When I was fifteen, I hosted a French exchange student in my home for a week. Dmitri looked just like the drawings of Jean-Claude in my Tricolore text book with his wavy long hair and hawkish nose. I was crushing hard despite his matchy-matchy pastel sweatsuits that looked like baby onesies. Toward the end of his visit, Dimitri left his journal on the kitchen table and couldn’t resist. I couldn’t read French very well so I scanned the pages for my name until there is was: Julie est jolie-laide. My sub-par French translation saw the words Pretty-Ugly.
Can I describe the hurt that was barreling toward my 15 year old self as I read those words? No, I can’t. Something else happened. With a whoosh and my heart pounding in my ears, I went outside myself and became my trusted friend: Julie, look it up – it’s not THAT simple, it’s French after all…. I did, it read:
“Good-looking ugly woman: woman who is attractive though not conventionally pretty.”
I sat at at the table with that for a long time. What was I feeling? Was I flattered? Why was I blushing? I knew I wasn’t pretty – I wasn’t going for that – I had a tuft of frizz on one side of my head and a buzz cut on the other. I dressed in black. I was a little chubby. I wore Doc Martens. It was more important that you knew what I was into when you looked at me rather than you being into me. I knew I wasn’t at my peak of physical attractiveness (apparently, many of my peers were – thanks for that, Facebook!) but Jolie Laide seemed like a deeper appreciation in that it withheld it’s judgement and just stood back and looked.
A word describing my attractiveness in a word that joined polar opposites was exactly what I did understand at that ackward age. In 1987, my impressions in that situation were mine to make. I took that word and applied my own meaning because the word and situation gave me the space to do so. It forced me to acknowledge what I thought about me mattered more than what he did. I don’t think I would have fared so well in 2017.
Today, imagine how this plays out. He posts a tagged picture of me, his host, with a snarky comment that protects him from romantic implication. I’m now open to judgement of a bunch of trolls and people that like to weigh in on other people’s appearance. Likes, comments with strings of emojis start to come through my feed. I can’t look away. There’s little room for speculation on meaning since words are hardly being used. Unconsciously, I start tallying the likes. I’ve always been more comfortable dealing with complicated meanings and feelings than being thrown in a bucket labeled “Hot” or “Not”. I don’t want to be swiped right or left. As a teenager, I inherently knew the best was yet to come.
Iolie Laide is “a triumph of personality over physiognomy, the imposition of substance over surface” as Daphne Merkine put it in her NYT magazine article, The Unfairest of Them All. The friend that popped out at me at that pivotal moment in 1987, I wish for every young girl to have and be; a bodyguard for her own self-esteem because we all need one today.