There is a high fashion photo shoot going on right now on the corner of 56th and 8th. I walked by it on the way back from jogging in Central Park a few minutes ago. Pedestrians and passengers alike were rubbernecking to get a look at the sleek, big-haired, made-up model. All the expensive photo shoot equipment aside, I probably would have noticed her anyway. Even from behind, she was stunning. Waiting for the light to change at the intersection, drenched in sweat and my thighs sticking together under my shorts, I glanced at her long, slender legs posted on 5" stilettos and haloed by a short raincoat. Her back was to those standing at the intersection while a make-up artist ran brushes over her cheeks. A woman near me said, I wish she'd turn around so we could see her face. But her tone was less of one who was genuinely curious and more of one who was hoping to see that the model was not as pretty as her retouched pictures would surely turn out.
Yesterday I was sharing pizza with some of the other executive assistants at work, discussing the Olympics and someone said, I just wish Michael Phelps was nicer to look at. Another nodded in agreement: Yea, his gums are bigger than his teeth. I was quiet during the conversation, running my tongue along the inside of my own teeth, feeling the inside of my bite, made nearly perfect by braces and a procedure I've kept secret from anyone who came to know me after I was 16. Even now, those who know me well and read my blog will be learning of it for the first time. My shallower friends may feel deceived. Others will claim that the hidden truth would not have made a difference; unfortunately, I won't believe all of them.
There is a preoccupation with beauty in almost every human society that is never more intensely felt than by those who aren't beautiful. I know because I felt it throughout most of my youth. Just before puberty hit, it started to become noticeable that my lower jaw was growing beyond my upper one, and my protruding underbite would subject me to the mental anguish of cruel childish ridicule well into my teens. I spent hours locked in the bathroom, viewing myself in profile between the mirror on the wall and another held at an angle in one hand, trying to imagine what I would look like if I had a regular bite and wondering what it would feel like to be noticed for being beautiful. It would seem ironic almost 15 years later when Super Bowl Champ would shout at me over the music in Tenjune that I have a pretty profile. Huh? I would yell back. You know, he would reply, Some girls look good from the front but not from the side.
I dreaded going to classes in middle school and my first two years of high school. There is a fundamental difference between simply undergoing the awkward stages of puberty and being legitimately unattractive. When I hear others discuss the trials of their youth, they often make generic references to gangly limbs, baby fat, bad hair or braces. As amusing as their stories are, few can recount their own instances of the intense, daily derision that I felt. The mean boys taunted me and the mean girls passive-aggressively reminded me that my lower jaw was longer than normal. The boys I had crushes on never knew my name. I don't know which hurt more, to be noticed because of a dramatic flaw or to not be noticed at all. The latter stung less so throughout middle school, I gravitated toward general hallway and classroom isolation, team sports because the athletic girls didn't seem to care as long as you pulled your weight, and the class clowns because the funniest people tend to be too absorbed in their own personal problems to notice yours.
I've had orthognathic surgery twice; once during the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school and again in 2006 to correct some discomfort caused by the slight regrowth associated with having the first surgery at too early of an age. Immediately after the first surgery in 1996, my father incidentally retired from the Navy and we moved to Asheville, North Carolina. With a new face and a new life at age 16, I never mentioned the first, and more dramatic, surgery to anyone I ever met thereafter.
I've dealt with ugly duckling syndrome, learning how to accept compliments from those who assume that I have always looked this way. The surgery didn't turn me into God's gift or supermodel material, but maybe I never fully accept compliments because I feel like I am falsely packaged. As if who they see isn't really me. By my senior year of high school in 1998, I had lots of friends, was on Homecoming Court, tied in nominations for Most Friendly in the Senior Superlatives, and dating the guy who was voted Most Attractive. My life was a complete 180 from my middle school, freshmen and sophomore years. When I was later elected to Homecoming Court in college, too, I wondered all the way across the football field if any of these people would be cheering for me if I looked how I used to look. Even now, Michael Phelps' Olympic gold medals do not save him from the mockery of abnormality.
This past July, I received a message on Facebook from a high school classmate in freshmen algebra, a boy who sat right in front of me in class for an entire year but never spoke to me beyond asking to borrow a pencil. He wrote: Hey Katie. Everytime I look at your profile, I'm just like, "Damn! I used to go to high school with this girl. She is so beautiful that it doesn't make any sense! Her boyfriend is blessed." I hope that makes you smile. As an added bonus, you have some fine ass friends too. Me and [eradicated] were talking about you about 2 weeks ago. Anyways, I hope all is well with you.
But who am I really? Am I shaped by personal experience or by the saturation of societal standards? Am I caught up in the preoccupation of beauty because I know how it feels to be justifiably ugly or am I preoccupied with beauty because I am the product of a preoccupied society? Or am I driven by the ultimate revenge of subtly flaunting my New York life in front of anyone who was mean to me in middle school and high school, where I now jog by high fashion models without shrinking in envy and discuss the Olympics with coworkers on a top floor of a Manhattan high rise?
A Year Ago Today: No post
Two Years Ago Today: Corporate Monday