I grew up thinking I was ugly, or “fugly,” as the teenagers called it in the early ’90s. Don’t worry, I won’t explain the combination of words it takes to come up with the word fugly, but suffice it to say it wasn’t a very nice word to call others. From an early age I remember looking in the mirror and not liking what I saw, though. Sure, I knew I was smart, and I knew my family loved me (at least most of the time), and I knew someone would always be there for me, but I realized even then that I wasn’t what you would call classically handsome. It took me ages, however, to comprehend that none of that mattered anyway.
Take a look at the number one culprit of eating disorders everywhere, the mass media. The magazine shows a woman with a ridiculously slim waist, practically nonexistent breasts, and “an ass that just won’t quit.” On the television you can see a woman with a normal-sized waist, enormous breasts, and “an ass that won’t quit.” This second type is known as the “hourglass” figure. It seems like the only prerequisite for being famous is to have a posterior that refuses to stop.
For comparison, in medieval times a woman who had a bit of skin on her bones was seen as rich, because not many women could afford to eat so luxuriously. There were no restrictions placed on that type of woman. She was sexy because she was rich, and her curves defined that status as well as celebrated it. In tribal Africa the opposite is true. Women in “The Bush” are seen as attractive when they are skeletal, as it is a sign of working hard, not being lazy, or letting others do what you yourself can do. Sorry, Sir Mix-a-Lot, no “juicy doubles” in that society.
One thing most societies seem to hold as truth, though, is that while women are held to a particular standard, men can get by without worrying about appearance. It has only been since the 20th century when homosexuality, bisexuality, and metrosexuality became widespread, or at least more widely recognized by that same mass media, that the lens has been also turned toward men. But in individual homes, and in close-knit neighborhoods, microcosms of the system as a whole, for centuries men have dissected themselves while looking in the mirror, or in the lake’s surface (Narcissus, anyone?) and have thought what I did, that they were ugly.
A man who “does something about his appearance” is vain, or gay. That’s what society would have us believe. The recent introduction of the metrosexual into the lexicon of the zeitgeist has somewhat changed things, however. Now, in many major cities, it’s okay for a man to care about nails or his eyebrows, to wear stylish footwear that is not a pair of sneakers, and to go to a salon to get his hair styled just the way he likes. The problem with this new viewpoint is that if you don’t happen to live in a major city, or if the rest of your personality isn’t “metro” you’re still seen as strange when you get Botox to even out those worry lines.
I know when I was growing up, there wasn’t something as “convenient” as being “metro” to hide behind, or even to help uplift. There were just the other brothers (like the way Black people use the term) who went to the barber shop to get their hair faded, that was the extent of enhancing one’s features. And I didn’t know what to do about my feelings of inadequacy when it came to comparing myself with other brothers, or even with the images of men I saw on the television screen or on the billboards. Some of these people I couldn’t help wanting to be like were:
1. The Marlboro Man
2. Bill Cosby
3. Denzel Washington
4. Michael Jordan
5. Michael Jackson
Each one of these men was a role model for me. My dad was traveling so often I hardly ever saw him, but I saw these men all the time, even if they didn’t realize it. Charles Barkley famously said, “I am not a role model,” but he was. All of these men were because they were in the public eye, and how they dealt with that responsibility differed majorly. The Marlboro Man wasn’t even real. He was a work of fiction, but he was stylized. He was masculinity in a can. I wanted to be him so badly when I saw the huge billboards with his likeness on them. But I wasn’t effortlessly cool. Even when I expended effort, I wasn’t cool, so I came up short there.
The rest of the men I emulated were as different as night and day, as light from dark, and I liked them for different reasons. You see, to me they were themselves, even though they may have been playing a role. When I saw them in the magazines, they weren’t afraid to be themselves. They didn’t hide behind the “sameness” that it seemed the women were trying to portray; the types that were so prevalent with women didn’t apply to men. No one wanted a “big booty” man, if you see where I’m coming from, which was okay, except I had a big booty.
And when I looked in that mirror, I saw that I didn’t measure up to any of those men. I wasn’t naturally funny like The Cos, or gifted with delivering a line like Denzel, or handy with the basketball like Michael Jordan, or had a supernaturally beautiful singing voice like Michael Jackson. But what I did have was a little too much weight around my middle, pudgy cheeks, hair that was so kinky, and huge eyeglasses that made Urkel’s look pedestrian.
So, where do boys go when they need to deal with their negative self-image? That’s the huge problem societies face when too many young boys grow up in single parent homes where fathers aren’t present. These boys tend to internalize that sense that they feel ugly, and it builds up until they burst. But then I began to realize as I got older that my role models, they had the same issues I was going through. One time after a basketball game in which Michael Jordan scored only nine points, he said, “I stunk it up out there tonight, but that’s not going to happen again.” Michael Jackson was famous for not appreciating his appearance, so much that he got several nose jobs to try and make himself satisfied with who he was, something that didn’t work. Bill Cosby admitted in an interview to being “the scrawny kid who was never picked for games” as a child, and how that affected him. And Denzel was often passed over for parts that weren’t “ethnic enough.”
That’s when it finally hit me. It’s not about the mass media, not about how others view me that should be important. If they think I’m ugly, that’s on them, that’s their interpretation. But it doesn’t have to be mine. It doesn’t have to shape my self-view, because they’re not me. They don’t understand or appreciate what it’s like to be me in all facets. They have to deal with their own inadequacies, and I hope they do, but I am not going to let that dictate who I am and how I feel about me.
“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggoneit, people like me.” – Stuart Smalley
Now, I don’t have to repeat that mantra like Stuart did, sort of like his self-affirmation, but I do change it up a little and think about it on occasi0n when I start to get down on myself again. “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggoneit, *I* like me.” And that’s good enough for me.