What girl doesn’t want to be beautiful? Those who grew up with Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty as role models were from an early age made to believe that beauty equalled goodness and that being pretty was a virtue.
With a perpetual fat lip and funny-looking nose, I felt anything but beautiful, and I was convinced that only my grandmother thought I was pretty.
I dreaded the annual school photo op and I always tried to hide my ‘ugly’ side from the camera. I eventually discovered that even the photographer tried to arrange me so that my less flattering features didn’t spoil the picture.
Today when I look back at that time and see photos of me as a child, I see something very different than I used to. I see a girl with big expressive eyes the colour of the ocean, a lovely smile and with bucketfuls of charm. If only I had been able to see that then.
In middle school, I had a classmate who was widely perceived as one of the prettiest girls in school. Her blonde hair was long, straight and shiny and her eyes were a light shade of blue. She always wore expensive, preppy clothes that made her look like she came straight out of a Ralph Lauren commercial.
I am pretty sure she thought of herself as Queen Bee; she certainly carried herself accordingly. She was the girl every boy dreamt of kissing. Next to her, I was nobody, except she was highly studious and so was I. So whereas there was no competition in terms of beauty to be had, we soon began to compete academically. In fact, it was Queen Bee who initiated it, recognising that I was her main rival in terms of schoolwork.
She’d come up to me after class and ask, seemingly innocently:
“How did you do on the test?”
But of course, she was anything but innocent and I wasn’t so naïve that I fell for her fake niceness. I knew all too well that I was not someone she’d ever invite to her parties, or even sit next to in the school lunchroom. I didn’t think she liked me much and the feeling was mutual. She just wanted to find out if I had beaten her to the top mark.
While I excelled in Swedish, English, French and history, I struggled with subjects like maths, physics and to some extent chemistry.I was fortunate though to have an excellent chemistry teacher who managed to make lessons fun and intelligible for almost everyone.
At exam time, he had a curious habit of allowing us to bring a small cheat sheet. It had to be no more than 3x3cm big though and he always measured every scrap of paper we brought in on exam day.
I used to wonder about his reason for allowing cheat sheets, until I realised how clever it was. For everything I scribbled on my cheat sheet, I also committed to memory so that come exam day, the cheat sheet was wholly redundant.
The last question on the chemistry exam was always a bonus question. It wasn’t directly related to what we had been learning in class but which, if we were able to apply our understanding of chemistry, we might still be able to work out. Very few got the bonus question right.
Although I was reasonably good at chemistry, I was nowhere near the top, where Posh Boy and his two best buddies, Bill and Bull, reigned supreme. So as the teacher handed back our end of year exam in the eight grade everyone assumed one of the three would have got the top score.
“Tell us, who aced the exam?” Bill asked impatiently. “Was it Posh Boy again?”
“No,” the teacher replied with a smile.
“It must have been Bill then,” Bull exclaimed.
The teacher shook his head. “Guess again!”
“So it was Bull,” sighed Posh Boy, unable to hide his disappointment.
“Wrong again.” The tension in the room was palpable as everyone waited to find out who the new star of the class was.
“It was Jenny,” the teacher finally announced with a big, satisfied grin on his face, “and she was also the only one of you to get the bonus question right.”
It took a moment for his words to sink in. Posh Boy looked incredulously at the teacher and then at me. I felt my cheeks go red, and as the teacher handed me my exam with the result written in blue pen on the front, I was triumphant. Yes, I did it! I beat the boys.
Even Queen Bee was impressed with my achievement and didn’t seem to mind so much that I had beaten her. What mattered was that I had done better than the three musketeers.
I never aced another chemistry exam but to this day I am immensely proud of that achievement. I saw it as confirmation that although I wasn’t beautiful, at least I was intelligent. Perhaps it was that moment that spurred me on towards academic achievement. Because if you aren’t beautiful, you have to be smart.
Not that I was actually conscious of the maxim I had created for myself; only when I was already in my thirties, and with a PhD on my CV to prove my worth, did I realise what had driven me all those years.
My parents were always supportive of their children but never pushy. I was the one who pushed myself to excel and I was the one who berated myself when I failed. I became my own worst critic and bully. I made academic accomplishment the yardstick with which I measured my self-worth.
Years later when I failed to gain entry to the PhD programme at the same prestigious university in the US where I’d completed a Masters degree two years earlier, I was so ashamed I didn’t tell anyone.
Today I think it’s rather sad that my self-worth as a young woman was completely bound up with my achievements as if I had to prove my right to be in this world. For nobody should have to prove their right to live and be loved.