How I Rejected What Others Think Girls Should Be

With the support of the women in my family, I created my own definition of beauty.

by Lisbeth Martinez

I grew up in the Dominican Republic. When I was in middle school, a group of girls wouldn’t play with me because they said I was ugly. “You look different and like a monkey,” one said. Most of the girls in my class were light-skinned with long straight hair, while my skin is dark and my hair is free with curls.

Those comments made me feel inferior. I wanted to be one of them, so I asked my older sister to straighten my hair. Initially she refused to do it because I was too young. But I kept begging her until she said yes.

After she straightened my hair I felt better because I looked more like the girls who had called me ugly. But even though I’d gone through all the trouble of doing it, they still didn’t accept me. During lunch, I asked if I could sit with them. One of the girls, Alina, said, “No, because this group is not for Black girls.” So even though my hair was straight now, my skin was too dark.

As I turned to leave, one of the other girls said, “You must be adopted because your mom is White and you are Black.” I didn’t know what to say, so I went to another table and started to cry. When they saw me crying, another one of the girls came to my table.

“You don’t have to cry. Just use Sammy Sosa cream and you can be White,” she said. Sammy Sosa is a Dominican baseball player who uses skin-lightening cream.

When I got home I told my grandmother what they said.

“Don’t listen to them,” she said. “You have beautiful cinnamon-colored skin and they are just plain White. You have beautiful curly hair that they wish they had.” Those words made me feel better.

My Definition of Beauty

My grandmother, aunts, and mother had told me all my life that I was beautiful, so I took their words seriously. They helped boost my confidence. Each time those girls called me an ugly monkey, it would hurt, but I’d be sure to speak to one of my female relatives about it when I got home.
Once, when we were talking about the girls’ insults, my mom stopped what she was doing to look at herself in the mirror and asked me, “Do you think I’m pretty?”

“Of course!” My mom is tall, with full lips and long eyelashes.

“So you’re pretty too, because you look like me,” she said.

My mother also defines beauty differently than those girls. She says I am beautiful not because of how I look, but because of who I am. “Confidence means not caring about others’ shallow opinions,” she says.

A few weeks later, I started taking ballet classes, and my teacher had curly hair just like mine. She wore it loose and free, like I had before my sister had straightened my hair. I started to leave my curls alone again and everyone in my ballet class complimented my hair. I realized I shouldn’t give those mean girls so much power to define beauty or make me feel bad about myself.

I also realized that some people might like my hair curly and some might not. Some may like my skin color and some might not. The best way for me to brush off negative opinions and maintain my self-esteem and confidence was to tell myself: They are just jealous, and you are beautiful and incredibly smart for a 12-year-old girl. I was grateful for my mother and grandma and aunts and how they made me feel.

For Each Taste There Are Different Colors

In 7th grade I started noticing boys. There was one from school who knew how to play guitar and sing. He had a voice like an angel and he was one of those pretty boys who went to the gym every day and posted his workouts on Facebook. I thought he was perfect.

He was my little crush. One day I was talking about him on the bus on my way home and one of his friends, José overheard me. “I can introduce you,” he said.

“No! Never in this world; he’s too perfect. He wouldn’t even want to be my friend.”

But when José kept saying he would arrange it, I finally said OK.

Later José texted me saying that the perfect boy said I was too ugly and didn’t like my type. I was devastated when I read that message, and my insecurities came back. I thought, “I knew this boy wouldn’t like me. I’m ugly.”

But moments later I knew that wasn’t true. I am not ugly. (And he is not perfect.) It’s just that we all have different tastes and preferences. I chose him because I thought he was cute; that’s the same way he chose another girl. My grandma says it best: “Para el gusto los colores” which means for each taste, there are different colors.

I wasn’t going to try to change myself for this boy, like I had changed my hair for those mean girls. I’ve learned that I don’t need the approval of other people to feel good and to love myself. Not everyone will like me and that’s OK.

I realized I shouldn't give those mean girls so much power to define beauty or make me feel bad about myself.
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