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Photo by Caleb Woods on Unsplash

“I can’t believe you left me for such a homely girl.” The wide-eyed font of Harrison’s phone gave a certain fake innocence to the text message, as though it were mocking me with its too-broad serifs and blocky vowels. I sat stunned for a moment as he took back his phone.

He hadn’t left his ex, Tiffany, for me; they’d been separated for a while. Not that it mattered. She’d commented on a particularly unflattering Facebook photo of me with Harrison, him as gorgeous as always, me with a vaguely drunk expression, hair frizzy from a muggy Southern night, my lips parted too much to be sexy and too little to be a smile. “Oh my GOD lol wow, ew” she’d said. I knew she wasn’t talking about him. I’d posted the photo because I felt happy in it; after her comment, I took it down. I wish I could say I didn’t care about what Harrison’s obsessive ex thought about my appearance, but that simply wasn’t true.

It’s hard dating a conventionally good-looking guy when you’re not conventionally good-looking yourself. I found that I was constantly fretting about my appearance, wondering what the whispers at the restaurant table next to ours were about, feeling miserable whenever I had a fat day and his chiseled jaw was as Adonian as ever.

I’d been ugly my entire life, although my parents insisted otherwise. I know, I know, beauty in the eye of the beholder and inner beauty and ugly ducklings and blah blah blah. All that is true, but it doesn’t acknowledge that society is cruel and kids are its warriors, endlessly seeking ways to belittle their peers.

In elementary school, when I suddenly found my blonde hair turn brown, my eyes reveal themselves to be inadequate, and my teeth all crooked, I went from an admittedly darling girl to an awkward mess, and not in a cute Ugly Betty kind of way. My curls were ruined by a hairdresser who’d apparently time-traveled from the ’70s to give me mushroom hair, my braces and glasses immediately opened the floodgates to teasing, and my boobs simply refused to come in. It didn’t help that my olive skin and large features, courtesy of my Eastern European heritage, made me stand out from the Irish- and German-bred white kids.

Even after I learned to embrace my curls, after my boobs came in and my braces came off, I resigned myself to being ugly. I figured I just hadn’t been dealt the right cards in life. I went through periods where I wore lots of makeup and others where I just didn’t give a damn. I got used to being called a “dog” or “monkey girl,” to the pretty girls and boys mocking my big lips and not-small nose.

“You’re pretty cute for a Jewish girl.” As I attempted to find The One on OKCupid, I eventually started to find the backhanded compliments amusing. (Especially since I’m not Jewish.) “You need to grow your hair back out so it balances out your nose.” (One of many comments about the pixie cut I had in my profile picture.) “I bet you’d look amazing if you lost a few pounds.” (I was 110 pounds at the time.)

I did date a lot in my early twenties, primarily guys whom I honestly did not find attractive. Until Harrison, I didn’t feel worthy of dating the good-looking guys and I had the terrible misfortune of falling for the ones who were ugly inside out. Had I not been convinced of my own ugliness, I wonder if I would have made different (better) choices.

It took an act of extreme rebellion to get more comfortable with my body: I took my clothes off on stage. My first burlesque performance was terrifying and thrilling, an emotional roller coaster that began with my nerve-wracked ugly body flooded by hot lights and concluded with my transformation into an object of desire. I discovered something new: confidence.

I began to feel much more accepting of my body, and as I saw other people’s, I questioned a lot of my assumptions about beauty. I saw firsthand how carefully placed eyeliner and contouring powder could transform a face, how people could love rolls on a woman’s belly, how even non-Barbie bodies could be statuesque and powerful. Most importantly, I saw how attitude and expression were more important than the proportions of one’s faces.

I looked back on that old photo of me with Harrison and I see a cute girl, not a homely one. And I realized that ugliness is not only socially constructed, it’s a state of mind, as is beauty. It’s up to me which one I choose.

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Writer by day, circus artist by night. I write about art, media, culture, health, science, and where they all meet. Join my list:

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