I was in fourth grade. It was recess. I was waiting for a friend and walking through a big pile of melting snow. I got so lost in a trance of squishing the slush under my boots that I hadn’t noticed I wasn’t alone. There was a boy nearby whom I recognized as being in the grade above me, all freckles and teeth. As we made eye contact, he smiled, laughing at a joke that I clearly wasn’t in on, and said: “You know people call you Ugly Erika, right?”
We stared at each other for about two seconds before I turned and hurried away. Erika was my sister. She was a year older than me and one of those people who are popular without trying. Consequently, most people knew me only as her sister, a darker version of her with long, tangled hair and bushy eyebrows. I was aware of how different we looked, but I didn’t realize that other people were, too.
I spent the rest of my day feeling like crap; and in the weeks that followed, every interaction with a male classmate or a friend’s brother fed these insecurities in my head: Does he think I’m pretty? Does he? Does it matter?
There probably wasn’t a phase of my childhood that couldn’t be considered awkward, and I came to accept this by thinking of myself as “the smart one” (as if good looks and intelligence could not possibly coexist). My sister was great at sports and got invited to parties and straightened her hair every morning; I spent my Friday nights rereading Harry Potter.
When I started 10th grade at a new school, I saw the chance to reinvent myself. I had no delusions of becoming suddenly popular, but I figured this didn’t mean that I couldn’t experiment with my style. So my back-to-school shopping for that year consisted of less Hello Kitty and more short skirts. It wasn’t an overnight transition, like in that episode of Degrassi: The Next Generation where Manny shows up to school with her thong peeking out of her low-rise jeans. It was more of a gradual evolution: I ventured into different stores when I shopped. I shrunk my jeans in the dryer to make them a little tighter. I thrifted old skirts and generously raised the hem.
Somewhere along the line, my awkwardness passed for attractiveness. I would never be teen-movie-protagonist pretty, but I had a shot at the quirky-best-friend role. My frequent growth spurts gave me a gangliness that meant I was never quite in control of my limbs, but left me standing at 5'11". I was catcalled for the first time while walking with my sister after a charity run, still in our charity-run T-shirts. “They’re probably honking because they support the cause,” I said. “That’s not why,” she responded knowingly.
I felt as if I had passed some sort of test, become more of an adult—it felt more significant than getting my period ever had. At the time, I didn’t see it as harassment (which it was). I felt proud of myself, but I never stopped to wonder why. I was just happy that my sister was with me when it happened, so she could see that I wasn’t her dorky little sister anymore. I wasn’t Ugly Erika.
This newfound power—the ability to be looked up with attraction instead of revulsion—fueled the first few months of 10th grade. I took pride in my long legs, constantly challenging the school dress code with shorter and shorter miniskirts. The fact that I never developed boobs, which had made me so self-conscious in middle school, now gave me something in common with the waifish models in fashion magazines. I spent hours in front of the mirror learning to tweeze my brows, apply liquid eyeliner, and make pouty faces at my reflection.
I started to collect positive interactions with boys like Pokémon cards. If I caught a guy looking at my legs in the cafeteria, or if he sat next to me in math class when other seats were available, I would consider the day a success. This whole time, I wasn’t even dating—I think my whopping sexual experience amounted to a chaste peck on the lips from a male friend at New Year’s. The thought of any type of actual intimacy terrified me. Sex was never my goal; I sought only approval, and vindication against the opinions of every boy I knew growing up. I was driven by insecurity and pettiness, but I didn’t care. For the first time, I got a taste of what it’s like to be the hot girl.
My school had what they called a cheerleading squad, though it was more of a dance team with pom-poms. There were girls on the team with extensive backgrounds in dance, and they were very talented, but the main thing I thought at the time was that they were all pretty. Boys noticed them, so I wanted to be one of them. I showed up early to tryouts, practiced the routines, and made the cut. But dancing in front of an entire crowd was more attention than I was used to. I was debilitated by stage fright, and would fake stomachaches on most of our game days.
As the Christmas assembly was approaching, I knew that my excuses were wearing thin and I’d have to either get out there and perform or quit. We were rehearsing a routine to “Santa Baby” that involved giant candy-cane props. There were complicated moves that I had to practice for hours to get right, peppered with suggestive flourishes. At one point, in a move that would have made the Plastics blush, we were about to pass the giant candy canes between our legs and straddle them, but the supervising teacher put a stop to that. At the time I didn’t even understand why.
Anyway, I was terrified. I knew I would screw it up somehow, and that the sexy facade I had been working so hard to perfect would crumble, and everybody would know I was just an awkward poser. In the minutes before we were supposed to take the stage, I started talking to one of the other cheerleaders about it. There were already visible sweat marks under the arms of my tight red T-shirt.
“Who cares about any of that?” she said. “When you go out there, don’t think about the fact that you are being watched. Just think about the happiest memory you have, and focus on that.” This advice probably sounds obvious, but I swear it was earth-shattering for me at the time. “Don’t worry what other people think about you” is a lesson that is drilled into our heads starting with our kindergarten teachers, but it can take a long time to stick. I mean, this girl exuded confidence, she dated boys, and her secret came down this. Boom.
During the routine, I was nervous. I was still sweating and probably two counts behind the other girls. But dammit if I didn’t have fun. It was basically the last shot in my learning-to-be-sexy montage, but it turned out to have the opposite effect. For the first time in months, I didn’t feel like I needed male approval to feel good about myself. I felt like a girl who loved to dance like she didn’t give a shit, and then took the bus home—business as usual. I quit the cheerleading team the following semester, feeling like I’d gotten the most I possibly could out of the experience.
After that, I didn’t care about boys or their feelings at ALL, EVER AGAIN. Come on, guys, I was still a hormonal 15-year-old straight girl, of course I cared what they thought—but I wasn’t seeking constant validation from them. I stopped wearing makeup every single day; I went a whole week without grooming my eyebrows. After working so hard for so long to prove to the world that I was sexy, I took steps to prove to myself that I didn’t need to be.
The next time I was catcalled—a carful of boys called me a slut while I was walking to the drugstore to buy shampoo—I felt vulnerable and gross and I couldn’t think of anything else for the rest of the day. Did I actually use to consider this a compliment? “Approving” whistles from passersby suddenly felt just as terrible as that kid in fourth grade telling me I was ugly—both were unwelcome comments on my appearance, and I wanted to stop giving them so much power over my mood.
I didn’t totally stop thinking about my appearance for the rest of high school, but I was less obsessive about it. I also gave more thought to what it means to be considered attractive. I started reading feminist blogs and magazines, and became more aware of how dismissive our society can be of anybody who doesn’t have light skin, or who isn’t thin, or who doesn’t conform to a nauseatingly long list of other qualities. Growing up, I was too wrapped up in my own insecurities to notice that I wasn’t the problem—the ridiculous standards of beauty that were being fed to me were. I never questioned why it felt necessary to spend a certain amount of time on my appearance, or that a lot of my routine involved “taming” the features I get from my Indian side (like tweezing my eyebrows and straightening my hair). I don’t see a problem with wanting to do some of these things, but I have a problem with feeling required to do them, and that boundary can be very blurry.
I’d love to tell you that I’m at a point in my life where I dress only for myself, but you’re all smarter than that. I’ve spent ages on my makeup for a first date, and I’ve changed my outfit a dozen times before going to an event that I know a lot of my friends will be at. But I also experiment with what it means to be “sexy.” I treat the features I once hated—my eyebrows, my gap teeth—as unique assets. Most days I’m a lazy dresser, going out in jeans and sweatshirts, but sometimes I dress super girly just to hang out at home alone.
And when I look back at my high-heels-and-miniskirts phase, I don’t judge my former self. I was working things out, experimenting not so much with sexiness as with societal approval. Ultimately, I decided to reject that approval as much as it’s possible to when you’re mired in it every day—but I couldn’t have gotten here without trying it on, and seeing that it didn’t fit. ♦