I grew up thinking I was ugly. Not at first. As a kid, maybe up through the second grade or so, I was as cute as cute can be. White-blonde hair, endearing smile, and big, curious sky blue eyes. That’s how I look in pictures and I can remember comments made over my head to my parents about how adorable I was.
When I started picking out my own clothes, the cuteness changed a bit, but it didn’t disappear. Now I became a little tomboy, disdaining any occasion that involved dresses or (God forbid) tights, and preferring “boy clothes” in every department: basketball shorts, t-shirts, loose jeans, sneakers. I didn’t like pink or tight, I hated anything that itched, and I loved sports. My wardrobe made sense. And for a while, I was still cute. I was the spunky little girl that all the boys wanted on their team at recess. I wore ballcaps and jerseys and had front teeth missing in my untiring smile. The pictures of me during those years were still, by the common scale, inarguably cute.
I don’t remember exactly when “cute” went away, but a few moments come to mind. The first is a conversation with my mother, probably around the sixth grade or so, after a trip to a dreaded “clothes store.” That’s what I called Kohls, JC Penny’s, Marshalls—every work of that damnable genre. We were getting into our blue-grey minivan with a few bags from the boy’s department. I had turned down my mother’s suggestions of bedazzled jeans and fitted t-shirts, and by the time we were loading up, she was frustrated and I was “huffy.”
“Deanna Jean,” my mom had said as I was climbing into the back seat. “You’ll have to start wearing real girl clothes soon.”
My mother regrets that line. I know because we talked about it fifteen years later.
She meant real girl clothes. I heard real girl clothes. The message, to me, was clear. In the clothes I preferred—the ones that were comfortable—I wasn’t a real girl.
The second scene is from middle school. I had a crush on my friend Cameron. He and I spent lots of time together, playing practical jokes on our teachers, juggling a soccer ball back and forth, exploring the marshlands behind his house. He was a bit roguish but very sweet, polite and intelligent, goofy, good-hearted. He had straw-colored hair and a crooked smile. Teachers fawned over him. I was smitten and more or less assumed we would get married in that indistinct grownup age down the road. When he’d hug me, which he did often enough, I occasionally imagined him pulling away so he could come back in for a kiss.
One time over at Cameron’s house I was coming out of the bathroom when I heard my name from the kitchen. Cameron’s mom was on the phone. “Yup, she’s staying for dinner.” A pause. “Oh no, no, nothing like that. Cameron sees her as one of the boys.”
I stood outside the bathroom and stared at the white tiles—they were growing blurry through sudden tears. I heard Cameron calling my name outside. I swallowed hard but couldn’t muster up a voice steady enough to answer, so I went back into the bathroom and closed the door. Not a real girl.
About that time my older sister got pretty. For some years before she’d been in what my brother and I call her “owl phase,” with perfectly round glasses sitting on an almost-as-round face. She could’ve hooted at night.
She got contacts, though, and lost some weight. The roundness of her face went away, and her dark brown eyes softened a bit. She turned sixteen and started wearing altogether too much makeup (“goth stage” had begun), but she’d nevertheless become a beautiful girl.
She started bringing guys home then. I didn’t like any of them very much—they had nothing on Cameron, that was for sure—but not one of them, I knew, saw her as “one of the boys.” I was not a beautiful girl. I could tell the difference.
I grew more self-conscious about my appearance when I got to high school. I was aware that my friends dressed differently than I did, and it started to bother me. My body became something I paid attention to, and not with any amount of satisfaction or confidence. I looked in the mirror more often than I used to, and when guys started asking my friends out and not me, the reason seemed obvious. There’s something wrong with the outside parts of me—my clothes, my face, the shape of my body. There’s something off about the skin part.
While my skin started wishing for somewhere to hide, high school was becoming something of a stage for my mouth, my mind, even my muscles. I was popular, accomplished, and universally admired. I was the girl who was good at everything and nice and funny. I was breaking records in two varsity sports, writing and performing music, topping all my classes, and having no trouble befriending not only peers from every social class, but also my teachers, the guidance counselors, the security guards, the janitorial staff. I was growing more and more uncomfortable in my skin, but speaking I was good at. Singing I could do. Sports were the pride of my life and I was a stand-out in all of them.
Overall, high school meant stardom for me, even in my basketball shorts and un-skinny jeans. The spasms of loneliness and self-loathing were cut off sooner or later, and usually sooner, by some new accomplishment or accolade. Being a real girl was overrated.
I never actually spoke those words, but if I had I would’ve eaten them, gagging, the first week of college. Ugly, alone, afraid. That’s what I scribbled in my notebook one night early in the fall of my first semester. Stripped of my sparkling reputation, I felt my dull otherness in a way I never had before. I wasn’t impressive here. I was just a girl who didn’t know how to straighten her hair. I wasn’t brilliant, just boyfriend-less. I wasn’t universally liked, just ugly, alone, and afraid. Afraid, I think, because I feared the permanence of the first two words. I was afraid of always being ugly and alone. Being ugly and alone made me afraid.
But still I hated tight and itchy clothes, and still I felt that spending an hour doing my hair was an insufferable waste, and still I liked playing sports more than just about anything else, so my appearance didn’t change much. How I felt about my appearance, however, suddenly became unavoidable, swimming an inch in front of my face no matter which way I looked. With nothing to distract me from the inexplicable wrongness of myself, I felt like I’d jumped right from fifth grade to my first semester of college, and was, abruptly, no longer cute (or popular, accomplished, admired). The words that meant me had changed. And recess didn’t exist anymore: now the boys had no reason to pick me at all, let alone pick me first.
And they didn’t pick me. Although I gained much the same reputation by the time I graduated college as I’d had throughout high school, and benefited from all the comfortable confidence that came with it, I had not once in those four years been asked out. This deficiency had become a source of quiet but deep insecurity, and I located the problem entirely in the skin part of me. Where else could it be? People liked me, after all. I was nice and funny and easy to talk to, insightful, attentive, a thoughtful friend. It wasn’t my mind boys couldn’t like. It wasn’t my personality. It was my body.
At the time, I couldn’t imagine being pretty. I was afraid to try. I was reluctant to experiment at all with my wardrobe for fear that even the right clothes and right hair and right style wouldn’t right the wrongness of me. What if I was still a fake, somehow, still wrong, picked last or not at all? What if the unnamed and invisible judge of my youth still shook his head as my sentence?
Fast forward a few years.
I was twenty-three years old and met a guy named Sal. We were thrown together several times by happenstance and began to get to know each other. He confided to me that he was struggling to come to terms with his sexuality. This didn’t surprise me. He admitted that it had been a lonely, confusing season. From the way he told the story, his friends had virtually disappeared, ditched him, left him to figure things out on his own. My heart ached for him, as it does for every lonely thing, and I was determined to be his friend.
It was very soon after making that decision that I began to notice that Sal wasn’t looking at me like a gay man looks at a girl—and like no one had looked at me before. And he was saying things a gay man doesn’t say to a girl—and what no one had said to me before. Could this be happening? It was a question that was hard to answer, because Sal would be there one day and gone the next. Sometimes he’d take me by the hand and look me in the eye and say things I’d always wanted to hear, and sometimes he’d stare at me with a world of distance in his eyes and say words that cut me deeper than any childhood grief. Once he looked at me hard, his eyes far, far away, and ran the back of two cold fingers down my cheek. “I just don’t know what I’m supposed to be attracted to,” he said.
I ought to have left him then. You’re gay and you’re mean. The two unrelated facts add up to a simple sum: this is not about me.
But that’s not how it felt at the time. In spite of his occasional meanness, his incessant manipulation, his general lack of integrity—all those things about him that increasingly troubled me—my heart was his, arrested by the tremulous possibility of finally being wanted. He alternated in his behavior toward me by the day and sometimes by the hour, but his indecision wasn’t about him. It was about me. I was the one on trial, somehow, the one being tested. Sal made it seem that way, and I believed him. Because it was my body that was on trial. Not my mind, which was, according to Sal, a lovely, lit-up beauty, full of poems and love-of-leaves. It was the skin part of me. On trial, again and always.
And he tried it out, right up to the point I would let him. Somewhere along the line, my mind stepped in. Enough, it said. No more.
I’m grateful for its insistence, but as one famed psychiatrist put it, “the body keeps the score.” My mind could say what it wanted, but I remained a body on trial, feeling all the unrelenting discomfort of having been tested through the touch of a man’s hands and tongue and searching skin. And Sal made it clear, once I’d made my boundaries adamant, that my body had not passed the test. He was gay, yes, but that wasn’t the point. It was about me. There was something wrong with me.
Three years later, I’ve moved past the confusing pain that Sal inflicted. My heart and mind have healed. But my body, I think, hoards the memory, keeps the score. And I’m still losing somehow.
To be sure, I’ve become comfortable in dresses and flats and jeans from the girl’s department, and I even like dressing up sometimes, though when given the option to be comfortable I will always choose sweatpants, basketball shorts, a t-shirt. I still despise anything tight, pink, or itchy, but I’ve figured out that not everything about being a girl comes with those adjectives attached. I’m glad for that. I look in the mirror and don’t hate myself.
But there’s a difference between this—this state of long-sought neutrality—and a sense of actual at-home-ness in my skin. In theory I believe in the goodness of creation and in a God who took on flesh in order to save it. I believe in the ultimate acceptance of the body, its resurrection on the last day. I believe it with all the cognitive assent I can muster. But my face, my eyes, my stomach, my legs—they are less convinced.
As I struggle with ongoing depressive episodes of one stripe or another, ostensibly unrelated to the stories I’m recounting here, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that the worst of these hours manifest themselves insistently in my body. I’ll be sitting at my desk and have an unrelenting urge to crawl underneath it and press myself between the wall and the waste basket. I’ll be praying in the chapel and want to slip under the pew and curl up beneath it forever. I’ve experienced significant changes in self-perception over the past few years, and they’ve all been for the better. But still the skin part of me is looking for places to hide.
In theory I believe that my body is a living sacrifice. That’s what Paul believed, and he bid his flock to see their bodies in the same way. “Present your bodies as a sacrifice—alive, holy, and pleasing to God,” he wrote to the church in Rome. This is the shocking invitation, to present my body as an act of worship, as an offering of love to God and to my neighbor. My body. The skin part of me.
I’m not yet sure what that looks like, this new offering, this strange redemption, this earthly resurrection of the flesh that was once condemned. A different judge has appeared on the scene, unabashedly carnal and unwilling to hide, and he’s declared my body “pleasing to God.” Wed to this Jesus, in flesh and bone as much as in soul, I pass the test. This is the truth. Lord Jesus, let me know it in my skin.
Cover photo by Thorpe Mayes IV.