I think it started in seventh or eighth grade.
A white girl came up to me in gym class and told me that my teeth were too big and my mouth was too wide, and so I pulled my thick lips over my purple braces and tried not to cry.
I tried not to look at the real bras my friends wore while I was stuck training my chest to magically morph into a woman’s or pull my shorts down too low for fear that the hair hidden by my panties would be exposed. I hoped that my light skin, skin that still wasn’t light enough, though, could distract from the hair on my legs, the hair that was an anomaly, as the rough hair that grew out of my head couldn’t seem to keep pace with the hair that grew from my legs. I tried not to look around at the other girls, the ease with which they changed clothes and conversed in front of the bathroom mirror, applying mascara and talking about their boyfriends. I tried not to listen too much to the gossip surrounding birthday parties I wasn’t invited to or to cringe when I heard the names of boys in my classes who I had crushes on and once they found out I liked them instantly made clear they did not like me back.
In a word, I was ugly. But a summer later, a boy would shove his hand over the front of my pants as the first real sign of romantic attention that I ever received. I hated the way he rubbed his hand against my pubic bone and the pain it left that I minutely felt as I made my way home, but I loved the way that I felt beautiful. And about an hour later, when he sat next to me and told me I had dick-sucking lips, I felt all the more powerful. This was the same boy who would tell me, weeks later, that my arms looked like they belonged to a monkey and so that night I would go and shave them smooth. I think at that moment, at the age of just fourteen or so, I learned the avenue to beauty for an ugly girl like me would always be through sex.
And that’s what I did. In ninth grade, it was sending boys pictures of me in just a bra over Snapchat. Then came tenth grade, where I migrated to almost nude. In junior year, there was a string of hand jobs and blow jobs and maybes and lack of consent and unused condoms. And in my senior year, it was Sunday morning hookups where I had to beg to be touched, just once, and I love you sex before college saw I hate you sex and drunk sex and I miss you sex and I’m crazy sex and I’m hurt sex and I just want to feel something again sex.
I don’t think it’s any surprise that during this time, the food stopped being eaten and the migraines started. At first, I watched my weight so that my breasts would appear bigger against the background of a flat stomach, but over time it became an unconscious constant. The pain I felt as my stomach churned in class became a welcomed friend, while skipping out on meals took away the fears of my braces and my glasses my big lips that can’t seem to stay closed while I chew being seen by my more beautiful classmates. The lightheadedness I experience leaving the gym helped too, as it felt as if the way I lived was right and everyone else who wasn’t running miles on the treadmill like me was wrong. But lightheadedness gave way to headaches which gave way to migraines characterized by vomiting in trash cans while my mother, horrified, held back my hair and asked when’s the last time I ate and why I’m only throwing up water.
How could I explain to her, though, that this was the cost of beauty? That yes boys have touched me in places they shouldn’t have and sometimes I liked it but a lot of times I didn’t. That no I haven’t eaten in days because I know everyone likes my stomach flat like this and my breasts, these breasts I’ve been training all my life, don’t you see my breasts, how great they look in this shirt? And most of all that these migraines were inevitable– the MRIs and CAT scans and elimination diets and B12 supplements are great and all, but what they didn’t show and didn’t fix were the demons trying to claw their way out. Demons that tell me I’m not good, demons that land me in hospital psych wards, alone, cold, confused, screaming for my mother and my God and for someone to tell me I’m beautiful and that they love me.
Some nights I lay very still in bed and I swear I can feel everything– I can feel the way my thighs don’t quite touch the way I want them to, the way my hipbones jut out onto my mattress. I can feel the minute hairs that grow under my chin and just above my throat. I can feel the spots making constellations on my face and the tightness of my earrings that I use to cover the dark marks on my ears. I can feel my inadequacy, the overwhelming feeling that I have failed someone, the feeling that if I were just prettier my life wouldn’t be like this. In those moments I feel enormous, that my body and mind take up too much space and I am more trouble than I’m worth. I think of my first loves and the girls who now get their attention, girls who have seemingly mastered the art of making themselves small but their breasts and butts big. Girls with smooth skin and thin lips and not too big teeth and good hair and freshly-shaven pu**ies.
But joy comes with the morning. When I wake up, I take note of my messy eyebrows and the stretch marks on my butt. I pull on the pudge of my stomach and bend the arch in my back before I smile and laugh and make funny faces in the mirror. I get ready, sometimes putting on makeup, other times not; sometimes putting in contacts, other times not. Before I leave, I swallow a little white pill that if I hold it in my mouth too long tastes absolutely terrible. As I start my day, I try to convince myself that I can feel the pill working, that I can feel the medicine running up to my brain and rocking my demons to sleep. I try not to stare too long at the other bodies around me, to try not to scan people’s faces for too long to see how much more beautiful than me they are. I try not to check my phone too often with the hopes that some boy has finally come around, that he finally sees me as beautiful and worthy of his attention.
And I try to eat. I try to thank the universe for every opportunity I get to wake up because each day is an opportunity to love myself. I try to laugh at my ugly selfies because that’s me, and I try to believe it when people tell me I’m beautiful. I try to remember how far I’ve come and how much farther I have to go.
And most of all, I try to remember that I am beautiful.