The Ugly Years

Recently I posted on Facebook several photos of me with others. In each photo, I’m standing with a different set of friends. All the photos were taken on the same day so that I appear in the same clothes in each one. I’m on the right, which is to say, I am actually standing to the left side of my friends and the left side of my face is in three-quarters view toward the camera.

Someone commented that I look exactly the same in each photo. That it was eerie. That I might’ve been photo-shopped into each photo. Same location, same expression. I agreed it was weird. But it was also deliberate. I’ll explain in a bit.

I’ve never been happy with the way I appear in photographs. Who is, you say. Most of us judge ourselves harshly when it comes to the camera. Even my most photogenic friends insist they are not photogenic. But there is “not photogenic” and there is really not photogenic.

In my Camelot years, between the ages of 17 and 30, or maybe they were more accurately my Brigadoon years, fleeting as they were, I was at my least uncomfortable when it came to being caught on camera. There were two reasons: 1. Braces, the blight and misery of my childhood existence, had some years earlier been snapped off with orthodontic wire cutters and 2. I got contact lenses. It was as if reptilian scales had been shed, or a scary mask removed.

Prior to those wonder years were the ugly years. Please don’t protest. You weren’t there. Or maybe you were. Even so, chances are you will remember things differently.

girlwithbracesI have big teeth and as a child had an overabundance of them for the size of my jaw. I do have a wide mouth, but the jaw is narrow and couldn’t accommodate the teeth. As I grew, my teeth grew more crooked, my malocclusion more pronounced, my overbite more protrusive.

In the fourth grade, I got braces. About that time I was required to wear glasses all the time. I was skinny with bow legs and pointy elbows. I was not a pretty picture. A classmate pointed out that I had a crooked mouth. And because I have always striven to be agreeable, I agreed. I was, in fact, apologetic.

Always a self-conscious child, I became even more so. Except for school photos, few pictures of me exist of those years. I dreaded picture day at school. Afraid to smile, I ended up just letting my jaw go slack, which pulled my mouth agape. Really, I had little choice since my mouth wouldn’t close over my metal-clad teeth. My sixth-grade picture was one of the worst of that period. It didn’t matter that I had curled my hair to flip up at the ends or that I wore my favorite dress. In truth, my awful sense of fashion only worsened the effect.

Recently my sixth-grade photo surfaced on Facebook as such things will. I tried to laugh it off, but it brought back painful memories of who I’d been then and how I’d been treated. I was an oddity to be abided with squeamish awe. Look, someone could wrap her hand around my skinny upper arm. Look, someone else could wrap her hand around my skinny ankle. Look how my clothes hung like a sack on my bony body. Look at that crooked mouth. Those hideous glasses.

Years later, I notice that my sixth-grade face is at a three-quarter turn to favor my left side, which today is my “good side,” a thing I discovered when a few years ago I hired a professional photographer for an author photo.

As I sorted through the hundreds of proofs, I found only a handful that I liked and nearly all of them featured my left side. I had a good side! The side of me you’ll invariably see in photos, looking eerily the same—as if photo-shopped in.

Back in the sixth grade, I had no good side. Any way you looked at me, you saw braces on protruding teeth and cat-eye glasses over timid eyes.

I’m not going to post the picture here. It’s out there in Facebook world. If you really want to find it, I’m sure you will. Or someone else might post it. There’s nothing I can do about it. When it resurfaces on my screen, I’ll probably look at it for a moment, maybe laugh at the sad horror of it before I wince and turn away as something tiny and dull pings at some hidden place in my heart.

“Writing is the best revenge” says a T-shirt slogan. But it’s not out of revenge that I write. It’s out of compassion. My new novel (in progress) features a character named Angie. I admit she’s my alter ego. She’s gawky and shy and regularly suffers humiliations, taunts, cruel jokes, and severe lack of self-esteem. I’m in revision now and the thought of imbuing her with super powers has crossed my mind. But maybe that’s not necessary, because inside Angie resides the tiny sliver of belief that she matters. That she will survive the ugly years.