Sunday, September 22, 2013

Confessions of an ugly stepsister

On the day of my father's wedding, I was in the hall bathroom, trying - and failing - to get my hair to cooperate.

Recently dyed an amber brown, the color was flattering but the individual strands were staging a revolt in protest.

Still, in my lavender gown and matching jewelry, I felt pretty.

As I continued fighting the battle de tresse, my paternal grandmother came into the bathroom, presumably to oversee the process. Little did I realize, I was about to be waging a war on two fronts.

In retrospect, I feel that my grandmother staged a brilliant maneuver. Having lived with - and braced for - her antics for two decades, I knew to come emotionally armor-clad when visiting with Granny Greer. But on this particular occasion, she caught me unaware.

Brilliant, in a way.

"I want you to make me a promise," she said.

An odd request on any occasion, but infinitely moreso considering the source.

"Um...sure thing, grandma."

To my recollection, this woman had never asked me for a favor before. Not that she was really around often enough to do so. I do not know if my eyebrows raised, but in the mental replay, they most definitely should have.

"I want you to promise me you'll save up money, and, when you have enough, you'll go to the surgeon and get your ears fixed."


When I was a child, before I knew to be self conscious about my hips or breasts or whether or not my stirrup pants made me look fat, I instead fixated on my ears. Lacking cartilage at the top, mis orielles had very early taken on an appearance of what could lovingly be called "elvin," but was more often regarded as ugly.

So I began considering plastic surgery. In elementary school.


As Fate so often does, It orchestrated its own answer to my grandma's behest by queueing my sister to enter the bathroom. Though it was me she was looking for, it was she who filled the silence and space.

Though only in elementary school herself at the time, my sister was already a beauty. Her hair - which should have been disheveled for a girl of her age and activity, was perfectly pinned in a way most becoming to her well-proportioned face. And while I had tried to hide mine behind a half up-do, her ears were on display. Perfectly symmetrical and decorated, as perfect ears should be, with perfect little earrings.

On her, my grandmother's eyes fell approvingly, and, with insight unbecoming a woman at war, I realized that I had never seen Janelle offer that same look of approval to any other young lady.

Yes, it was undeniable in that moment - and in every moment since - that my sister, my darling sister, was and is the beautiful one.

And I am the Ugly Stepsister.


In the dozen plus years that have followed, I have watched from the sidelines as my sister's beauty has won her favor in every circle in which she travels. I have watched the doors open, the heads turn, the favors fall into her perfectly narrow lap.

I've watched her, unaware as a swan to its own superiority, take such gifts in stride. And why shouldn't she? After all, she knows no different.

For while I have watched with envy, she has never known a world in which she was not beautiful. The looks, which would mean the world to so many mes, are but Tuesdays to her. And it isn't her fault.

I have watched how, bewitched by her beauty, some have overlooked her brains. And her kindness.

I have tried to harness these observations as a yolk to master my own insecurities and longings. "Look," I tell myself. "Even beauty has its downside."

Sometimes, I even believe it.

But on mornings when I wake, like I did today, 22 pounds over my ideal weight, and still feeling the sort of ugly that makeup and hair dye can't ever mask, I feel that same, familiar tremor in my heart that always presents itself.

That feeling of low-flying terror that grips me whenever my sister encircles my waist with her slender, perfectly proportioned arms to take a "sisters" photo.

That ceaseless rumbling in the gut that can't be filled with brunch or booze or the knowledge that you have garnered two degrees, have a lovely home, and are working in the industry of your choosing.

It's the sin of the apple. It's knowledge.

It's knowing that you like her better than me. That, by virtue of her genetic makeup, that she exists in a different caste, while I remain an untouchable.

It's knowing that I warrant a stop at a fast food dive while her arrival is met with a steak dinner. It's being granted audience with you in sweatpants at your house, when she is dress slacks and "I'll take you out somewhere."


I love my sister. I love her as you do. I stare in awe, as you do.

I'm proud of her.

But my pride lies not in that she is of my stock.

She is not of my stock.

She is of yours.

And I know I'll never warrant that extra shower. That extra trip. That extra mile.

For I am the Ugly Stepsister.

Even in my own life.

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