The List

I always thought that self-acceptance would come from learning to love my flaws, but it seems it will come from loving to hate them instead.

I just discovered there’s something wrong with my butt. I have long butt. Long butt, for those of you who don’t know, is when your butt is flat but long, running without distinction or definition right into your upper thighs. It is also sometimes referred to as “mom butt.” Apparently Gwenyth Paltrow once suffered from long butt but she fixed it either with vigorous exercise or cosmetic surgery, depending on whom you believe. Long butt can be addressed by surgery, exercise, or special corrective underwear, but — and this I learned from Pinterest — it can also be disguised by proper back pocket placement on your jeans. If you’d like to evaluate your own back pockets, just let me know, I’ll send you the link.

You’d think I would have noticed this problem with my back side before now, but the truth is I’ve been busy noticing a lot of problems with my front. There are a bewilderingly large number of things wrong with me, and I’ve memorized them all. I have a list.

The list is too long and too technical to enunciate here but a partial tally might include my cheekbones, the backs of my hands, my upper arms, my lower stomach, and my knees. Plus, of course, the long butt. I have made up names for many of these conditions. In elementary school, my best friend Stephanie introduced me to “Christmas tree hair;” in junior high I started worrying about “shoulder shelf.” I also suffer from horse face, monkey arms, and dog mouth: a menagerie of flaws. The other day a friend mentioned an absurd article she’d read about women’s eyelids, and even though she’d mentioned the idea specifcally to mock it, we both checked out our eyelids just the same, and mine went right on the list.

Of course, there’s also a list of things I like, but it’s a much shorter one, and one that diminishes a little every year. I like my collar bones, my ankles, and the color of my lips. Actually, I think used to like my eyelids, too, before I looked at them carefully.

When I was young, this list was a big deal. Being plain was a central fact of my childhood. I knew it, other kids knew it, even adults would comment on it. I read a great deal, and what I took away from all the adventures, mysteries, and fantasies I read was that without being pretty, you couldn’t be the main character in your own life. Women and girls could be timid or adventurous, serious or goofy, haughty or kind, but they could never be plain. (Except for a special kind of literary plainess that disguised a hidden beauty.)

I was not that kind of plain, just the regular kind. My nose was big, my chin sharp, and my hair thin and friable, the color and texture of straw, and always knotted no matter how often I brushed it. It was neither straight nor curly, neither blonde nor brown, and so I always tried to push it one way or the other, to make it pick a side. I lightened my hair with Sun-In and lemon juice; I darkened it with henna. I curled it, I rolled it, I got a perm.

I had terrible acne for years, the kind that leaves permanent scars on your face, and I covered it up with too much foundation even though I knew perfectly well it only made me look worse, like a person who broke out in hives on his way to starring in Pagliacci. I wouldn’t even go swimming in public because then I’d have to get my face wet and wash off my makeup.

I was also very skinny. People hear skinny and they think thin, like a supple reed, but I was skinny and brittle, like dry twigs. My ribs showed through my skin. I tried everything to gain weight, even drinking the weight gainer powders used by athletes, which I mixed with Carnation Instant Breakfast into a concoction that tasted like a mixture of Nesquik, baby Tylenol, and chalk. I tried those pectoral exercises that supposedly make your breasts appear bigger. I knew these exercises didn’t work. In fact, I had learned about them specifically by watching a television show making fun of them for not working, and yet I watched this poor laughingstock pumping her elbows back and forth, and thought, “Well, it can’t hurt to try.”

But the worst of all was my teeth. I have a significant overbite and a large gap between my two front teeth. As a child I wanted braces the way some girls want a pony. Butts have pockets, skin has concealer, but there is only one way to hide your teeth. Even now I won’t smile for pictures, and so settle for a smug-looking close-mouthed smirk.

Anything that was sold at the drug store when I was in high school, I tried it. I wasted thousands of dollars one allowance at a time on foam rods, curling irons, temporary hair dye, permanent hair dye, tooth whitener, cuticle cream, and every variety of face mask, hair mask, or acne treatment. At one time my body was probably about 5% salycilic acid by weight.

Then came age, and a whole new set of concerns. No matter how bad my list made me feel when I was young, I had hopes that I could fix it — highlight this, tone that — but the problems of age only move in one direction. Every day now I watch crows’ feet advance like tiny trench lines across the battlefield of my face.

And so I gave up, not with pacific acceptance but something closer to the moment when the last man lets go of the life raft and commits himself to the sea. I decided to believe that beauty was something innate and unattainable, if only because believing that excused me from the effort of trying to attain it.

Except my teeth. I haven’t give up on my teeth. I still dream at night about my teeth, about wresting them into line at last, about making them right, about looking back at all my old school photos and finding me in them now, smiling.

At my last appointment, my dentist remarked that a chip on my left front tooth had grown bigger.

“We could cap it,” he said, “or file it down, or . . . “ And here he spoke more gently, like a best friend telling you that color isn’t working. “We could correct all that.”

It’s true, I could correct all that. For years I’ve considered getting the new “invisible” braces but something always holds me back. Of course, the high price tag is one major hurdle — I could buy a lot of properly pocketed jeans for that money. But more than that, I can’t imagine how correcting an orthodontic mess as bad as mine would change the shape of my face. Would I still look like me when it was through? Would I look better? Would I look so unrecognizably better that I’d have to get all new passport photos and my own children wouldn’t know who I am?

The truth is, I can’t imagine living without constant low-level embarrassment about my teeth, like the roar of silence in a room after someone turns off the TV. I’m used to my list now. In some ways, I even like it, in the way that all of us secretly treasure even the worst facts about ourselves just because they’re ours. It’s my list, after all, my long butt and Christmas tree hair, and besides, if I had perfect teeth then that would just draw more attention to my horse face.

My teeth and I are old enemies. We’ve known each other for more than thirty years. We share a grudging respect, like Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino in Heat. I always thought that self-acceptance, if it came, would come from learning to love my flaws, but it seems it will come from loving to hate them instead. It’s not perfect, but at least it doesn’t involve drinking chalk.

Summer Block occasionally writes essays, short fiction, and poetry for McSweeneys Internet Tendency, The Toast, The Rumpus, PANK, The Nervous Breakdown, and many other publications. Some people follow her on Twitter @teamblock.

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