By Amanda Rose Adams
My daughter doesn’t know she’s beautiful. I think she knows she’s “pretty” because people have been telling her that since she can first remember. Despite my best feminist intentions, I’ve told her she’s pretty, but for reasons she cannot understand. She thinks everyone is pretty, that it’s just part of being human. She’s right, every human is beautiful, but not every human turns heads.
My ten-year-old daughter is traditionally beautiful. Her face is symmetrical, her eyes are big but not buggy, and strangers have been commenting on her uncommonly common beauty since she was a newborn. I’m not bragging about her beauty; in fact I’m troubled by it. It was fun having a baby that everyone noticed, but she’s ten now. Puberty is advancing on her body like a creeping vine, and I’m not the only one who notices. On our way to the park the other night, a grown man, a teenage boy, and a gaggle of middle school boys all looked at my child in a way that made me uncomfortable, but she did not notice. She was too busy racing to the tire swing, unaware of anything between her and her goal of spinning until she was dizzy.
She has always been interested in math and architecture. She loves Minecraft enough to save her allowance to buy her own account and has her own set of Pokémon cards. She is creative, kind, smart, and, yes, beautiful. None of her attributes seem like problems until I notice a man my own age staring at my child. This is when I worry she might be too kind, the wrong kind of smart, and too pretty for her own good.
Some mothers may not notice when men or older boys stare too long at their daughters, but I do. I notice it now because I didn’t notice it when I was ten. I was like my daughter in many ways, oblivious to things beyond my own attention span and enmeshed in my private creative space. I also hit puberty early, even earlier than her: My period began seven weeks before I turned ten. By the time I was eleven, when most of my classmates were getting training bras, I was in a C-cup.
Before my body betrayed me, I was indifferent to it. Unlike my daughter, I was not strong and didn’t swing across the monkey bars. I wasn’t boldly climbing trees; instead, I climbed up to my top bunk and played with my Barbies and read my books. I didn’t really notice my body changing. My classmates pointed it out in third grade. Soon after, the older boys and girls at my Lutheran school saw fit to comment on my chest and ask me if I stuffed my bra . . . I didn’t even own a bra. My twenty-eight-year-old mother was in denial that her oldest daughter’s body was unfurling so quickly. My puberty didn’t begin well, and it got worse before it got better.
I didn’t notice the boys looking at me, but my dad did, and it made him angry. He couldn’t direct his anger at strangers, so he directed it at me. He used his Bowie knife to cut up a pair of my shorts because they were suddenly too short. All my shorts had been just as short the summer before, but something had changed. When the thirteen-year-old boy across the street asked me to go with him to the Boys and Girls Club to play PacMan—it was O.K. because he had enough quarters for both of us—my dad yelled and sent me to my room. It wasn’t OK. I was grounded just for being asked.
While I was still ten, my babysitter took me with her to the local high school football practice. Sophomore and junior boys shook their heads when she told them how old I was. She and her friend laughed, but I was even more confused than the boys. My dad was not amused, and I was no longer allowed near the high school.
The summer I was eleven, a twelve-year-old boy I adored and his fourteen-year-old friend took turns holding my arms behind my back in the swimming pool and tugging my swimsuit up and down, reaching in where they could. When I complained to my mom that the boys wouldn’t leave me alone (without explaining exactly what they were doing), she told me that I must have liked it or else I would have gotten out of the pool. As overbearing as my dad had become, my young mother was indifferent. For years I didn’t realize these boys were molesting me because I had liked one of them, though I didn’t like him after that summer. I was so confused by the entire situation that I just tried to forget and pretend it never happened.
Soon after, my sisters and I were left with the husband of a family friend while my mom went shopping with a friend. The husband promptly sent my two younger sisters to the basement to watch his infant daughter while he and I “made cookies.” My idea of making cookies was making sure they didn’t burn and carefully navigating the spatula against the hot cookie sheet like I’d learned after I burned my finger in 4H.
His idea of making cookies was pressing me up against his kitchen cabinets and rubbing his erect penis against the small of my back while holding himself up with one arm against the upper cabinet and grasping my right breast with the other. I ducked under his left arm and raced to the bathroom, where I waited until my mom came back. Then I got in trouble for not helping clean up the mess in the kitchen. I never ate any of those cookies. That’s around the time when I started eating and couldn’t stop.
I was an anxious child. The way I explained these painful invasions to my young self was that I must be ugly. Why else would people want to hurt me? Why else would I keep getting in trouble? Besides, vanity was discouraged in my conservative religious upbringing. When I was younger, one of my Sunday school teachers told me how much I looked like my mother. I did not take it as a compliment. I never thought my short, broad mother or grandmother were beautiful. I thought beautiful women looked like Charlie’s Angels and Wonder Woman, and I knew when I stopped growing at 5′ 2″ that I was not a beautiful woman.
Convinced I must be ugly if men and boys were staring at me, I kept my head down. In high school, I hid my body under layers of clothing two or three sizes too big until I started sneaking so much food that my body began to fit the clothes. Now I was not only ugly but fat, too. I began harming myself with tweezers and straight pins, trying to dig something out of me like a splinter. While this was highly destructive, it was the only thing that soothed my increasingly suicidal mind.
By the fall of tenth grade, my home life was volatile, my school life isolating, and I was at a breaking point where I had to decide if I was going to live or die. Volunteering at a nursing home gave me the shot of self-esteem I needed to choose life, but I still believed I was ugly. One day during one of our many fights, my mom asked what my problem was. “I’m ugly and I hate myself!” I screamed. “Are you happy now?” It was one of the rare moments that I left her speechless. When she finally found her voice, she said, “You’re very pretty,” and I said, “You have to say that, you don’t mean it,” and I hid away in my bedroom like a troll. I hid for a very long time.
When I was twenty-seven, my maternal grandmother died. At her funeral, my great-aunt told me that she always thought my grandmother was a beautiful woman. Even then, my image of what was beautiful was skewed by the conviction that anyone who looked like me was ugly. Aunt Mary’s comment drove me to look at pictures of my grandmother and not see my myself. I did the same with photographs of my mother, seeking their beauty and trying to absolve them of my ugliness. I didn’t even feel beautiful on my wedding day, maybe almost passably pretty, but not beautiful.
In 2003, I had a beautiful baby boy with half a heart who was promptly and precisely butchered to save his life. As I dragged my breast pump across three hospitals and thousands of miles, I didn’t think about what I looked like. I was done with outside ugliness and instead battled the ugly thought of losing my child. After his second open-heart surgery, I was surprised to find I was pregnant again.
Then, there she was, my beautiful, perfect little girl, whom I would have to leave behind more times than I could count to take her brother to doctor’s visits and for two long weeks during a hospitalization. It took me longer to learn her face than his, and it kept changing, pudgy as a baby, thinning out in elementary school. When people would say that she looked like me, I would dismiss that as an insult to my child. I knew my daughter was beautiful as surely as I knew I was not.
A couple of years ago, we had family photos taken and there she was, my mini-me. My daughter and I looked so much alike, I was stupefied by the resemblance. Another time I was brushing her hair and looked up to see our hair the same cut and color, parted the same direction, our faces eerily similar. I was startled as if a stranger was looking back at me, challenging me to call her ugly.
That was the moment, after surviving so much fire, that the smoke cleared and I realized that being ugly had been my greatest comfort. Being ugly meant that I could still be a good person. Being ugly meant that the things that had happened to me when I was eleven weren’t my fault. Being ugly meant that everyone else was judging me for my looks so I could ignore that I was socially awkward and deeply wounded. Being ugly and fat meant that maybe, someday I could be pretty and thin. Being ugly meant I could keep eating and cutting myself because I didn’t deserve to actually feel good. Being ugly was the barrier I put between my skin and my soul to hold back all the pain rotting on the inside.
But that day, I couldn’t deny that I was pretty and had always been. I had to admit that my daughter looks like the girls I always envied growing up, and she also looks like me. As my daughter approaches the age where I became ugly, I have to own that I never really was. Ugly things were done to me at an age and left wounds that never healed quite right, but I wasn’t ugly.
My compulsion to protect my daughter from the unwanted attention of men and boys is only partially driven by my maternal love for her. That is part of it, but I am also motivated by the ache in my heart that I was not protected from the actions of others. Being ugly kept me from facing how fragile I felt, but it also kept me from seeing how fragile I was. Now the ugly mask is broken, the sooty mirror is clear. When I realized my daughter couldn’t be beautiful if I was ugly, it was like tearing off a blister to reveal a raw and tender space. Seeing my face in hers means owning that I am beautiful, too.
Amanda Rose Adams is the author of Heart Warriors, A Family Faces Congenital Heart Disease, and her nonfiction writing has been featured in The New York Times Motherlode blog, The American Academy of Pediatrics Bioethics Newsletter, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, Squalorly Literary Journal, Evening Street Review, and Scrubs Nursing Magazine. She blogs at amandaroseadams.com and you can follow her @amandaroseadams on Twitter.