I wish every young person could realize how beautiful they are. Youth and its singular beauty are so fleeting, and we live in a society where people are told from their earliest years to pick apart their looks and everyone else’s, to fuel the multi-billion dollar cosmetic, fashion, and diet industries.
This is not a new phenomenon, though it’s surely gotten much worse. I was an odd-looking child, I guess, because I was bullied about my looks (back then they called it teasing) on nearly a daily basis clear through grade school. I was fat before it was an epidemic, and I was usually the fattest kid in class, unless there was another one. I had extremely curly hair that was difficult to control, and glasses that were so thick (I was farsighted) that my eyes looked abnormally large. I wore said glasses from first grade on.
The names were the least of it. Bug-eyes, Bubble-eyes, Marla Mountain. My classmates rewrote the songs we learned in class to celebrate my ugliness. When I asked for help from any adult, teachers, parents, I was told “Everyone gets teased” and “Don’t let it bother you.” It was my fault they treated me that way because “You let them see it bothers you.” Finally I learned there was no help, and it was evidently my fault because I really was freakish looking.
By Junior High, which back then started with 7th grade, my one goal in life was to pass for normal. Mom took me to my pediatrician, who put me (a few months short of my 12th birthday, mind) on amphetamine diet pills. In 1965, drugs like that were considered to be good for you as long as a doctor prescribed them. I also took ballet lessons, which eased my terminal clumsiness and helped with the weight loss, although even at my thinnest I was “the big girl” in that class. There was nothing I could do about the glasses at that time, though my eyesight had gotten better over the years. This is another way farsightedness is different than nearsightedness. If you read a lot – and I was a bookworm from birth – your eyesight actually improves.
When the process was finished, I looked normal. If I hadn’t been so convinced I was an ugly freak, I might have noticed that I had grown into my face and was actually pretty. But I had been conditioned for too many years to believe, soul-deep, that I was ugly. If a boy showed any interest in me, I was convinced he had been put up to it by his friends and was going to pull a humiliating prank on me. By the way, both male and female classmates had done that to me on the phone repeatedly in grade school. It's one reason I don't like phones.
Enter teenage fashion magazines. Entire magazines devoted to telling teenage girls that they’re imperfect and must fix themselves. At that time it was through makeup – tons of it. You think contouring is a recent development? Hah. Sometime go to a library and have a look at Teen or Seventeen from the 1960s if you can find it on microfilm, or maybe they’re online. Every new cosmetic was touted as saving us from our unfashionable pasts. “Finally a real color instead of those awful beige frosted lipsticks we’ve been wearing.” Said beige frosted lipsticks had been touted as “Finally a natural look instead of that awful red lipstick.” From my lofty age of 62 I can tell you this happens every few years. Regularly. Of course I haven’t taken a single peek at a fashion magazine in a couple decades.
And it goes on. Your hair is never right. Too long, too short, too curly, too straight. Your body? Pa-lease. The range of what’s acceptable as beauty is so tiny no one can find it. You can go from too fat to too thin in five pounds.
Now, I can look at old pictures of myself and see that I was pretty. Damn but I wish I had known it at the time. And what bugs me senseless is seeing beautiful young people – now it’s boys as well as girls – convinced that they’re ugly because they don’t look like the photoshopped, posed, made up, and well-lit pictures in magazines. They’re being bullied, not by classmates, but by this entire superstructure of the media and fashion, cosmetic, and diet industries. They haven’t got a chance. And I haven’t a clue as to what to do about it.