilty for even caring, even though it’s normal and right to want to take pride in how you look. It’s not narcissistic want to feel good about yourself.

Because no matter if you’re pretty or ugly or fat or thin or anything else, you will still be you with all your flaws on the inside, and the best we can do is to embrace those facets of our personalities as the things that make us truly unique. After all, a pretty person with a good personality and an ugly duckling with a good personality and a less attractive person with a good personality all have one thing in common, regardless of which road they took to get there. TC mark

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