He told me I was ugly

He was my friend, so his words were a punch in my face. I knew be­fore it wasn’t true but I be­lieved him

Mail & Guardian - - Personal Essay - Zaza Hlalethwa

Ihad this friend. He was a good friend. I adored him so much that he was one lunch date or hug away from be­com­ing my best friend. He was not per­fect. There were things about him that I did not like. One of those things was how he did not like cer­tain things about me. So we would ar­gue. But this was okay be­cause I have never shied away from fights. Fights were merely a means to solve mis­un­der­stand­ings. We fought to get to know each other. At least that's what I would say to jus­tify our high highs and our even lower lows.

When I re­alised this was hap­pen­ing, I de­cided to take a step back from our friend­ship. I was too close to the pic­ture to see its en­tirety. So I let him know that, for the two weeks that I would be out of town, I was cut­ting our line of con­tact. Just to see how I would do without him. We would not make phone calls, send texts, make men­tions on Twit­ter or In­sta­gram, noth­ing. He agreed. And for two weeks I ex­isted without his as­sis­tance on how to feel.

It felt light. But as soon as I got home, I reached out to say hello and share my find­ings of what time away from our friend­ship was like. It was our last con­ver­sa­tion.

X

“Friend? Hey, I'm back at home. I miss you. How are you? Where is my be­lated birth­day wish?"

“Hey Zaza. I'm glad you made it home safe. Happy be­lated." “O sharp?"

“Yeah I'm okay. You've just been gone for so long I don't know how to talk to you."

“I guess that makes sense. But hurry up and get used to it be­cause I miss you, my broer!"

“Lol I want to show you some­thing."

“Awe, show me. What is it?"

“It's my pho­tog­ra­phy work. But you can't share it with any­one." “I won't nana, pinky prom­ise." “There you go."

“Oh wetsa por­trai­ture nou? Lekker for you!"

“She's beau­ti­ful isn't she?"

“Awe, she's gor­geous."

“Lol why did you say it like that?" “Like what? She's beau­ti­ful, I agree with you. Is that why you sent the pic­ture, to see if I thought she was beau­ti­ful?"

“You're be­ing weird, Zaza. Where's the en­thu­si­asm? Why all the ques­tions?"

“I'm just try­ing to un­der­stand why you sent the pic­ture lol."

“She's beau­ti­ful."

“Okay."

“Lol. It gets to you when you re­alise a lot of women are more at­trac­tive than you, ne?"

“Huh? What are you say­ing?" “You're not as at­trac­tive as you think you are. Looks aren't your thing, and it's okay."

“Where is this com­ing from???" “You walk around think­ing you're the shit and as your friend, I'm here to re­mind you it isn't like that bra."

“WTF??? I don't know if you're try­ing to be funny but that's a stupid joke. I'm not en­ter­tain­ing this. I'm not gonna let you mess with my head like that. Nope. No, no, no. I'm not do­ing this with you. I'm not gonna let you hurt my feel­ings so ran­domly. This isn't nec­es­sary."

“Get­ting your feel­ings hurt? I'm play­ing with you dog, geez. I'm sorry. Be­sides, ugly isn't a bad thing be­cause beauty isn't ev­ery­thing." “Not funny."

“Wow, I said sorry. Aren't you con­fi­dent Zaza? Where's your con­fi­dence? Fuck what I said, be con­fi­dent."

X

I was dizzy with con­fu­sion and archived our chat be­cause I could not bring my­self to think about what he had just said. I did not want to process it be­cause I did not want to be­lieve him. And to do this, a new rou­tine had to be es­tab­lished. I stayed up in my dark room and made a men­tal list of dos and don’ts to make sure I did not have to ad­dress the mat­ter.

I will avoid mir­rors and win­dows at all costs.

I will keep my chin down at the basin when I brush my teeth.

I will get up early enough for my brother to be my eyes when I get ready for work.

He will tie my braids, brush my edges and tell me if I have soap residue in my ears.

On my way to work I will busy my­self with read­ing on the train and loud mu­sic in my headphones.

I will al­ways look down to avoid shop win­dows.

The playlists I cre­ate will have noth­ing to do with the topic of beauty.

I will not tell my best friend, mama or jour­nal about it.

I will not think about it.

I will not ad­dress it.

I will keep go­ing un­til I am in my dark room where I will shut my eyes and wake up to re­peat this new rou­tine.

I re­peated this to my­self un­til I fell asleep. Un­for­tu­nately, as soon as my 5am alarm rang the next morn­ing, I ne­glected to re­mind my­self of the plan. In­stead, the first thing I did was look at the pic­ture of the beau­ti­ful girl. I pinched my screen to zoom into the beau­ti­ful stranger's fea­tures. I stud­ied her: her smooth Ri­coffy skin, her round face, her long nar­row nose, the cu­pid’s bow on her full pink lips. I stared into her huge pupils and noted the del­i­cate lines fram­ing her round cheeks and the slight hol­low­ness un­der her eyes that made her look breath­tak­ing, mil­i­tant, tired but kind.

I thought of my­self. How my fea­tures were con­fused. Was my face heart-shaped, oval or round? Why does my chin pro­trude as much as it does? Why are my eye­brows un­even? Does my but­ton nose qual­ify as cute or does it make my chub­bi­ness more ap­par­ent? Is chubby still cute? Are the black marks on my right cheek pro­trud­ing beauty spots or warts? Why does my face dip in cer­tain places and rise in oth­ers to cre­ate shad­ows un­der my eyes, nose and chin when I stand in the light? Who do I go to for all the an­swers?

With no one to ask I used her face as a ref­er­ence. I looked and looked un­til I ac­cepted that my fea­tures failed to meet what was es­tab­lished by this bench­mark, this stan­dard. She re­ally was beau­ti­ful.

As the day pro­gressed I man­aged to keep the prom­ise of avoid­ing my reflection and kept my head oc­cu­pied with the beau­ti­ful woman in the pic­ture. I day­dreamed about what she sounded like, what she read, what she wore and who her friends were. I thought about how at­trac­tive my broth­ers would think she is. I imag­ined how of­ten suit­ors awk­wardly con­fessed their at­trac­tion to­wards her.

She must have so many fol­low­ers on In­sta­gram, ac­tive fol­low­ers who al­ways com­ment with flow­ers, hearts and fire emo­jis. I bet only a hun­dred of them are her friends, the rest just adore the beau­ti­ful stranger. The sce­nar­ios ro­tated through work, on the tread­mill, on the train, in the bath and in my bed.

I pic­tured her this way be­cause these were things I didn't ex­pe­ri­ence. And maybe it was be­cause my friend was right, looks weren't my thing. He was right. I be­lieved him be­cause he was my friend. Why would he lie? I be­lieved that he knew what other peo­ple didn't be­cause he got close enough to see the ugly that I had tucked away so well I didn't even know it was there. I re­ally be­lieved him, then

Mess­ing with my head: Com­par­ing my­self to a photo of a beau­ti­ful woman a friend sent to me is an acid test of my self-be­lief, self-worth and self-love. Photo: Del­wyn Verasamy

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