I was never great with other women. A lanky child turned socially awkward, unattractive teenager, I adopted a sense of humor and boldness that, while common and expected in men, on a Southern redhead who finds sequined dresses acceptable daytime attire comes across as overly abrasive and dismissive. I think logically and speak directly; behaving otherwise never made sense to me. I never understood the purpose of the socially-driven manipulation that was common at my small-town Texas high school. (My senior year, I was the only girl who was not invited to make t-shirts for the Halloween dance with the rest of my class. Wouldn’t it have been easier and less terrible for all parties involved just to invite me along? I am still not over it.) So, I hung with the boys. I did not, however, date them. I had braces and a round face, and my eyes had this sort of droopy quality, like weights were attached to the outer corners. I wore bootcut jeans and cable-knit sweaters. Growing up is difficult, and the objective evaluations of self that lead to improvement are the strong point of exactly zero of the sixteen-year-old females I’ve encountered. I was no exception. I went to school and cheerleading practice, then I went home and cried and wondered if maybe I was not popular because everyone could tell my breasts were not the exact same size and avoided my calculus homework and threw away my dinner.
Boys always felt safer. Though men are rarely kinder than women, their cruelty often comes in the form I understand. Boys who do not like you do not call you. If you bother them, they tell you. They take things at face value. They’ve never heard of an epilator. Men are raised to embrace criticism and approach things logically. They are not taught to dwell.
I moved to New York City for college, still an ugly duckling. Sporting an almost-black dye job (my hair is red) and a variety of Urban Outfitters tank tops, my make-up skills were lacking, and I wore a headband with a flower on it almost every day. I failed to consider two things before my move to the greatest and most terrible city in the world: I knew exactly zero people in New York, and colleges in New York (at least, the one I picked) are not famous for having a wealth of straight, easy-going men who just want to hang out with a messy-looking chick from Waco, TX.
So I hung out with women. I ate salads and joined a sorority and had conversations about silk blouses and ballet flats. I learned to stop lining only my bottom eyelid. Through a combination of luck and smart decision making, I lost some of the weight in my face and bought some skinny jeans. I began to almost fit in with a new group of women who drank vodka cranberries (this was years ago; the equivalent 18-year-olds can be found on Thursdays in the Meatpacking District, vodka sodas—extra lime—in hand). They were not virgins. Most of them even liked me. Until they didn’t.
Being unattractive in your youth forces you to develop positive personality traits. That’s why comedians are not sexy. Relying on something other than appearance for attention breeds a larger-than-life personality. It breeds a confidence that is more than superficial. It breeds humor, and a social awareness and empathy that, I think, can only be developed from the outside. I am more charismatic, confident, interesting, and funny because I was an ugly sixteen-year-old. I am slightly less superficial and marginally more open-minded. I can stand up for myself. Three days after the best first date I have ever been on, my half-drunk suitor called to tell me I have more moxie than anyone else he’s ever met. I am proud of all of these things; people should take pride in overcoming obstacles and developing better personality traits. Even if the obstacles involve bushy eyebrows and the personality bonus leads to self-diagnosed histrionic personality disorder.
Being unattractive in your youth separates you from even the other awkward, unattractive kids. I never had a real date to a high school dance. The entire concept of “Sadie Hawkins” terrified me. I never made anyone’s “top five girls” list. I never made anybody’s “girls” list. By the age of eighteen, I had approximately zero experience with games or manipulation or difficult social interaction. Dating, it turns out, is a lot like being friends with boys, but way grosser stuff ends up in your mouth, and you have to flip your hair more. I am good at dating.
Female friendships are more complicated. There are nuances and there’s competition and there are magazines and men in bars who talk to your friend and not to you. You cannot take everything at face value. Hyper-analysis is the norm. I’m okay at making female friends. I love other women; they share their shoes. When you have conversations with women about sex, they almost never assume that you want to sleep with them. They drink wine and smell better than boys. I am not intelligent enough to put into words the intricacies of female friendships; there’s a physical intimacy, an immediate want toward sisterhood and trust. That’s how you can tell your friends from your acquaintances. With that openness and trust comes vulnerability, and with vulnerability comes conflict.
Women are not taught to speak their minds. They are taught that they have too many feelings and that it is important that they are always pleasant. We are taught to compete with one another and that we are supposed to read minds. We assume other people can read our minds. When women disagree, they must put things diplomatically. Unfortunately, most people are not good diplomats. Something about the way women are socialized to speak to one another makes us terrible to fight with. Men hurt with fists and women with rumors and subtle, non-violent aggression.
I am not an ugly adult. Sometime around my twentieth birthday, I became reasonably good-looking. I started dating lawyers and financiers in their late twenties and early thirties. I became the kind of girl other women approach. I live with a model. All of my friends are beautiful and interesting. If I’m being very honest, I’m always a little angry when I have to purchase my own drink. At the grocery store last November, a boy who was mercilessly cruel to me in high school approached my mom and told her that he was “sorry for being so mean to HD in high school” because he “saw on Facebook” that I was “pretty hot now.” My mother, God bless her, pointed out to him the ridiculousness of that apology.
Women my age, particularly the bright-young-thing-in-a-big-city set that I am lucky to be a part of, are inundated with advice. About sex, careers, feminism, children, boyfriends, hook-ups, grad school. Lean in, but not too far. You can do anything a man can do, as long as you’re well put-together and relatively inoffensive. Ask for more, but don’t get cocky. No one tells women my age about the importance of friendship.
Beauty, a word I am very hesitant to use self-referentially, is a terrible drug. I am no Disney princess, and I did not move to New York and blossom into a swan who flawlessly maintained her Southern charm and down-to-earth ugly-girl sensibilities. I spent a year or so being at least as terrible as the women I went to high school with, at least as callous and uncaring as some sixteen-year-olds whose phone calls I still won’t take. I kissed boys my friends had a huge crushes on. I mocked people’s accents and their hair. I texted my friends, male and female, unflattering photos of women we did not like. When a girl began dating a boy that I’d kissed a few weeks earlier, I made up a profanity-laced version of her last name, and made my close friends call her that. I ate tofu.
When I was younger, I didn’t understand the motivation of those mean, glamorous girls who wore high heels to algebra class and had boyfriends. Even now, having been intoxicated, the power and terror that comes with being one of the pretty girls in the room confuses me. It’s hard to see from the inside how terrible you’re being. And then suddenly you’re the victim and you learn, once again, how to be kind.
I am twenty-two years old and just out of the shower. I check my phone to see if one of my good friends answered the “plans tonight?” message I sent her an hour or two ago. No new texts. Whatever. I browse Instagram and see a photo she posted. She’s ignoring me. I glance up at the mirror. My hair is pulled up in a towel, so you can tell how round my face is. The mascara I neglected to take off is smeared under my lower lashes, making my eyes droopy and sad. I am not fifteen again. This wound is new, but feels familiar. It’s something I remember being used to.
I’ve maintained most of my friendships over the years. Two of my best girl friends were made when I was in my late teens, another when I was eleven. I’m still friends with almost everyone I met my freshman year in college, and I’ve learned to balance new girls with my old friends. Still, there are a few text messages that were never answered, conflicts over kisses that I didn’t know were illicit, passing comments taken as literal and never addressed. I am twenty-two years old, and there are already a few Christmas cards I know I’ll never send. Friendships are difficult.
If you’re fifteen and your hair is greasy, the girls that are mean to you are not jealous. It’s just that they don’t understand how much it hurts when they roll their eyes and ignore your text messages. Or they do understand, because they’ve been there, and they’re pushing you down to keep from going back.