The first time I thought of my appearance as a matter of importance was in fourth grade. I was nine years old and sitting at my desk in Mrs. MacDonald’s classroom. She was one of those teachers fond of arranging students into groups in the belief the stronger students could help those who might be struggling. My desk was nudged into one corner of a square, next to my best friend and facing my next door neighbour. I don’t remember who took up the spot diagonal to me. I suspect he or she doesn’t recall me or the moment I am about to share either.
Matthew was his name, my next door neighbour. It was so common of a name back then I don’t see the point in changing it now. Besides, I haven’t spoken to him in over two decades. We were quasi-friends in that awkward way of preadolescent boys and girls. I’d been inside his house while visiting his older sister, played on his backyard trampoline, and made fun of him as much as he’d made fun of me. I’d had crushes on other boys in school but never thought about him that way. He was just the kid next door who stole my answers on math tests, sometimes annoying, sometimes funny. I didn’t mind having to share my desk space with him.
On this day we were doing our usual group work. I’d probably finished early, keener that I was, or perhaps I was being kind and offering help to others. As a kid I was shy – not much has changed – and reluctant to speak up, but the presence of my best friend made me more confident than I would have been in other circles. Regardless, we were chatting about the usual kid things, the Ninja Turtles most likely, or who was faster on the monkey bars, when out of what felt like nowhere, Matthew posed a question that left me addled.
“Do you think you’re pretty?”
It wasn’t asked meanly, though right away I could tell I was being baited. With a glance to my friend, I paused, trying to think of the best way to respond that would evade a sneer. Matthew was often doing that, for a multitude of reasons. It was unpleasant and as someone who has always been afraid of confrontation, I wanted to avoid being the brunt of another cruel joke.
The thing is, I’d never thought about it before, my prettiness. It hadn’t mattered. I did well in school, adults often praised my good behaviour and polite manners. I wasn’t popular but I got on well enough with my peers. Other than Matthew, and a boy named Shane in the third grade who had thrown my touque in a pile of slush, the other kids accepted me without comment. What did appearance have to do anything? I was just a child.
All of this ran through my young brain in rapid succession. I had a feeling I knew the answer he was looking for and I was determined not to give it. I assumed I wasn’t. Pretty, that is. It was a word saved for girls named Angela and Debbie and Emily, girls with lacey dresses and knee-high socks. Girls who giggled and played jump rope and who knew how to French braid. Girls who wrote notes to boys. I didn’t do any of those things. I tried but I still didn’t know how to jump in to the rope. My mother still styled my hair for me. Pretty wasn’t for girls who wore hand-me-downs from their male cousins or who spent their time writing stories they never finished or playing Barbies with their sister several years after dolls were deemed uncool. Pretty girls didn’t gloat about being able to spell better than anyone else, they got the good parts in choir and didn’t trip when playing dodge ball. No, I wasn’t pretty. It hurt to realize this and I didn’t even know why. I was determined not to show it.
“No,” I said, scrunching my nose. “Who wants to be pretty? I’d rather be smart.”
The reply had occurred to me in a moment of brilliance. I had recalled one of my favourite lines from my favourite book, Anne of Green Gables. Gilbert had thought being smart was better and I decided I did too.
Matthew was not to be deterred. He snickered and scrunched his nose right back. The light in his eyes told me I had played it all wrong.
“That’s too bad, because you’re not smart OR pretty. You’re just ugly and dumb.”
“No uglier than you,” my friend spoke up, sticking her tongue out at him. Relieved, I followed suit. I remember wanting to punch him, wanting to say something as hurtful as what he had said to me. I couldn’t come up with anything. The truth is, I was hurt but I didn’t know why. I just knew there was something wrong with me for which I should feel ashamed.
From that moment on I knew being pretty was a necessary thing for a girl to be. Girls who weren’t pretty were second best, weren’t interesting or important. It was something one either was or wasn’t and now that I knew I wasn’t, I gave up every thought I ever had about fitting in. Instead, I worked hard at being smart in the hopes it would get me the approbation everyone craves.
I don’t blame Matthew. He was a kid as much as I was, a product of our beauty-obsessed society. He probably was repeating something he had heard and he did not know the power such words could have. If I’d been a different person, they may not have affected me so much. If others in my future hadn’t reiterated what he’d said in ways that were much more cruel, I may not have even remembered them.
Everyone has stories like this from their childhood. I don’t know why this one moment stands out for me. Perhaps because it was the first time an environment in which I had previously felt safe, became one where I would have to be on my guard. It was the start of the cynicism and fear that comes with adulthood. In some senses, this experience was too late and too soon.