I am not pretty.
I have known this a good chunk of my life. I was a behemoth, an almost six-foot-tall plus sized monster. I never even got the “you have such a pretty face” as an argument to take off weight. I knew from a young age that if I was to get by in my existence, it wasn’t going to be on my looks.
I read books and stood up against my teachers. I got A’s and wrote incredible things. I told jokes and became funny. I became more independent, not relying on anyone else to do things for me. Because I wasn’t pretty, I had to find a way to be a woman without my looks or a boyfriend.
It didn’t stop me from trying, though. From a young age, I felt the pressure to be beautiful, eyeing beauty magazines and having girls make me over in the corridors of my junior high like a teen movie. Around 13 I even began stealing makeup from our local drugstores in the hopes that all these products would make me look better.
At 15 I got caught at the local Rite Aid and was driven home in the back of a police car along Thousand Oaks Boulevard, sobbing, wanting to die because I wasn’t pretty. I was never going to be pretty.
Through my teenage years I was forced to watch the other girls around me picked out by the boys at the school dances, held hands with politely, taken out on dates. They were quiet and didn’t really speak up. They allowed their boys to take the lead, be dominant. They were “good girls.”
Meanwhile, if a guy wanted to see me, it was the great secret. I was too “crazy” to date; rather I was relegated to fooling around in secret places or being a sidepiece. Maybe it was because I was overweight, or because I was too tall, too loud or too much. Either way I knew I wasn’t pretty, but to cope I had to adjust my way of thinking. I identified as a courtesan of 21st century life instead, and as an independent woman I took it and ran.
On a date the other night, the balding, portly guy across the table asked me how I ended up with my ex-husband. I told him bits here and there, but I didn’t tell him the full truth. That included that I am not pretty, and here was a guy who was willing to be my boyfriend in public and show me around, to not shame me into corners as a sidepiece. Although he never told me I was beautiful or pretty, I jumped at the chance to be with someone. I also didn’t tell him that when my best friend told me I didn’t have to marry him, I said, “This is my only chance. No one else is going to want me.”
That guy from that conversation eventually decided not to continue dating me, in part because I wasn’t physically attractive enough. (Although I told him after he wasn’t physically attractive enough either, but I was willing to put that aside.)
Living in Los Angeles since my divorce has given me some of the greatest pleasures in my life, as it has helped me have amazing friends, a great job and a busy and fun life. And yet I know I am still a misfit here because this is a city full of pretty people – something I know I’m not. Even though we are an enlightened, “liberal” place, we still fall into gender traps. When you’re a woman, simply being smart, funny and friendly doesn’t really get you as far here, particularly in dating where apps are more of a game of “hot or not” versus reaching an actual emotional connection.
When I told my co-worker about the portly guy above and how I wasn’t pretty, she said, “Wait, who tells you that you’re not pretty?”
I paused and shrugged. “I don’t know. Me?”
The truth was that I am self-aware and know myself. I would be the first to tell you of my smarts and cleverness. The first to argue that I’m funny, friendly and have a great personality, or that I’m talented and know how to write. And I also know that when people describe me, the word they probably don’t use is “pretty.”
There is a great argument that exists in my brain, going back and forth like a ping pong game. I have worked all my life to be a confident, independent, feminist woman that is more than her looks. I can be ambitious, successful and surrounded by wonderful people just by being myself.
Yet I also want to be pretty. I desperately want to be a pretty girl, the girl that guys chase and desperately pray will go out with them. Somewhere inside of me I’m still 15, stealing makeup from the Rite Aid off of Thousand Oaks Boulevard in the hopes that I will look different if I put it on. That I can hide who I am and finally, FINALLY, be pretty.
As this ping pong game is playing, I’m remembering the conversation I had with my cousin Karen at my sister’s wedding. She hadn’t seen me since my mother’s funeral, and I sat with her and really talked.
“Reina, you look stunning,” she said to me. I simply passed it off because I was fully dolled up with fake lashes and curls, but she shook her head. “Of course you look beautiful, but you are stunning. You’re glowing. You’re… happy.”
And I realized in that moment that’s what I want to be. I don’t want to be one side or the other of the ping pong game in my head, but rather somewhere in the middle; where my true self shines through and I am pretty simply by being in this moment. It’s the fear and anxieties that I have, day in and day out, that make the struggle come to life.
I wish I could tell you at the end of this that I have a greater self-worth; I don’t. I wish I could tell you that out there is a guy who secretly pines for me and is waiting for his turn to say I’m pretty; highly unlikely. I’m trying to work on it in therapy while adjusting my mentality in order to cope in the modern world; work hard, get ambitious, be the best person I can be for myself, because at the end of the day I have to live with me for the rest of my life.
But as I don my red lipstick and put on my cute dresses, I’m left wishing. Even as I put on a giant smile and walk through rooms as I charm people with stories and jokes, I’m wishing. As the cute boys wander the room and never come up to talk to me, I wish.
I wish, oh how I wish. How I wish I were pretty.