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An Ugly-Duckling Tale to Tell Your Daughters

06/13/2011 12:20 pm 12:20:36 | Updated Aug 13, 2011

Most of us are highly sensitive about how we look, especially when compared to other women. And it starts early, when some girls swan out while others take an especially long time emerging from their ugly-duckling phase.

We need to remind ourselves, and our daughters and granddaughters, that there is more to us than our facades, which by the way can be gussied up pretty well nowadays.

A case in point is my own ugly phase, and how it all turned out. It reads funny now, but I really felt the pain. Perhaps it will ease someone else's:

I think back to my least favorite first day in class, back in the 1950s when I was beginning seventh grade at Nautilus Junior High School in Miami Beach. Kids called it "Nauseous" because of the color of the facade and the lousy lunches.

My mother had taken me to a hair stylist who had chopped off my copper-colored hair. My face had recently erupted into a repository of pent up hormonal confusion. Now, set among the zits and freckles, one eye seemed bigger than the other, or was I imagining it? My eyebrows were almost as thick as Frieda Kahlo's. Of course I didn't know of her then. I thought I was the only one cursed with a unibrow.

A misjudged dive that summer into a day-camp pool left my nose with a vague bump, and my mother kept reminding me to push it, an inexplicable exercise in futility that left me looking like I was perpetually picking my nose. My teeth were newly braced in metal, and I had to be diligent to keep greens from clinging like vines on a chain fence.

My full lips were ahead of their time. "Don't pout," my mom would say, looking up from I Love Lucy. "Pull in your bottom lip." A lot to take in for a 12-year old: biting her lip against her sharp braces while pushing the new bump on her nose with bitten fingernails. How I had time to bite my nails while I was pushing my nose, I have no idea.

My body had become no better than my head. I was thin ("skinny" back then), except for my newly hairy legs. Nobody I knew shaved their legs at that age, let alone waxed them. My chest was about the only thing that had stayed the same as ever, unfortunately. My posture was schlumpy. (Why should I stand straight? I felt as bad as I looked.)

My stylish Aunt Hilda, who was fashion-forward even in Manhattan, sent down the kind of clothes from Henri Bendel that no one in my crowd had ever seen; it would be years before my friends would catch up to sack dresses. The clothing needed to be dry cleaned, but that didn't stop my grandma from scrubbing it on a washboard and then hanging it on a rusty wire hanger.

Never mind "sweet" and "funny" and "smart." Those phone compliments from my Aunt Hilda rolled right off me as I concentrated on my terrible façade. I did like my thin wrists, and my thighs weren't awful, but nobody would see them except at gym, in my baggy gym suit.

So there I was, off to the unforgiving world of junior high: skinny, uni-browed, braced, pimply, flat-chested, pushing my nose and sucking in my bottom lip, wearing an un-ironed sack that didn't even fit like a sack, with rust stains on the shoulders.

My one hope was that maybe the friends I hadn't seen over the summer had fared as badly as I had, and that I'd sit next to a nerdy boy from North Beach Elementary who would remember my better years. No such luck.

In homeroom I sat next to Elaine, who had just moved to Miami Beach from the Midwest. Her eyes seemed as big and blue-green as the Atlantic a few blocks east. Her thick wavy hair was the color of the beach, her smooth skin was lightly tanned, and she had a burgeoning bosom beneath a crisp, white blouse. This glowing girl smiled, and of course her teeth were perfect.

If you had asked me then if I could imagine that Elaine would one day marry the major mogul of Las Vegas I wouldn't have been at all surprised. (And, of course, she did marry Steve Wynn -- and got one of the largest divorce settlements in American history.)

But if you had predicted that someday I would date the president of a movie company, or a sports commissioner, I would have been devastated by the taunt. Or, closer to home, if anyone suggested that scrawny, pouty me would date -- even marry -- our high school's "Mr. Wonderful" (and two more just as "wonderful" men, late in life, but that's a whole other story), I would have shyly looked at my big feet to hide the tears. But yes, just like in a fairy tale, those very things happened!

I may not have become a swan, but with time and Clearasil, makeup and tweezers and a good haircut, clothes that fit and the miracles of science, the ugly faded. And I guess that the special things I dismissed about me mattered after all.

I just wish I could have believed all that, long ago on the first day of school at Nauseous Junior High. And with this story, I hope that girls who feel they are going through their ugly phase can be reminded there is so much more to life than looks -- "sweet," "funny," and "smart" included.

And the older you get, the more that becomes true.