Sunday, November 7, 2010

My Brilliant Career (cross-post)

I was set to enter a modeling contest when I was 13. Seventeen magazine was having a contest in which the grand prize was your very own picture in the magazine--yes, in Seventeen itself--and a meeting and consultation with an agent.

Now, I'd never wanted to be a model, not since the age of 5, in which I got a kick out of "modeling" in front of my mother's Pentax and briefly fell in love with the thought of making kissy-faces at the lens for a living; that dream died out within a week, in favor of becoming Linda Rondstadt. But when I saw the callout in the magazine, I felt alight. I wrote about it in a weekly journaling assignment my English teacher made us do: My friends and I are entering a modeling contest, I wrote. (This wasn't true; I didn't dare mention it to any friends.) Of course I know I won't win or anything, but I think it would be fun!

Here's the thing, though: I honestly thought I would win. I couldn't mention that to my teacher for fear of seeming conceited or delusional, but by mentioning it to her I was sort of doing a combination of ersatz progenitor techniques from The Secret and writing the part of my magical dream model story in which I "didn't ever really think I'd win!" It was, of course, delusional: Records from 1989 reflect a round-faced, snaggletoothed girl with a bad perm; models favored at the time resembled miniature Christie Brinkleys--honey-haired, lithe but toned, poreless creatures that I couldn't have resembled less. I didn't see my own image reflected at me in the pages of Seventeen, and certainly nobody had ever put it in my head that I matched those images.

Exhibit A: Portrait of the Modeling Contestant as a Young Girl.

Still, I was convinced I would win. I would spend hours in the bathroom applying makeup, then squinting at myself in the mirror to see how I looked with it on; without my glasses, though, I couldn't tell. But I would see these hints of beauty, these things that signaled to me that if just the right person saw me in just the right way, I would wind up on the pages of Seventeen. My eyes were large and dark; my lips had a perfect Cupid's-bow; my cheekbones--if I sucked in my cheeks just right--were defined. (At one point I put in a single earring, sucked in those cheeks, and fully believed that I looked like 21 Jump Street-era Johnny Depp.)

I look back at that girl making faces at herself in a bathroom mirror--a girl I now see was indeed pretty in an undercover way, though certainly not a girl who had the hallmarks of becoming a great beauty--and marvel. We hear a lot about the nosedive that girls' self-esteem takes in the teen years, and certainly I had my fair share of that. But alongside my shaky self-esteem, manifested in a nascent eating disorder and desperation to make boys like her, was this unshakable--even, yes, delusional--belief that I was absolutely something to behold. A friend of mine--who now, as an adult, has a striking resemblance to Julia Roberts--recalls being 13 years old and thinking she was "the hottest thing ever. And, I mean, I was this skinny, gawky kid with braces and glasses and this terrible perm--I look at pictures now and can't believe how awkward my awkward stage was. But I'd pull back my hair in a ponytail and would walk around like I just ruled the place, and I had no idea why boys weren't interested!"

I wonder how often these thoughts can be articulated by girls when they're actually at that age, but I doubt that my friend and I were the only two definitively awkward teenagers to have this secret pride. And the "secret" is just as important as the "pride"; I would just as soon have died rather than tell even my closest friend, "You know, I think if you get past these Coke-bottle glasses and enlarged pores, I'm actually a total babe." It was essential to not ever be perceived as thinking you might be pretty. The psychology of adolescent girls was in its infancy then; we didn't have Reviving Ophelia and Carol Gilligan yet, which means that while we were robbed of those teachings, we were also sort of unaware that something bad was supposed to happen to us at that age. My friend and I weren't talking ourselves up as grade-A beauties to combat our low self-esteem; it was simply what we quietly, privately believed to be true, whatever we displayed to the contrary, however loud our wails of "I'm so gross!" at slumber-party makeovers. It wasn't that I was unaware of the barriers between me and beauty: the unflattering glasses, the pudge, the perm, the mole--I knew these had to be taken care of before the inevitable Seventeen photo shoot, but I had faith that they would be, and I had faith that until then, people would see beyond those glitches in the cosmic order and see my beauty.

What happened over the years wasn't so much that that mind-set changed--my fantasies of modeling for Seventeen are long-gone (I didn't wind up entering after all--as with many flurries of passion at that age, I simply lost interest), but neither do my insecurities stem from thinking I'm uglier than sin. Instead, it's that I became painfully, painfully aware of how I might appear to others. The fear of seeming foolishly self-deluded had its seed in my disclaimer to my teacher--"Of course I know I won't win"--and festered over the years until I had lost my own gauge of how I actually, inherently looked. Even the word choice is key here: They are called looks because someone is looking.

At 13, I dearly cared what boys thought but hadn't yet had my first kiss--besides, at that age, most boys were still preferring video games to our feminine wiles, much to our despair. I hadn't yet been overlooked by my heart's desire in favor of someone prettier; I hadn't yet been rated, out loud or with a silent, appraising eye, as I walked into a room, and I hadn't yet heard other girls being rated in that same way by boys. At that age, girls were being rated, all right, but by one another--hence the need for my own affirmations about my appearance to remain private. And obviously even the youngest of girls are bathed in expectations around her appearance; by the time I was peering at myself in the mirror and misappropriating the beautiful cheekbones of Johnny Depp as my own, I also believed that smart and pretty just might be mutually exclusive; that thin was beautiful and fat was not; that everything would be better if I were blonde; and so on. But the core ability to look at myself and see what I saw instead of what I thought others might see began to erode not long after that.

That erosion can be another entry, though, or a thousand of them. Tonight I just want to quietly salute that naive girl putting up her hair in her basement bathroom. Between the extraordinarily moving It Gets Better project and the well-meaning but vaguely cryptic Twitter tag of #tweetyour16yearoldself, there's been a bit of noise lately about adults taking time to assure teenagers that, no, really, it's cool, and it all seems awful right now but, well, it gets better. We forget that there's an openness to that age as well, a time in which the smooth, polished orb of our inner selves hasn't been as heavily scratched as it might become later.

Now, it did get better and my 13-year-old self really could use a tweet or two from myself ("No, seriously, pay attention during science class because, fuckin' magnets, how do they work?"). But perhaps, on days when I feel as though the mirror can't be trusted, when it reflects not my face but my looks, I'd like a tweet or two from her in return.

Cross-posted from The Beheld, a blog with perspectives on beauty, in development.


  1. This is beautiful. Personal and universal.

    But you know, I think it worked backwards for me. I think that when I realised (after some years, natch) that people were not even half as judgemental and damning of my looks as I was, it forced me to be more objective and REALLY look at myself. This happened within a limited time, too, at around the same age. It wasn't a burning bush revelation, and I didn't suddenly become The Most Confident Girl in the World, but it was enough to wake me up to a fledgling sense of my own beauty - albeit unconventional in some contexts - and not be quite so hard on myself.

  2. I love hearing the various stories of discoveries of personal beauty, especially at that potent age. I think there's a certain feminist girl-power version of it (girls' self-esteem suffers at that age = let's save it!), a mainstream, short-sighted version (girls are universally pretty, or smart, and in either case, yay for them!), and worlds in between.

    I think it's interesting that both of us, around that age, could acknowledge that "unconventional" beauty within ourselves--there's a lot of ink out there about how girls want to conform, and they/we do/did, but there's also this sort of knowledge and pride that they can carry that I think is fascinating.

  3. Wow, Autumn, this was brilliant and insightful. As always.

    I almost died laughing looking at your pics because mine were pretty much the same, except with blonde hair, *horrible* bangs and a bit more pudge. And it's AMAZING, because I had almost the exact same experience of secretly admiring my "incipient beauty" but I had totally forgotten about it.

    Whenever I think about those years, I think about how they were the root of my self-image and self-confidence problems for years to come, and in many ways they were. But at the time, I was always seeing things in my appearance that were beautiful, and I was pretty damn sure I'd grow up to be a beautiful woman.

    Actually, at that time I was also totally and completely convinced that I was going to be an actress when I grew up. :)

    At that age, everything is about potential. I was never a great actress, but I could become one. I wasn't beautiful, but I could become beautiful.

    Now I'm trying to think about where the body image issues started to get bad, and I think it was high school. Because you're right, that's when our beauty is supposed to start "performing." And reality comes up against the cultural fantasy, which, really, no one can live up to.

    Also, an interesting factoid: I remember reading somewhere a long, long time ago that college-aged women (or maybe women *in* college, not sure which) have the lowest self-esteeem. I think this is *amazing* and I've never seen it explained. But I actually do think this was the case for me, and I'm not really sure why.

    By the way, do you feel like your body image has improved over the last couple of years? I was surprised at how, almost as soon as I turned 32, my sense of comfort with and even liking of my body increased by about 200%. I know this happens to a lot of women around 30 - and it probably would have happened for me earlier if it weren't for the health problems I had. Just curious if this is the case for you as well.

  4. Oh, also! Something else I've been thinking about, that your pics reminded me of: a few years ago, my friend was showing me some old pictures of herself from middle school, and we started talking about how unflattering and matronly our clothes were. Now, part of it is just that the styles were different, our "fashion eyes" have changed, etc. But one thing about those styles - we were not expected to look sexy. It was enough to be cute, and almost anyone that age can be cute.

    But at the risk of being all "the kids these days!" - 13-year-old girls now ARE supposed to look sexy and the fashions reflect that. And something that occurred to me - I can't remember the last time I saw a 13-year-old girl who looked as awkward as ALL of my friends looked at that age. Again, fashions, etc but STILL. It definitely seems like it's less "ok" for girls to be goofy and awkward-looking at that age.

  5. Thanks, Raz.

    It's interesting--as adult feminists we learn all about the arc that girls that age supposedly go through, and DO go through, but I wonder if we've overfocused on that aspect of girlhood because of its urgency, neglecting what we're talking about here. That sense of potential you brought up is mighty. I do wonder if it's somewhat different for "kids these days," since certainly they are more sexualized than we were. When I was 13, even though I longed to be sexy, I also knew that none of the templates of "sexy" really applied to me yet, so that realm felt like this wide-open field. In "The Beauty Myth" Naomi Wolf briefly mentions the idea that women who are conventionally beautiful might have a harder time with the constraints of beauty because they identify more with its conceit--whether that's true, I don't know, but certainly that makes sense as far as younger teens versus older ones.

    Re: body image getting better as I get certain ways, yes. I'm not tortured by it in the way I used to be. More important, I've learned that my body image is separate from how I treat my body as far as food and exercise. I mean, my body image is better when I'm exercising, but I'm no longer basing my food intake based on how I feel about my body. Or at least I'm aware of it when I am...