On an overnight school field trip in the mountains, I found myself in a nosy predicament. Growing up in a small town in Sonoma County, the fourth grade class at our school would take a field trip through this history of California’s Gold Rush movement. While it may sound fun, it most certainly was not my thing. I love nature. But what I didn’t like was having to do boy things with other boys. I had no interest in hanging out with the other boys, playing Pokemon or God knows what else. I desperately wanted to be part of the girls crew but I was not allowed in. Staying behind in the cabin reading a book while the boys were out playing, I overheard the girls’ counsel meeting.
Christina and Liz were leading the meeting. As they called the meeting to begin, the first order of business was naming the top three hottest guys in our class. This peaked my interest, naturally. As they called off the list, I found myself at number three behind Charlie Winterbottom and Christian Walsh. Hearing this set me into a spiral. My ten year old self suddenly felt as if a dagger was sent through the soul. Number three? I already believed I was ugly as hell, could hardly look in the mirror without getting sad and now all of the girls in our class thought I was number three. I wanted to be number one. I wanted to be good enough to be number one.
That’s when I broke into tears.
This wasn’t exactly new territory for me. In first grade, I begged my parents to let me stay home from school because I didn’t like my outfit. I really couldn’t stand the thought of the other kids judging me in Ms. Ware’s classroom, and certainly not on the playground. I was overcome with anxiety, so six-year-old me broke down in tears, screamed, and tried to avoid the impending doom of arriving to school as the ugliest kid in class.
My dad was a chaperone on our Gold Rush field trip. He found me sobbing in the cabin while the other boys were out playing games in the woods.
“Son, why are you crying?” My dad asked.
“BECAUSE…I…I’M UGLY!” I could hardly get through the sentence all heavin’ and puffin’ and shit. My face was red and disgusting, traumatized by my ranking as the third hottest boy in class.
My dad was shook. Here I was, his first-born son, and the last thing he thought he’d have to worry about was me crying over being ugly. This wasn’t even something my little sister would put him through.
“Well that’s just ridiculous, you’re MY kid! You’re good-looking as hell!”
He calmed me down and eventually I quit it with the ugly cry. On our way back to the other kids he said to me, “If anyone asks why you’ve been crying, just tell them I hit you.”
I loved my dad in that moment. He would rather me tell people he hit me (which he would never do) than force me to expose my secret truth: I hated the way I looked.
* * *
Seeing myself as ugly would carry on far beyond childhood. Ugliness triggered stronger forms of fear and anxiety as I grew older. The thought that I was hideous would torment me throughout the day, causing me to cancel plans, become anti-social and have suicidal thoughts. As I grew into adulthood, this anxiety turned into uncomfortable hookups with strangers, crying during sex, dysfunctional relationships and self-doubt.
One night when I was 21 and living in New York, I created this false idea in my head that because our group wasn’t allowed into some gay club, it was due to me being ugly. In reality, it was because we had too many girls with us, but I was drunk and disillusioned enough to believe I was to blame. I then took off, hopped in a cab, and climbed the stairs to the roof of my building. I wanted to jump off.
* * *
I built a consistent inner narrative that said I would only be good enough if I were pretty. I grew tired of being told I was funny, smart, talented, skilled, and ambitious. I wanted to be told I was cute, pretty, fine as hell and god damn attractive. This belief led me to obsessing over men who didn’t want me back, and even led to ruining opportunities to make friends. When I first moved to New York, I started hanging out with this guy I thought was so well put together, and had a dope aesthetic I could only wish to emulate. But when we’d be together, I would get inside my head, freak out and couldn’t have fun when we’d go out. Eventually, I just avoided hanging out with him. I assumed I wasn’t good enough to be his friend. If only I were pretty, then maybe I could do this.
I thought if I were prettier I would be more successful, happy, and fulfilled.
As I struggled to change the narcissistic ugly narrative that clearly wasn’t working for me, I noticed that one major blessing through all of the mess was I could see beauty in everyone I met. My pain became empathy, and holding on to this grounded me.
I realized my empathy for those who saw themselves as ugly was me finding ways to nurture myself. We see in people the things that reflect back to us. I used that as an arrow and ran toward it. If I could see the beauty in others, I could see the beauty in myself.
So I began to reshape my idea of beauty, and how to express myself. I ran into the fear. Instead of running away from social situations, I ran toward them. Instead of believing that I’m not meant to post shirtless photos, I would post them. Instead of feeling like I had to adhere to a an aggressive style of sexual masculinity, I could embrace my inner goddess and feel more comfortable in flowy clothes. I was now aware of the false ugly narrative, so I could catch the voices that backed it up. I had to stop looking for validation in others. No man, no friend, no amount of “likes” could ever make me feel beautiful, whole, real. I had to stop looking for validation in the ways others saw themselves as beautiful.
I am still healing the wound but it’s more sewn up than it was just a few months ago. I still have flashbacks to the old story, the old narrative saying that I am a hideous person. But by letting my passions and my core drive me, I have manifested beauty in ways I couldn’t have imagined. Understanding that the idea of my ugliness was not of me, that it was my inner-saboteur (as RuPaul would say), I can now have the thought and then send it down into the ground like a demon. I say a prayer for my former self and tell her that she will be OK, the authentic, true version of me will take this one. I escape to find a mirror, look at myself and say another prayer, this one of gratitude. Whatever my true purpose is in my life, it was meant to be fulfilled in this body, with this face, with those slick eyebrows and a beard that grows strong. This is enough. This is me, this is all part of the plan. This is divinity.
I know it’s been said again and again that beauty comes from within, but I have found that there’s nothing more true than that.