All my life, this six letter word has carried so much weight and up until this very minute, it's an ideal that completely eludes me and my self-perception. But I'll start at the beginning.
When I was little girl growing up in rural Jamaica with my grandma, on the way to church or to the doctor or to town, people would always call after me, “Pretty girl! Pretty girl!!”
And my grandma in her stern but affable disposition would scold, “Don't call her that!”
One day I asked why she would tell everyone not to call me 'Pretty girl' and she told me that she didn't want me to grow up to be ugly. Kinda like how you don't talk about a job you really want for fear of jinxing your chances. For a bit of context, my grandmother was born in 1920 in rural Jamaica, the 5th of 11 siblings. She hadn't finished primary school and worked 26 years at a paint factory slapping labels on to paint cans. The idea of education was a novelty to her and so the prospect of me growing up to be ugly was an unfathomable fate.
Fast forward to when I started high school at age 12. Prior to that, I had a pretty positive self-image. I didn't give much thought to being 'pretty', but I was content with what I looked like. I never noticed that I had a prominent forehead until I started getting teased at school. And it became one of those things that once you noticed, it was all you could see. And so began my aversion to my own face.
It started with my forehead. I was obsessed with wearing bangs and if there was a breeze, I would literally feel like I might as well have been naked. Then someone in my family started making fun of my nose. And I stopped smiling in pictures because I thought it made my nose appear wider. I would pinch the bridge of my nose every night before bed in hopes that through the repeated action, my nose would become slender. And then I immigrated to Canada at age 15. Already a vulnerable and impressionable time for any young woman, my assimilation to life in Canada was not an easy one. I was bombarded by the media's impossible and unrealistic ideals of beauty from which I had previously been sheltered. To make matters worse, my 15 year old body was changing. It was no longer thin and gangly, but started to get...well, womanly. And I hated it.
I remember things got so bad that one day at school I locked myself in the bathroom and cried hysterically because I could not stand the sight of my own face. My friends at the time, one of whom I had an unhealthy fixation and to whom I kept comparing myself, had to spend an hour talking me out of the bathroom stall and out of my hysterics. But things only got worse. My self-hate quickly spiralled into depression and by the time I was 16 I was so sick of myself that I thought I was having suicidal thoughts. And so I swallowed a handful of Advil and had to be rushed to the ER. By 17 I was being evaluated by psychiatrists and actively seeking to numb my feelings with drugs. I would cry myself to sleep every night, wishing I wouldn’t wake up to face myself another day.
Then the turning point was after seeing a documentary on TLC about a 5 year old boy who had a facial tumour and was terribly disfigured. An entry from my diary dated August 23, 2005 reads:
He had 4 surgeries and still his face is far from that of a nomal five-year old boy, but still this little boy was so full of joy. He was so grateful and I wish I could be more like him. I am so pre-occupied with what I look like, I’ve failed to realize that no matter what, I’m always gonna look like this. (....) I have to start accepting that and I have to start loving me for me. If I don’t, who will?
Something about seeing that boy who was so much less fortunate than I was, who was so severely disfigured but exuded such joy and gratitude made me want to stop feeling sorry for myself. And I am by no means insinuating that self-esteem and self-image issues are not serious, psychological challenges, but after seeing that documentary at 17 I decided I would detach myself from my looks. What I looked like wasn’t who I was. I decided that my face was my face and that I was either going to accept it or spend the rest of life being tormented by my reflection. And to be completely honest with you, some days I still avoid my reflection. Those absurd beauty ideals still weigh on me. But I’ve grown to accept, and even like, my face.
In 2009 I entered a beauty pageant and while it might seem like a strange thing for someone with a history of self-image issues to do, I did it with the face that had been a source of sadness and pain for so long. I didn’t win. I didn’t even make top 10 but I proved to myself that I didn’t need ‘pretty’ to define me. That I am stronger than ‘pretty’.