Thursday, May 2, 2013
I'm Not Josie Grossie Anymore
It sometimes happens that a woman is handsomer at twenty-nine than she was ten years before; and, generally speaking, if there has been neither ill health nor anxiety, it is a time of life at which scarcely any charm is lost.
- Jane Austen, Persuasion
Earlier this week, on a beautiful spring afternoon, I was driving home with all my windows down. While waiting to turn left, I heard snapping and whistling. I looked up to see a teenage boy in a nearby car waving at me. Perplexed, I figured he was waving at someone behind me. But as he turned and his car passed mine, he shouted through his open window, "Hey lady, you're looking good!" This kid was probably just being a silly teenage boy. But my knee-jerk reaction was more telling: I instantly assumed that he meant the compliment sarcastically. Was my hair a mess? Was the sun shining on me weirdly? Was something caught in my teeth? My natural response to unfamiliar attention is a traumatic flashback to my ugly duckling days.
Looking back, I wasn't the totally hideous preteen and teenager I believed myself to be at the time. I didn't realize then what an awkward age that is for most people. I felt exceptionally unattractive, and was treated as such by a lot of my peers. In middle school, I had thick aviator glasses and out-of-control frizzy hair crowned by 80s puffy bangs and cut by Fantastic Sam's. I had protruding front teeth and an overbite so severe that it barely escaped corrective surgery. I also had a nice figure, but was encouraged to hide it in too-large clothing, which I did until well into my 20s. I was constantly called names ranging from teasing (Bugs Bunny) to appalling (I'd rather not dredge them up). The boys in my neighborhood bullied me because I didn't know enough to stay quiet and invisible. When I took walks around the block, they followed me on bikes and barked at me to remind me of my dog status. Once, one of them spit on me on the school bus. Basically, if a guy tried to get my attention – at school, on my street, at the mall – something awful was guaranteed to follow. This continued for several years.
Eventually, I started high school, found my tribe, made friends with guys who weren’t jerks, survived three years of braces, and rebelliously grew out my puffy bangs. (My mom disapproved, insisting that I would have a "flat head.") I was too busy with activities to be fodder for the neighborhood boys. Everything improved. While classmates still took shots at me occasionally, it was no longer a daily experience. As I grew up, they had less and less to insult, and got less and less of a response.
I didn't fully transform into a swan – or at least a respectable goose – until my late 20s. It took me that long to learn to love and make the most of what God gave me. Around my 30th birthday, I looked in the mirror and saw an objectively attractive woman. Not gorgeous or a supermodel by any means, but not someone who should expect to be barked at. The dog days were officially over. I had bloomed. For the first time in my life, I was satisfied with my own appearance. That satisfaction hasn't been erased by my ex-husband's rejection or the general rejection that's followed, so it must be real. I'm confident that I am the most attractive ME I can be, and that's good enough for me. The key is to see it as succeeding at looking like myself, instead of failing at looking like someone else.
Even so, I still feel a surge of unpleasant adrenaline when certain types of people call attention to me – the "popular kids" grown up, or even the popular kids of today. I have to remind myself every time that they're not making fun of me. (They're not... right? :\) It bothers me that after so many years, I still struggle to believe that when people compliment me, they actually mean it. But I'm working on it.