**Content warning for brief discussion of sexual assault and rape.**
I remember vividly the first time I sought medical care unaccompanied and completely alone. I was a freshman in college, living over eight hours away from my family. I had spent over two days so sick I was unable to attend classes and had called in absent to work. I was running a fever and was unable to hold down food. It seems so mundane now that I'm 32, but as an 18-year-old I was scared and just wanted to be with my mom. I went to an urgent care clinic late that night. I approached the counter and presented my parents' insurance information. I was instructed to complete a stack of forms and not surprisingly, proceeded to wait for several hours before I was seen.
The nurse completing my vitals began our session together by asking me "why on earth would you do that to your face?" He gestured to tap his nose. He was serious. There was no visible indication he intended to be playful. "You mean my nose piercing?" I asked, still nauseous and fatigued. "Yeah", he replied, "why would you do that to your face? You could be so pretty without it". I remember the immediate sense of shame that washed over me. I felt the need to make light of the situation, laughed uncomfortably and explained I had just gotten the piercing done with a friend who had recently turned 18 in celebration of her birthday. He shook his head to indicate his disapproval and went on to take my blood pressure.
Now as a seasoned, fully-functioning adult, I know his comments were out of line, unprofessional, and unnecessary. I would like to report that this was the only time someone commented on my physical appearance, offering up unsolicited feedback. However, this is one of many exchanges I have had with complete strangers regarding how I "should" work to be "prettier". I don't think my experiences are unique. I'm sure many, if not most people can provide examples of passing comments and advice they have received about "improving" their appearance.
Recent social campaigns have made efforts to encourage body positivity, helping folks to "love the skin you're in". I'm moved by this work. I think it's needed. I think it's important to practice self-love and self- acceptance. AND I DEFINITELY think we need to take time and energy as a culture to redefine standards of beauty that are inclusive, diverse, and encouraging to all. However, I want to devote some time to discussing ugliness.
While it's important to expand our narrative of beauty, ugliness is unlimited and bountiful. There are so many ways to be "ugly". What if we cast aside our desire to be beautiful and told ourselves that we really appreciate the parts of ourselves we consider ugly. My hope is that when we stop ascribing to unrealistic, restrictive, and non-inclusive standards of beauty - when we let go of the social script that we need to be beautiful - THAT, I hope is where we can begin to find our most authentic selves.
This idea of embracing ugliness is not a new one. In all honesty, I never thought to look at what I find ugly and say to myself, "you know, I really appreciate that..." until I heard an interview with a writer and activist named Jess Zimmerman on one of my favorite podcasts, Secret Feminist Agenda. Zimmerman also wrote a moving piece for Catapult entitled "What if We Cultivated Our Ugliness? Or The Monstrous Beauty of Medusa".
In her work, Zimmerman explores the ancient myth of Medusa, a being who began her life as a beautiful mortal woman. The God Poseidon desired Medusa and raped her in Athena's shrine. When the goddess Athena discovered what had transpired, she cursed Medusa for not "remaining celibate", turning Medusa's long hair into live snakes and ensuring whoever looked upon Medusa would be turned to stone. Pretty messed up, right? While this story reflects cultural understandings of sexual assault and rape, particularly the phenomenon of victim blaming, Zimmerman expands upon this myth to challenge desires to move towards beauty. She writes:
"Medusa lost her beauty—or rather, it was taken from her. Beauty is always something you can lose. Women’s beauty is seen as something separate from us, something we owe but never own: We are its stewards, not its beneficiaries. We tend it like a garden where we do not live ...Oh, but ugliness—ugliness is always yours...Where beauty is narrow and constrained, ugliness is an entire galaxy, a myriad of sparkling paths that lurch crazily away from the ideal. There are so few ways to look perfect, but there are thousands of ways to look monstrous, surprising, upsetting, outlandish, or odd...When you give up trying to declare yourself acceptable, there are so many new things to say."
Looking back on my days of nose rings, maybe a face piercing didn't look great. And if it wasn't great, I'm willing to embrace it. Getting a piercing when I entered adulthood was my own right of passage - a ritual signifying my newly formed independence, for better or for worse. It was done with a dear friend and remains a memory I'm grateful for.
Knowing what I know about 18-year-old Kristi, she authentically rocked a nose ring and that is what's most important. It is what she wanted. It was her's. She did not need to apologize or accommodate those who were uncomfortable with her appearance.
Embrace your ugly. Cultivate your ugly. And really rock it.
I express gratitude to Hanna McGregor, a scholar, writer, and podcaster who provides me with endless inspiration and challenges me to think about experiences in healthy and helpful ways. Here are links to her Podcasts: Witch Please! ( a podcast about the Harry Potter universe) and Secret Feminist Agenda: http://ohwitchplease.ca and https://secretfeministagenda.com
I also express gratitude to Jess Zimmerman, who introduced me to the idea of cultivating ugliness. Here is a link to her article in Catapult: https://catapult.co/stories/role-monsters-gorgons-medusa-women-beauty-ugliness