Presentation counts!

I've seen a lot of actors/musicians, mostly female, lately jumping on the "I was bullied in school!" bandwagon. I have no opinion one way or the other on whether most of them are telling the truth; I haven't bothered to go digging enough to watch their delivery and hear what they say without having all of their quotes filtered through the never-ending sleepover game of Telephone that is the Daily Mail.

I have also seen a lot of people in the comments of all these articles declaring that these stories of high school harassment are obvious bunk. They're willing to buy that Christina Hendricks might have been picked on for not being stick thin, but Megan Fox is clearly just me-too-ing. "Look at her now!" they cry. "And here, here's a yearbook picture from when she was sixteen -- 'not the pretty girl' my left ear, she's gorgeous! Obviously a cry for attention."

And in most cases, they are correct in that the photo they dug up is usually of a person who would be considered conventionally attractive, both by her culture in general and probably by the other teenagers she was walled in with.

But it really doesn't work that way.

Kids are savage little pricks. On top of that, they lie a lot about why they do things, even if they give a reason. (Just like adults, frankly -- House might be crazy, but he isn't stupid.) They might say "You're a stupid ugly brace-face!", but that might actually mean, "You make me feel threatened with your ability to do algebra," or "Your behavior is different from what I'm used to and I don't know how else to react to it," or "My parents say your parents are immoral heathens," or even, "I've never really noticed whether you have any personality traits or not, but I feel the only way to keep my social power is to be a bitch to everyone in the immediate area, and you picked a bad place to eat your lunch." Yes, physical appearance in the range of 'average or better' probably does help you out when individuals assess you independently of the mob, but once the guy handing out the torches and pitchforks has made a ruling, you could be Aphrodite herself and they will still give you the cold shoulder, when they're not throwing shit at you.

Another thing that people rarely consider consciously is that "being beautiful" in a social sense isn't the same as being beautiful in an aesthetic sense. It's possible to be a stunningly attractive human being and never have anyone really acknowledge it, simply because you're not sending out the social signals that say 'please consider me as a beautiful thing'. There's a photo of Christina Hendricks floating around where she's kitted out in Goth black, hair and everything, the same way she dressed as a teenager. Internet commenters generally go "She's pretty like that! I can't imagine anyone made fun of her." And she is quite pretty -- a very pretty Goth. Within the Goth subculture, she may well have been admired, but among the wider teenage population, the cues that told Goths she wanted to be acknowledged for making the effort to get all gussied up for the day either said nothing to the other teens, or contradicted any other unconscious cues she might have been giving off in their social language. She wasn't speaking their dialect. So they picked on her.

When people flip between spoken or written languages like that, it's called code switching, and it's a vital skill to learn if you belong to a culture or live in an area where one language is used at home and another used out in the wider world for things like business. Some people can do it instinctively, but I personally had to learn it the hard way.

I had a particularly illustrative experience with it in my late teens, which I really wish I'd have recognized for what it was at the time. (I didn't. I was pretty socially retarded as a teenager, in the technical sense of 'severely behind'. There were a lot of reasons that aren't relevant to this particular post, but suffice it to say, I had no idea what the hell was going on even more than most teens have no idea what the hell was going on.) See, when I was in high school, I didn't dress normal. At all. I owned suits. I wore suits. Mostly with pumps and jewelry I'd inherited from other people. In short, I dressed like I was fifteen years older than I actually was. I wasn't completely oblivious to this; I knew damn well that the clop-clop-clop noise of pumps on concrete made the other kids stay the hell away from me, and that was kinda the point. They'd spent my entire K-8 career being bastards to me and at that point, I figured it would be a genuine improvement if I could go entire days without any of my classmates speaking to me.

All of the graduating seniors were required to go get their yearbook portraits taken at a local photo studio, rather than by the cheap hacks who came to the school and did the underclassmen. This place also did fancy boudoir portraits, and for a fee they were more than happy to also do a bunch of "glamour shots" for keepsakes, graduation announcements, whatever. I am notorious for hating photos of myself -- seriously, I still do, I think 99.999% of them don't look at all like me, even the pro shots -- so my mother, figuring this was the last time she was ever going to get me to sit still in front of a camera, plunked down for the glamour shots package. So we schlepped down there with a selection of my more interesting clothes, plus a modest suit jacket for my yearbook picture, and arrived for their last appointment of the day.

They spent hours fussing over me. Far, far longer than the appointment block was supposed to be. The photographer and the makeup lady were there well past close with us, getting me to change clothes, sit still to be painted, have my hair done, play with props, just pose. My yearbook photo is perfectly ordinary, but my parents still have a collection of wallet- and half-size photos of 17-year-old me in a sundress with bright red lipstick and my hair in a 1940s set, in a micromini and a faux-biker jacket from Charlotte Russe, pointing accusingly at the camera, and in an Indiana Jones fedora and leather coat with a whip slung around my neck. Almost all of the wardrobe was mine, and all the posing certainly was.

I was not the pretty popular girl in high school. I'm not even sure who was or what she looked like, probably because I was so far away from the position that four years wasn't long enough from light to get from the incumbent to me. But out of seething sea of teenagers, in a wider context where my dress sense dropped from "bizarre and insane" to "maybe lightly eccentric", and I had no history of being on the bottom of the social pyramid, I was apparently remarkable enough to rate staying after work to shoot.

It is absolutely not necessary to make "being beautiful" a part of your social persona. Your looks are not the extent of your worth. But you should also never assume that what you think of someone's looks has anything to do with what other people think of someone's looks, nor that a strictly physical assessment, out of context, has anything to do with how that person is treated.