Ugly duckling

It’s funny what makes people feel confident. I’ve heard women say they feel sexy in stilettos or a pair of lacy undies, but both of those things make me feel sort of ridiculous and out of place—the same way some people would feel, I imagine, wearing a pair of crampons. 

Isn’t it kind of amazing how many different places a human can be in their element? People can write algorithms (Right? Or does a computer do that? Okay but we invented computers) and drive cars and run a mile in under five minutes and wear beautiful dresses and come up with combinations of words that make people laugh or cry or change their mind about something. We can do this huge, incredible variety of stuff, and we each have a niche—a thing we’re really good at, the sort of thing that, even if it’s objectively not cool, somehow makes us more attractive.

So what makes me attractive? Back in high school, I had these big old braces, bigger than other kids’, I swear, and I was certain as soon as I got them off I’d be confident. That didn’t happen until I was a senior, and even then, I didn’t hit my stride for awhile.

I made it through college with no gaps in my teeth but not much confidence, either, and then, four days into a three-week backpacking trip, it hit me like a ton of bricks: my face swelled up, my tongue filled my mouth so full I could hardly breathe, my hands and feet turned to these giant, useless, clownish appendages. Bruises appeared around my eyes. I slept for twenty hours.

I remember waking up sometime in the midst of my allergic reaction—that’s what I figure it was, anyway, but I don’t know for sure—and watching people’s faces as they looked at me. Like, people recoiled. This wasn’t a reaction I was used to. Someone took a picture of me, and it was startling. I looked like a zombie.

A couple of years later, I watched as a frostbite specialist examined my fingers and bloated, purple toes; I saw the horror register on a friend’s face as he walked into the room and I peeled away another layer of skin.

Last month, my lips got a little frostnip and swelled up like a bad Botox injection. I looked like a very disheveled Jessica Rabbit—unnatural, anyway, if not particularly sexy.

In each of these incidents, I found myself looking decidedly ugly. Not, like, I’m not measuring up to the patriarchy’s standards of beauty—although that, too, was true in each instance, I suppose—but, like, This person is having a straight-up medical emergency.

But each time, as I recovered from each scare (and look, they’re decreasing in severity!), something magical happened: from I toughed it out and spent three weeks in the backcountry even though I was scared shitless to Ten days in the Alaskan interior in January is pretty damn cold but I survived to I climbed most of Mt. Rainier without a guide, I managed, even at my most monstrous, and my confidence grew.

I’d never thought of myself as confident, but as I circulated the Jessica Rabbit picture among my friends and family, it occurred to me that my high school self—who would, admittedly, have been mortified at such a hideous photo making the rounds—would be impressed with this woman I’ve become: this woman who drinks scotch in her wedding gown and also cracks jokes in a pair of men’s Carhartts and sends around pictures of herself looking her very worst, which is also when she happens to be at her best.

High School Emma was easily impressed with others—just ask all the boys I tried to talk into taking me to Prom—but not so much with herself, so it feels good to garner her admiration. Isn’t that a noble goal, to earn the respect of our young and idealistic selves?

So here I am, ten years out from Emma-with-braces, finally coming into my own. I’m sure my ugliest days aren’t yet behind me; I’ve got a lot of plans that might be conducive to frostbite and sunburns and sweaty hair (take that, Patriarchy!). Each time I have one, though, the reward is a little sweeter—I guess a couple of battle scars here and there are beautiful in their own right.



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