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When Beautiful Is the Only Thing Worth Being

My perfectionism had informed every aspect of my life, but none more so than my desire to be beautiful

Credit: Vectorpower/Getty Images

“Hey, beautiful.” He barely paused to let his greeting land on me.

I was standing in a train station vestibule, exhausted—emotionally and physically. I had just completed a grueling train ride, my second of the weekend. Fellow train passengers walked through the vestibule and out into the cold, most without seeing me. But then he did.

I perked up. I was not flattered. But a man was complimenting my appearance, so I was obligated to acknowledge him. And not just acknowledge, but express gratitude. My focus was no longer my approaching Lyft; it was acknowledging this man. It was expressing my gratitude with an appropriately pleasant reply. It was the least I could do.

“Hi, how are you?” It was a rhetorical question because he was already out the door.

There was no joy in his voice, no happiness to see me. His acknowledgment of me was as perfunctory as mine of him. We were both performing the roles ascribed to us.

Some version of this performance has happened many times before and was always quickly forgotten. But this time, I did not forget. I thought about what had happened. Beautiful, huh? I was the most tired, grumpy, unbeautiful version of me. But with an insincere, passing compliment, this stranger was able to elicit a response more gracious than I would have mustered for a friend. And I suspect this man knew the power he held over me. Did he feel a perverse pleasure knowing that with a few words he could instantly pull from my depleted reserves of grace?

Where, how, when did I get this idea in my head? This idea that being called beautiful was the ultimate compliment, even when it came from a stranger? Where did I get the idea that being beautiful, not in my own eyes but in the eyes of others—specifically, men—was the only thing worth being?

I realized this was a problem. I would never judge a woman at work the way I was judging myself.

I hadn’t really asked myself this before, although I was aware that I’d been struggling with my attitude toward beauty and appearance for a while. I noticed it in little ways: I felt strangely self-conscious and incompetent when talking to a very pretty female co-worker, despite a great working relationship and knowing that she thought I was good at my job. I had a hard time acknowledging that other women were attractive and an even harder time admitting they were more attractive than I am. Something about making that admission was unbearable, like doing so would instantly invalidate my entire existence. Because if I’m not the most beautiful, what am I? There’s no other thing worth being.

My preoccupation with my looks finally got so bad that I decided to talk to my counselor about it. One afternoon, in a meeting with the aforementioned pretty co-worker, I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the window. I looked terrible. I looked chubby and sloppy. Who was I to have anything to say about anything? How could she even take me seriously? How could she listen to the words coming out of my stupid face?

I realized this was a problem. I would never judge a woman at work the way I was judging myself. My work, whatever can be said about it, has nothing to do with the way I look. Beyond the need to show up looking clean and reasonably groomed, my job requires very little of my appearance.

Bringing this up to my counselor was incredibly hard. Doing so required acknowledging things that are deeply personal and embarrassing, as well as opening myself up to criticism, or at least inspection, of my looks. Even though this was a counselor I had being seeing for many months, one I liked and felt reasonably comfortable with, I still couldn’t trust her to hear this information and not immediately focus on my beauty (or lack thereof).

For me, it was all or nothing. For me, there was no “good enough.”

It turns out, I was right not to trust.

“Hmmm. Well,” she began. I had just told her I thought I might be too focused on being beautiful to the detriment of almost all other areas of my life, and I used the reflection anecdote as an example. “You’re not unattractive.”

If you read that and thought it was a reasonable response, congratulations on being a reasonable human. To me, and my debilitating attachment to being not just attractive but beautiful, this was a dagger straight into my heart.

How could my counselor not know this, after months of us working through the symptoms of my sometimes incapacitating desire to be perfect?

She continued, telling me how beautiful her daughter was (she had mentioned this before), how men fall at her feet, and how it has made her an infantile woman that can’t breathe unless a man is giving her attention.

I would kill to be that beautiful.

I have tried to recall examples from my childhood and adolescence, examples of people saying to me explicitly: “Beautiful is the only thing worth being.” I can’t recall any. And yet, somehow, this idea was firmly implanted in my head. I wanted to find the source so I could eradicate it, so I could be normal. Many people are self-conscious about the way they look, which is probably why my counselor offered such a cavalier response. She assumed I was like her, like many women (and yes, men too, but I would argue as women, we experience it differently). She assumed I wanted to be more beautiful but since that wasn’t really possible (apart from extreme interventions), I would settle for being not unattractive. Being not-unattractive has gotten a lot of people a lot of places. People who are not unattractive write novels, become senators, graduate from medical school, have children, travel, experience happiness…

But for me, it was all or nothing. For me, there was no “good enough.” There was only most: most beautiful girl in the room, most beautiful girl you’ve ever seen, most beautiful girl in the world.

I couldn’t recall an early memory that explained this; no trusted adult sitting me down and explaining that being beautiful was the number-one priority, and once achieved, you could move on to other traits, like being kind or being smart. There were, however, many, many examples of the tiny, almost subliminal, ways people suggest to you that this might be true. Although most people (but, again, especially women) get these messages starting at an early age, I may have been especially susceptible to them for a variety of reasons.

I did not want to be seen or heard without a full face of makeup and hair meticulously in place.

I once heard someone on a podcast describe perfectionism as a tool for the neglected child. I wasn’t neglected in a literal sense, but I was always made to feel that I was on my own, that I should know everything already, and that doing things imperfectly was unacceptable. This combination is untenable. You can’t make an eight-year-old solely responsible for doing their own homework, and you certainly can’t get mad at them when they don’t do it. At eight years old, they can’t know why they even have homework, let alone why it’s important to do it. They’ve been on the planet for only eight years. The concept of the future benefits or consequences of “homework” is beyond them. (Yes, the eight-year-old is me, and no, I never learned my multiplication tables.)

I berate myself for not doing things perfectly on the first try, and I still hear the inner monologue of my younger self: You are so dumb. How could you not know this? You don’t understand the rules, and that’s your fault. All the other kids know the rules. What is wrong with you?

I now realize that the other kids didn’t know the rules, but they had parents and other adults telling them the rules. My parents were too preoccupied with their own problems to have a child who wasn’t automatically perfect. They did not have the bandwidth to teach me how to learn and grow from mistakes, to try, try, try again when at first I didn’t succeed. If it wasn’t right the first time, I had failed; by the second time, they were no longer looking.

How this perfectionism spread to every area of my life, including (or maybe especially) my looks is more complicated. But as I started to unravel its origins, I began to realize that my attitude toward my outward appearance was more than just unhealthy.

I started noticing that other women my age seemed to be more at home in their bodies and lives, more accepting. They had realized that they were allowed to do things, like write novels, run for senate, be happy, even if they weren’t the best, even if they looked like a “not unattractive” person while doing it. I saw them post less-than-flattering photos of themselves on social media; photos in which they’re clearly having fun or are radiantly happy (the just-gave-birth photo from a hospital bed, for example). I would never do this. Acknowledging that I did not look beautiful at every moment, even the moment after giving birth, was unthinkable.

I noticed natural and beautiful women in real life, running errands in sweats with messy hair, coming to work bare-faced and effortless. I noticed friends of mine who were unapologetically themselves, whether they were perfectly coiffed or without a stitch of makeup. They moved like humans permitted to take up space, to speak, to breathe, even when they were not projecting the ideal of female beauty, even when they were not the object of jealousy or lust.

I finally understood that the rules, for me, demanded perfection at all times; for everyone else, less was acceptable.

I, on the other hand, did not want to be seen or heard without a full face of makeup and hair meticulously in place. I shrunk from attention, from interaction, from eye contact, even among friends. I assumed everyone else was as disappointed in me for leaving the house like I did as I was in myself. I was embarrassed, ashamed, almost apologetic anytime I ventured in public looking less than perfect. I finally understood that the rules, for me, demanded perfection at all times; for everyone else, less was acceptable. Less could even be beautiful.

I distrusted men who said I looked beautiful without makeup. I avoided women next to whom I would have looked unattractive by comparison. I avoided men I thought were too attractive for me, certain they would be mean to me. If a good-looking man expressed interest in me, I thought it must be a trap, that they must have ulterior motives. I felt self-conscious and unworthy of attention, of respect, while giving a presentation at my job. This is reality, distorted; this is assuming you know things you couldn’t possibly know. This is thinking you absolutely know the rules and knowing will keep you safe.

You get good at this as a neglected child.

Once I started inspecting my childhood for these messages, my brain unearthed a vast trove of memories—so many examples of adults, and occasionally other children, commenting on my appearance or on the appearance of women. In most examples, the correlation between beauty and a person’s (often, a woman’s) worthiness was so clear, the implication so harmful, that I thought I might have intentionally buried these memories.

I recalled a memory of me, at nine or 10, in the orthodontist’s chair. I have a lot of memories from this chair; I spent a lot of time here, requiring extensive orthodontic work when I was young. My orthodontist did good work, but his proudest accomplishment was the teeth of one patient, a Seventeen magazine cover model (this was the early ’90s, and Seventeen magazine was indeed something a middle-aged orthodontist would have been proud of). Her cover was displayed prominently in the waiting room, but I don’t remember thinking much of it. I was too young for teen mags, and at 15 or 16, this girl must’ve looked like a full adult to me, completely out of my orbit.

As I sat in the chair, the orthodontist explained to my mom that our previous interventions had gotten my teeth close to perfection, “about 85 percent perfect.” I remember that percentage so clearly: 85 percent perfect. True perfection, 100 percent perfect, would require braces. Did she want to throw more money into my mouth and close the perfection gap?

No, she did not. According to my mom, 85 percent perfect good enough. And I suspect it was good enough for me, too, at that age because what kid wants braces?

Where did I get the idea that being beautiful was the only thing worth being?

My orthodontist agreed. It was good enough. If I were going to be on the cover of Seventeen magazine, of course, 85 percent perfect would not be acceptable. Then there would have to be braces. This was all said out loud, by my orthodontist.

“But she won’t be on the cover of any magazines.” Again, said out loud. By a middle-aged orthodontist. About me, a child, at a normal volume, near my ears.

Near my mom’s ears too. And I still wonder why she didn’t say, into his ears, “Fuck you, you sad old man. Don’t tell my daughter what she won’t do.”

But instead, I remember her laughing, politely. I remember it because I do it too, now, as an adult, when people say something inappropriate or confusing and I’m too polite or self-conscious to challenge them. At that age, I took her polite laughter as agreement. Of course, I’m too plain to be on the cover of Seventeen magazine. All the adults in this room agree, so of course.

It seems ridiculous to me now: Who is this man to be the arbiter of magazine-cover fitness? Or of braces worthiness? I was a child. Did he know that in about 20 years, there’d be magazines for all kinds of people, a cover model for a variety of body types? Did he think there might be a better way to phrase this? Something like, “These teeth look great! Braces could slightly improve upon this, but that decision is up to you.” And when my mom refused, he could have said, “Okay, good call. I agree, because these teeth look awesome, really, and shouldn’t hold her back from doing anything in life she wants. Boy, I do great work. Anyway, have a great life, kid!”

It was the first time I remember someone limiting my future prospects for me (but certainly not the last). It was also the first time I remember my worthiness (in this case, for braces, and a career as a model, I guess?) being called into question because of the way I looked. At 10 years old. I know 10-year-olds now. They are children, and my best guess as to whether they will grow up to be on a magazine cover is, “Who the fuck cares?”

My preteen and adolescent years introduced me to more authorities on my looks. There were boys who called me “ugly” in the way that boys do, but I treated them like they had their fingers on the pulse of beauty standards. Their rejection never left me, no matter how many boys thought I was pretty after. The boys who liked the way I looked were obviously deficient. The mean boys—they spoke the truth.

But ultimately, it doesn’t matter much whether I’m pretty because, in a way, my orthodontist was right: I’m a normal, non-model person. I have a regular, non-model job. I have friends and family who love me. I even found a boyfriend who isn’t repulsed by my 15 percent imperfect teeth. I travel, I love my dog, I enjoy cooking, I laugh with my friends. I am smart, financially secure, and most important, healthy. None of this is affected by the way I look. And yet, it’s still there.

So, where did I get the idea that being beautiful was the only thing worth being? The answer, it seems, makes it difficult to escape: Everywhere. I got the idea literally everywhere.

I write about death, relationships, family, and grief.

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