This is what I looked like in my teenage years:

I had a thick, long mane of dark curls that cascaded down my back and bounced with every move.

My eyes were luminous and framed by thick, long lashes.

My lips were pouty and red. My smile was easy and contagious, my teeth straight and white.

But all I saw when I looked at myself in the mirror was how ugly and hideous I was. And everything and I said and did was influenced by that pervasive, dark thought.

Boys would come over and flirt, showering me with compliments, but I would reject every one of them out of shame and embarrassment. I would wear the baggiest, frumpiest clothes I owned because I was ugly. Avoid every camera directed my way because I did not want to see myself. And hide behind my prettier, more confident friends, passing on every opportunity to shine because I didn’t want the spotlight on me.

I was ugly. And no matter what anyone said or did, that fact was not going to change.

It was easy to convince myself I was happy being ugly, content standing at the side while others dazzled and amazed. It was safe, in a way.

Being ugly means you do not put yourself out there… so you can’t get hurt. You are too ugly to try anything new, so you never make mistakes. You stay where you are; quiet, because being quiet and invisible is preferable to everyone noticing the extent of your hideousness.

But it ate me alive, slowly, without me noticing.

My ugliness had a voice. It would speak to me when I least expected it. It convinced me I was not worthy of love and affection; that I was undeserving of success. It forced me to stay in bed when I wanted to be outside and have fun, and made me hesitant to even allow myself to want things.

How could I make new friends, have new adventures, do everything I wanted to do, if I was, and would always be, like this?

The thing about beauty, as described by the fashion and entertainment industries, is that it is extremely narrow. Have you noticed the women on the magazine covers? They are all young, or photoshopped to look as ageless as possible. They are, for the most part, slim. Tall, with long legs and willowy arms; or alternatively, curvaceous in all of the right ways.

If you are like me (read: a POC) you rarely saw yourself represented in these magazines growing up. And I took that personally. My ugliness spoke nonstop, saying things like, “See? You are not even worthy of a 200-word article about how to care for your hair.”

I listened attentively.

And I cut my long curls.

I fed off every negative feeling. Anything, no matter how small, was an excuse to remind me of how hideous I was. And as long as I paid attention to that voice I would remain ugly.

One day, exhausted and frustrated, I fought back. I told that voice:

No, I am beautiful. Let the world look at me and see for themselves.

And then, a miracle occurred:

I became beautiful.

I was beautiful and so the world was ready for my mega-watt smile.

I was amazing, so I bought the right products for my natural hair, and let my curls loose.

I was drop-dead gorgeous, so I said yes to the guy who invited me on a date.

I was incredible, so I went on that trip I have always wanted to take.

I was… me. Unequivocally, unmistakably me. I embraced my flaws, laughed harder and louder, allowed myself to stop focusing on perfection, I tried new things.

I put myself out there.

I was beautiful, and so I deserved to love myself the way I loved those who matter the most to me.

Magazines and movies no longer had a hold over me, because my definition of beauty came from within. I no longer compared myself to those women onscreen, because chances were, they themselves didn’t truly look like that anyway, all made up to the nines and using various techniques to make themselves look even more attractive in front of the cameras.

I focused on showing the world just how darned awesome I was.

But if it sounds like it became beautiful overnight… I would be doing you a disservice.

Being beautiful is a process, a lifestyle that must be practiced daily. Being beautiful comes from falling in love with yourself every day, from setting yourself up for happiness and optimism. Show others how you want to be treated by treating yourself that way. Taking steps to ensure you become the kind of person you want to be.

And one day, you will come to that point where, when ugliness speaks into your ear when you least expect it, and attempts to plant that little seed of doubt, you will confidently say…

No, I am beautiful, and nothing you can say or do can change that fact.

And no one will be able to take that from you.

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