I’ve always had big feet and big hands and freckles and non-committal hair and knees that look like they belong to a thinner version of me. But I didn’t always know this about myself. There was a time I didn’t think that big hands and feet were embarrassing. I never thought freckles were anything but the angel dust my Dad told me they were. I never thought fixing my hair was anything but optional. And I never thought knees could be ugly. I didn’t think about these things at all. I wasn’t ugly or pretty, I was just 12.
Then one day in the middle school cafeteria line a boy completely rocked my world.
“You have the ugliest knees I’ve ever seen,” he said. He was an older kid and he was staring at my knees, as if he had every right to do so. And when he laughed, everyone else laughed. I was confused for a few seconds but then I wasn’t. They were laughing at me. So I laughed too because I didn’t know what else to do.
I didn’t say anything because 12 year old me had no idea how to respond to insults about physical appearances. Before the cafeteria incident of 1989 (someone check that math. Nevermind, don’t), I was blissfully naive.
But now, someone made fun of my physical appearance, called me ugly, and it was awful. My body responded in the way it just does without my permission sometimes. I was paralyzed, a lump the size of a gorilla fist lodged in my throat, my heart beat so fast I thought everyone could hear it, and my cheeks flushed hot poppy red – like a nonverbal, public apology for being so ugly. I couldn’t wait to get my food and go eat my square cafeteria pizza in the bathroom, out of sight.
It never once occurred to me how ridiculous it was (is) for someone to insult someone’s knees. So you don’t think my skin-covered patellas are pretty? It also didn’t occur to me to ignore him, or not care. Suddenly I was just painfully aware of how flawed I was.
Until then, I didn’t know I was ugly or had reasons be be embarrassed about my body. But now I knew and that changed everything. And so began the painful quest to not be ugly, embarrassed or made fun of again…a downward spiral into obsessing over my looks and an unrealistic, expensive and painful quest to be flawless.
I’m not sure if it was immediate or gradual but eventually, I hated everything about my appearance. I wasn’t proud I could palm a basketball; I was mortified and terrified somoene would make fun of my hands. I sat on them or hid them in pockets. I formed a habit of making tight fists because without seeing my fingers, one couldn’t accurately gauge the exact size of my hands.
I obsessed over my hair. It wasn’t straight or curly or short or long, it was just a mullet-esque, mop of mousy brown threads that saw a few bad perms and a ton of Aquanet and Vavoom freeze spray. I could make my hair not move for days. But if it did move, if it was not perfect, I would fake sick and not go to school.
I also hated my freckles and layered cheap concealer, thick pancake foundation, and powder to hide them. It took hours to apply my layers. I was late and last to everything, always. The only thing that took longer was sloughing it off at the end of the day. But I felt ugly and exposed without it.
When my coach ordered basketball shoes for our team, I asked for a size 8, and then spent the next few years stuffing my size 10 feet into size 8 shoes, because aches and blisters (and permanent damage to my feet) were less painful than not having the same size feet as everyone else.
And those ugly knees? Clearly my cheerleading career was over before it began. Eventually, I became so self-conscious about them, I stopped wearing shorts and dresses altogether. But I had high school sports to get through. Fortunately, I hurt both knees and had to wear braces on both when I played sports. I looked like a rejected science project from the robotics lab (just kidding, my small town Texas school didn’t have a robotics lab), but at least no one could see my ugly knees under all that…plastic??? I don’t even know what my roboknees were made of.
Let’s not even get started on dieting. I’ve done all the diets. All of them. Low carb diet, Ketogenic diet, Zone diet, Atkins diet, cabbage soup diet, apple diet, raw food diet, Mediterranean diet, Weight Watchers, GCI, Whole 30, Paleo, Ab diet, South Beach. I even tried an all pasta diet once and I really wish an all pasta diet was a good thing, but it is not. I also don’t recommend the apple or cabbage soup diet either, but for different reasons.
I recently confessed to a friend that I rarely wear shorts or dresses because someone once told me I had ugly knees, and it just stuck with me. That’s embarrassing because I’m 40 and how is it possible that such a stupid statement from decades ago is dictating today’s wardrobe choices? Stick and stones break bones but words will seriously eff your shit up.
My friend responded to my deep, dark confession without a second of hesitation.
“NO! YOU HAVE PRINCESS KNEES! I LOVE YOUR BEAUTIFUL PRINCESS KNEES,” she said.
Of course, we were halfway through our second bottle of wine (and mind you she’s never actually seen my knees) but that’s irrelevant. Just as “ugly knees” stuck with me, so has “princess knees.”
You know why? Because “princess knees” is just as ridiculous as “ugly knees” because WHO THE EFF CARES WHAT YOUR KNEES LOOK LIKE?! I have to thank my friend for pointing out the obvious in the way she did, and loving me the way we all should love each other –drunkly, blindly, and without hesitation.
I’m working on my own body image issues, still. It’s important to note I’m not pinning all my issues on one comment a middle school kid with an underdeveloped pre-frontal cortex made a million years ago. It is just representative of an increasingly looks-obsessive culture that is really hard on us gals. We feel like we’re being looked at and evaluated all the time.
To further complicate matters, we have daughters to raise in an increasingly appearance-obsessed culture? How do we raise powerful girls that grow up healthy and strong and confident when we are still struggling to overcome our own self worth issues?
It breaks my heart to think of all I could have accomplished if I focused all the time, energy and money I put into trying to be pretty and worthy of boy’s attention into something for which I was truly passionate- writing, art, mission trips to poverty-stricken communities.
I do tell my daughter she is beautiful but it always follows another compliment like how witty and clever she is, how creative she is, how investigative she is, how proud I am that she likes learning (err, not to be confused with liking school).
The key is balance. Yes you’re beautiful, but you’re not only beautiful.
I alsoencourage her to think more critically about our culture, media and otherwise, and its narrow definitions of beauty. Reminding her, myself, and anyone else who will listen that these images are carefully and purposefully curated.
I want her to question patterns, I want her to be aware, I want her to be analytical. I want her to be happy and healthy. I want it to be weird to her that someone would think to comment on her body. I want HER, without the help of the unhelpful media, to create her own narrative around her beauty and her body.
I want her to ask, “I wonder how much time she spends obsessing about what she eats?” versus “If I stop eating, can I look like her?”
I want snapchat filters to go away. Except maybe the ones that turn you into a fruit or pirate.
I want fat shaming to go away and I want everyone to stop using #thinspiration and #thatbodytho. #Seriously #shut up.
I want people to stop being okay with letting girls think their value is correlated to their appearance.
I want girls to stop saying:
I’m too tall,
I’m too short,
I’m too skinny,
I’m too fat,
My nose has a bump,
My knees are ugly.
We are healthy, we are strong, we are smart, we are creative, we are kind, we are good, we are witty, we are funny, we are powerful and GOD DAMMIT, we have fucking princess knees!