I vividly remember the first time someone pointed out an aspect of my appearance in a way that made me feel aware of myself in an uncomfortable way. I was at a childhood friend’s house and we were playing with Jem dolls or maybe My Little Pony. It was a small group, maybe five of us. We were all chattering away- we had just gotten to the age where gossip starts to rear its ugly head into your otherwise blessedly naive childhood world. We all went to the same elementary school. It was a tiny private school that existed in a gorgeous Victorian mansion with only about 10 children in each class so we all knew each other well- and sadly this meant that there were few people to go around and pick on- so if you stood out, well, your life got a little bit harder during the pre-pubescent years.
As we were playing with dolls hair and swapping secrets a girl said “Beth, do you know what Veronica said about you?”. I felt a little pang in my heart and my stomach sink due to the unfamiliar tone in her voice. I hesitantly replied, “No,what did she say?”. “Well, she said that you have big, huge, weird bug eyes!!”. My heart and stomach sunk as far as they could at that moment. I did not know how to respond. I left the room and went to my friend’s bathroom and cried for a minute. I felt hurt in a way that was all new to me.
I went home from my friend’s house and told my mom and dad what happened before we ate dinner. They consoled me and said that I was beautiful and that my schoolmate Veronica was just jealous because large eyes are a desired trait. I was confused by it all. I did not want to stand out. I wanted to blend in with the others and just be left alone. I also did not understand why my eyes suddenly seemed to matter, or anything on my face. I was too young to understand the fickle world of beauty and attractiveness. I tried to just forget about it all but with every year it just got worse, my classmates and I grew and changed at different rates and we questioned our attractiveness along the way.
I have been giving a lot of thought recently to childhood development and the idea of attractiveness. How do we decide what we think is attractive? At what age does this matter? I can find countless studies about the fact that we all, even as babies, prefer symmetrical faces (http://open.lib.umn.edu/intropsyc/chapter/14-1-social-cognition-making-sense-of-ourselves-and-others/), but I can find little research done about how we develop our idea of what is attractive and also what drives us to develop preferences. For example what makes some people desire a blonde bombshell like Marilyn Monroe or a brunette ingenue such as Audrey Hepburn? They both have close to perfect facial symmetry but they look entirely different in terms of body type, hair color and style. Why would a person be drawn to one more than another if appearance is all about symmetrical facial features as most studies say?
My guess is that we take a mix of social influence and evolutionary genetics. From my memories of the developmental years of my life I did not think much about my, or anyone else’s appearance, until middle school. I was an awkward 6th grader. My nick name was “chicken legs”. I faced endless harassment from my schoolmates over my slim body. For me outside of my awareness about my own appearance I had little awareness of what made anyone pretty or handsome. My first boyfriend in 6th grade and I bonded on a shared love of Guns and Roses “Appetite for Destruction”, not my shoulder length brown hair or his black rat tail. I was more drawn to his interests than his facial structure. And I can say that for myself this has generally how I have chosen partners in life. I have spent little time looking for chisled cheekbones or 6 pack abs.
I feel this is due in great part to my upbringing. My family all told me repeatedly that what they loved about their partner was their personality and intellect. My grandparents on my mother’s side, they were the only couple that had a love at first sight type of marriage, but what kept them together over the years was their intellectual compatibility and shared interests. My father had a terrible health scare as a teen that affected his complexion but that did not keep my mother from falling in love with him, or staying with him.
Around 8th and 9th grade people repeatedly told my mother I should be a model or an actress. I was clueless as to why. No one at school ever approached me at school to say I was pretty. I felt awkward and ugly due to the bullying I was enduring at middle school. My mother, despite her academic leanings, was thrilled at the prospect of having me become a model, and to this day I do not know why. My guess is that my learning disabilities were affecting my schooling to the point where she thought “Ok maybe she can survive via her looks.”
One might think that having people say you should be a model would bolster your sense of attractiveness but it did not. It did not matter to me that someone wanted to take pictures of me. I wanted friends and acceptance and was finding none of that through school or going to open calls and to me it mattered very little how I looked- in fact the less I stood out I felt the better for me. I did not want attention about my looks whether it was positive or negative. I was exhausted of people always talking to me about it. I just wanted to hide out and be “normal”.
A huge shift occurred in my youth when I discovered the world of alternative music. Through 120 Minutes and Headbangers Ball on MTV I saw plenty of people who did not fit any sort of norm and perhaps like me were uncomfortable in their natural skin. I felt an immediate bond with the various appearances and styles I saw on these shows. For me my definition of attraction became extremely tied into what a person was about- if a boy dressed like me and my new “tribe” I would be attracted to that before their facial features and body type. Or at least their style was the predominant thing I found attractive, then their natural physical features. I also realized that I could hide myself in dark clothes, leather jackets painted with offensive album covers, wear huge un-feminine boots, all to hide from my natural appearance. I felt a safety in cloaking myself in a uniform that said “don’t talk to me or look at me unless you are one of my kind.” It worked for the most part. The teasing I experienced at school at least went from “chicken legs” to “hey freak Halloween already happened.” My new look not only made it possible for me to survive the high school and middle school age of quarrel but shaped me into the person I am now who still looks at a person’s band t-shirt before their face while deciding if I might want to chat with them.
Over the next few months this is a subject I will be writing more about and hoping to do more research on. I would love to share people’s individual stories of identity, attraction and their youth. Please write to me and let me know if you have a story to share about this subject, or know of applicable research, especially if you have children of the middle school age group who are going through this awkward yet crucial age of cognitive development and awareness.
The title of this piece comes from the classic Cro Mags LP “Age of Quarrel”. If you have never heard it go check it out and I highly recommend reading “Life of My Own” by Harley Flannagan. His book is all about growing up in the NYC lower east side and ties very much into the aspects of self- identity I have touched upon here.