When I was young, my parents told me I was beautiful and I believed them. I went out into the world feeling confident about my womanly charms and things went smoothly for me. I always managed to find a boy who would tell me I was perfect, even if he did wear suspenders and a really old T-shirt that said “STATISTICS means never having to say you’re certain.” And then I moved to Manhattan when I was 22, and everything changed.
It’s no joke — people are hotter here. Suddenly I was hanging out with a group of girls who looked like they’d been cast to play the main characters in a rom-com about hip Manhattanites. I got the distinct feeling that I was the one who had just stumbled onto the set. I was pretty sure the description of my role was “the UGLY friend.”
I want this to be perfectly clear: I am not just being modest. I look acceptable. I have nice lips and cute toes. But I would NEVER be cast to play the part of a young Manhattanite. Or a young Brooklynite. Or, even, a hip, young woman living in Des Moines.
A girl can tell these things. For instance, when I went out with my new friends, the male gaze always stopped just before it hit me. Like, a guy would first check out one of my friends, then another, and then, with almost supernatural precision, his eyes would skip over me to the next girl. When I was walking somewhere with them, guys would turn to watch my friends in a way they never turned to watch me. When we met a new girl as a group, she would work hard to impress my beautiful friends. Sometimes when I started to say something, the new girl would cut me off, laughing loudly at a comment one of my friends had made, or chiming in with an overeager, “I LOVE your earrings!” directed at my friend’s stylish hoops.
I began to feel invisible. Maybe even worse, I began to feel helpless. I mean, let’s face it, I was never going to look like them. The character I could best identify with was a supporting one: the quirky, best friend with the exaggerated features and crazy hair who is always screeching at the leading lady to “Just get laid already! It’s obvious he wants you! Oh my God, honey! If I had five minutes with that gorgeous hunk of manaliciousness… ” The friend sometimes has a big nose. She sometimes has some body fat in places other than her boobs. She would probably look silly in one of her friend’s tiny, shoulder baring gallery-opening dresses.She looks more comfortable in jeans and a t-shirt.
But I wasn’t wearing jeans and a t-shirt. I was trying to look sexy. I was trying to fit in. And the harder I tried, the worse I felt. Sometimes, after hanging out with my New York City friends for an evening, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror in the dim, cramped bathroom of a shi shi restaurant, and I was shocked by my own face. I had been looking at beautiful faces for so many hours, I’d almost expected mine to adapt, to transform, to begin to resemble theirs. I was angry at my face. Why couldn’t it keep up?
And then one day, when I was going to meet my friends on the Lower East Side, I was running very late, and I didn’t have time to figure out my outfit. So, panicking slightly, I threw on jeans and a t-shirt. And there we were, in some cool cafe, with plastic chandeliers and exposed brick, my friends in their heels and clunky jewelry and little dresses, their long legs flashing, flicking their hair-commercial hair over their shoulders, and me, no makeup, in sandals, with my paper bag-colored hair doing this fun thing where it goes straight in some places and enthusiastically frizzy in others. My jeans weren’t even sexy jeans. My legs, it should be noted, are on the short side.
I felt sort of naked. I felt a little like I was confessing. “Forgive me Manhattan, for I have sinned. This is how I really look. Also, as you could probably guess– I’m Jewish.”
And to my surprise, I felt sort of great.
I waited for the chandeliers to come crashing down.
“You look cute,” one of my friends said off-handedly.
“Love the shirt,” said someone else. “So comfortable. Like you don’t even have to try.”
No one seemed to care that I wasn’t wearing a shoulder-baring dress or clunky jewelry.
After that, I began wearing my rattiest outfits when I hung out with my beautiful friends. In a strange way, it was liberating. I felt defiant. I felt like myself. I had taken myself out of the competition.
And then, I took my style defiance to the next level. I started wearing boots and dresses and giant earrings and dramatic eye makeup and basically whatever I felt like. Because I didn’t have to look like them. In fact, I couldn’t look like them, so I could look like whatever I wanted to. Sometimes that meant going dramatic and sometimes that meant going utterly schlumpy. It was fun. When a new girl interrupted me to compliment one of my friends, I interrupted her back. When guys on the street majorly failed to check me out, I … okay, I was still a little annoyed, I mean COME ON, some guys are into the haphazard bohemian look, right? Some guys maybe love a daring, nontraditional profile? But I was a lot more good-natured about it.
My friends didn’t comment on my metamorphosis. I think probably they had just liked me all along, the way good friends do. I think if I had told them how hard I’d been trying before they would’ve rolled their eyes and said, “You look great! I don’t even know why you’re thinking about this.” Because gorgeous people don’t know what it’s like to not be gorgeous. Or maybe because somehow — and I believe this is really true — everyone is insecure in some way.
We complimented each other on our outfits. We cracked each other up. Some of us looked like models, laughing in a field of wildflowers, holding a bottle of designer fragrance and one of us looked like a girl with a big nose and some body fat in places other than her boobs, just having a good time. That one was me, and I liked myself. Being the least attractive girl in the group wasn’t so bad, actually. It meant I got to be myself.
And anyway, the quirky, best friend always gets the best lines.