The effects of bullying, Part 2

This is the third entry in an occasional series on how being picked on as a kid influenced the sort of adult I turned out to be.

I read an article yesterday about a nonprofit organization that picked up the tab for a 15-year-old girl’s rhinoplasty because she was tired of being “that girl with the big nose.”

My heart broke for her.

I very easily could have become That Girl With The Big Nose. I basically have the profile of an Afghan hound — all snout and legs and hair — and I was a spectacularly awkward child. I didn’t grow into my face until I was 23.

When I was a kid, a favorite game among some of the boys in my class was to pick an unpopular girl (frequently me) and pretend to have a crush on her. The ringleader would shower his target with wildly exaggerated compliments and over-the-top professions of love. The goal was to find a girl gullible enough to take him seriously, because what could be funnier than an unattractive girl mistakenly believing somebody loved her? That’s right up there with fart jokes and belching the alphabet.

I never fell for it. Instead, I learned to be deeply skeptical of compliments on my appearance, especially from men. I was well into my twenties before I could acknowledge such compliments without inwardly cringing, and I’m still not comfortable accepting them.

But in my skepticism, there was something else I never fell for, either: the sexist notion that my value depended on my appearance.

I figured out pretty quickly that once the pecking order was established, I would be considered the ugliest girl in our class whether it was true or not. But I also understood that looks weren’t everything — so while I couldn’t help being the Ugly Girl, I could make sure that wasn’t the sum of my identity. I was the Ugly Girl, but I was also the Smart Girl, the Feminist, the Journalist, the Artist, the Liberal, the Hippie and several other labels I chose for myself, and I was just noisy enough that people had to acknowledge them.

I hope our young rhinoplasty patient has a few other identities to fall back on, because if she doesn’t, “that girl with the big nose” is just going to become “that girl with the big nose who had plastic surgery,” and her detractors — having learned that she can be bullied into making life-altering decisions just to get people off her back — will find another excuse to target her so they can feel powerful.