I don’t think he ever knew that I knew he said it. Perhaps the other person he was talking about doesn’t know either. The boy I considered my stepbrother, a young man whom I considered to be so special that I remembered every second of interaction with him since the moment we met when I was five years old, made a particularly memorable comment not directly to me, but, when it did make its way back to me, it changed my life, even though it could have been read as a major insult.
The facts were these. Russell, my stepbrother, apparently angry that someone close to him didn’t share his extroverted tendencies and didn’t always make friends as easily as he did, said, “If someone were blindfolded, they’d choose Sofia.” For those of you new to my blog, I’m Sofia (nice to meet you).
On the surface, this seems rude. It seems like an insult both to the person he said it to because it implies that that person’s sole positive trait is his or her looks, and to me because it implied that my looks stood in my way and would have to be fully excluded from any matter in order for someone to like me. It may not fully make sense, but, actually, hearing that Russell said this set me free.
See, at the time he made this comment, I was hanging around with a lot of girls who worked very tirelessly on their appearances, and whose hard work seemed to pay off in ways that it didn’t seem to for me. I wouldn’t learn until much later that if I didn’t like myself, I wouldn’t take care of myself in a way that appeared positive to other people, so I continued to struggle without ever having anything to show for my efforts.
While my female cohorts drowned in male attention, I remained ever the ugly duckling. Whenever any male did pay me attention, I needed to be accommodating and pursue him, because, it was implied, who knew when my next chance would come along.
The best thing to do, I reasoned, was to try to be what everyone seemed to prefer. Somehow, my pale, doughy body and dark hair would be thin, tan, and blonde or I would die trying. And I almost succeeded. Body glitter, softball practice, and more hair dye than is imaginable almost paid off. But not quite. I still wasn’t exactly as well…as good as all the girls that guys, in fact, particularly guys like Russell, seemed to like. But, I deduced, it would only be a matter of time. Just keep working, I told myself. Keep climbing. Keep working out through strained calf muscles and dehydration. Keep restricting your calories. Keep living on supplements. You’re gonna get there. One of these days you’ll arrive. You’ll be exactly what everybody wants and everything will fall into place.
The only problem is that I’m an easily tired person. I wouldn’t outright call myself a quitter; but I get massively emotionally and physically fatigued by tasks that show no end in sight. Around the time that Russell made this comment, I was tired. I’d been working very hard, and it didn’t seem like my efforts to be The Un-Rejectable Sofia were being appreciated. No matter how hard I tried to be a slender, lithe, fair-haired Midwestern girl, I just couldn’t. I was still the same old person, just newly bronzed and glitter-coated.
But then. Almost accidentally and most certainly in passing, someone mentioned this comment that Russell had made. “If someone were blindfolded, they’d choose Sofia.” If someone were blindfolded. That seems so harsh. Obviously, the surface meaning is that my looks were problematic in terms of being liked or chosen by others. But it also meant something else. At the time, I also took it to mean that for all the effort I was putting into my looks, they weren’t what was special about me.
Who I was as a person, my humor, my likes, the stupid comments I made when I thought no one was listening, that was what made me, well, choose-able. If I wanted to be Un-Rejectable, it started with not allowing looks and concerns about looks to stand in the way of being what I liked. Looking back, I think the problem was that I was trying to force myself to look a certain way. I never forced myself to act a certain way or be a certain “kind” of person. I did what came naturally and, at least according to Russell, the results were positive.
Things have changed considerably since then. I look different and probably carry myself a little bit differently then back in my insecure high school days. Although my inner Midwesterner shudders at the thought of saying anything positive about myself, I guess I have to say people have given me some positive feedback about the way I look in these last few years.
It’s easy, when people start appreciating a new aspect of you, to forget about everything else you have to offer. You lose weight, get new teeth, and suddenly the compliments start flooding in. People like the way I look, you think, the way I look must be the best thing about me, or perhaps: people must like me because of the way I look. The more people affirmed my appearance, the more I started to care about it again, and the same old worries and comparisons seeped into my mind. I started to make my appearance my first priority, but in so doing only became cynical about what people liked about me.
“Funny thing,” I told one of my male friends as he pinned me to his couch in a platonic, harmlessly flirtatious gesture, “the thinner and sluttier I get, the more friends like you I’ve got.” He laughed and denied my sluttiness, a part of the comment that I wasn’t really serious about, especially considering that I think the concept of sluttiness is antiquated, but that’s a conversation for another time. At times like these, when I begin to place a little too much of my worth on my appearance, Russell’s comment is always my lifeline. Some people might like the way I look. But there are other things to like. It’s not about competition with other people, it’s just about being yourself. Russell made everyone he met feel like they were worth a lot, much more than some fake teeth.
Russell died in February. His loss broke my heart in a deep, excruciating way. His smile, his charm, his lovable demeanor all absent from my life in a blink. Russell always acted like he liked you, and, in doing so, made you like yourself. Sometimes I feel like I’m doing him an injustice by so often remembering one of his edgier comments when in all the years we knew each other he said many a kind thing to me. But, if he hadn’t said it, I’d still be on the elliptical machine in our basement. I’d never have written another blog post, never have started a charity project, never have gone away to college. I’d still be trying and failing to be something I’m not.
It’s not just the death of a charming, wonderful, smart human being. It’s the death of the person who, when I needed it the most, saw me clearly, and, in doing so, saved my life.
I miss you dearly Russell. I’d choose you over me a million times, even without a blindfold.
Your Obedient Servant,