The first pretty was a quest, a scavenger hunt that proved fruitless. The second pretty was a phoenix, rising from the ashes. It came years later, when I didn't need it anymore. I gave it a pat on the head, and set it free.
I was eleven years old when I penned my first love letter. In it, I implored the object of my affection, Robert, to look within his 12- (possibly 13-) year-old self to give me another chance. Robert had told me he liked me one morning and later that afternoon he took it back. I decided that perhaps I could persuade him to change his mind a third time, by listing my attributes, in case it wasn't clear. "Why don't you like me? I'm really very nice. And I'm not that ugly, Robert."
Of course I never gave him the letter. I must have given up. Most likely I knew that I was bullshitting, not only Robert, but myself. I saved face the only way I knew how at 11 -- by running away.
Speaking of face. Mine, at the time, was "bombarded with zits." I wore glasses. I had a pre-pubescent paunch. I bit my nails till they bled. I had buck teeth. I didn't think I was pretty, but falling in love, after diving for coins with Robert at our community pool, gave me a boost of self-confidence. "I look prettier every day if I do say so myself. Maybe because I love Robert and I'm trying to make him love me."
My sister Marika was the pretty one, always had been. She was olive skinned, thin as a twig, with bright green eyes and a giant ego. I was smart. I was sensitive. I got good grades and I never talked back. But Marika was tough, voice like gravel at 7 years old, attitude to boot and, most importantly, she was pretty. It was the only currency that really mattered in our neighborhood. And she was rolling in it.
When Robert-from-the-pool set his sights on me, something changed. There is nothing else written about our dalliance in my diary. I don't know how many days it lasted, or what we talked about, or if we talked at all. Just the side note about coin diving and that him and his brother Nino were "so nice." Apparently, Robert smiled at me a lot. It was enough. It was enough for me to fall madly in love and subsequently, to have my soul crushed when he changed his mind.
I was eleven, and I was ugly. I felt ugly. It was crippling on some days and a mere afterthought on others. Most of the time, I didn't let it get the best of me. I bought Stridex to help with the pimples. I forged on. My parents didn't tell me I was beautiful, or pretty. Polish parents are, for the most part, stingy with the compliments. If I brought home an A- my father asked me why the minus. It was that kind of upbringing. My mother was too busy cleaning apartments -- ours and other people's -- to sit me down and give me a pep talk. Whining about my looks was a decidedly American sentiment and one I kept to myself.
Years later, however, my mother entered me in the Miss Polonia of Greenpoint beauty contest. I was 15. Pudgy, badly permed and still battling the buck teeth, I was in another ugly duckling phase of my life, which I feared, at that point, was not a phase at all but a life long sentence. I was seething when I found out about the pageant.
There were eight or nine tall and skinny girls prancing around in high heels and taffeta gowns that night. I wore a loose knee length black dress with a polka dot bandeau across my chest. Shiny black pantyhose. Bright red lipstick. Suave Volumizing Mousse that made my perm crispy to the touch. It wasn't good.
For the talent portion on the evening I recited a poem I had written. It was five lines long and rhymed. I recited it in both Polish and English.
And I won.
I fucking won.
My mother was flabbergasted. I was too. They gave me a crown. And gift certificates for 30 dollars to places like the Socrates Diner on Manhattan Avenue. My picture appeared in the Daily News. Later, I sat on a float during the Pulaski Day Parade and waved to the crowd. Something began happening. Pretty hadn't won the crown. Something better had.
I continued to struggle with my distorted self-image. I popped Dexetrim like candy. I gave anorexia/bulimia the good old college try, whittled myself down to 114 pounds on one cup of rice a day. But the cheekbones I attained were highlighted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette review of The Philadelphia Story, which I starred in senior year. I had cheekbones to die for.
But I also had seizures and blackouts and decaying enamel from all the purging. I look at that picture now and I don't see pretty. I see scary. I see scared. I see someone clinging to an idea of what pretty was.
Today the word pretty doesn't mean much to me. I don't hang my happiness on "pretty." I'm more than pretty. I'm tougher than pretty, wiser than pretty, sexier. On good days I have enough confidence to tweet snappy comebacks about how my husband does me fine, muffin top and all. On bad days, I curl up and cry about my waistline. And then I get up.
Do we always yearn to be pretty? Do men struggle with self image the way women do? Do their eyes water at the sight of receding hairlines and sagging bellies? Or do they just shrug and say fuck it and move on...
I used to play this game with myself, walking down the street. Every woman I passed I surveyed in the blink of an eye and calculated what I would trade with her -- my hair for her breasts. My ankles for her calves. My hands for her nose. Every woman I walk passed had something better than me, and I wanted it so bad.
I silently bartered for pretty, and it never occurred to me that maybe someone walking past me wished they had mine.
This post was originally published on Dagmara Domińczyk's Tumblr, This Old Dag.
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