When Did I Learn to Value Myself Only on Looks?
On learning that not being the prettiest person in the room isn’t a failure.
Ihave not needed to be perceived as beautiful in order to feel valuable for as long as I can remember. In fact, there was a time in my life when physical appearance didn’t even register as a concern.
I think that makes it worse.
When I was eleven, I didn’t think about my hair, or my body, or my skin, or how my face wasn’t the right shape to be on TV. I thought a lot about being faster at running or being better at math or reading more books.
At some point shortly after that, I became consumed with being seen as attractive. By men, by women, by my friends, by strangers on the street. I needed all of them to think I was pretty.
There was never a single tipping point; I don’t have any one recollection that helps me pinpoint where, why and how. I just know that by the time I was thirteen, I’d started wearing makeup, straightening my hair, wearing tighter clothing. I remember watching music videos, TV, movies, looking at magazines, analyzing what made those women so pretty and how I could be like them.
I did not analyze whatever else they did to become visibly successful, because the only trait they all had in common was their beauty.
I don’t remember coming to the inevitable conclusion that in order for women to be perceived as valuable, they had to be attractive, but then looking around it’s not hard to see where I got it from. Women in the public eye are inescapably, eye-wateringly beautiful, with svelte figures, impeccable makeup, and fashionable clothes.
They’re not just all attractive — they’re all attractive in very, very similar ways. It’s so easy to think of yourself as lesser when you deviate in even the slightest regard.
Show me one successful woman who isn’t judged on her appearance at all, and I’ll show you a liar. (Which is you, by the way.)
When I was fourteen, I asked my mom if she thought I could ever be a model. She replied, after a pause, “Honey, I’m sure I thought those things were important when I was your age, too.”
I remember being really frustrated. How could she not understand? How did she not need to be pretty, to be seen as attractive, all the time? How did it not consume her thoughts?
I posted a picture of myself and a friend on Yahoo! Answers, asking “Which girl do you think is cuter?” and monitoring the replies, internally tallying for one or the other. I constantly compared myself to all my female friends, ranking us in order on a daily basis.
Nobody in school thought of me as “hot” — I was firmly situated in the nerd clique, so nobody outside my circle considered me in terms of my looks. The obsession was mine alone. Boys didn’t think about me, and I only thought about boys in academic terms. I still valued myself for something other than my appearance.
There were flirtations, but I was very conscious of the fact that only boys on the lower end of the school hierarchy were interested in me, and probably only interested in getting what they could. I knew it was because I wasn’t as hot as the popular girls. I, too, took what I could get in terms of attention.
When I was sixteen, I moved to Germany for a year. Maybe it was the novelty, maybe it was the foreignness. Either way, for the first time in my life, I experienced the heady sensation of being attractive to boys. Not just because I was the best they could get in the high school food chain, but because they thought I looked objectively good. Maybe even the best.
It was addictive, and it was catastrophic.
In a German school, I wasn’t good at math or science anymore. I didn’t get attention for being the fastest on the playground anymore. I was just there to go to parties, kiss boys, have fun. And the further I got in the year, the more I prioritized being pretty.
Not just feeling pretty — being perceived by others as beautiful.
Not just being perceived by others as beautiful — but being perceived as the most beautiful.
See, to my adolescent mind, if you can be more attractive or less attractive than others, and if the more attractive you are, the more valuable you are, then it follows that someone has to be the most attractive, and therefore the most valuable.
It began to impact my friendships.
I found it easier to be friends with girls who didn’t compete with me, looks-wise. I felt threatened when new girls joined the friendship circle who were thinner than me, had bigger boobs than me, had longer hair than me. When pretty girls tried to be friends with me, I felt that they were manipulating me, only trying to get close to me so they would look better by comparison.
I was suspicious of boys who liked me, threatened by girls who liked me, conscious of the fact that if I dropped a single aspect of what made me attractive — if I stopped wearing makeup, or put on any weight, or wore looser clothing — my social capital would plummet.
When I was twenty-one, I looked in the mirror and noticed a wrinkle on my forehead.
This was it, I knew. The beginning of the end. I’d lost that youthful glow. It was all going to be downhill from here. Objectively, I recognized I had less value as a person.
I purchased two kinds of face cream (which made me break out), a type of forehead tape (which made my boyfriend laugh) and started wearing sunglasses religiously to avoid further wrinkling (which garnered me a lot of funny looks on cloudy days).
I got into the habit of justifying other women’s attractiveness compared to my own.
So one person might be prettier than me, but she was heavier. I was still the best.
OK, one girl had a nicer face than me. But she was a b*tch.
Sure, that woman had a better body. But, if you examined her very closely, it became apparent that her eyebrows were asymmetrical.
This might sound ridiculous to you, but to me, it was all fuel I constantly and feverishly produced and consumed in order to stay on top of my perpetual rankings.
I was practiced at fishing for compliments because I needed a constant supply of attention. I needed people to compare me, favorably, to other women. It got to the point where if a female friend told me she was interested in a boy, I focused all my attention on getting that boy to like me instead of her.
I remember being internally furious when a friend described how beautiful another woman was: “She was the kind of pretty you don’t see outside of movies.” I remember feeling so worthless, that I wasn’t that kind of pretty.
Once I’d begun considering my worth as primarily stemming from my attractiveness or lack thereof, I stopped valuing other aspects of myself. At college, I’d never be the smartest, or the hardest-working, or the best-read. All I could be was the prettiest. And when that was challenged, it rocked the tattered remains of my self-esteem to its core.
Here’s a truth I wish I’d known fifteen years ago: some people are prettier than me. There are people who are a lot prettier than me. There are people who are prettier, with better eyebrows, whiter teeth, and more boys chasing after them. There’s not a thing I can do to change that, and if there were I shouldn’t. That doesn’t mean they’re worth intrinsically more as people.
Mob of men ≠ intrinsic value. — A life lesson.
I don’t know why I can so easily accept the fact that there are people who are faster than me, or smarter than me, but find it so difficult to let other women be more attractive.
I don’t know why I veer so quickly into woman-hating. If she’s pretty, she can still be smart. If she cares about how she looks, she’s not shallow, vain and vapid.
It’s something we’ve all been taught to prioritize. The more we’re told that we’re pretty, the more we need to maintain that status, the more it eats at us when others are seen as prettier. For me, it fed into my eating disorder (if I couldn’t be the prettiest, at least I could be the thinnest). It affected my relationships, friendships, self-worth.
Slowly, I’m learning to value myself based on how I see myself, not how others see me. Slowly, I’m learning to stop comparing myself to others. One step at a time, I recognize that I can be a good writer, a voracious reader, a trepidatious cook, a hard worker.
I’m beginning to think that maybe I’m not the prettiest girl in town. And maybe that’s OK.