I didn’t date in high school, which I mainly attributed to having several consecutive obsessions with dudes who would later turn out to be gay. Then one day, I plaintively asked my best friend why no guys ever wanted me, to which he said, “If you stick with trying to date guys, you’ll do…so-so. But,” he added, “if you switch to girls, you would be beating them off with a stick.”
In his defense — even though he had just asserted that A) sexual orientation can be switched, B) lesbians have lower standards than straight men, and, of course, C) that I was too ugly for most men — I knew he was trying to be helpful. And that, frankly, made it even worse, because this was my smart, rational, supportive, close friend who I trusted, and an actual guy no less.
When my current boyfriend heard this story, he was equal parts incredulous and furious on my behalf. That’s because he is much, much better than just “so-so.”
By the time I was 13, I was pretty insecure about my looks. My previously straight hair had suddenly become curly and uncontrollable, I hated my freckles, pimples were invading my face, my ears stuck out, and I just generally hated everything I saw in the mirror. My mum, on the other hand, was everything I wanted to be: blonde, polished, and pretty. So when my best friend said to me one day, while we were eating lunch at school, “My mum said something nice about your parents — she said your mum is really pretty and your dad is really good-looking, so how did they end up with a kid like you…”
It was everything I feared and secretly thought myself. And to come from an ADULT… it broke my heart.
“I shouldn’t have told you,” my friend said. No, he really shouldn’t have. But he did. So I laughed it off and went home that afternoon and cried myself sick.
Luckily, I made it through that awkward stage of puberty soon enough. Over the next couple of years, I got control of my hair, learned to take care of my skin, decided my freckles were freaking awesome, and that everything else was what made me unique. I also decided that adults who judge the appearances of kids are not people whose opinions I care about.
It was in the silences that I learned my sister was the pretty one — strangers fawned over her dark red hair and her arresting brown eyes while I stood there, quiet. Later, she would reinforce her greater beauty herself. My outfit was “fine if you want people to think you’re a lesbian,” she said, at a time when both of us were too stupid to see that as anything but an awful, awful notion. At 14 or 15, I wore a lot of vibrant tights and large sweaters. My sister, then 12 or 13 but already more comfortable in a miniskirt than I, walked onto my high school campus one afternoon to find me. She did, and then she walked away and my male classmate said, “That’s your sister?” in a way that would make me uncomfortable today (Control your erection, you fucking pig) but crushed me then (No one will ever want me like he wants her). I envied her, acutely, but the pronoun he chose — that that — was no accident, and now I feel a little sad for both of us.
In January I saw that guy drunk in Los Feliz; I texted my sister and we laughed at him.
I’d always been the tallest or second-tallest kid in my class, which never made me feel ugly, necessarily. Couple that, though, with being diagnosed with scoliosis (and given a back brace to wear), and you’ve got yourself a pretty easy recipe for crying yourself to sleep more than once a week.
I was super insecure about the back brace. I had to wear it 22 hours a day. In the third grade, one day after lunch, my class was filing out of the lunchroom when the teacher lightly touched my back as he was counting heads. “Whoa! Whatcha got back there?” he said, loud enough for everyone in the vicinity to hear. I felt like a freak on display at the sideshow for quite a while after that incident, my 9-year-old self irrationally panicking that my classmates (and teachers!) would never be able to trust anything I ever said or did again, or even want to associate closely with me, since I hadn’t let them in on this horrible device I’d been sporting in secret.
In retrospect, sure, wearing a removable back brace for a year isn’t the most awful experience in the world — but it did help me learn at a very young age to be more open about difficult, uncomfortable, and embarrassing situations without the fear of damaging friendships and relationships. Also, RIP scoliosis.
—Erin La Rosa
Admittedly, I had some issues as a kid: shiny metal braces, frizzy red hair, and an extra 20 or so pounds that tipped me into the realm of childhood obesity. But when puberty hit, in the course of a few months, I went from being the girl who had to discuss early onset diabetes with my pediatrician, to someone who wore shorts. It was a lot of change real fast.
When I walked into my computer science class, my teacher, Mrs. Kindle, took me aside and grabbed me by my new shoulders. “You’ve gone from an ugly duckling, to a beautiful swan!” she cooed. I’d been called fat plenty of times before, but that was the moment that really put a definitive label on what being fat meant: ugly.
Looking back, I know what Mrs. Kindle said wasn’t right. But I’m secretly glad she said it. Thanks to her, I stopped focusing on my looks altogether, and put all of my energy into school, writing, and making people laugh. You know, all things that didn’t require you to be pretty. (Thanks for bullying me into being a well-rounded person, Mrs. Kindle.)
When I was 8 and attending public school in Bay Ridge, I lent a glue stick to a boy in my class. My parents were super organized, so the glue stick had “Julia P.” written on it. Because I liked to wear lots of bright pink, and because it said “P” after my first name, the boy from then on called me “Julia Pig,” which became a classroom nickname for me — as in everyone, save the teachers whom I never told, addressed me as that.
I don’t particularly remember feeling fat, or inspecting my body in mirrors, but I do remember angling my lunchbox so that it blocked me as much as possible from everyone, as I couldn’t disassociate the word “pig” from the words “fat” or “ugly,” and felt embarrassed to be seen eating or simply being.
The experience made me really conscious of the impact of words, as well as reminded me to be nice to people. Plus, I’ve always wanted to write a children’s book, and a shy pig named Julia could be a cute protagonist!
Being biracial, my two sisters and I were pretty familiar with hair disasters. I was the youngest of three girls, and with my parents both being lawyers, we had an au pair.
Mila, our babysitter from Milan, had the most beautiful, long, thick, straight hair. In mid-May, she cut it all off, forming a gorgeous, black bob. I am not totally sure what possessed me to do this, but thick, frizzy, curly-haired me decided to cut off all my hair too. Like one would assume, my hair did not turn out as expected (see above).
One day that summer, I was charged with returning a movie to Blockbuster. As I approached the VHS return slot, I heard an elderly woman approaching. Naturally, I held the slot open for her to return her video as well, at which point she said “thank you, sonny,” and walked away.
Looking back, it was a good lesson in how not to do my hair — a lesson most people learn in a much more embarrassing time of their life (like high school). Oh, and I got the last laugh, Blockbuster’s gone and I’m still standing.