I was an ugly kid.
Now, I’m not making any great claims for myself as an adult when it comes to my looks, but for the most part, I’m fairly content with how things have turned out. In my series of Earl memoirs lately, though, I’ve been talking about my early and mid-teens a lot, and I don’t want to leave readers with the impression I was a beautiful young twink. Nope. I was a painfully skinny kid whose ribs one could count beneath his skin. My hair was bright blond, but greasy and long enough to scrape my chin. I wore very thick horn-rimmed glasses. Because I was so tall—always a head above my classmates all the way from second grade through high school—I had a tendency to hunch my shoulders when I was among my peers. My clothes weren’t the best.
And oh, I felt the pain. Every crack about my greasy hair I took to heart. When a girl named Sonja told me I had ‘little bitty piggy eyes,’ I spent hours in the mirror widening my lids as far as they could go to see if I could minimize the effect. I internalized comments about my oily skin, my big nose, my lack of a chin, my skinniness, my total, unloveable ugliness. And I believed every word.
Sure, it was the nineteen-seventies. All kids were hideous during the nineteen-seventies. It’s as if we were all shooting for Leif Garrett and falling short somewhere around Danny Bonaduce. When I graduated high school, I underwent a transformation of sorts. I got contact lenses instead of glasses. I bought a new wardrobe. I cut my hair shorter. I took several strides away from that ugly kid I was in my teens.
Now, during all those years I kept hearing hurtful, ugly things about myself, men were giving me compliments that were quite the opposite. Earl himself used to say the nicest things about my eyes—how translucent and shifting were their colors, and how deep they seemed. Men loved my body and told me so, in profane detail while they fucked me. I had strangers on the streets cruising me, pawing me, taking me to their cars, even paying me. I discounted every single one of their compliments, stated or implied. The only things about my appearance I could hear and believe were those that hurt me to the core.
What's crazy is that these days, when I look back at photographs of me in college, I don't see any of those things I held true about my appearance. I see a bright-faced kid, smooth and pretty and young, with a smile that could light up a room. I was my own worst judge.
Last night I was sitting across from Spencer in a restaurant, having our first frank talk about his scars. Spencer has had specific areas of his body afflicted with patches of cysts, in the past. Surgery has removed them, but it’s left small areas of scarring behind. White traceries, so faint they’re difficult to see unless they’re pointed out. There’s a few on one arm, several on the outside of a leg, and one on his cheek that I can make out only in very bright light, up close. He told me about the visits to his doctor that started in his early teens, the injections, the therapies, the recuperations. He talked about the mortification he felt—that he feels—each morning in the mirror.
When I look at Spencer, I see his strong jaw, his beautiful bone structure. I don’t see scarring. I see a forehead that radiates strength and serenity, and comical eyebrows that with one quirk can make me burst into laughter. I see the dimples in his smile, and the cleft in his chin, and a handsome face that makes men and women alike turn their heads when he enters a room. He sees blemishes, and imperfections, and the spots where knife has met flesh. It’s not just the scars he dislikes about himself. I hold him against me when we fuck and feel his narrow hips and his flat stomach; he mumbles about an imaginary spare tire. I see beautiful brown eyes that sparkle with life; he sees big bloodshot dog eyes. Another telling behavior: he sneezes, says “Excuse me,” and then in the same breath but a different, booming voice retorts, “There’s no excuse for you!”
I asked him why he always follows up his ‘excuse mes’ with those words. He told me they were his father’s standard retort when he was a kid, and that the voice was his father’s as well.
I tried to express my feelings to him, last night, as we ate. “You are not your scars,” I told him. “You just aren’t. I don’t think anyone sees it. Not the way you do. You are not your imaginary extra weight. You aren't your miserable thirteen-year-old self.'”
“Well, that's how I see myself,” he retorted. “And it sickens me.”
“There is so much more to you than those things,” I told him. “It seems to me such heavy baggage to carry, the shame for something you can’t control or change. They doesn’t matter.”
But as we argued, I realized how stubborn he is. He can’t give up that vision of hideousness that never existed, not yet. And I’m not enough to change the way he sees himself. He made my heart ache. I have an instinct to fix things when I see people I love in trouble, and these invisible wounds run too deep to mend.
I know so many beautiful, extraordinary people who don’t believe in their own gifts. It seems as if they’re stuck in some time warp, seeing visions and hearing voices of people who no longer exist in their lives, saying things that no longer have any relevance. They hear whispers that they’re overweight, or ugly, or not good enough; they stare at their reflections and instead of handsome, capable men and women, they see ungainly, pimply teenagers.
I don’t exempt myself from any of my own accusations. I yesterday looked in the mirror and found myself tugging at the corners of my lids and murmuring, “Piggy eyes.”
So for today and the weekend I’m opening up the comments section to you guys. What childhood or teenaged slights have stuck with you throughout your life, whether or not they’re really who you are as an adult? And how have you overcome them, if you have? Why do you think we cling to the bad things we hear about ourselves, and ignore the good? I’m curious to see if we have any commonalities between us.