Pretty, Ugly, Plain


Once when my friend was seventeen, a woman stopped her in the shopping mall and said, “Do you want to be Miss Teen Santa Clara?” And she said yes, because why not, and she came in runner up that year for Miss Teen California. She took the modeling contract they offered her, too, and stood thin and blonde and flushed in front of the fan, wheat-blonde hair blowing out behind her.

She auditioned for a role in a musical adaptation of The Ugly Duckling, and they cast her as the beautiful swan, and she drove every day across the hill into Santa Cruz for the long hours of rehearsals. Sometimes they didn’t need her while they ran the other numbers, sometimes for hours, so she went out on drives, wandered the beaches.

“Hey there, pretty,” shouted one man, who was with a group of men. “You a mermaid?”

She was walking the shore, alone. Dusk drew dark to the horizon. Some of the men sat on the pier. Some stood.

“You look like a mermaid,” he said. “Why don’t you give me your number?”

The men clustered around her, and my friends heart pounded, and she didn’t know if she’d be able to get away to the silver honda her daddy bought her for high school graduation. She smiled and acted calm as she wrote out her number, like she wasn’t a fish they’d caught on their line, like they might not decide to reel her in and gut her.


“Just shut up and enjoy it,” my friend’s mother said to her, when she went in for her first temp job. She’s twenty-two and just out of college, very pretty, with long dark hair, and dark eyes, and pin-up curves accented by her pencil skirt. Men have been talking; have been leering; have been gearing up to touch.

“Just enjoy it,” her mother repeats, “You’ll miss it when you’re not pretty anymore.”


“Why are you even trying?” The girl is blonde, tan. The letters “UCSC” are printed in yellow across the butt of her trim blue sweat pants. She stands next to the treadmill on which my friend is working out, her hands on her hips, a white towel tossed over her shoulder.

She sneers at my friend’s ass, the shape of which she can’t even discern underneath the baggy sweats that hide the fact that my friend is much smaller than she looks. She’s slender, though not as painfully thin as when she was at her most anorexic. After years of sexual abuse, she hides the contours of her body underneath clothing made for much larger women, each bulge and billow and fold suggesting flesh that isn’t really there. She feels like it’s there, though, still has the anorexic’s view of herself in the mirror, the conviction that her body is spilling everywhere, uncontrollable, insatiable, massive.

The blonde’s eyes flick derisively from shrouded ass to bared face. “It obviously isn’t working,” she says. “Leave the machines for someone else.”


“You act well enough,” the art director of the musical theater institute I’m attending tells me, “but your singing is really incredible. You could play any kind of roles, as long as you lose weight.”

Every day, there’s the toilet, the calorie count below starvation, the hours of exercise. Emotional control has slipped away–I cry when the wind blows, and then rage a second later. I’m not eating enough to run my brain. The pounds won’t shed, won’t shed. I can’t be the person I’ve always wanted to be. My body refuses, hoards its energy, would rather pitch into a faint than burn any more of its stores.

“Why are you eating that?” mom says, when I’m back on food again. “You really need that?” She’s furious about something else, and she wants to make me hurt, and this is such a good way. I throw away the food and she complains about the wasted money.


My friend is very skinny and very tall. She’s the kind of tall that attracts your eye across a store. She’s the kind of skinny that draws bad remarks. “You play basketball?” “Are you anorexic?” No one asks if she’s a model; she’s not that kind of tall and thin. Turns out you can be stretched too much, drawn too narrow. People watch her bones and her back.

She wants to stretch free and become the thing she feels she’s growing into, but her mother wants her home in the nest. Her heart is fragile. There are health reasons to keep her home. It’s not health that makes her mom insist she wear makeup on her way out of the house, that makes her police her clothes for any hint of something too butch, too goth, too hard.

My friend argues for leaving home. Going to a college far away. Getting to meet new people. Getting to choose her own clothes. “I don’t want to be here forever,” she says.

It’s the end of a long argument that, in her mother’s opinion, should have been over a long time ago. Her mother can’t believe she continues to press. Decisions have been made. The shoe has been dropped.

She fixes her daughter with hard eyes. She grabs away the half-eaten bowl of cereal. Milk spills over the edge onto the table. “You’re as ugly on the inside as you are on the out.”

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10 Responses to Pretty, Ugly, Plain

  1. 1
    mythago says:

    “You’ll miss it when you’re not pretty anymore.”

    I don’t miss it one goddamn bit.

  2. 2
    vesta44 says:

    “You’ll miss it when you’re not pretty anymore.”
    It’s hard to miss what you didn’t know you had when you were young. By the time you’re old enough to know what you had, hopefully, you’ve learned enough to know that it just doesn’t matter anymore and you can tell the world to piss off if they don’t like the way you look.
    Society’s beauty ideal is an ever-changing goal that can never be met (as soon as a woman gets even close to meeting the ideal, someone moves the goalposts). I think each woman would be better off finding her own unique beauty and rocking that and telling society to suck it. After all, beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder – and there are enough beholders out there to like every kind of beauty that exists.

  3. 3
    nojojojo says:

    Wow, and ow. I would call these segments beautiful, if they weren’t so horrible. But they do what you’re intending to do, I think, so bravo.

  4. 4
    Simple Truth says:

    I second nojojojo; very brave, very cutting.

  5. 5
    Ampersand says:

    I third nojojojo. This is a really wonderful post.

  6. 6
    demeter says:


    Still wiping away tears. My parents have been amazingly supportive of me, yet I internalized the oppression captured so well in these vignettes.

  7. 7
    Myca says:

    God, such a great post. Well done, Mandolin.


  8. 8
    attack_laurel says:

    Beautiful, and heartbreaking. I’m so glad I’ve never felt like I was pretty; it makes it easier to navigate certain parts of being female (I’d much rather be invisible than groped or holla’d). But your writing makes that state of feeling and mind accessible to anyone of conscience, and I thank you for it.

  9. 9
    Anne says:

    I echo the sentiment – beautifully written. It made me feel really uncomfortable to read, so sad and unfair it is.

  10. 10
    Julie says:

    This piece is beautiful. Well done.