I was born beautiful. A c-section baby, I started life out right by avoiding the misshapen head and battle scars that come with being forced through a birth canal. Instead I emerged with a dainty nose, bow-shaped lips and distinctive eyebrows. I had just the right amount of fuzz covering my crown in exactly the right places, promising a fine crop of hair and an exceptional hairline.
Sure enough, my hair grew in thick and silky, the color of coffee beans. Every morning I would sit cooperatively while my mother wrapped my hair around fat, hot rollers or twisted it into intricate braids. When I went to nursery school, the other little girls—many with unsightly bowl-cuts—clamored to put their mat near mine during nap time, their fingers darting over to touch my ponytail. They happily shared their Play-Doh or surrendered their turn on the slide. Anything to be my friend. It was then that I discovered there is a pecking order in life, and appearances play a role in that hierarchy. In other words, I understood at the tender age of three that with beauty comes perks and power.
This lesson was only reinforced as I grew older and continued my reign as the prettiest girl in increasingly larger pools of competition. The cream of the crop in junior high and then high school. But unlike the characters in my favorite John Hughes films, my popularity and beauty never made me mean. I ruled as a benevolent dictator, playing watchdog over other popular girls who tried to abuse their power. I defied cliques, remaining true to my brainy best friend Rachel. I was popular enough to make my own rules.
Of course I had my moments of uncertainty. I remember one such occasion in the sixth grade when Rachel and I were playing “psychiatrist,” one of our favorite games. I'd usually play the role of patient, saying things like, “I am so scared of spiders, doctor, that I can't leave my house all summer long.”
“Well,” Rachel would respond, pushing her glasses up on the bridge of her nose and scribbling notes on a tablet, “I recommend that you watch Charlotte's Web . . . . Or move to Siberia where there are no spiders. And take these.” She'd hand me two Flintstones vitamins and nod encouragingly.
That was the way it usually went. But on this particular afternoon, Rachel suggested that instead of being a pretend patient, I should be myself, come up with a problem of my own. So I thought of how my little brother Jeremy hogged the dinner conversation every night, spouting off original knock-knock jokes and obscure animal kingdom facts. I confided that my parents seemed to favor Jeremy—or at least they listened to him more than they listened to me.
Rachel cleared her throat, thought for a second, and then shared some theory about how little boys are encouraged to be smart and funny while little girls are praised for being cute. She called this a “dangerous trap” for girls and said it can lead to “empty women.”
“Where'd you hear that ?” I asked her, wondering exactly what she meant by “empty.”
“Nowhere. It's just what I think,” Rachel said, proving that she was in no danger of falling into the pretty-little-girl trap. In fact, her theory applied perfectly to us. I was the beautiful one with average grades, Rachel was the smart one with average looks. I suddenly felt a surge of envy, wishing that I, too, were full of big ideas and important words.
But I quickly assessed the haphazard wave in Rachel's mousy brown hair and reassured myself that I had been dealt a good hand. I couldn't find countries like Pakistan or Peru on a map or convert fractions into percentages, but my beauty was going to catapult me into a world of Jaguars and big houses and dinners with three forks to the left of my bone china plate. All I had to do was marry well, as my mother had. She was no genius and hadn't finished more than three semesters at a community college, but her pretty face, petite frame and impeccable taste had won over my smart father, a dentist, and now she had the good life. I thought her life was an excellent blueprint for my own.
So I cruised through my teenage years and entered Indiana University with a “just get by” mentality. I pledged the best sorority, dated the hottest guys, and was featured in the Hoosier Dream Girls calendar four years straight. After graduating with a 2.9, I followed Rachel, who was still my best friend, to New York City where she was attending law school. While she slogged it out in the library and then went to work for a big firm, I continued my pursuit of glamour and good times, quickly learning that the finer things were even finer in Manhattan. I discovered the city's hippest clubs, best restaurants, and most eligible men. And I still had the best hair in town.
Throughout our twenties, as Rachel and I continued along our different paths, she would often pose the judgmental question, “Aren't you worried about karma?” (Incidentally, she first mentioned karma in junior high after I had cheated on a math test. I remember trying to decipher the word's meaning using the song Karma Chameleon which, of course, didn't work). Later, I understood her point—that hard work, honesty and integrity always paid off in the end—while skating by on your looks was somehow an offense. And like that day playing psychiatrist, I occasionally worried that she was right.
But I told myself that I didn't have to be a nose-at-the-grindstone, soup-kitchen volunteer to have good karma. I might not have followed a traditional route to success, but I had earned my glamorous PR job, my fabulous crowd of friends, and my amazing fiancé Dex Thaler. I deserved my apartment with a terrace on Central Park West and the substantial, colorless diamond on my left hand.
That was back in the days when I thought I had it all figured out. I just didn't understand why people, particularly Rachel, insisted on making things so much more difficult than they had to be. She may have followed all the rules, but there she was, single and thirty, pulling all-nighters at a law firm she despised. Meanwhile, I was the happy one, just as I had been throughout our whole childhood. I remember trying to coach her, telling her to inject a little fun into her glum, disciplined life. I would say things like, “For starters, you should give your bland shoes to Goodwill and buy a few pairs of Blahniks. You'll feel better, for sure.”
I know now how shallow that sounds. I realize that I made everything about appearances. But at the time, I honestly didn't think I was hurting anyone, not even myself. I didn't think much at all, in fact. Yes, I was gorgeous and lucky-in-love, but I truly believed that I was also a decent person who deserved her good fortune. And I saw no reason why the rest of my life should be any less charmed than my first three decades.
Then, something happened that made me question everything I thought I knew about the world: Rachel, my plain, do-gooding maid of honor with frizzy hair the color of wheat germ, swooped in and stole my fiancé.
Copyright © 2005 by Emily Giffin.