As a child, I had a pair of pink stretch pants, form-fitting pants made from cotton that dancers or gymnasts wear.
I used them for hair.
I would put them on my head and the bottoms of the legs would come to my lower back. But whenever they were on my head, those faded pink legs of cotton became waves of rich, dark curls. I would twist each pant leg and make a braid so that my beautiful locks wouldn’t get in my way.
My sisters and I played princess a lot, close to everyday. Walt Disney’s princesses were our favorite. We liked to role-play out the films, imagining in our prince. Each of us had a claim on the girl we thought was the most beautiful and intriguing. But each princess had one commodity that was essential. In our world, princesses had long hair, and in our opinion, you weren’t a princess until your hair reached down your back. My “hair” was important to me; it was necessary for me. I couldn’t be a princess without it. As a little girl, it’s very important to be a princess. They are beautiful, with gorgeous hair and gowns and jewelry. The world is at their feet, and there is a handsome young prince fighting for their heart.
Girls want to feel pretty and special. Even as an eight year old, we have that desire to be loved and adored and rescued by the handsome prince who tells us we’re pretty, every day. But I wasn’t and couldn’t be any of that without my hair, without my pants. If I had my long locks, then I was qualified as beautiful and had the right to be a part of the princesses.
This carried on into my teen years, not so much the idea that having long hair made me a beautiful princess; but similar criteria was in play. I had to have the right clothes and hair. I needed a certain look and style to be beautiful. The princess part was gone. I was grown up, too old to play those childish make-believe games.
The pink pants turned into needing my ears pierced, getting my hair dyed, and wearing makeup. If I had those things, I would certainly be beautiful. The Disney princess was gone, but the image of the model had taken her place.
The model: an image of flawless perfection. Her crown is her long hair with that enduring shine. Her beauty is in the perfect eyebrows, thick lashes, glowing complexion, and long, delicate limbs. The men fall at her feet and fight for her attention. She spends her day in expensive clothing and gorgeous designer lines. She is the modern-day princess. And I wanted to be like her, to look like her.
My parents allowed makeup at fifteen. On my birthday, my mom took me to Sephora, a prestigious makeup salon. The salon was intensely bright with a formal black and white color scheme: black opal floors, white walls and black and white photographs of beautiful people, wearing only perfection. Rows upon rows and shelves upon shelves of all kinds and colors of lipstick, eye shadow, mascara, rouge, and blush were arranged in an aesthetic pattern. The salon assistants wore all black uniforms, business casual, with their hair pulled back into tight buns and their faces lavished in layers of Sephora makeup.
The salon offered free makeovers, probably in hopes that customers would love and consequently buy their products.
A kind blonde lady gave me a makeover. I don’t remember her name, but she was knowledgeable and said I had pretty eyes. She sat me down in a black swivel chair. It had a sleek surface that was hard to stay sitting upright in.
She cleaned my face first with a clear substance that came in the smallest bottle I had ever seen.
“This will help clear your skin,” she said.
As with every teen, my cheeks had been visited by the terrible curse of red zits and irritating bumps, commonly called acne. I remember my case as being pretty bad. Whether it was or not, I was embarrassed by it, and mom had been looking for something to help.
“This product has a natural substance that gets to the problem: clogged pours. Use this every day, twice a day, and your skin will clear up in a week or two,” the lady said.
One bottle cost around twenty-five. Mom bought two.
The lady recommended all the makeup colors and applications that fit my face shape and skin tone the best.
“You have big eyes. I wouldn’t wear eyeliner around the entire part of your eye. It will enclose it and make it look smaller. Also you have green eyes and black will highlight that color the best.”
Mom bought me whatever she recommended.
The kind lady would smile and comment on how pretty I looked with every stroke of the liner pen and soft brush. I knew that after the mascara and eyeliner and eye shadow, I would emerge a beautiful young woman. I was excited.
After the final touches, she held a black hand-mirror up to my face. I looked at my reflection . . . and my heart sank. I was expecting the gorgeous model from the magazines to stare back at me. The makeup was supposed to transform me: thin my face, accentuate my jaw, and elongate my lashes, making an elegant and alluring woman. Instead, the reflection was of a young girl, with some baby fat on her face who was trying to hide her ugliness underneath a useless mask. I couldn’t believe it. Even makeup didn’t work.
But I wouldn’t give up. I got my hair dyed, several times, a new color. I got it cut, several times, a new look. I got a new wardrobe, several times, a new style. Nothing ever satisfied me. I craved a complete transformation. I wanted people to look at me and think, “Wow, that girl is gorgeous.” And be seized with jealousy. I wanted to become just like the beautiful people. I didn’t want to be me; I wanted to be them.
I tried so many things, and yet I still looked in the mirror, glanced at my reflections in windows and car doors, and I saw an ugly girl, not worthy of anything. And that was the heart of the problem: I saw beauty as something that made me valuable as a person. I couldn’t be anything without beauty.
Around sixteen, the focus shifted from my face to my body. I needed to tone up and lose that baby fat. I can’t blame one thing as being responsible for the shift. I can remember, before my fifteenth year, always thinking of myself as skinny, skinner than most, which in fact I was. I never once thought that my body was the problem. I liked my body. In truth, I didn’t really think about my body.
Something changed. First of all, puberty hit. I started filling out in my hips and chest. I started to acquire my woman’s shape; but I didn’t like that at all. Now not only was I lacking in the face department, but now my skinny body was morphing into something wide. I started to diet.
Influential in introducing “the diet” into my young life was my sixteenth Christmas. Just like every Christmas, my family and I were at my grandparent’s house for dinner. The day had already crept by, our stomachs were full and we were gathering into the living room to open presents.
My older cousin, Meghan, had recently moved to California and she was back for the holidays. She had become acclimated to the L.A. party lifestyle and had gained some weight, typical to alcoholic consumption. I believe they call it beer weight. My uncle made several comments on her weight gain throughout the day. As we were gathered together to participate in a well-liked tradition of Christmas, they had me stand back to back with Meghan to compare our height. I was growing so fast, everyone said, and they wanted to see how much I had caught up to her. They hadn’t seen her and me together in a long time.
Now, my grandfather has a seat, dark blue with red pin-stripes, that he always sits in when we socialize in the living room. It’s his post, from which he can inspect and watch everything, yet be aloof and not bothered too much. From where he sat, as my cousin and I stood being compared and analyzed by our family, he couldn’t see me. I was hidden behind Meghan. He never talks much, but here he presumed to make a flippant comment about my cousin. I can still hear his words, biting and sarcastic. I flinched when he said them; they hurt. I can’t imagine how much they hurt her.
“Gosh, Meghan, you total-eclipse her!”
There were laughs by everyone, including Meghan, but I could tell by her flushed face and vehement response that that she was embarrassed.
“Oh, whatever Grandpa. She’s like thirteen.”
(I was fifteen but that didn’t need to be pointed out at the moment.)
Everything would be fine for the rest of the day. She shrugged it off and went through the rest of the day. But later, the memory of the heat on her face from her blushes would come and see would hear her family’s words play back in her mind. And it certainly wouldn’t make her feel good about herself.
The comments thrown that Christmas were not about me. But I thought a lot about them. My whole life, I have been compared to Meghan. I was tall like her, had pale and mole-speckled skin like her, and even had similar facial features. Everyone said that I walked like her and had the same gestures. I admired her. And I soon came to believe that I was like her. My mother never saw it. She hated that everyone impressed who Meghan was onto me.
But I was under the assumption now that I would be like her when I grew up. I heard those comments, I saw the love handles on her sides, and I was afraid. What if I did become like her? I would probably gain weight just like she did. And then I would be made fun of too. I would be made the subject of torment on a Christmas gathering, where the day drags on and certain members of my family get bored and have to stir up drama. I would be their target.
I wasn’t going to let that happen. Therefore, the dieting started. My mom had been on the Atkins diet, and I joined her, avoiding anything with wheat or starch or grains. Mom didn’t see anything wrong with that. To her, the whole family needed to be more health-conscious. She was proud that I seemed to care at such a young age. So I played along. I pretended I was being health conscious, and I proceeded under that guise. I kept away from those evil starches. Then, slowly, over a period of months, I kept eliminating food options off my list. But my parents never seemed to notice. To this day, I don’t know how I pulled that off.
At this point in my life, I started to discover boys. On top of the other motivations for dieting, I had boys to attract. There was a particular guy who I knew was going to be my future husband. I knew that he was going to fall in love with me. He was a musician, with watered eyes. You looked right through them into his soul. And his soul was happy. In my young mind, which had no idea of what love was, I loved him. But nothing ever happened. He never spoke to me, other than a few words. And I was shy, so I never initiated conversation. Instead, my strategy was to become so beautiful that he couldn’t resist me.
I began dieting more, and exercising often. I was now seventeen. I never saw weight-loss occur. I didn’t see that my complexion was paling, or that my hair no longer looked as full and soft. I didn’t realize that I was grumpy and angry a lot. I didn’t seem to feel what everyone else saw all over my face. I wouldn’t weigh myself. I used a mirror as my reference point. And what I saw in the mirror, every time I looked, was a body that still needed worked on. It was endless cycle of never-reached perfection.
When people would comment on how skinny I was, it made me feel good. It made me feel special. And more importantly, it made me feel beautiful. I was getting closer to those girls in the magazine. I was starting to look as skinny and gorgeous as them. What I didn’t see was that I was already dangerously there.
There was a point, well into my seventeenth year, that it wasn’t about that one boy anymore. I saw him less and less. It was about boys in general, it was about people’s attention and approval. I remember I would spend parts of my day just pouring over copies of InStyle, Seventeen, and Vogue, gazing at the bronze gods and goddesses whose hair and skin and bodies were perfectly sculpted. They were my motivation for pressing on to my goal.
My parents voiced their concerns. Numerous times, I found myself in my room on the bed, defending myself and my pure intentions to just eat healthy. Mom and dad would listen and they would remind me that wheat and grains were important in a healthy diet and that I shouldn’t eliminate that important food group. But somehow or other I would skirt around the direct questions, assuring them that I was fine, I would try to eat more grains and I just wanted to be healthy. But weeks later, we would be back on the bed, having the same conversation.
I was getting close. My baby fat had finally all disappeared, and the definition of my muscles was starting to be evident. My straight-backed posture made me look so elegant. With the fat of my face, my eyes and my lips stood out boldly on my face. My jawline was prominent, a feature that was on all the models and I had always thought was quite attractive. My stomach was close to being perfectly flat. All I really needed to tone and tighten were my glutes and legs. I would have to step up the exercising a bit and drink more water. After all that, then I could start working on getting a better skin tone and growing my hair long, full and wavy.
But what I saw in the mirror wasn’t reality. I weighed ninety-two pounds, at 5’8”. My baby fat had long been gone. My stomach had begun to sink inward and my hipbones protruded a good inch or two off my body. My limbs were devoid of any muscle or fat, just stretchy sinew that looked more like thin poles than limbs. My checks were sunken in and my jaw line stuck graphically off my face. My eyes were dull, surrounded by dark circles. My hair was course and thinning, falling out when I brushed it or in the shower. I had no chest. There was not an ounce of fat on my body. I was emaciated. I looked in the mirror and I deceived myself.
I wasn’t beautiful at all.
KAYLA ALLEN is a graduate of Mount Vernon Nazarene University with a BA in journalism. She currently lives in Mount Vernon, Ohio, working as an intern with a local photography studio.