It was Tuesday, my regular day to pick up my nine-year-old niece from school. This was a routine I’d started when Myesha was still in day care, a guarantee of spending at least one afternoon a week with her. Over the years, the basics of our afternoons had changed only slightly. There was food, talk, and an activity we could do together. When Myesha was younger, the activity was usually snuggling on the couch, where I would read to her until she drifted off into a nap. In more recent years, our activity time had led me to explore the woody trails of my neighborhood park and, after much practice, to learn the latest clapping games that girls invariably perform on playgrounds.
Myesha and a girl I recognized as one of her friends strolled toward the parking lot, whispering back and forth to each other. In front of my car, they parted—waving with the wild abandon that only children can muster. Myesha pulled the door open and in one efficient motion flung her Barbie book bag into the car then hopped into the backseat.
I heard the clinking of the barrettes that dangled from the ends of her braids. She thumped the back of the passenger seat with her tennis shoe. She’s tall like her dad. “Seat belt,” I reminded before shifting into gear to leave the lot. It was a reflex, not a required prompting. She fastened, and when I looked back, she was staring out the side window, her head tilted upward at the sky.
“Can I ask you something?” she said, moments later as I pulled into the McDonald’s drive-thru.
“Sure,” I said.
She was silent for a few seconds, long enough for me to hear her sudden intake of air, then a steady exhale. “Am I ugly?”
Experience has taught me that for certain questions it’s the time it takes to supply the answer that carries more importance than the answer itself. And so I responded quickly, “No, Myesha. You’re not ugly.”
When I glanced in the rearview mirror, I expected to see her deep-dimpled grin that would tell me she was teasing or that solemn look of satisfaction she got whenever I told her exactly what she needed to hear. But instead her face appeared frozen still, her eyes narrowed as if she was examining a priceless coin.
“Why do you ask?” I said.
She hesitated, and it seemed to me the first time Myesha had been reluctant to speak her mind.
“There’s a boy,” she said. “I like him, but he doesn’t like me.” She dragged one French fry through a glob of ketchup.
“Who is this boy?” I asked, already picturing a cruel, little oaf in my mind.
After swearing me to secrecy, she revealed his name. “He’s nice,” she said, “but I want him to like me.”
“There’s a lot that goes into liking someone,” I said, emphasizing a lot. “You can’t really explain what makes one person like another…”
She stopped me. “No,” she said. “It’s happened before.” She was watching me now—leaning forward the way she did when one of her favorite songs came on the radio. “At my last school. I liked a boy…but…he didn’t like me back, so I was thinking maybe it’s because I’m ugly.”
At that moment, I knew I couldn’t explain the mysterious path that leads to an attraction for one person, but not another. Instead, I crafted examples about the subtleties of preferences: jeans—straight-legged or flared—and hairstyles—braided or pony-tailed. With each instance, I talked faster, like a rapid-firing pistol. I moved on to games, followed by movies, snacks, teachers, girlfriends, then finally I drew comparisons with boy-girl relationships. I wanted to give Myesha more than ugliness to think about, to overwhelm her with other possibilities. I didn’t want her to conclude that she was ugly because she couldn’t think of anything else.
“We like people for all sorts of reasons not connected to how they look,” I said. “It might be the way they laugh…or because they like the same things you do…or because of how smart the person is.” I caught a glimpse of her in the mirror. “Does that make sense?”
She shrugged, but I could tell she was thinking about what I’d said—she’s that kind of child. And I was thinking, too, about ugliness and a picture of myself years ago when I was thirteen.
I don’t remember the occasion when the picture was taken. In those days, any Sunday afternoon might find my sister, brother, and me in the backyard still dressed from church while my mother snapped photos of us with the Instamatic camera. What I do recall is that I liked the picture of me standing in the backyard, wearing a lime green dress with a white leather belt that showed off my small waist. I was posed in the way girls did then—arms behind me, my head tilted to one side, and with just enough sway in my hips to suggest a promising body.
One day, my brother suddenly materialized while I sat at the kitchen table admiring the photo. At sixteen, he was constantly in motion, sweeping through the house on his way to meet friends or to get to football practice. But this day, he paused long enough to peer over my shoulder at the picture.
“Look at old, ugly Terri,” he said, then disappeared out the side door.
If he had said it in the taunting way that older brothers usually talk to baby sisters, I would have responded in kind and then forgotten about it. But his tone had been amicable and so matter-of-fact that he could have been making an observation about the weather. Even my mother, who was busy in the kitchen, said nothing—not even the usual, “You know better than that,” her familiar reprimand for our minor infractions. It was as if my brother’s declaration of my ugliness was such an obvious truth that it had, by tacit agreement, gone unsaid for the first thirteen years of my life.
After that, I was changed. In retrospect, it seems absurd that a few careless words should have affected me so deeply, but from that day something that I’d never considered before became a permanent part of me. Don’t misunderstand, like other girls my age I had compared myself to the competition, and, to the extent that one can, I’d given myself an honest assessment. Maybe this one had nicer hair (that was important then…and perhaps now, too) or that one wore better clothes or had a better figure. Until that day, my appraisal had been that I was comfortably situated in the mid-range—not a candidate for a circus freak show or a beauty contest.
I considered the standards of beauty for African American women. There was Lena Horne, an indisputably exquisite looking woman, with keen features, straight hair, and thin lips. Today we don’t talk about the preference of having European traits but back then we all knew it was better to have hair “like white people.” Diahann Carroll, star of Julia, had a polished style beyond anything I could attain while locked in the bathroom and experimenting with drugstore makeup. When I compared myself to these women, I felt the full weight of my ugliness—a skinny, yellow-skinned girl with nappy hair.
I settled into the life of an ugly girl. I became quiet and shy. My insecurity about my appearance led me to avoid anything that might draw attention to me because that would invite people to see old, ugly Terri. I understood when my friends and I went out that boys and later men would be more interested in my attractive friends. I believed that any attention I received was a gesture of pity or boredom and accepted practically all dates because I assumed the invitations would be few and far between. Once when I was in high school, I dated a boy who, in plain terms, I loathed. He never listened to anything I said, opting instead to interrupt or “talk over” me. One those occasions when we ate out, he would stuff hamburgers and onion rings in his mouth, then chew through a conversation. At times I was so disgusted by the sight of his eating that I would excuse myself to the ladies room just to get away. And yet, I never refused his invitations.
My accepted ugliness undermined every aspect of my life. As an adult, I became a pleaser, believing my acquiescence was a necessary concession. I doubted the motives of every relationship. Why would any man be attracted to me? Why would any woman want to be my friend? While most girls wanted to squeeze into the smallest dress size possible, I deliberately bought clothes a size larger than I needed. My goal was to camouflage my ugly body as expertly as I camouflaged my inner self.
Then one day I realized that soon I would be fifty. Although I had always exercised regularly and followed a careful diet, I couldn’t stop the spreading cellulite on my thighs or the hanging flab on my arms. My body was changing. I acknowledged that the Lena-and-Diahann ideals no longer seemed applicable—or enviable to me. This realization had an oddly jarring effect on me. While I felt a sense of relief at not having the unattainable over-shadowing me, I also felt a sense of loss. Where were my standards of beauty?
At the same time, I was preoccupied with questions. Who defined ugliness? Did I have to accept that definition? What was I really like? Did I respect myself? Would I want myself as a friend? Was I living the life I wanted? For these questions, I had few answers. Equally disturbing was my growing annoyance with people, accustomed to my compliancy that continually made demands of me, and I was irritated with myself when I gave in. “That’s what happens when you turn fifty,” my mother told me when I complained about their insensitivity. “You just won’t tolerate people messing with you.” I wondered if she was right. Maybe fifty was the gateway to intolerance or maybe it was the tunnel to something else. Increasingly dissatisfied with myself and unwilling to remain in the role I had played for so many years, I decided it was time to create another picture.
I was the only one who saw this imaginary photo of me sitting in an orange velour chair, a gift from my sister when I moved to Wisconsin in 1983. Though I donated this chair to Goodwill years ago, I invented a snapshot of myself, pressed into its comfortable, buttoned back, hands folded in my lap. Deliberately, I brought neither my face nor my body into sharp focus, sensing that id didn’t need to see what was outside I needed to concentrate on what was inside.
For months I studied my photo, always in the chair although sometimes posed with my legs curled under me or leaning on an armrest, reminding me of The Thinker.
I searched for clues to understand the life I’d led. Like a detective, I followed the threads back through critical moments when this response instead of that might have made a difference. I returned to that day in the kitchen when my brother had casually defined me as ugly. Each time I remembered, I imagined another way to counter him. “Who asked you?” I might have said, or “It takes one to know one.” Even rolling my eyes in smoldering defiance would have been better than accepting his pronouncement. Thinking about the power I’d given his words embarrassed me.
In time I began reading self-discovery books, searching for explanations for my behavior. There was no shortage of works that were loaded with theories, case studies, key agreements, spiritual laws, and makeovers to help me analyze my life. I devoured them all, reveling in the range of possibilities and solutions they represented. Finally, I had the power to define my past and to shape my future.
Some days change was difficult, and other days it seemed impossible. Backsliding into comfortable, painful habits was easier than cultivating new ones. Frequently after agreeing to something I didn’t want to do, I would force myself to renege, explaining tactfully and sometimes timidly to the person that I couldn’t comply. With practice, it became easier for me to say “no” immediately to acquaintances and colleagues when their requests were counter to my own needs. And any feelings of fear or insecurity that I’d experienced in the past began to fade. Last year, ignoring all skepticism, I went back to school to fulfill a dream of studying writing.
Since then, I measure myself by what I see in my imaginary picture. I focus on what I am learning, by the people I am affecting in a positive way, and by what I am giving to my community. Every day I meditate to connect with the inner person I am, and I don’t consider how that person looks to others because I know she is beautiful to me.
The next Tuesday I picked up Myesha as usual. After talking to her about school, her food preference, and giving the “seat belt” reminder, I mentioned the boy that she had talked about the week before. “Any changes?” I asked.
“No,” she said, pursing her lips. “That’s just the way he is.”