Love & Sex

True Stories: How I Learned What “Pretty-Ugly” Means

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The French are onto something with that phrase. 

When I was nineteen, I moved to San Francisco with my soon-to-be first husband. With not a lot of skills (unless you count smoking cigarettes a skill), I took a job as one of those girls who spray perfume on you at Macy’s. I worked mostly at Union Square, the center of the San Francisco retail universe and the point through which every tourist there eventually passes. For a girl from Minneapolis, it was beyond exciting. I felt like I was living the dream.

But I’m the ambitious type, so I wasn’t content to just choke some people in a cloud of Giorgio. In minutes I had worked my way up to the next level of success in the cosmetics world: the girl who puts makeup on you at Macy’s. Here’s what I learned doing the makeup of regular ladies passing through Union Square: everyone is beautiful.

I’m not kidding. I’d be standing there at the counter with some nice mom of two from Walnut Creek, California, or Charlotte, North Carolina, perched in my tall chair. She might be feeling a little weird that she was letting me — a girl who still littered her speech with the big “Oh, reelly” of the Minnesota home I’d only just left — wield sable brushes two inches in front of her face. Somewhere between the foundation and the mascara, I would invariably notice something special on her, like the most exquisitely curved brow. Or maybe a business lady who dashed up to the counter on her lunch hour would have super-gorgeous skin, or complex green eyes flecked with bright brown and ringed with navy blue. Stuff like that.

Often the things I saw weren’t the kind of thing you’d notice on a first date. I had to get right up in these women’s faces, and perhaps more important, I had to be objective about them. I wasn’t putting eyeliner on them thinking about taking an up-or-down vote on whether I wanted to sleep with them, marry them, and have their children, or even whether I ever wanted to see them again. I had to be open-minded to see what they had to offer, and I had to look closely.

He had a ton of beauty; I just had to look at him differently to see it.

I once had a boyfriend who was, how shall I say, interesting- looking. He was what the French would call, in women, "jolie laide," literally “pretty-ugly” — attractive but not conventionally good- looking. His chin was a bit weak, his nose was a bit strong, his eyes were a bit… asymmetrical. When we first started dating, there were times when I would look at his face and think, “Wait, what?”

At first I even thought about breaking it off. Not only was his style completely different from mine — much more conservative — but everything about him physically was not what I was used to. But I stuck with it, in part because he had — seriously — a sparkling personality. He really did. He was one of the funniest, most mild-mannered, most agreeable people I have ever met.

We stayed together for a good amount of time, and somewhere along the line my eye… adjusted. He had a ton of beauty; I just had to look at him differently to see it. It’s like tuning in a radio station on an old-school car radio, where if you dial infinitesimally to the right, you can catch the amazing radio station from two towns over that plays the best oldies or whatever. I could see this other thing in him — how bright his eyes were, the amazing color of his skin when he’d been out playing (too much, way too much) soccer, his physical coordination and grace. Ultimately, loving that not-so-perfect-looking man made me aware of a whole other level of beauty that, even though we’re no longer together, I can still access and appreciate.

Years later, I learned this same lesson the opposite way, from a truly gorgeous boyfriend I had named Brandon. He was beautiful, with thick dark curly hair, enormous blue eyes, and facial symmetry that made you want to find the nearest hotel room. Brandon looked like Snow White if she were a really, really hot guy. We stayed together three years, and during that time I discovered that (unfortunately) the effect of beauty is often like any other effect: eventually it wears off. Usually sooner. It’s not that Brandon ceased to be gorgeous — the hordes of other women sniffing around all the time were proof of that. It’s that his beauty ceased to change the way I felt about him. It didn’t make me willing to put up with his bullshit (and he had a ton of bullshit; after all, he was in his early twenties), and it certainly didn’t make him grow up any faster.

I guess what I’m saying is, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And the choice of what to behold is yours. Of course you have to have a baseline physical attraction to someone (which we’ll talk more about a little later), but given that, you’re going to want to choose wisely. Because no one, not even you, is going to be young and good-looking forever.

From the book, WHY YOU'RE NOT MARRIED…YET by Tracy McMillan. Copyright (c) 2012 by Eleven Thousand Lakes, Inc. Reprinted by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.  All rights reserved.