The boys in my middle school might not remember me, or what they said to me. But I still vividly remember that moment when I passed them at the school corridor.
"Look, your girlfriend is going to the toilet,” one of them said. “You should take her there; she likes you.”
"She is not my girlfriend! I don't like her," the other responded, laughing, as if being my boyfriend would be a punishment to them.
I didn’t even know these boys personally, but what they said deeply hit me. But that’s not the worst. One afternoon a boy approached me.
"Did you know that the boys rank the girls according to their beauty? Do you know who the least beautiful girl in the class is?"
“Who?” I replied.
"It's you!" He said, matter-of-factly.
When I came back from school, I looked at the mirror and cried. Why is God so cruel to me? I didn't ask for a dark skin, uneven teeth, thick lips, super thin body, or curly hair. I also thought why did I have to be ashamed over something I have no control of?
The next day I went up to the boys to confront them: "I know you ranked the girls based on their beauty and you said I was the ugliest. Tell me, why am I the ugliest?"
They were dismissive: "It’s just a joke. Don't take it to heart!”
I know they were just immature mindless teenagers who were being stupid, but I was also a young girl barely in her puberty who wanted to be pretty and who didn’t know how to deal with their taunts. And 11 years after it happened, I still feel the impact of their remarks. I still believe that I'm ugly, and undeserving of being loved.
In high school I had a crush on someone. But I was so afraid that my feelings would be found out by anyone. I feared that I would embarrass my crush if anyone knew that I liked him. I threw tantrum when someone found out my feeling, because I thought they were bullying me. I apologized to my crush several times, fearing that he would be bullied because he was associated with me, the ugliest and undeserving girl who liked him. I did not dread his rejection, rather the bullying I would face because a woman like me dared liking a man.
I am still not able to build a relationship with a man, because whenever anyone approached me, I would think that they either had no other choice or they turned to me because I was ugly hence easy to win over. I looked down upon people who loved me as I looked down on myself. After 11 years I still couldn't love or accept myself or anyone who loves me.
What broke my heart more is that I found out this experience is not only exclusive to me. The fact that many women and men out there have to suffer from bullying and body-shaming show that taunts like the ones I was subjected to do not only stem from mindless immature boys. They are proofs that something is wrong with the narrow representation of beauty on media; and the toxic patriarchy in which women are not valued if they’re not pretty, and in which men treat women as trophies for their masculinity.
The silver line from my bad experience is that, thanks to them, I got the strength to work hard. I studied really hard to be the top of my class, to win as many competitions, to enter the best school. Thanks to them, I had to prove that I'm more than my appearance.
Those boys are now far behind me. I have left my little town and stepped into a bigger world. I have achieved a lot and I have found my strength and passion for studying, language, and women’s empowerment. I have appreciated myself better, though I still couldn't shake the mindset that I am ugly. Still, I am trying my best to affirm that I am enough and deserve to be loved.
But now I am thankful that our society is changing for the better, even if it’s done slowly. I am grateful to find more diverse physical representations of beauty. I am also grateful there are more campaigns on rejecting body shaming. I am glad to see more people stand up against body shaming. Nobody deserves to be looked down upon because of their physical appearance.
Illustration by Adhitya Pattisahusiwa