Sometimes I think letting myself be ugly is one of my biggest accomplishments. Which makes it sound like I will most likely not go on to win the Nobel Prize at anything (hey, it remains to be seen -- you never know).
As a kid, I thought that I was gorgeous, in part because girls were always gorgeous in books and movies, so I figured that was an important part of the whole girl thing. I figured that I was probably the real deal. Even little girls in books are often described as beautiful. Beautiful is a sizable part of being sweet. Of being saucy. Of being a girl sleuth. And of course, I could picture myself as a saucy girl sleuth, both with and without the floppy hat.
So it was a serious invasion, defeat and colonization of my entire identity when it occurred to me that I might not be beautiful after all, and later, when I realized with dawning horror that everything was definitely wrong with the way I looked.
The main problem with beauty for girls is that it gets conflated with just about every other good thing. Even the nerdy, smart girls we gratefully identify with in our favorite books get played by typically lovely actresses with shiny hair, slender limbs and delicate, even features. It's OK to be endearingly dorky, as long as you can transform into an angelic vision of ideal femininity the moment you put on a prom dress!
We love it when beautiful, famous people tell us that they were an outcast, a dweeb, a rebel. Look at them now! It's all so sweet and humanizing! They might even be people, too!
But what if you take the beauty out of the equation? What if the nerdy girl is truly awkward-looking? What if the spirited, impertinent girl is also very fat? What if the gentle, sensitive girl has a big, beaked nose and lots of acne? What if none of these characters have clear, pale skin, round eyes and hair that ranges between white blonde and shimmering chocolate brown?
Well, then that's real life.
But so many of us go into it poorly prepared. We go into it hoping desperately to look like the girl who was made for a prom dress. We go into it panicking at our faces in the mirror, our alien bodies with their strange, maverick goals involving the sprouting of thick arm hair and the inappropriate placement of fat in areas where Taylor Swift would never dream of having any. We go into it already fighting a losing battle that will involve over-funded armies of cosmetics and a legion of too-expensive haircuts. We cling to eager, helpless belief resembling religiosity in the endless litany of rules concerning how we should and shouldn't look. We put ourselves through the never-ending string of almost-diets and listen to the persistent, perfectly audible voice that presides over all things food-related that murmurs, "You shouldn't have eaten that. You really shouldn't have eaten that. Now you can't eat anything tomorrow -- if you have any self-respect." And then, when you eat just as much the next day, it's reading off this prepared speech about how your lack of self-control is obviously the reason why you suck so much, in general.
Ugh, what a prison being a girl can be.
What a colossal, constant trap.
I felt like I'd stolen the key off of one of the wardens, the day I looked in the mirror, felt massively unattractive and didn't care.
The day they told me I needed another nose job. A third one, because he'd messed up the first and then the second hadn't fixed it. The day the NYC surgeon in his glassed office overlooking the world told me that I was pretty enough anyway, but that it would really "help." That I should sign up now. And I said no and then I left feeling utterly ugly and weirdly free. I walked fifty blocks, reveling in my freedom. I felt like I could walk anywhere. I am ugly, I thought. I have a big, ugly nose, and it doesn't even matter. I am awesome.
We're taught that these ideas are so essential: beauty, ugliness. They are the things that are supposed to be us. They feel so large sometimes that there isn't room for the rest. Beauty, success. Ugliness, failure.
God, I'm thankful for the ugly days when I am busy with my life. When I catch a vaguely disappointing glimpse of myself in the subway window and keep feeling good anyway. When I look bad in everything I try on and I am in love with this chapter I've just written. When I am full of my own potential, and the promise of the rest of my life, the knowledge I'll acquire, the sense that I'm making progress and, if anything, the clumsiness of my appearance is sort of compelling. I am a quirky, interesting woman. I look quirky and interesting, too. I have a nose that wouldn't give in. I have a lot of other stuff going on.
It's not just about beauty -- it's about letting yourself not care about beauty. It's about being comfortable with the occasional ugly day. About taking the corrosive, toxic helplessness out of unattractiveness and replacing it with moving on. It's about the fact that everyone has ugly days, where nothing looks right and it's impossible to imagine that it ever did or ever will, but they don't have to mean anything more than not looking good.
Because there are women detectives who aren't ridiculously hot and there are nerdy girls who look awkward in a prom dress but kick ass at physics. And there is so much more to being alive than being pretty. All of it, actually. All of the rest of it. Adventures and passionate love and brilliant research and delicious food and the steady struggle and satisfaction of getting better at something, and impacting other people's lives and creating something new and cool. Rollercoasters. Waterfalls. Those awesome old falling-apart globes that they sell at flea markets.
I am ugly, I thought, on my fiftieth block. I can be anything.
A version of this piece appeared originally on Eat the Damn Cake, along with lots of other pieces about being a woman these days, and failing to wear skinny jeans, ever.