Dear Pretty Woman,

I was a cute kid.

Should you wander through my family home, looking at the walls, you could see my progression from cute baby to cute toddler to cute kid.

Puberty, however, bitch-slapped me. I was not a cute adolescent. Around fifth grade, that cute fell apart. I got braces and glasses. Gifted-and-talented classes and books became more important than ranging through the woods behind our house or the various sporting teams. I got chubby.

My body started going through all those magical changes adults tried to explain with euphemisms in awkward classes, all of which led me to believe my body was embarrassing and should only be discussed in artificial, whispered terms.

My long, rich brown hair had a tendency to get greasy. It suddenly wasn’t okay to wear it in two big ponytails or two thick braids on either side of my head. My clear, pink-white skin was suddenly popping up in pimples and blackheads. Don’t mess with them, don’t touch. OCD wasn’t even an acronym then, and I couldn’t keep my fingers off the bumps and pustules.

Everyone else seemed to be going through the same sort of devolution. I think I knew I wasn’t a cute kid anymore, but the fact that I had become a greasy, pimply, chubby, braces-and-glasses lump hadn’t really made an impact on me.

I was just me.

Then, one morning before sixth grade, waiting for the carpool that crisp fall day, my mother said, “I’m glad you’re not pretty. When a man loves you, you’ll know it’s for real.” 

And the child genius that I was found all sorts of meat on that bone:

I wasn’t pretty.

Being pretty was important.

Pretty meant power.

Power was important.

I didn’t have power.

I wanted to have power and be pretty.

I launched my 30-year odyssey for beauty and power that day, though 12-year-old me could never have seen that far ahead. Even then, that little girl had plans. JCPenny hair salon, perm, hot rollers. Make-up aisle at the grocery store. After Christmas break my sixth grade year, I came back like my own make-over movie.

Gone were the ponytails, old soccer uniforms, pimply skin. I was dressed to … if not kill, at least maim. Big, bouncy curls, make-up, fancy sweaters embroidered with my initials, khaki pants and loafers.

From then on, pretty was power, a promise, a tool, a burden, a security blanket, an old friend.

Pretty was power; pretty meant love. I still wanted that man who would love me, and pretty promised he was out there. I held up my end of the bargain. I was pretty. Where the hell was he? And when he appeared, over and over, loving the veneer and unable to handle the rocky roads underneath, it wasn’t pretty’s fault.

At jobs, where migraines were destroying my credibility, pretty was a tool. Yes, I might have missed more days a month than I worked, but I look better than you. I’m better dressed. My hair is better than yours. My make-up is perfect. So you can snip and snipe at me, but my armor is on.

Pretty also became a burden. I was a slave to it for a long, long time. I couldn’t leave the house without perfect face and hair. I needed the armor for safety. It might take me an hour and a half to get ready, but I couldn’t go without it.

Pretty became a security blanket. After my life exploded, and I was left with just a little bit more than nothing, I went to see a counselor every Thursday morning. And I got up early and did full make-up and hair.

I knew I was safe there; she was a long, long time friend of the family. I liked her. It was a safe place, and no one was ever there to see me. We were talking about really tough stuff, stuff that might knock loose a few tears. Instead of lightening up, I doubled down on water-proofing.

Oddly, depression finally killed pretty. About four years ago, my disability took another nosedive. It’s all degenerative, and this last step down was a doozy. The depression that went with the pain and other symptoms was beyond unmanageable. But to get the painkillers, as any good chronic pain patient knows, you have to actually walk through the doors of the pain management doctor’s office.

Well, maybe not walk. You don’t have to walk though the doors. You can crawl.

So that’s what I did. I stuffed my unbrushed hair into a bun, pulled on the cleanest clothes I had, and got a ride. No make-up. For the first time in 30 years, I left the house with nothing on my face, caring not at all. In fact, caring fuck-you about it all. The pain was killing me. The depression was killing me. And I wanted it fixed or to hurry the hell up.

I knew I had turned the corner when I saw pretty again. She’s an old friend now, and she was waiting for me. I still love pulling out all the powders and potions, playing dress up. But I can also, easily, walk out of the house wearing no make-up at all, seeing the beauty of my face in its strong cheekbones, dark brows, green eyes, pursed pink lips.

Pretty is a gentle friend now, there when I want or need her. But since she’s stepped aside, I can see something else. I can see my own beauty and strength.

So Pretty Woman, I think we’re doing okay.

Always,

Payne.

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