The first and only time my dad spanked me for refusing to be pretty was on Christmas Eve. I was five, my sister was four, our grandmother had bought us matching dresses. Long lace sleeves. Dark crimson skirts. Lookalike bows for our hair. I said it made me feel itchy. I said it made me feel cold. I didn’t say wearing dresses made me feel like I was trying to squeeze into someone else’s skin, but it wouldn’t have mattered. My dad was determined to see me in that dress, for my grandmother’s sake, even though she protested when he was heading into the den with me and a belt.
“Don’t you want to be pretty?” he asked before the spanking, when he was still trying to reason with me.
“No,” I said. “I want to be a professional baseball player.”
We both cried when it was over. Me, because no kid likes being spanked. Him, because no parent likes to realize they hit their kid over a dress.
My girlfriend looks at me like I’m the best thing she’s ever seen. In a t-shirt and jeans. Or a t-shirt and pajama bottoms. Or a t-shirt and gym shorts or a t-shirt and yoga pants or a t-shirt and none of your business. Always a t-shirt. And sneakers and baseball caps and ponytails. She looks at me the way Harry Potter looks at his wand the first time Olivander hands it to him. The way Gollum looks at the ring. The way a puppy who loves you looks at you like you stitched the stars into place and tossed the sun into the sky and keep the earth spinning just by smiling.
In January, when I started receiving hate-filled anonymous messages about my appearance, I didn’t tell my girlfriend. I’ve been called way worse than a “fugly dyke,” and anyway, we had better things to talk about. Vacation plans. Books we read. Decorating our new apartment. I didn’t even tell her when the notes started getting specific. Someone calling out my “crossed eyes” in a Tumblr ask. My “pocked skin” in an email. My “hillbilly teeth” on Twitter.
I thought I’d ignore the messages and they’d stop, like all the other heckling I’d batted away over the years. I’ve been an employee of the internet far too long to let a little trolling bother me.
I tried to tell my elementary school classmates I was wearing an eyepatch because I was a pirate. But they knew it was because of my lazy eye. The after-effects of the surgeries were too gross for the other kids to look at, and when my eye was all cleared up from the slicing and dicing, I had to wear a patch on the good one to try to strengthen the bad one. It was not the age of Etsy. It was 1985. There were no cloth Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle patches. No Superman ones. No cowgirls riding unicorns. No dinosaurs or rainbows or Super Marios. My patch was white gauze taped over an enormous pair of glasses.
In primary school, kids asked, “But why are you cross-eyed?” And I shrugged and refused to look at them, because I didn’t know, because I wanted everyone to stop talking about it.
In middle school, everyone’s favorite baseball team underdog said, “Don’t look at my face; you’re freaking me out,” and everyone laughed like it was the funniest joke they’d ever heard.
In high school, my best friend’s boyfriend often said, ‘”What the fuck are you even looking at?” when she wasn’t around. The guys on the football team sniggered if I tripped walking down the hall. “She’s so blind she’s practically crippled.”
It didn’t matter that I was a genuinely good kid. That I was pretty funny. That I was an all-state choral singer in middle school, or an all-state basketball player and runner in high school. It didn’t matter that I really wasn’t blind. I could hit a game-winning jump shot against our county rival, be lauded by the other team’s coach as the nicest player in the league, be plastered all over the newspaper like a local hero. It didn’t matter because the next day I was going to school with my off-brand clothes and my invincible acne and my lazy eye, in shoes that were so old and beaten up I had to dig them out of the locker room’s lost and found every couple of weeks.
I kept my head down, literally. I tried not to look at anyone. And I still hated dresses.
“Fugly dyke” was funny to me at first, when the messages started appearing in my email and Tumblr ask box. “You’re just a dumb virgin who can’t drive,” I’d say out loud as I deleted them. “Trang Pak is a grotsky, little byotch.”
It’s not like I was dealing with GamerGate-caliber cyberterrorism. It was probably a disgruntled shipper. It was probably someone who was mad at me for clowning on the cute boys on Pretty Little Liars. It was probably some 13-year-old girl who was furious that I made One Direction jokes on Twitter the day not-Harry Styles left the band.
That was probably it.
I’ve been doing this for ten years now, writing my life on the internet, and no one has ever trolled me about the way I look. Every social media platform I use is full of messages from people telling me how I made their lives better because of something I did or wrote or said. They have always cushioned their hate.
“I am a 36-year-old lesbian feminist,” is what I started saying out loud to myself when the Mean Girls jokes ran out, when the messages became more aggressive and more frequent. “Normative, unattainable beauty standards are bullshit!”
They are bullshit. I know they’re bullshit. Their life-ruining effects echo in every corridor of our society. Hundreds of magazines pushing the lie that we’ll be happier when we look like the women on their covers (who don’t even look like themselves, because: Photoshop). Thousands of women dying every year from eating disorders. Billions of dollars flowing into ad campaigns designed to convince us how miserable we are because of the faces we were born with, or because our bodies refused to stop aging after puberty, or because more men don’t want to fuck us.
It’s propaganda, plainly. I know that truth in my bones — but when the spiteful notes kept coming, I stopped feeling that truth in my heart. I didn’t want to go to brunch with my friends. I didn’t want to go to the grocery store to get milk. I didn’t want to Skype with my grandmother. I didn’t want to have sex with the woman who looks at me like she’s the east and I’m the sun.
It wasn’t just what the messages said that chipped away at me; it was the fact that they existed at all. My entire professional writing career has been about making the world better and brighter and warmer for queer women. Queer women don’t call each other fugly dykes! Or maybe they do. The messages were way too personal, way too specific, way too knowledgeable about the things I’ve written to come from someone who isn’t familiar with half a decade of my work.
My mom was furious when she overheard the kids at church making fun of my eye patch, my skinned-up knees, the dirt under my fingernails, and the scars from briars and mosquito bites all over my legs. Not furious with them; furious with me for being the kind of girl who’d invite such taunts. The church kids were the first ones to call me a dyke. My mom forbade me to bring baseball caps to Sunday School to put on after church, forbade me to wear gym shorts under my skirts. She took me to the mall and bought me four new dresses. A sea green one with pearl buttons, a pink and blue flowery one, a green and blue flowery one with a lace collar, and a white and black striped one with a gold zipper and shoulder pads. She said people would stop paying so much attention to my eye and my acne if I started paying more attention to my clothes.
The first time I got on the church bus wearing one of those dresses, the preacher’s daughter giggled and said, “I’ll bet you even walk like a man in high heels.”
My lazy eye hurts a lot, even though I can afford glasses and I wear them all the time now. It helps to press my palm into it, but it’s not very comfortable, so I press my eye into my girlfriend’s shoulder almost every night, while she reads books and the internet.
“You seem extra-quiet tonight,” she said a few weeks ago, after another email calling me a cross-eyed cunt came through. “Are you okay?”
“Do you think I’m pretty?” I asked her.
She shut her laptop and crawled over the bed and into my lap where I was sitting in a chair at my desk. I’d never asked her that before. I’d never asked anyone that before. She kissed my forehead and my nose, my cheeks and my lips. “I think you’re perfect.”
I let my dad’s second wife drag me all around Atlanta looking for a dress to wear to their wedding. She was gorgeous. Like supermodel gorgeous. Her hair was almost was as good as Tami Taylor’s. She sold makeup and could tell just by looking at you what color lipstick you needed to make your face say whatever you wanted it to say.
She rolled her eyes at me a lot. She worried. “Don’t they make t-shirts that look feminine?”
The dresses for the wedding were terrible, because they were dresses. She told me to stand up taller, take my hair out of the ponytail, take off my glasses, stop squinting. She scrutinized my form, everything about the way I moved. The shoes that matched the dress cost $400. I would only have to walk in them for a minute, she said; plus, I could lean on my boyfriend. He was singing at the ceremony.
She bought me an ice cream when we were done shopping. I was 24 years old.
When I came out, I stopped wearing dresses. Not because I flipped from Straight to Gay, or that dresses have a specific correlation to either of those identities, but because I decided that being queer out loud was about leaping outside the box of all of society’s rules that felt rigid, itchy and nonsensical to me. For some queers, this means dresses every day. For me, that meant giving them up forever. Not marrying a man was only the tip of the iceberg of things I was going to stop pretending to want to do.
I wore a bow-tie and a button-up the third time my dad got married. I wore oxfords I bought in the men’s department. I didn’t need to lean on anyone to walk. My grandma said I never looked finer.
The last Tumblr message I got about my appearance said, “I like how you’ve been using that photo of you in a baseball cap for about 10 years. I guess we can all keep pretending that is what you look like.” It was the only mean message I answered. I thought of saying, “This photo means a whole lot to me because I took it the day I published the best thing I ever wrote.” Or, “I love this picture because my dog Margaret is in it and I cherish every photo I have with her because she’s 14 years old and I don’t want to talk about what that means.” I thought of saying. “I’m fond of this hat because I got it when I took my grandparents to West Yellowstone to snowmobile for a whole week.” Or, “I bought the Captain America shirt I’m wearing with the first paycheck I ever got for writing.”
But I didn’t say any of those things. I sassed about it. I pretended I didn’t care. I posted more photos of me in baseball caps with a message confirming that I still have the same head.
I spent hours and hours and hours that night looking through all of my pictures. I don’t take many photos of myself, but the ones I do take are ones I love. Because my girlfriend is in them with me, smiling because her football team beat the Jets, smiling because we’re spending a rare day off together at the beach, smiling because she just likes how her head feels resting on my shoulder. My sister and I, standing in front of the giant Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, or drinking one-too-many beers, or laughing at something only we would understand. My nephew, standing beside me wearing the same Batman costume I used to wear when I was his age. My grandma kissing my cheek. My great-aunt affectionately patting my face. My dogs nuzzling me and my cat biting my nose and my very best friends just being who they are at brunch and fandom meet-ups and TV nights and brunch some more.
They don’t care about my eye or my acne or my weight or my eczema; they only care that the body I’m in houses a soul that they adore.
Don’t you want to be pretty?
No. I want to be living this exact life, doing this exact work, surrounded by these exact people. It’s more than I ever would have dared to hope for.
I stayed awake that night waiting for the troll. I had a response for “fat ass muff diver.” I had a response for “fugly dyke.” I had a response for every horrible thing, and I fell asleep refreshing my Tumblr ask box. I awoke to the sound of my girlfriend flipping the pages of a book. She sat it on the nightstand when she saw me stirring, laid her head beside mine on the pillow, and smiled. “You’re beautiful,” she said, and she kissed me like it was the main thing she’d been needing to do her whole life.
“You’re beautiful,” she said again.
And I believed her.