I’m not always good at accepting compliments.
If someone tells me that I’m smart, I can quietly agree and think, “Yes, yes, I am. How intelligent you are for noticing my equal intellectual aptitude. We would both be sorted into Ravenclaw, I’d wager.”
If someone tells me that I’m funny, I eat it up with a spoon. “Oh, no, don’t go on – except do go on, because I literally cannot hear that enough. Tell me, what do you think was the wittiest thing I said in the last few minutes?”
But if someone tells me that I’m pretty, my body turns rigid and I feel defensive. “I’m not pretty. YOU’RE pretty. Your mom’s pretty! What do you want from me? SHUT UP.”
It’s not that I think I’m unattractive. I can easily rattle off a list of things about my appearance that I like, don’t like, and feel ambivalent about.
No, I’m not unattractive. I’ll look in the mirror and like what I see. But it’s when I hear “you’re beautiful” that I feel suspicious.
I’m twenty-eight years old, and I still don’t react well when someone compliments me on my physical appearance. On Halloween night of 2011, the night of the best first date I’ve ever had, I was dressed in a costume that was sexy, yet still existed well within my personal comfort zone – and my date told me I looked beautiful. I blushed, looked down at my leopard-printed pants, and turned away, unable to hold his gaze. (Never mind that I had made the first move outside of a crowded bar and we had boldly kissed on every street corner from the East to the West Village – being complimented, that’s what made my face flush.)
He paused and said, “You’re not used to being told that, are you?”
No. No, I wasn’t.
Growing up, no one outside of my family told me that I was beautiful, and as every teenager knows, the opinions of your own parents don’t count when you have to face seven hours of unrelenting judgment from other insecure seventh-graders – especially when one of them tells you, in the middle of class, that you’re so ugly that you should kill yourself.
Never mind that the boy who shared this charming sentiment with the rest of the class was a greasy-haired turd whose opinion didn’t matter to me. No one likes to hear that s/he’s so repulsive to look at that s/he’s better off dead.
And the mix of uproarious laughter, awkward titters, and uncomfortable silences, without a single person standing up for me, only confirmed my worst suspicion: that I was, in fact, ugly. The greasy-haired turd had a handful of slightly less obnoxious friends, but he wasn’t so popular that another kid couldn’t have contradicted him without fear of retaliation.
That was the year I started obscuring my body. I pulled my hair into messy ponytails, wore my dorkiest glasses, and dressed in an assortment of ugly sweatpants and sweatshirts – the fashion disaster version of the middle finger in the face of beauty standards. No one could call me “ugly” and expect it to sting if I wasn’t trying to look good, if I looked like I didn’t care about that stuff.
That phase didn’t last long. I grew out of my (physically) awkward phase by the time high school rolled around. With my braces removed, contact lenses replacing my glasses, and a set of semi-flattering jeans in place of magenta sweatpants, I was no longer the “ugly” girl.
But I still wasn’t pretty. The ugly duckling hadn’t transformed into a swan, and all of the other reindeer didn’t suddenly let me join in all their reindeer games. Making fun of my looks had lost its appeal, so they switched to making fun of my opinionated nature or the “weird” things I said.
Those comments didn’t sting as much. The Chief Turd of the Guild of Douchebags was no longer in my classes, and I had the grades, and the appreciative chuckles from my more evolved classmates, as proof that I was smart and funny, no matter what the teasers said.
But pretty, I was not. Years of dateless nights passed me by, my best friend lost her virginity before I had my first kiss, and “beautiful” wasn’t a word associated with my name.
It took me until the age of twenty to hear “you’re pretty” without bristling, where the words were music to my ears instead of words that were not to be trusted, because they were coming from the right person. A boy I was attracted to was attracted to me right back for the first time in my adult life.
So relieved was I that love wasn’t a myth that I brushed off the signs that the “right person” wasn’t so right for me after all. I tried to tell myself that it didn’t matter that “you’re so beautiful” was almost always followed by a qualifier.
“You’re so beautiful. Why do you have to wear purple? I hate purple.”
“You’re so beautiful. Why do you still dress like you’re from New Jersey?” (Whatever that means.)
“You’re so beautiful. And I don’t think it’s too much to expect that my girlfriend wears something other than sweats and T-shirts when I come home from work. Why can’t you buy sexier nightgowns?”
I was beautiful – except when I wore the wrong thing, the wrong color, or dressed for comfort instead of for his visual and sexual pleasure.
Beauty was no longer an unattainable goal for me. Instead, it was something I possessed in spades, except I was continually failing to live up to my potential.
Being sexually desirable – that, too, was unfamiliar territory. As a teen, I was the girl no boy wanted to touch. In my early twenties, one man wanted me so badly, so consistently, that saying my “no” at any time, for whatever reason, resulted in arguments that could last for hours. Because he had needs, and he didn’t have to be with me, and was a young single man who could be going out and meeting as many girls as he liked, and not being in the mood must mean that I didn’t love him enough.
It was a full year after the relationship finally ended that I saw that behavior as abusive and not a mere issue of sexual incompatibility. And it was even longer before I could recognize the irony that being considered beautiful by the wrong person was even more damaging to my self-esteem than being called ugly. (Though I doubt I would have stayed in that relationship for the first half of my twenties if those years of teasing and loneliness hadn’t convinced me that this was my only chance at love.)
“You’re beautiful” was once a sentence said to me so rarely that I immediately discounted the opinion of the person who said it and pretended it was a joke. Now, “you’re beautiful” carries an implied threat.
“You’re beautiful” now means “I might hurt you, and you would be unwise to trust me.”
Like all women, I grew up in a culture that objectifies us and communicates every day that beauty and sexiness are the most important things we can offer the world. As an “ugly girl,” I could only survive if I nurtured other talents, such as kindness, a sense of humor, and intellectual curiosity.
A part of me is glad that I didn’t grow up as a “pretty girl.” I’m happy that I wasn’t brought up to think that physical beauty was the most important thing about me. I’m grateful that I was encouraged to be kind and compassionate, to emphasize my intelligence, and sharpen my wit instead.
I’m not happy that I’m twenty-eight years old and I still wince when someone tells me that I’m beautiful.
Written by Theresa Basile