When I was five, I had a thin strip of hair above my lip. I am half Indian, so it was dark hair. Once I was waiting in line to go into class and the girl in front of me turned, a cool girl in my head, and asked, loudly:
“Why do you have a mustache?”
I had noticed this hair before, in passing, but hadn’t thought much of it. Now I felt like I’d been slapped. I was instantly embarrassed.
“I don’t. Boys have mustaches, girls can’t.”
“Yes, but you have a mustache.”
“All girls have hair on their faces. It’s not a mustache. My hair is dark.”
She contradicted me again. I grew indignant, a budding know-it-all, trying to explain exactly how she was wrong. But I remember that day well because of the feeling I got as my voice petered out and we walked into the room. I felt small. I felt ashamed. It would become a recurring theme.
It’s easy to label, to gossip, to judge, to call someone ugly. It’s not even always with bad intentions in mind. Mostly we just expect others to take what we say as our personal opinion. Typically our aim isn’t to be cruel.
But for the people listening: all these opinions have weight. Some more so than others. The voices stack up, coming as they do from myriad directions, and begin to swirl together until they are oppressive. They amass into one judgmental standard that always seems above you. And you feel small.
I’m getting tired of this. We see the results of labeling and comparing in our messed up society everyday. We acknowledge it, but it’s become too charged and confusing a problem to wade into. All these issues eddying around each other: opposing schools of thought on what self-esteem actually is, feminist outcries, people arguing about obesity, misogyny, bulimia, Photoshop; it’s all so confusing and contradictory and even slightly removed from day-to-day life.
But our day-to-day lives do have an impact on people. Our flippant comments are heard. The compliments that are really insults in disguise, the public trashing of exes that inevitably includes their bodily flaws — even if you were only letting off steam to a friend. The people that hear you will internalize these comments. They will internalize what you deem as ugly.
People are still hiding. People are still ashamed.
The other day I sat next to this woman in class. She mumbled, was shy and quite confusing, and talked about her collection of shoe-themed stationery for a long time. A part of me was thinking ‘”cat lady. Disengage.” Then she looked at me and said something about how my legs were thin, and pointed to her own, which seemed perfectly normal, and said “fat.” I didn’t know what to say. A part of me wanted to rejoice that someone had noticed my leg size because I’d been trying to get thinner. But I couldn’t, because in complimenting me she was lowering herself, and I know all too well what it’s like to be that person; lowering, sinking, shrinking.
Her legs weren’t big. But to her they were. And that hurt, because I was seeing the same vulnerable part in her that I have recognized in myself.
People are listening to you talk, and they are absorbing. They are reading your articles. They are working out ways to change themselves. In their minds it is not just a disadvantage to be unattractive. In their minds it is something worthy of disgust. Not because they are “weak” and have low self-esteem. Not because they are selfish either. But because they are human, and when humans feel ostracized, or different, or excluded, they feel shame.
Yes, we shouldn’t have to feel ashamed. Our bodies aren’t dirty. I’m a Christian, and I’m working through that — getting to see myself as God’s child, and not just small, sinful old me. So that’s good. God is amazing and is bringing me round to see things from a different perspective. But I do still feel ashamed when people make judgments on my appearance. I’m human. Shame is a group-based emotion. It makes you feel small; it makes you want to hide, to cover yourself. If guilt is feeling bad because of what we’ve done, shame is feeling bad because of who we are.
Telling people to just focus on what’s inside does not work because who we are is more than just the inside. We are physical beings too, as any doctor who sees how the mind affects the body — and vice versa — will tell you.
But perhaps what irks me the most is when people say that some people are just ugly, should accept that and just move on. Well, newsflash! That doesn’t work! No one feels better after accepting that — not deep down. Being labeled ugly is not liberating. We can see that people are struggling with appearance, developing disorders because of it, and becoming depressed by it. And then we respond by burying the issue and pretending that people who care about appearances are being selfish?
We all care. We can learn to care more about other things, sure, but we still care.
Please can we stop talking so loud about what we think is acceptable or not, what is ugly and what is not? It’s fine to have preferences, but just because someone does not meet yours does not make them ugly. Uncool as this opinion might be, I think everyone is beautiful in their own way. I don’t say it as a platitude. Obviously I can see that we are all different; some people have more symmetrical faces, bigger eyes, sharper jaw lines. I find those people attractive too. But I believe God made us all in His image, and if that’s true, I don’t want to be the one going around declaring which angle of God is ugly.
People are listening and watching. I’m tired of feeling ashamed, and I’m tired of giving other people reasons to feel that way too.