Ugly Girl

by Karen Gsteiger

At least three people have told me on separate occasions that I look like some kind of 16th-century Renaissance portrait. An immigrant cabbie once insisted to my mother and brother that I looked exactly like the Mona Lisa.

Which is nice, I guess, except for the theories that the Mona Lisa is really a male model (or da Vinci himself) in drag.

It's not an unfair comparison, though. What it comes down to is being in the wrong body at the wrong time. I still have a sort of old north European look; on my father's side, I'm only a second-generation American. I am not a recipient of the evolved American small and pointy nose; mine seems very long to me and rather prominent. My hair is thin and long and parted in the middle. My skin is so pale that I burn every time I step outside. In the 1500s, maybe I could have posed for Eve or Venus, and they probably wouldn't have even minded my college/grad school weight. The problem, though, is that now no one looks at a portrait of some merchant's wife by Hans Holbein the Younger and says, "Wow, man, she's HOT."

In fact, though you might not believe it now, the words "ugly" and "Karen" were often to be found in the same taunting sentence.

* * *

Even now, as I compose this, I wonder, What can it possibly matter? Why would it be important to me or anyone else that others see me as beautiful, or at the least, not ugly? It's certainly not the most feminist thing that I could concern myself with. Nor am I even that proactive about it, considering my relative lack of interest in clothes and makeup and shoes and blowdrying my hair before leaving the house in the morning.

I just can't seem to work myself up into the frenzy as of old. It used to really bother me--the limpness of my hair, my unflattering profile, the slight asymmetry of my eyes, my wide hips and decidedly nontaut belly, my ragged fingernails, my hopeless feet, the clogged pores on my chin--I would look at myself and feel panic and despair. I don't feel nearly as consumed now. Maybe the recent weight loss has helped; now I obsess about preventing the return of the extra pounds as opposed to comparing myself to Scarlett Johannson or Naomi Watts or whoever the hell else I'm supposed to be in awe of. (I'm not sure if that constitutes self-esteem progress or not.) Maybe being happily (but hopefully not too smugly) married has helped too. My husband doesn't seem to mind any of the above. I still ask him a million times a week if he thinks I'm pretty, and he always answers in the affirmative. I assume that he's not just humoring me. He's really very handsome; I wouldn't be surprised if at least a few of his female coworkers secretly crush on him. (It would be understandable, yet I am still capable of gouging the eyeballs out of their heads with a spoon--I'm just saying.) I'm not quite sure how I landed such a well-rounded, intelligent, sensitive, strong, thoughtful, and faithful manly man type of guy. That fact alone suggests that I can't be hideous, per se. So sometimes I'll scowl at myself, "Ugh, I'm so ugly," but I can't quite convince myself of it entirely anymore.

I am very aware when an attractive person enters the room. While it has no bearing on my relationship with a person, I do evaluate his/her physical characteristics. I can't imagine that I'm the only person who does this. But for me, it's not a competition thing or a prelude to a sexual encounter. I am profoundly curious as to what it's like to be inside the body of someone who turns heads and inspires wolf lust and whose jeans actually fit properly.

I wonder what does make a person gorgeous or hideously ugly. Think of someone whom you truly believe is ugly. And don't give me that "I think everyone is beautiful" crap. You know there's a person who fits the just go with this. If that person could be temporarily spruced up for the cameras (no plastic surgery Extreme Makeover bullshit...they always tend to make people look rubbery and alien anyway) for a 15-minute cameo on The O.C. or whatever--and if the makeup or flattering clothes they put on that person makes him or her truly stunning, does that make him or her beautiful? If after filming ends, all of the makeup is removed and the clothes returned to wardrobe, and that person looks exactly as you remember, has anything changed? (We all know that when a beautiful actor or actress is made ugly or overweight for the cameras, he or she is instantly rewarded with an Oscar to palliate such unbearable trials.)

Would Keira Knightley be ugly if she truly believed that she was? What if a limited number of individuals truly perceived her to be ugly and informed her of that fact on a regular basis? Would that make her ugly--even if everyone else on the planet can, in fact, clearly see that she is astoundingly beautiful? I read once about a study that concluded that people who were somehow classified as "beautiful/attractive" never really appreciated their own beauty. I wonder if the real nonhypothetical Keira Knightley looks at herself in the mirror and can see only the imperceptible flaws that the rest of us cannot. Does she wonder what it's like to inhabit the body of an ugly person the way I wonder what it's like to inhabit the body of someone beautiful? Well, I intend to let her know...

* * *

Whether I am or was ever in my life actually ugly is probably a subjective matter. I do know, however, that there was a time in my life during which I Did Not Look My Best. Fortunately, for me, this period occurred during adolescence, when just about everyone else was in a similar situation. I tried half-heartedly to follow the (now laughable) fashion trends of the day; I just couldn't seem to quite pull it off. It undoubtedly looked stupid when Megan (the Alpha Female in junior high) had a tight perm and enormous bangs that towered above her forehead. It looked even worse when I tried it at least a year or two behind the others and when I continued this look at least two years too late. I wasn't overly ashamed of the braces and the rubber bands that accompanied them; pretty much everyone else I knew had so much orthodontic metal in their mouths that they looked like Jaws from Dr. No. (But of course, I had to have the godawful headgear, and I felt utterly alone in this torment. If anyone else was wearing it, they sure weren't admitting it, and my obedient ass was wearing it to slumber parties.) My mom couldn't afford to buy me the IOU and Bum Equipment sweatshirts that were ubiquitous back in the day. My shoes weren't so much Nike as Payless Shoe Source. And the problem with Catholic schools is that although the schools themselves may be impoverished, the families who send their children there are almost all certainly not so; thus, there was never a shortage of "rich kids" in my classes with their seemingly endless wardrobes of trend-setting or trend-following garments. And yes, the uniforms were certainly a blessing in this regard, but they didn't save one from after-school hours and weekends and "dress-down" days.

And then there were my glasses.

Oh God.

My fucking glasses.

I can't tell you what my prescription is. I don't know it. I do know that I am extremely myopic, and I have considerable astigmatism. I have had to wear glasses since kindergarten. When I go to the eye doctor, and this is no exaggeration, when the doctors and assistants look at my eyes, at least one of them will say something along the lines of "Oh my God, your eyes are so bad. I can't believe how strong your prescription is..." I find this rather telling, considering how many imperfect eyeballs they must look at on a daily basis.

Back in the day, my glasses were my greatest shame. I don't know whether I felt so weighed down by them because the lenses were so heavy or whether it was all the emotional baggage that accompanied them. As I grew up, I either had large plastic granny frames or thin John Lennon wire frames (which I loved in theory, but they unfortunately made my lenses stick far out of the frame). For a few years, I had an eye doctor who insisted that I wear bifocals--bifocals! Before sophomore year of high school, when I couldn't stand it any longer, I was afraid to wear contact lenses, so for all of those painful years, I was married to my glasses in order to see three inches in front of my face.

I wasn't originally inclined to loathe my glasses. At first, I didn't understand what people were making fun of. I needed them to see, but they weren't physically a part of me. Sure, they weren't unlike two large fishbowls tied to my head, but the glasses could come off. I had random kids coming up to me whom I had never seen in my life at the parish carnival or in the Highland High School auditorium, calling out with the unmistakable tone of teenage male spite, "Hey, Specs!" But worst, worst, worst of all was when I fell in adolescent love for the very first time, with a Goth poseur named Jason. He looked a lot like Duckie Dale, changed his hair color frequently, wore a "Meat is Murder" pin, professed to like The Smiths and The Cure, and had a penchant for wearing a large metal cross (normally hung on a mom had one just like it) on the front left side of his jean jacket. Oh, I fell hard, but he seemed much more interested in my best friend. He would go to the mall with her, chauffered by her mother, of course. He also called her on occasion. I listened, rapt with attention, to every word of her summary of these interactions with him, attempting to glean the slightest hint of his opinion of me. "Oh yeah," she casually informed me, "he says you have coke-bottle glasses."

At that moment I wanted to throw my glasses onto the nearest train tracks, preferably with my head still attached. And from that moment forth, I could never put my glasses on without hating them and hating myself, absolutely convinced that because of them, I would never ever ever have a Duckie-Dale-resembling-hair-dying-"Meat is Murder"-pin-wearing-Cure-and-Smiths-listening-cross-sporting boyfriend of my very own.

* * *

But beyond the bad hair and the accessories--braces, headgear, cheap clothes, and coke bottle glasses--I knew in junior high and high school that there was something fundamentally unsightly about me. There just had to be--I was not especially popular and did not appear on many birthday party guest lists. Even after I got rid of the braces and converted to contact lenses and straightened out my hair, I couldn't get a date to save my damn life. In addition, as alluded to previously, my adversaries who were so offended by my physical appearance certainly did not hesitate to express their revulsion.

There was an early high school bully, Gina, who had a sort of schizophrenic attitude towards me during freshman year at Andrean. She had the locker right next to mine, and sometimes she'd be kind and say hi and help me open my locker (I was hopeless). But then on other occasions, she'd refer to me as "Ubu" in front of everyone in biology class, and you can be certain that she wasn't making a clever Jarry reference. (An explanation for the criminally young and those not raised on Family Ties: certain sitcoms made by Ubu Productions ended with a picture of a dog, and a man's voice saying, "Sit, Ubu, sit. Good dog. [Woof!]" The implications are clear.)

Now, if I were Ubu, then Gina was surely Shamu, but I was afraid to point this out, as she seemed the type of person to respond to such astute observations by punching me in the face. I chatted on occasion with her friend Beth who shared some of my classes and seemed nice enough, and Gina even tolerated me sitting at their lunch table for a while. That was until I left my brown-bag lunch at their table one day to go buy a Coke from the vending machine; when I returned, my lunch had been tossed onto a nearby empty table. Amazingly enough, I recall that I retrieved it and returned to their table, and I may have even sat out the rest of the lunch period there. But I knew that from that point forth, I needed to find new lunchmates. I dreaded going to my locker each day, worrying that I would find Gina there and not sure about how she would react to me. Fortunately, she flunked out after the first half of the year, and Gina was therefore no longer a concern.

But I think of all my high school bullies and antagonists, my favorite has to be Jeff. He did not go to my high school (he, along with my best friend, attended Griffith High). He was not in my Catholic youth group. I had never been introduced to him. I didn't even know what he looked like. He must have seen me somewhere, perhaps walking around the parish carnival with his friend, Lewis. But at the beginning of freshman year, he would tell my best friend that he thought that I was ugly, which she dutifully reported back to me. During an average day freshman year, I was either dodging Gina and her cohorts or the boys who didn't like me, then I came home to find out that someone I had never met at another school also thought that I was ugly. After a while, you tend to believe your detractors rather than your friends. Someone who had never even talked to you face-to-face has to be more objective, right? And even my First Official Boyfriend, Brad, reportedly said of me, "Well, she's not the best looking, but then again, neither am I." Which tends to put a damper on a budding relationship.

So I was called ugly, and I accepted it. It shaped my personality--it made me more cynical and bitter and sarcastic. I focused on my studies in order to play up my strengths. They could call me ugly, but goddamnit, no one was going to call me stupid. It probably made me appear more aloof to people; I certainly didn't have much time for people who were outside my normal track of classes or extracurricular activities. I found a close-knit group of friends, and I wasn't especially open to making friends outside of that group. I think a lot of people got the impression that I was stuck up. And maybe I was. I know that I blew off people who were even lower on the social totem pole than I in an attempt to avoid further liability. I was certainly not a perfect person or the friendliest person. Being ugly hardens you a lot. It turns you into a walking Trent Reznor song. But every time I made a wish on all those wish-making occasions--newly extinguished candles on chocolate-frosted birthday cakes, falling stars, coins flipped into mall fountains, etc.--I made the same fairly specific request: that I find someone who would immediately find me attractive and alluring and didn't need to be convinced that I would make a good girlfriend. I only needed to find one person like that. And if I could find that person, I'd try so hard to be the best damn girlfriend I could imagine.

And then when I was 17 years old, I met this Griffith football player named Matt who wouldn't let anyone else but me sit next to him the first night I met him and who didn't want to let me off the phone when I called and who had the most attractive, muscular legs I've ever seen on a guy and who eventually became an official boyfriend and treated me very well and--to my complete astonishment and disbelief--actually wanted to have sex with me. A Griffith football player! It was a good thing that he really did love me (and still does) because I found it surprisingly easy to lose my virginity. Not that premarital sex solves everyone's problems, especially for those with low self esteem, and it's probably highly irresponsible of me to say this, but it was a lot easier to blow off my tormentors (I had some even through senior year) when I was getting laid on the weekends.

Think about someone whom you truly believe is ugly. If that person doesn't do anything in particular to enhance his or her appearance, yet meets the only person on the planet who sincerely believes that said ugly person is astoundingly beautiful, has anything changed?

* * *

I don't really wear makeup anymore. I'll wear a little concealer during my inevitable monthly PMS breakout and some lipstick on occasion (Matt doesn't like the way it tastes), but that's really it. Eye makeup really only comes out for weddings and the like, if I'm in the wedding. I used to wear a ton, though. Not like crazy whorish makeup, but when I was in high school, I had the foundation and the finishing powder and eye liner and mascara and eye shadow and blush and lip liner. I realized a while ago that I wore the most makeup when I hated myself the most. I'll probably freak out again when I start showing signs of real age. But since I'm mentally 23 at the oldest, I won't have to worry about that for a while.

In fact, my trusty bottle of concealer is currently MIA at the time of this writing, but I'm not all that bothered about it. I may not think of myself as beautiful, but I am comfortable in this skin. I'm not above fishing for compliments, though.