[Content Note: Body policing; fat bias; harassment.]
Before I was fat, I was ugly.
I've been fat—by which I mean, I was called fat, by people who wanted to hurt me—since I'd quickly developed large breasts by the seventh grade. My soft and growing body was called fat, long before it actually was.
But even before that, I was called ugly.
I remember the first time a neighbor kid called me ugly, and how it felt so surprising. I was maybe seven. We were playing on my swingset, and I wouldn't get off the swing he wanted, even though there was another just like it.
"Your face is ugly," he told me. Matter-of-factly. Casually swaying back and forth with his arm curled around a support beam of the swingset.
I'd never even contemplated my appearance before, and the first time I was obliged to do so was to wonder if I was ugly, like he said I was. I decided I must be. I wasn't sophisticated enough yet to realize there might be other reasons for calling someone ugly, besides the fact that they are.
Thereafter, when one of the boys called me ugly—it was always boys, at least to my face—it stung. Not because I felt like they were being mean, but because I felt like they were simply stating the truth.
By the time I reached middle school, with glasses and braces and a face full of zits, being called ugly had become routine. I was called a frog, a pig, a cow, four eyes, pizza face. A cute boy on which I had a desperate, quiet crush wrote in my yearbook on the last day of school: "To a nice but very ugly-looking girl..."
I remember cradling the book in my hands, and reading it, and feeling the hot blush of embarrassment illuminate my cheeks. And then anger, at myself, for feeling anything at all. He was just telling the truth.
None of this should have mattered. I should have understood that my value as a person wasn't predicated on what I looked like, as adults who cared for me assured me. But my value as a person, as a girl, was predicated on what I looked like.
That was obvious. It even mattered to the people who told me that looks didn't matter, who gently suggested a different hairstyle or the use of zit cream or two years of braces. My looks mattered, and I was ugly and needed to be fixed.
For a long time, my only tool of resistance was not letting my looks matter to me.
Not in a badass way. Not in an I'm gonna look like whatever the fuck I want to look like in whatever the fuck way that makes me happy way.
In an avoid mirrors and pictures and pretend I'm basically a brain in a flesh jar way.
In an avoid being visible way.
I tried to be invisible. Even, and especially, to myself.
Occasionally, someone would compliment me on my appearance, and I simply wouldn't believe them. It wasn't false modesty, or self-pity, as my rejection of their compliment was often understandably received. It was just authentic disbelief, firmly rooted in having been told otherwise.
As I got older, and fatter, the insults switched. Now "fat" was the ostensible insult that came first.
But "fat" didn't feel like an insult. It was just an objective observation.
Something about this—about fat being used an insult, with the attendant implication that I didn't deserve to be treated kindly because I am fat; the thing that made me a fat activist; the idea that fat is just an objective and morally neutral description of a body—made me start engaging with the idea of being ugly.
Which is subjective, but I had always treated as objective. At least when it was being said to me.
I had been encouraged to regard "ugly" as a subjective assessment, when it was being regularly deployed against me, but that was never very much help. Ultimately, what was helpful was my belief, lasting since childhood, that "ugly" was an objective fact about me.
As I thought about how I deserved to be treated like a human being even though I am fat, I began to think too that I deserved to be treated well even though I am ugly.
Or not ugly. Or whatever.
A lot of self-acceptance rhetoric involves admonishments to find everyone beautiful in some way, as an entrance to finding oneself beautiful.
Which, in some way, only empowers "ugly" as an insult. And underwrites the idea that beauty is the threshold past which acceptance and love and respect is found.
The place I have reached is this: It's not even that I don't care if other people think I'm ugly; I don't even care if I do.
I can look at myself and see what is there, really there. My splotchy skin, my slightly crossed eyes, my wildly asymmetrical mouth. My arching brows, my long lashes, my high cheekbones. I can see all these things, those that are the markers of valued beauty and those that are the markers of deviation from valued beauty. They are just the facts of my face.
Maybe if I'd always been told I were beautiful, I'd feel differently.
But I don't long to be beautiful. I don't even long to be not ugly. I simply want to be able to look at myself, in the mirror, in pictures, in my reflection in a window as I stroll past, and see the facts of myself. To not value them or devalue them, or use them to value or devalue myself.
I want my act of resistance against a world that values women on their beauty not to be to disappear, but to be visible. To myself, most of all.
All "you are ugly" means to me anymore is that I have been seen.
And having been seen, I expect my humanity to be respected. That is, after all, the reason that visibility is important—to humanize, to acknowledge, to include.
All of the words about how beauty is subjective and everyone is beautiful in their own way and true beauty is on the inside—well, they're all true, but they're also irrelevant, in a culture where there is a rigidly enforced beauty standard and "ugly" is deployed as justification for abuse and neglect.
Being ugly needs to be okay.
By which I mean: Being ugly cannot be a justification for harm.
So I am happy to concede I am ugly, in order that I may argue that I am deserving of nothing less than if I were beautiful. And so is everyone else.
This is not a fishing expedition for compliments. It is an argument for all of us to matter, to be valued, to be seen.
I don't need to hear that I'm beautiful. If you want to tell me anything at all, tell me: I see you.
Because there are always going to be people who deviate, significantly, from the beauty standard. And we can talk endlessly about how beauty is subjective, but what I'd rather be talking about is how basic human rights are not.