Sometimes, people tell me I’m pretty.
A few times, I’ve had people (other than my mom) tell me I’m beautiful.
One time, I was even called hot.
But these kinds of compliments are something that I often fail to internalize and accept as truth—not that that’s always a bad thing. I’m not someone who wants their relative attractiveness to ever go to their head, nor am I someone who necessarily wants a description of my physical appearance to be my “identifying compliment”.
I think, ultimately, it comes down to the fact that I’ve spent a significant portion of my life as an objectively unattractive human being.
As a young kid, I had wire-framed glasses with (perpetually gray-toned) transition lenses that, much like an elderly librarian, I would wear on the bridge of my nose. I had a very large gap between my two front teeth. I was unfazed by clothes that were considered “flattering”—I simply wore what was comfortable.
And it was all fine by me! My physical appearance was the least of my concerns. I was much more focused on how my mind was perceived by my peers—I wanted to be known as intelligent, as “the smart kid”, and how I looked on the outside at that point had little to do with how quickly I could answer questions in class.
As far as I can recall, my physical appearance was rarely a source of compliments outside of my family for the first thirteen or fourteen years of my life. And I didn’t care in the slightest. It was something I had never really received feedback on, so it wasn’t something that I thought about or concerned myself with much.
But once I reached high school age, something shifted. I wore my contact lenses regularly; I had started to wear small amounts of makeup; I had begun to develop a sense of style; I got braces; I got highlights in my hair, and then I fully dyed it a different color.
People started to call me “cute”, and sometimes even “pretty”.
I didn’t know how to react to this. I knew that developing a more “sophisticated” look for oneself was a part of growing older, but I hadn’t anticipated my identifying compliment to change along with it. I didn’t think people noticed what I looked like enough to comment on it—I had always been known as “the smart girl”, and later “the nice girl”, and, even further down the line, “the girl who sings”.
But now that people were looking more at the physical “me”, and not just at my grades or my voice as “me”, I became immensely self-conscious. I hadn’t had much self-esteem to begin with (with the exception of knowing that I was a good student), so the idea of people thinking of me on any scale of human attractiveness was unfamiliar, almost alien. I sort of felt like an alien, suddenly launched into this new world of not being endearingly fugly.
I remember once in college being called out for my uncomfortable response to someone remarking on how good I looked. A male friend had given me this compliment, and when I immediately broke eye contact with him and got flustered, he said, “You respond to compliments like you don’t know how attractive you are.”
And I guess I don’t. I still operate within the mentality of a formerly unattractive person. I suppose if I were to look at a photo of myself today and try to see my face through a stranger’s eyes, I might be able to see some of what these people are talking about. But that feeling of attractiveness doesn’t get internalized—I don’t know that it ever will.
Sure, I now put effort into my appearance, but I don’t do so with the conscious intention of standing out as an attractive person. I think I do it more to feel like I’m blending in as a now-less-ugly person, hiding the dorky little kid that I still identify with under a full face of makeup and nondescript-but-still-in-fashion clothes.
I often still feel physically invisible, but that’s how I prefer to be.
I suppose I’m glad, on some level, that I haven’t gotten completely absorbed into the lightning-speed world of gorgeous style icons and beauty gurus on social media, fast fashion trends, and unattainable standards of what the modern female body should look like.
But I do wish I had a better understanding of what it feels like to feel beautiful. Not in an “I feel so ugly, please pity me and shower me with reassuring praise” kind of way—I just want to learn how to internalize that feeling more. It’s still sort of new to me.