A number of things I once believed to be true about my appearance: I have strong features, I am big-boned, my skin is both very pink and very pale, I am pear-shaped with a small waist, I have oily skin, and I am hirsute.
Here’s the truth, or at least as much of the “truth” as I’m able to come up with today, after 35 years in this skin: My features are neither strong nor delicate, I am medium-framed, I have a yellow tint to my skin and tan easily, I am neither pear-shaped nor hourglassy nor apple-shaped and certainly a small waist isn’t in the equation, I have normal skin, and I’ve got about as much body hair as you’d expect on an Irish-English-Native American woman, which is to say that it’s dark but there’s not tons of it.
“Lots of women have no idea what they look like,” said makeup artist Chrissie Eden DiBianco when I interviewed her last year. And looking at this list, it’s clear I’m one of them. Some of these beliefs were rooted in plain old insecurity: When you’re 13 and the thought of anyone knowing you’re actually growing hair in your armpits is mortifying, having any body hair whatsoever may well mean—to your eyes only—that you resemble Chewbacca. Some were miseducation: I got the occasional zit in junior high, like pretty much everyone, so why wouldn’t I use products designed for oily skin since my skin was clearly a grease bomb?
But what strikes me the most about these personal beauty myths is their compensatory effect. Growing up in South Dakota in the 1980s, the “corn-fed” look was prized: blonde hair, blue eyes, upturned nose, the whole Swedish-Norwegian package. I had none of these, so I drew inspiration from books, where tertiary characters were often described as having dark hair (check), dark eyes (check!), and “strong features.” Now, my features are hardly carved from fine porcelain, but they’re...average. Sorta high cheekbones but not terribly pronounced, utterly nondescript nose and chin, mouth on the small side. There is nothing about my face that would make someone describe it as “strong-featured.” But teenagers are not known for embracing ambiguity: I wasn’t blonde-haired, blue-eyed, and ski-jump-nosed; ergo, I was Maria Callas.
Me, in eighth grade.
This compensation appears in nearly every erroneous belief I’ve had about my body: Growing up heavy-set and then suddenly becoming normal-weight as a teenager meant I had to reshuffle my entire self-image. Naturally I thought I was fat, in that classic teen-girl way, but I could also look in the mirror and see that I wasn’t actually overweight, so somehow I came up with being “big-boned” to make sense of it all, despite coming from a long line of solidly average-framed people. I blush easily, so thinking I had a pink skin tone helped me assimilate that (totally embarrassing!) fact; it wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized my skin actually has a distinctly yellow tint. And as for being pear-shaped—well, I’ve covered the whole body-type nonsense before, and it wasn’t until my early 30s that I realized I was both all and none of the main body types, and that the standard style advice for dressing those figures would never apply to me.
But one aspect of the pear-shaped business illuminates something key here. As a faithful reader of all the “dress your body” magazine features published between 1986-2007, I knew that pear-shaped women were always told to emphasize their small waists. And because I believed myself to be pear-shaped (an idea borne more from embarrassment over the size of my thighs than objective evidence), I must have a small waist, right? Never mind that my jeans rarely gapped in the back, or that dresses didn’t hang loose around the middle, or that my waist measurement wasn’t particularly small. I was pear-shaped, dammit, and you can take my small waist from me when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.
It would be easy for me to laugh at what I once believed to be true about my body, but this small-waist thing doesn’t fit into the narrative of teen-girl embarrassment. This wasn’t a case of putting myself down or not really understanding what my best and not-so-best traits were; this was me inventing a positive trait even where the evidence was flimsy. Even in the places where the myths I’d spun about my looks didn’t match up with the beauty imperative, I found these little nuggets that let me feel okay. If my generous thighs and hips made me a pear, I was going to seize the small waist that went along with it. If my weight was always going to be a sore spot for me, why not deem myself “big-boned”? If I was going to be pink-skinned, I’d spin it into some sort of English rose look and do my makeup to emphasize my pale pallor.
The point here isn’t so much that I was wrong about those things; it wasn’t until adulthood that I was able to see myself a little more objectively, and I’m hardly unique in that. (Of course, there’s something instructive in how off-base I was: How much better-dressed would I have been if I’d veered away from the pear-shaped advice and worn what actually suited me? How much more radiant would my skin have looked at 14 if I weren’t stripping away its oil?) The point is that even where the conclusions were wrong, there was some sort of survival skill at work—something that allowed me to take my imagined beliefs and fit them into the order of things. Something that, underneath all the self-deprecation and imagined detractions, thought maybe I didn’t look so bad after all.
The narrative we spin for girls is that they’re doomed to look in the mirror and not like what they see—that the dogpile of unrealistic images of women’s bodies and idealized femininity hits them so early on that by the time they reach puberty, the best we can do is damage control. We spin it that way for a reason—it’s true too often, and if it was ever true of you, that searing feeling of not measuring up has serious staying power.
There’s an alternate narrative too, of girls with resilient self-esteem, the sort of confident young woman we look at and think, She’s gonna be okay. But those two narratives are intertwined: My confidence was shaky in regards to my looks, but there I was, coming up with ways to tell myself that I wasn’t totally outside the realm of conventional prettiness, even if I had to make it up. I didn’t know my physical strengths and flaws until adulthood, but I intuited that if I roamed the world believing only my flaws (or what I perceived to be flaws), I’d be miserable, and I liked myself enough to not want to be miserable. So I picked up the odd shreds of evidence from the very things that pained me—my telltale blush, my ample thighs, my lack of Scandinavian grace—and constructed an effigy of myself. It was strung together with scotch tape and homemade safety pins, yes, but it was there: this emergent girl who had internalized all the media ideals, but who, at her core, was able to fight for herself.
Ideally, of course, that fight wouldn’t have been about inventing ways to fit the beauty standard; it would have been about challenging it by daring to think that I looked just fine even in the myriad ways I didn’t fit the template. I’m not holding up my teen self as some paragon of self-esteem, not by a long shot, and I’m under no illusion that my misconceptions were any sort of resistance to the beauty standard itself. But it was a resistance to feeling as though I needed to change in order to fit them, a corrective perspective from a girl who had internalized all those messages about how her body “should” look but who, at her core, also thought maybe she looked just fine. Acknowledging I looked fine as-is, if only to myself, may have been too radical for me at the time (woe befall the girl who thinks she’s “all that”); this was my in-between. It was a start.