RA Diaries: Not hideous after all

It’s been almost a year since my parents moved back to their country of origin. Since it wasn’t just a transcontinental trip, but also one into a smaller home, they did a lot of downsizing. And part of that downsizing was going through myriad photos they had collected over the years.

Many of these photos were strays, or copies of photos that were already in albums. Many were of me, and since they were a record of my childhood and adolescence, my parents gave them to me.

A few months ago, I made my own album, charting my growth from age three to 15. (The photo in the banner is me at three, with my favorite grandmother. I still take great pleasure in drinking tea.)

As I look through that album, I can see exactly when I started thinking I was hideous. I can see exactly when being in a picture became something I had to endure.

I was 11, and I had just finished fifth grade. By that time, the RA had progressed enough that my wrists were pretty immobile, my fingers twisted, my toes hammered and my ankles weak. I had also entered prepubescence, which meant I got chubby.

I’ve always had a round face, partly thanks to the RA restricting the growth of my jaw and chin (or so my doctor told me), but now it was even rounder. My arms and legs and butt were as slim as ever, but I was getting little pot belly.

Between the RA deformities and the fat, you’d think I committed a crime that year. The adults begged me to diet, begged me to exercise, and told me helpfully to just hide away my hands or toes so other people wouldn’t comment. The kids were just plain nasty, sensing my weakness and the disapproval from the adults. A girl named Suzanne told me I was ugly and deformed. A boy named Gabriel told me I should never wear make-up (I’d daringly worn a little eye liner that day), because I would never be pretty.

I believed them, because middle school is a time when you start believing the worst of yourself, and plenty of people are happy to oblige.

And speaking of the exercise that was meant to improve me, anything but swimming was hard for me, and I didn’t get to swim very much. On top of that, I felt very self-conscious in a bathing suit. (The last time I wore a bikini, I was 8.)

You can see my unhappiness in the photos from that year. My poses are usually stiff and unwilling. My eyes don’t smile, because I am so deeply conscious of how ugly and hideous I am. Being in a photograph still feels stiff and unnatural, 30 years later.

I know I am far from alone in feeling this way. So many girls, so many women, dread being photographed. They feel hideous, ugly, fat. They can’t see anything but the flaws when the photos are exposed.

And yet, likely they are none of those things, in spite of their own ugly inner voices, or the voices from the people around them who take delight in being unkind to them (often due to the demons in their own heads).

Because, as I look at the photos of myself from 11 on, the girl in them is not hideous at all. Yes, her fingers look a bit swollen. Yes, there is a bit of a tummy, her face is round, but she is by no means that different from her peers.

She may even be cute, with her luminous skin and shiny hair. And in some pictures, when she relaxes and forgets all about the camera and the critics, she’s pretty, as pretty as she was at ages six, and seven, or eight. As pretty as she was before her world told her she was hideous.

All text copyrighted by A.K. Whitney, and cannot be used without permission.


  • I think women get sold this fun-house mirror of ourselves, in which we’re taught to be so fixated on every “flaw” that we lose the ability to see how we really look. I remember walking around at that age thinking that there must be something really horrible about me that others could see but I couldn’t, since the world reacted to my appearance in such a hostile way. Everyone goes through an awkward stage as they grow from childhood to adulthood – everyone – but it sounds like the RA made this particularly and literally more painful for you. I’m glad you were able to look through your photos again and see that you are far from hideous and never were!

  • Being called “deformed” or gawked at certainly didn’t help. But even with that, I know it’s almost universal for women to feel this way — and the fact that people were hostile to you too sucks ass!
    In my case, it didn’t really help that my older brother never went through an awkward phase. He just got taller and taller, no major acne or anything. My parents were the same. My mom at 11 was doing photo shoots. I don’t know about my dad, but I suspect the same (maybe no photo shoots). So my family was of absolutely no comfort, and in fact just added to hostilities because they just couldn’t relate.

  • Angie unduplicated

    Apparently we have the same family. I wish you hadn’t hidden when they started in on you.
    Give that inner child a big hug for me.

  • So even though I’m reading this blog post two years LATE, I still wanted to comment. I had a similar experience with childhood photos. I thought I looked so ugly and when I looked back at the photos, even 20 years later, I usually just saw further “evidence” that I was. It wasn’t until another kind person, looking at the same photos helped me see that the person in the photos wasn’t ugly, but a cute young girl. It helped me to be more accepting of my childhood/adolescent self and, interestingly enough, more accepting of my adult self, as well. To this day, I’m still occasionally shocked when I look in the mirror and see an attractive woman there because it’s still not what my brain expects to see.

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