All children are natural actors, especially when there’s a camera present. So when my grandfather used to pull out the video camera, my sister, my cousins, and I jumped at the chance to have Nana dress us up for a play that we would perform in the bulky Fisher Price fairy castle that was kept in the basement. My cousin Ryan was the only boy and, whether or not he fit the part, he was automatically "Prince Charming." My sister was girly and soon became the princess. My younger cousins, years later, would follow in her footsteps by donning the ratty pink tutus and glitter infested plastic tiaras. I was the only one left. We have the knight, we have the princess—what other character is left? I was awkward, slightly buck-toothed, and more tomboyish then the rest. It only seemed right at the time that I be the ogre. And for awhile, that was fine. I wanted to be the ogre—the idea of being the prissy princess didn’t excite me. Give me a character that wasn’t perfect! But as time wore on, I didn’t want to be the ugly ogre anymore. Why couldn’t I wear the pink dress and the sparkly tiara? I didn’t like pink, but if that’s what it took to be liked, so be it. But no one else would be the ogre, and I was left with the dark, ugly eyeshadow.
The ogre was the beginning of my awkward stage—an awkwardness that followed me until I was nearly finished with college. There are memories from middle school. I was once laughed away from a baseball game when the entire team taunted me—"beached whale!" they called after me. I remember being at a dance in high school with my boyfriend and giving him a kiss. A girl came up to us a few minutes later and said that, for a moment, she thought he’d been kissing a boy. In college I remember being hit on by a girl and having the person who I thought was my best friend spread the rumor that I was a lesbian.
Those things had hurt, but they had been like dust on my shoes—I could brush them off and, though there would be specks still on my shoes, it wasn’t something that I needed to worry about. I remember the day it changed too. I was at the mall shopping for clothes. I had taken a pair of dark denims into the dressing room with me in two different sizes—a size 12 and a size 13. I hadn’t wanted any of the girls milling around the store in their belly shirts and low-rise cropped-shorts to see me. I slipped in the room, staring at myself in the mirror. I wanted to break it like I want to break it now. I slid off my own pair of raggedy jeans and struggled to pull on the size 13s. And found that I couldn’t. I struggled with the button, and, as I caught my breath, I looked up in the mirror at my short, slicked back hair, my make-up less face, and the rolls gathered around the edge of my jeans. Tears began to well in my eyes. I was the fat one. I was the ugly one. And all I wanted, for a change, was to be the princess. I pulled on my own clothes and opened the door to the dressing room.
"Did they fit?" My mother asked, but she saw my eyes.
And I couldn’t help it—the tears began to fall down my face.
And that’s how it started out—I wanted to be beautiful. Over a semester I lost 20 lbs and I felt ecstatic. People told me how different I looked, how much weight I’d lost. My mother showered me with compliments and clothes. I felt strong. I looked at myself in the mirror, and I thought, "Damn, I look good." But that feeling never lasts long. Now that I was beautiful, I wanted to be hot. I’d never been looked at as sexy before—and that was my goal. I grew out my hair, I lost 15 lbs more. I even had surgery (I told the doctor it wasn’t just for that—though deep down, I know it was a big part). I came back to campus and felt amazing! People barely recognized me, and when they did, I flaunted my new look.
But I didn’t want to hang out with people much anymore. The Adopt-A-Missing-Person Project, the child that I had raised on campus and put so many hours into, didn’t move me anymore. I cried when I talked about it, but it wasn’t the same. I saw their faces, but couldn’t feel the love that I’d felt for them before. They had been like lost friends, people that I had cared for so much. And now looking at their pictures brought nothing. I barely cared about my friends on campus. I didn’t want to hear their complaints—I wanted them to listen to mine. Maybe it wasn’t noticeable to everyone else, but I could feel it in my heart. I didn’t feel bitter, but I did feel indifferent. I didn’t want to care about it all anymore. So I stopped.
But the feeling continued. I put on clothes to go out dancing, and I felt fat. I crimped my hair and put on make-up, and all I could see were the other girls. I saw their tan skin and watched how the boys drooled over them. I had a boyfriend who I adored and cherished, but I wanted to be desired by strangers. Wasn’t that beautiful? I thought those girls were. I thought that they looked so care-free, dancing with whoever they wanted to. And I felt the need begin again. I needed to lose weight. I needed to dye my hair. But it didn’t feel the same this time.
It happened when I was driving home with my friend Vanessa. I told her that I felt like I’d lost my empathy. She told me I had. She’s never understood why I felt like it was necessary to lose so much weight. I told her about the day that I went in to try on a pair of pants. I cried to her, and she tried to understand. But I began to realize that, though that brought tears to my eyes, what she had said caused a pain in my heart. I had lost something that had made me who I was, and in my mind, that meant I’d lost my love.
I came to realize that, in losing the weight, in growing out my hair—in wanting to be the princess for a change—I had lost a part of myself. The empathy that I had cared about, the kindness that I felt had been my best characteristic, was slowly melting with the fat I was fighting so hard to get rid of. I cried myself to sleep that night, trying to understand what it meant to be beautiful.
My mother was beautiful. She was 105 lbs, skinny—but she barely ate anything, worked out often, and battled anorexia for years before she came to grips with who she was. Even now, she can’t gain a few pounds without feeling guilty. My sister is beautiful. She weighs the same as my mother, dyes her hair blond, and tans nearly daily. She feels lonely because she traded that for what she stood for the friends she thought were popular.
Though they are beautiful in their own way, what they are isn’t the only true beauty. Beauty can be in the skin or in the soul. Kindness is a beauty in the soul—the willingness to love people for who they are and for what they can do. The beauty of the soul is watching a mother fight to find her daughter and the loved ones of other families, and the beauty of the soul also lies in the way a boy holds his sister’s hand when she cries. The beauty of the soul lies in the great things that we do for mankind—and in the tiny things we do for each other. Some people are blessed with both and some just one. And some, those lucky enough to be blessed with soul first, can eventually have both. Ugliness is a disease of the mind, and I fully believe that love can change everything.
When I was younger, I wasn’t physically beautiful. I weighed more than my father. I cut my hair to boy-short lengths and refused makeup. But I had a heart. I would listen to others who needed someone. I wanted to be everyone’s friend, and I wanted to be able to heal the world. Even if I couldn’t heal the world—I could love my neighbor. And that had been enough for awhile. But I saw the other girls and how everyone admired them in a way that they never saw me, and I wanted to be like them. I couldn’t be happy with my own beauty—I wanted theirs. It’s taken me years to realize that not all beauty is the same.
I still look in the mirror at times and feel the scowl start to burn my lips. I still pull on a pair of jeans and think, "If I only I lost one more pound…" But it’s different now. I know that beauty is not the size of my jeans; it’s the size of my heart. It’s not how thin my face is; it’s what’s in my soul. It’s not the pink tutus or the beautiful tiaras; it’s my outlook on the world. And, when I think about it, I’m okay in playing the part of the ogre—I’m a different kind of beautiful.
Danae Leali is a junior from Canal Fulton, Ohio, majoring in Creative Writing.