Maggie: When did your relationship with your appearance change? I know you felt good about yourself as a kid.
Kate: Here’s a brief overview, in dramatic story form, because apparently I’m terrible at just answering a question:
I was fourteen, looking in the mirror, dressed as an elfin princess. I wore a gold gown that I’d made myself. It had a random seam running up the entire back, but that didn’t show in the mirror. My boots were knee high, lace-up sienna suede, my hair fell to my waist, curling lightly. I was stunning. I was captivated by my own eyes. Gold and green at the same time. No one else had eyes like that. They were round, and I loved the way they fit into my oval face, which a fashion magazine I’d read once called the “ideal facial shape.” My lips were full and perfectly shaped. My nose had a prominent bridge, and I thought I looked like a bird of prey or a queen. Unlike all those models with their wide set eyes and tiny upturned noses, my face was strikingly closed, bold, and fascinatingly Jewish.
My butt was chubby and bouncy, my legs tapering. I fully expected every boy I met to fall in love with me. But when a boy preferred my adorable blond friend Emily, I didn’t feel very hurt. All that meant was that he liked pale blond hair better than golden brown. I never looked at Emily and thought, “She’s prettier than me.” I never had that thought about anyone. I watched movies where gorgeous supermodels flaunted flawless bodies and I admired their beauty, thinking, “Nice, but she’s got nothing on my nose.”
By college, I had developed the ability to look in a mirror and see nothing but flaws. A horrifying compilation of worst moments and characteristics that evolution should have weeded out long ago. On my nineteenth birthday, I locked my dorm room door and dropped the towel I’d wrapped around myself after showering. I looked in the mirror for a long time.
My short hair was devastatingly thin, and my scalp showed in raw patches when my hair was wet. My face looked lumpy, poorly proportioned, with eyes too close together and dully colored for any chance at real feminine beauty, an abnormally large nose without any shape to speak of, and puffy cheeks without the slightest hint of bone structure. And that was only the beginning. My neck was stumpy, my shoulders rounded and bulky, my breasts practically non-existent. My ribcage was lopsided from a congenital deformity and a random, inexplicable extra rib. My thick, peasant’s arms were covered in hair. The legs supporting this utter failure of heredity were on the short side, though my height was exactly, boringly, average. My natural thinness was a waste, since I was not graceful, lithe, or even vaguely attractive as a result.
I shook my head at myself, feeling sorry for my parents. What a tragic accident. And their first child, too! Thank God there were the two boys after me. The two fresh-faced, confident, admirably masculine boys. There was something masculine about me, actually, but not enough to make me a good-looking boy, if I were to opt for sex reassignment. I could be a stand-up comic, cracking jokes about gay men turning me down, not because I was a woman, but because I wasn’t hot enough as a guy. Like those really, really overweight women who did stand up about stuff getting stuck under their breasts for years before they realized it.
Nineteen, and since I didn’t think I was quick enough with the comeback lines for comedy, my life was pretty much over. I could run away to the woods and live off the land. Chasing after squirrels with a sharpened stick. There’d be no one to compare myself to out there, so I might begin to feel ok after a while. The thought of how awful I looked after not shampooing my hair for a day put an immediate stop to this logic. Plus, how do you even begin to eat a squirrel?
“Alright, so I’m ugly,” I said, deciding to try a different approach. “At least I’m talented and interesting.” I knew, of course, that no amount of either talent or interestingness would ever substitute for being pretty. Seriously, how could any girl not know that? But what choice did I have? I had to tell myself something. So I lied.
“You’re going to be fine,” I said. “You’ve got a lot going for you.” I tried to think what I had going for me. There was a long pause.
“Um. You…” I avoided my own gaze. “Well, you’re pretty good at piano.”
I raised my eyebrows. Really? That’s the best you can do?
“Ok, ok. You get good grades. Your professors really like you.” I looked up. “What I mean is, you’re smart.” Aha! The most dependable contingency plan for unattractive girls. Classic.
It was over four years later, in graduate school, talking to a friend at the table in my studio apartment in NYC, that I remembered something from my distant past. My friend Liane is a brilliant PhD student, and we sometimes make each other laugh by describing, both visually and verbally, how terribly unphotogenic we were. Words like “leper,” “hag,” and “rabid, crippled, drunken chipmunk” enter into our exchanges a lot.
“Eat more pie,” I was saying. “I’m going to fatten you up.”
“And here I was, thinking I might be able to trust you.”
She’d been talking about high school, and how she’d never felt she matched her body, while there was something distinctly embodied about certain girls who were considered prettiest. Something about the way they stood. About the way their limbs moved. They looked all different, she said, except, of course, that they were thin. But being thin didn’t save her. Her femininity was discombobulated. It was a struggle.
I nodded along in sympathy and complete agreement. I served dessert.
“Hold on,” I said, my fork in the pie. “I just remembered something.”
She looked at me curiously, but I couldn’t put it into words yet. It was just an image. My own face above the gold dress, in the mirror, in the warm, dim light. Me, looking at myself and thinking, “I am so beautiful! I can’t believe how beautiful I am.” My sweet, round, green-gold eyes, my pink, plush lips, my daring, proudly arched nose. No one else looked like me. And that was exactly what made me so beautiful. I tried to tell Liane about it, but I was almost too sad to speak.
Everyone: When’s the last time you looked in the mirror and thought, “WOW. I’m beautiful”?