The Ugliest I've Ever Been

Photo: Courtesy of Julia Salem.
This week, I present the winner of The Anti-Diet Project's first essay contest, Julia Salem. The prompt was "shed light on shame," and I received so many astonishing and brave pieces of work from readers. I am deeply grateful to all who shared their stories with me, and I hope that Julia's will resonate with you as it did with me. This essay reminded me of a kind of shame that may be the hardest to expose: shame caused by our own actions. Yet we've all been there. For that reason, I think this shame is even more important to reveal to the world. — Kelsey

I remember with pencil-sharp precision the first time I put black eyeliner on my eyes. I was twelve, my mother had died three years earlier, and I had a stormy Belgian au pair named Ingrid who was obsessed with sex, Nutella, and rap music. I stood in front of the mirror by the kitchen, where she was browning garlic in a sputtering skillet. It felt oddly natural, peeling back the pink rim of my eye, revealing a flush of red flesh, like a spider-veined sunset. I blinked at my reflection.

"Woah," I said. Ingrid came rushing out of the kitchen.

"See? I told you how different you'd look!"

It was true. Without eyeliner, I was a moon-faced, pancake-chested preteen whose interests were so different from my classmates' that we might as well have been different species. In an act of alchemy, the eyeliner transformed my eyes from a pair of drab pennies into flickering amber jewels.

That's when my addiction began. I took my magic pencil to sleepovers and sports practice, washing it off only at night. Once, on a field trip, I had to bunk with three other girls from my grade. "Aren't you going to take your makeup off?" one of them asked as we were getting ready for bed.

"Oh yeah, of course," I said, trying to appear blasé and hide the panic that made my heart squirm. When I finished, the girl looked at my naked face and said, "Oh. You look better with it on."

"Yeah," I murmured, her words sinking in my stomach like an anchor through gunmetal waves of shame.

My eyes can't keep a secret. When I've had too little sleep, they insist on showing it to the world. They shrivel to tiny dots, blinking meanly from within their fleshy nest like finches. I remember waking up one day in high school after a long period of late-night essay writing and failing to recognize myself in the mirror. In that case, eyeliner only made matters worse, tucking my eyes even deeper into their defiant fortress of flesh. After an hour of running, cold cucumbers, and ice, I was two hours late to school. "Coffee will help," my teacher said. I nodded without looking her in the eye.

Four years later, I met a man from the suburbs of Paris who swore he loved me unconditionally. "If you gained 200 pounds, or got in an accident and were disfigured, I would still love you, because it would still be you," he said, his ice-blue eyes shimmering with warmth. And, yet I could never face him without makeup — not once in our five years together. Every night and every morning, I would lean into his cracked bathroom mirror and paint the flatness out of my eyes.

It's been more than three years since we broke up, and now I find myself in a new relationship. On a recent Saturday morning, I woke up unable to look my boyfriend in the eye for a different reason.

The night before, I'd had far too much to drink at a rooftop party — which one of his exes was also attending. It was a slick, warm night, and the streetlamps of southeast D.C. were beginning to rise from the dusk-blurred city like neon balloons. I felt uneasy, stale-faced, and small-chested in my strapless dress. He hadn't told me which one she was, but I'd known immediately. She was exactly his type: winsome and voluptuous, with cascading, chestnut hair and round, caramel eyes. Her carefree voice, devoid of even one decibel of doubt, made my nerves skitter.

After she left, I began laughing hysterically and telling the other guests (including her close friends) how my boyfriend had hooked up with "the fat one." The memory is fragmented, composed of whisky-hued snippets, but I remember the shocked faces of her friends, and the insults tumbling from my mouth like an avalanche. I woke up the next day feeling like Kafka's Gregor, transformed into a pest. Viciously insulting someone because of their appearance was completely out of character for me. It was the ugliest I'd ever been.

A few weeks earlier, I had asked a friend how she would define beauty — real beauty. She said that for her, beauty was associated with lack of artifice. I said I thought beauty was a heart that gives in the face of suffering. I now believe the truth spans both definitions: Beauty is revealing one's rolls of fat, pimpled chin, and bloated eyes to the world. And, it is also lifting others up when that gnarled knot of insecurity within you screams to tear them down.

Exposing my own meanness imbued me with a far deeper shame than my bare face ever had. Last weekend, I went to bed beside my boyfriend without a trace of makeup on my face — though, I didn't last long without it in the morning. I will probably always carry it with me and look better with it on. I will never be truly beautiful, physically. It's a thing that very few women are, and a fact that even fewer are willing to admit. That is the root of my insecurity, and to say that it's trivial seems trite. But, it is.

In moments of intense self-shaming, I remember this: I choose my friends, the eclectically glittering lights of my life, based on the real beauty I perceive in them. And, whether rightly or mistakenly, that is how they have chosen me.

Julia Salem works for an executive search firm in Washington, D.C. You can follow her work on tumblr.

The Anti-Diet Project is an ongoing series about intuitive eating, rational fitness, and body positivity. You can follow Kelsey's journey on Twitter and Instagram at @mskelseymiller or #antidietproject (hashtag your own Anti-Diet moments, too!). Got a question — or your own Anti-Diet story to tell? Email

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