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Nancy Mitchell Headshot

Don't Tell Me I'm Beautiful

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Tim Robberts via Getty Images
Tim Robberts via Getty Images

I can't remember exactly when it was I realized I was ugly. A misplaced sort of confidence carried me through sixth grade, a conviction that since I checked the boxes of 'skinny' and 'blonde,' I must be at least passably attractive. I was probably disabused of this sometime in the seventh grade, probably with the help of one of my classmates. Junior high kids are the worst people known to man.

That was a low time. But still, I cherished the hope that by the time I got to high school, this would all turn around. This seemed reasonable, based on close readings of Sweet Valley High and Seventeen magazine. But after the summer between junior high and high school, during which I imagined I had improved, I went to freshman orientation and was plunged back into despair. There were all my new classmates, long and tan and looking like little adults. And me? Still ugly.

I came home distraught. My mother sensed this, and asked me what was wrong. "Nobody wants to be my friend," I told her. "I'm not pretty."

"Oh, Nancy," my mother said, "of course you're pretty. I think you're beautiful."

I cried because I knew it wasn't true. Or rather, because it was true -- of course my mother thought I was beautiful -- but I wanted other people to think I was beautiful, because at 14 I had latched onto a cruel reality: When you're a girl, whether or not other people think you are pretty means a lot. It is almost everything.

Here's what I wish I could go back in time and say to 14-year-old me: "You are not what you look like. You are what you do."

Because there is very little you can do about how pretty you are. Especially when you're 14 and gawky and awkward and have greasy skin. But you can change what you do. You can change that all the time.

I think about the time I spent looking in the mirror, wishing my zits would go away. Wishing my butt were smaller, because even though I was 15 pounds underweight, I somehow thought I was fat. What my mother said was true, even though I didn't want to listen to her, and the intervening years have made that clear to me. Zits are only temporary, and the things I thought were flaws have turned out to be assets to the right people. Pretty doesn't always look the same.

But I hate that this is such a huge relief to me. I hate the time and the mental energy I wasted, wishing and trying to be prettier, time that I could've spent with my family, or riding my bike, or playing the viola, or writing funny notes to my friends, or curled up with the atlas memorizing the coast of Africa. Everywhere, from Seventeen and from Sweet Valley High and from the boys in my church's youth group, I heard the same thing: You only matter if you're pretty. That's the only way you will get people to pay attention to you. And I believed them, because it was true, that was what everybody thought, but it was such a lie and I realize that now and I hate it.

If I have a little girl I want to say to her: You are kind. You are smart. You are important. The things you say to people matter. The way you treat people matters. In your words, you possess the power to heal and to harm. Use them wisely. Love people. Learn things. And I will tell her, sometimes, that she is beautiful, but I will remind her that this is not what defines her. Maybe she will live in a world where that is true.

Sometimes, men I go out with tell me that I'm pretty. It's nice the first few times, but it gets old after a while. Come up with something better, I think. No man would ever be satisfied with constantly being told how beautiful he was. I like to know that you think I am lovely, but do you think other things about me? Tell me that I'm smart, that I make you laugh, that you love my creativity, my ambition. Tell me that nobody else has ever made you this happy.

But don't tell me I'm beautiful.