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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

121

The Evolution of Ape-Face Johnson

Three things informed me about my physical appearance when I was a little girl. First, my mother used to grab my ponytail and, observing how thick it was, say,"Thees ee' wha' they call een Ecuador 'reech girl hair.' Because ees nice an' theek." The second thing was when a creepy neighbor, looking at my five-year-old legs admiringly, informed my father that with those long legs I'd “grow up to be a tall beauty one day.” And last, when I was in the first grade, a little girl named Yoriko and her friend, another Japanese girl, came up to me in the cafeteria blushing and giggling, and said, "You have ... big ... NOSE!" Whereupon she and her friend covered their mouths, giggled, and ran away.

Each of those moments in my little-girlhood stuck in my memory, but in a neutral way. What it added up to in my little girl's mind was this: I was going to be a tall girl with a big nose and plenty of hair. I could live with that. I'd checked my nose in the mirror and agreed that it was, indeed, on the big side, especially compared to Yoriko's. But so what? It looked OK to me. I sat on the floor in my parents' bathroom, assessing myself in the mirror. I had bangs and I thought they looked good on me, went well with my big nose. I remember thinking, I'll never have to decide what to do with my hair again, because it's so simple: Bangs look good on me. I moved on with my life fully confident that I'd never worry about my appearance again.

Fast forward to my first day of junior high.

The words "hey, nigger-lips!" ring out. My first thought is, "Wow. I hope none of the black kids heard that.” Because that word had been engrained in me as one that should never be pronounced, never even be thought. I was shocked, and even a little scared for whoever said it. But nothing happened. No race riot in the schoolyard. So my next thought was, "Gee, I wonder who that was for?" And I remember the feeling that came over me as it dawned on me that those words were, in fact, directed at me.

Now, if the kid had just been like Yoriko when she gave me the news about my big nose and said, "you have big lips," I probably would have checked them out myself and said, "Wow! I'll be darned," and figured they went well with my big nose and bangs. Even if that someone had said, "Hey, your lips are ugly," I could have responded to it with aplomb, or by shoving the plum in my lunchbag down their throat. But it was obvious that the racism in the comment was meant to single me out and slap me down, as is any racist remark to anyone. Racism isn't about esthetics or even DNA, though both are unfortunately employed as excuses to indulge in it — it's about people deciding if you belong or not, if you have the same rights as they do, and I was being told I didn't belong. That much any kid would understand, and that's what hurt me. But if this were just a story about how someone hurt my feelings, it'd be a waste of time. I'm writing it, in all its uneasy detail, for the same reason I eventually wrote to the poor, never-named "Armadillo-Face" [more on that later]: It might be a good thing for people to recognize what they're capable of, ask themselves why, instead of just excusing themselves as having "just been kids" (or later, "just drunk") and just maybe prevent a repeat in either themselves or in their children one day.

So, dazed by what this remark portended about my teen years, I spent the rest of the day in one of those dreams where you're walking around naked in public hoping nobody will notice. I remember reaching up and gingerly touching my lips when no one was looking, and wondering why someone would say that to me, hoping their had been a mistake, that further self-questioning would be unnecessary. (Who needs that at age 13? Maybe everyone, now that I think about it.) I stayed calm but preoccupied until the dismissal bell, then hotfooted it home to the bathroom mirror, and there they were. Lips I’d never seen before. Oh, yeah, they were big. Really big. But how was it that I’d never noticed them? I’ll tell you why, and I only dimly saw why back then: The moment they became the target of bullying and ridicule, whatever they really looked like? — they blew up like big, pink inner-tubes on my face.

My new self-image as of autumn ‘79.

A fleeting hope that black classmates outraged by the blatant racism might eventually make it all go away was soon quashed when a black girl in my homeroom used the same words to slap me down for talking to her, making it clear in spurning my attempted camaraderie, that I was a freak to her, too. Saying something like: "You think you can be friends with me just because you have those [insert the offending epithet here]?" And so it was brought fully home to me that what those words really meant was: You don't belong anywhere.*

Luckily (and I use that word loosely) "Ape-Face" soon replaced the racist phrase as common currency among the general population, probably because of its interactive possibilities. Boys could act like apes while they said, "Look at me! I'm Ape-Face Johnson!" Girls usually saved the racist remarks for when they thought nobody else was within earshot, possibly in anticipation of having to fake total amnesia when I would find them a few decades later through classmates.com and ask, in the spirit of amnesty, what they were thinking. They liked "Ape-Face" too, though. Ape-Face would do in a pinch.

My mother came up with two different strategies to try to help. First, she instructed me to examine the people who called me those names and see what I could make fun of in them. For example, "Tha’ gir’ in you class ees Jewish, eesn' she? She must have a beeg nose! Call her Jew-nose!" I rejected that idea categorically. Yes, she did have a prominent nose (till she was 16, anyway), but so did I, and I was not the type. The racist type, I mean. And "Armadillo-Face," inspired by her super-dry, wrinkly forehead due to overuse of benzoyl peroxide, seemed too cruel, and also too ... Ecuadorian. She might not even know what an armadillo was. And what if she did? I couldn't bring myself to say it if it might make her cry.

My mother's alternative to racist retribution was cosmetic improvement. For my birthday she presented me with something like a steamer trunk full of makeup in multi-level trays from Elizabeth Arden, and told me to use dark lip-liner to minimize my lips using something like an outlining and cross-hatching/blending, shadow-creating method. The gift reminded me of the [still legendary among kids from my first grade] 44-color magic marker set that my dad equipped me with on the first day of elementary school, only he did that because he thought I had artistic talent, not because he hoped I could hide any perceived flaws with it. Indicating the lip mezzanine of the trunk, this was what I should make the most of, she told me, until she could save up enough money to get me plastic surgery to reduce the size of my lips if need be. Apparently that kind of surgery existed.

How to make your classmates stop noticing your humongous lips, as per Vogue.

Every day I tried not to cry on my way home from school as boys barked at me, calling me a dog, and that only because they didn't know I was "Ape-Face Johnson" yet. I was a dog. I was an ape. I learned to suck my lips in close to my teeth and spent hours in front of the mirror practicing smiling, learning to feel without peeking whether my lips were spreading over my teeth, looking fat, while I fake-laughed. I developed a way to curl my lips under and against my teeth when I smiled. Sort of like the way Dachshunds smile.

Sometime in 1982. My mother seemed to think I looked better like this. Makeup by Elizabeth Arden. Results cannot be blamed on Vogue’s make-up tips, as they did their best to help.

Then one day, after all those tears and heartache, and prayers to god that my lips would not grow bigger — all those hours spent in front of the mirror drawing on my face with lip-liners to no avail — nothing could hide my lips, nothing, nothing, nothing — I opened a magazine with Nastassia Kinski on the cover, and, dutifully turning to the makeup tips page, saw that instead of instructions on how to make my lips look smaller, there were instructions on how to make my lips look FULLER.

What?

And not long after that, on the last day of junior high, the usual jerks were calling me Ape-Face, and stretching their lips over their faces to make them look big, making ape sounds and laughing at me, when a boy in a snazzy white suit with a black shirt and gold chains on, John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever style — a "cool” boy I'd never noticed before — walked right up to them and declared, "I think Carol Johnson's lips are voluptuous."

And that stopped them dead. It stopped me dead, too. I didn’t know what the words “voluptuous” and “lips” together in the same sentence meant. Turns out it meant that later that evening, those mean boys would be on my front lawn, acting awkward and asking me if I wanted to be in their band. They were calling me "Flute," instead of Ape-Face, the way my orchestra teacher used to do in class. ("Flute! I can't hear you! Flute!") It was, "Hey, Flute! Wanna be in our band? It's called Quadrophenia. You could play the flute." I just slammed the door.

I. Was. Furious.

I'd cried all those years because of fickle fools like these? Yesterday I was ugly and today I've got "voluptuous lips?" Even more ironically, in the next few years, as the likes of Brooke Shields, Nastassia Kinski, and Kelly LeBrock became the rage, the girls who used to call me that racist epithet, or the ones who’d never stood up and defended me from those who did, would look at my class pictures and actually say stuff like, "You're so pretty, Carol. You should be a model."

What kept going around and around in my head was this: But I never changed! I looked at school pictures of myself, and I didn't see any huge difference in my looks. These people were all crazy! I had cried brokenheartedly over the opinions of crazy people! What an idiot I'd been. And my own mother would’ve paid a plastic surgeon to mutilate me to conform to their norms? Unbelievable.

I became a very angry, big-lipped girl after that. In college, I actually wore red lipstick. It was so red that a ticket booth worker in Penn Station said, after selling me a ticket, "Take that lipstick off, girl. It's too much." "FUCK YOU," I said. Fuck the whole world. These are my damn lips.

Introducing... the angry, big-lipped girl! (1986, outfit by Comme des Garçons, inner rage, model’s own.)

And then one day, I was asked to do a fashion show. And another fashion show. It gave me ideas. I went to a modeling agency I found in the Yellow Pages, who sent me to a photographer to get some pictures taken, for a fee. Their verdict after seeing the photos? Maybe I wasn't cut out for modeling after all. Thing was, I'd already started thinking I could do it. So I went to other modeling agencies with those pictures. And they all said no, thanks. One guy with a beard at one of the biggest agencies of that time, said to me in his French accent in the chic black waiting room, "I'm gonna be hoh-nest wis you. You're a nice, pretty girl. But you'll never make it. You don't have what it takes." And this I took as the gauntlet thrown down. If that man had never said that I was a "nice" girl, I'd never have persisted. Because the fact was I was NOT A NICE GIRL. Just ask my mother: I was a nasty, grouchy, bitter, awful girl with an awful attitude and a mouth that was ugly because I was "ugly inside." Well, this guy was so obviously wrong in his assessment of me as a "nice girl" that I knew he had to be wrong about my ability to be a model, too.

My first “comp card.” London, 1987. Photo by Adrian Fiebig.

The next agency I went to, they said there was no interest in New York, but that there might be something in Europe. They got back to me later, saying two agencies were interested in me after seeing my pictures, one in Milan, and one in London, but I'd have to pay my own air fare over there.

The day I came home with my passport, my mother took one look at the passport photo, looked at me with utter pity, and said in a sorrowful voice: "I'm going to tell you deh truth because I'm you mother and I love you. You aren' preety enough to be a model. Look a’ this picture! Look! Loooook! They are playing a treek on you. They just wan' you money. How much are you paying them?"

When I showed up at the agency in London that had supposedly expressed interest in me, they had no idea who I was, but they found me a room and started getting me jobs here and there, mostly as the model clients got when they couldn't book the one they actually wanted, and sometimes with no forewarning or choice in the matter. On these jobs the client would often pull the stylist or makeup artist aside and ask if there wasn't “anything that could be done about those lips." But when I finally made it to the big time, doing a Jean-Paul Gaultier spread for The Face and started doing his shows, it was because of my lips. Everyone knows Jean-Paul loves big lips.

Photo by Andrew Macpherson, for The Face. This is the shoot that made Jean-Paul Gaultier notice me and book me for his show. I had no makeup on except for lipstick and powder.

Everyone, that is, except me at the time. I thought this man, my knight in the shining French sailor shirt, had finally hushed the babble of the insane world, and said "Look: Here is that OK-looking girl with the big nose, thick hair, and long legs," the one I'd always thought I was since I was a little girl. I thought Jean-Paul Gaultier had given me my rightful self-image back. For one brief shining moment the world seemed to tilt back to its original, benign angle for me, no longer that crooked alternate reality where boys once made faces and shrieked like monkeys whenever they looked at me.

At the shoot that “made” me, the makeup artist and I sat around waiting for something for so long that I finally asked, “what are we waiting for?” She answered, “the model.” (She thought I was the hair stylist.)

And then one day, riding the tram in Milan en route to a gosee, a fashionably dressed man approached me, babbling something I barely understood. It sounded like "Oglypippel? Blablabla, oglypippel?" I was just like, "Whaaa? What are you saying? Are you speaking English? Italian? I...uh... what?"

"Ugly People," he said, in English. "Are you with Ugly People Agency?" Haughtily, while something crumbled to pieces deep inside of me, and in a voice a bit like Tippi Hedren’s at the closing scene of “The Birds” I answered, "NO? No! I've never even heard of such an agency!" and turned away from him, with the following words whispering in my head: "But I'm beautiful now! I'm a model!" Which made me laugh to myself a little, because I realized I kind of meant it.

I walked alongside the tram tracks wondering what had just happened. Ugly People Agency? Yes, a dim memory of having heard of an agency called "Ugly People Agency" began to come back to me. But I had never given it a thought, any credence. It was like a legend. A legend like the legend among sheep, of the truck sheep would disappear into one day and never come back to the farm from. But... I was with Elite — right? Elite, who everyone knew was a huge, corrupt, sleazy agency (the best!), wanted me, had asked for me, which must mean I'm not ugly. Right? But after that, I began to notice for the first time that at each gosee I went to with my book, famous photographers like Paolo Roversi would say apologetic things like, "Thank you for coming all the way out here. I really like your photos, but ... I’d forgotten how STRONG your face was.” Some wouldn't say anything at all, simply handing me back my book, barely able to suppress a smirk, if not totally indifferent.

It turned out I was indeed an ugly model. That the only reason people wanted to book me for anything was because I was, well, ugly. Meaning, I didn't look like a model. I hadn't known it at the time, but in the late eighties, models who didn't look like models were “changing the face of beauty” (to use magazine-speak), and that was the donkey I'd ridden in on, not realizing it. When I did, it was just like walking into the schoolyard on the first day of junior high, all confident, all, "I'm a long-legged, big nosed, perfectly OK-looking girl with a lot of hair," and hearing that record scratch and the music stop, all over again.

Photo by Ellen Von Unwerth, styling by Lorina Crosland, for Harper’s Bazaar. I’m doing my Mick Jagger imitation. Like, “Hey, you know Mick Jagger? He’s got huge lips like this!"

Now, every time I got booked for a job, which wasn't often, I'd think: It's because I'm ugly. One day, a photographer who consistently tried but failed to book me for Marie Claire shoots confided in me that he was routinely shot down for proposing me, and that the editor in question had finally asked, exasperated, "Why do you want to work wis zat Carole Johnson? Eet eez a mir-acle she even worked once."

Eventually I had to stop modeling, because I'd break out in hives every time I had a gosee, thinking how people were going to have to decide if I were ugly enough to book as an ugly model or simply not pretty enough to book as a pretty model. One day I just didn't call my agency anymore, let them keep the last thousand or so francs I figured they owed me, covered all the mirrors in my little Parisian garret, and let my eyebrows and armpit and leg hair all grow out in a bid to see what I really looked like without makeup and artifice, and started drawing and writing.

I got into a French university, determined never to go back to the fashion world, but ended up back in modeling during school breaks, only not for photos or runway this time. I worked right across the street from the library I studied at, as an in-house showroom model for the next seven years, for Jean-Paul Gaultier (my knight in shining sailor shirts, still, and the cleverest, nicest man in the fashion world). They called me "La Petite" because I was short and skinny for a showroom model. I used to drink protein shakes prior to every fashion week, and learned to hold too-big pants up in the back with one hand when I was showing clients the front, then deftly switch the hand posed on my hip around to pick them up from the front while turning to show the back. They just liked me, I guess, even let me messenger my essays to my professors when I had to skip class sometimes to work.

One day I had to run off early to take an exam and told Jean-Paul as much, and he quoted a famous French poem to me:  "Le bonheur est dans le pré. Cours-y vite! Cours-y vite!" (Happiness is in the meadow. Run there quick! Run there quick!)

I still remember the day they called me back to that world. I had to shave my armpits, legs, and pluck my eyebrows, all of which had grown in fully for the first time in my life, seeing as I'd started shaving and plucking from the morning of day 1 of puberty. They'd grown into little furry pets. Goodbye, armpit hair, I thought, nice knowing you. Plucked my eyebrows. And back into the world of modeling I went, but this time with perspective.

Later, doing showroom work at JPG during my studies. Yes, I went back to bangs. Because bangs always went well with my big nose, remember?

Because during the year that I didn't model at all, I had became a tall, relatively pretty girl with a biggish nose again. It was amazing, actually. By the time I’d quit “real” modeling because of photographers and editors wreaking havoc with my already sketchy self-image, my looks were no big deal anymore. The envelope of models-who-don’t-look-like-models could only get pushed so far, if only because once you take people who don't look like models and make them models, they become the norm, and begin looking like – guess what? Models. Eventually some don’t even seem unusual enough to make up for not being particularly beautiful and, like me, have to just fade away and become the striking or just normal, OK-looking young women they once were again. The good thing about it? By the time it was all over, there were a lot fewer “ugly” girls in the world.

What awes me to this day is the power that popular opinion can have over someone as confident and unselfconscious as I was the day it all started. I'd crawled through the longest spanking machine ever, through the legs of a hundred mean kids, fashion editors and photographers, letting them paddle my butt as I made my way from one end of the tunnel to the other. What the fuck, eh?

Drawing and writing are much kinder on the ego. As a cartoonist, 98% of what I submit to The New Yorker, for example, is rejected. Some people think that’s rough. But after the Ape-Face and Ugly Model years? I can take it. I marvel at other cartoonists who agonize over rejected material. They look to me like puppies crying at night in a cardboard box at their new owner's bedside. Me? Jesus, I'm just grateful editors don't reject my work and yell, "and you're ugly, too!"

Sometimes I still catch a glimpse of myself in a reflection and think, “Looking good, Ape-Face.”

*Credit must be given to the brave souls who eventually did make friends with me (and take crap for it) in junior high, even if it was at least partly because for a while they didn't really belong, either: We were in good company.

The source of my big lips: my grandfather, the luscious-lipped John Johnson from Sweden.

***

What I do now, as Carolita Johnson:

(for The New Yorker), and, for Oscarina:

Carolita Johnson's cartoons appear in The New Yorker and at Oscarinaland, as well as in books like The Rejection Collection 1, The Rejection Collection 2, and Sex and Sensibility, and her illustrations appear in The New Vampire's Handbook and The Power of No.

She's also appeared in person on The Rejection Show, telling the story of Ape-Face Johnson, drawn and painted live on stage on The Steam-Powered Hour, and performed in Joe's Pub's "Happy Endings." A delightful interview about what got her out of her parents' house can be found on NPR's Studio 360 "Aha Moment" segment.



121 Comments / Post A Comment

Kristen

Oh. My. Fucking. God.
That moment between the sweetness of "I'll never have to decide what to do with my hair again, because it's so simple: Bangs look good on me" and the punch in the gut of "Nigger-lips" (especially coming after the jump) was like falling off a cliff. And then it just kept on like that, building and falling, building and falling. This was such an amazing piece of writing. I kind of can't believe I just stumbled on it while skimming the internet and lying on my bed. It's like I should have sat up and put on some shoes before starting to read it, or something. I think I will remember this essay for the rest of my life.

YFN Dentonista@twitter

@Kristen I think you just created an excellent little bit of writing right there.

beatrixkiddo1

So excellent. This is why I read The Hairpin.

ThundaCunt

That was amazing....i will show this to my daughter, who started 6th grade a few weeks ago and who i agonize over. i've tried teaching her the 'fuck them' attitude i had as a child, and still have now...kids are cruel...i know this...she isnt a cookie cutter 12 year old, she is GORGEOUS to me, and i know one day will be gorgeous to the boys who will be horribly cruel to her for the next 3 years or so!!

great article! and those lips are AMAZING!!

carolita

@ThundaCunt That's who I wrote this for. ;) (and thanks!)

barnhouse

Wonderful read. And excuse me, can I just say, you were flippin' gorgeous the whole time.

Bittersweet

@barnhouse: Yessss. So great. And so gorgeous. And if you've got a big nose, I guess I'm Jimmy Durante.

(I always feel better about my nose when I think of my husband's uncle - RIP - who often said he felt sorry for people with only "half a nose.")

barnhouse

@Bittersweet Totally agree w/husband's uncle, RIP. I have to cop to a certain prejudice against small-nosed persons, whom I instinctively assume to be ineffectual, somehow. Not always true, of course. Just a feeling I get.

laurel

@Bittersweet: Small nosed people look somehow unformed or underdeveloped to me. It's not appealing.

fondue with cheddar

@laurel See? What is considered by one person to be a flaw is beautiful to another. We are ALL beautiful!

E
E

It's amazing how that happens isn't it? It's pretty much instant when you go from a kid who is able to just think, "okay this is my skin and my face and what I am like," to that moment when you suddenly think, "oh no I'm the girl with abnormal X, Y, Z, and everyone KNOWS and they all HATE ME for it." and then for the rest of your life its a teeter totter of acceptance and dismay.

I love your stubborness. I think it's the thing I would tell every little girl. "Little girl, life is going to be mean a lot. Be so fucking stubborn, because it's going to help."

carolita

@E Stubborn got me through a lot and also acted as a magic shield at times. I am all for stubborn. And resourceful. A girl needs to be resourceful, too. Use every card she's handed.

E
E

@carolita I will hand her a box of matches, rope and a bowie knife as I tell her that she needs to be "fucking stubborn". That should cover the resourceful, and I think it will also put me way ahead in my quest to win "best auntie".

BosomBuddy

Fantastic article - I read every single word and will probably do so again before the end of the day.

amity

I am so glad I ignored the "tl;dr" alarm that went off in my head. Awkward Ecuadorians, represent!

julia

Great imagery around that point where your classmates tipped from cruel to fawning. And proof that middle schoolers are just the fucking *worst*.

nonvolleyball

yeah, this is fantastic. & I really love how, for all the universality of the story (teenage awkwardness, learning to love yourself, etc.) it felt really unique & fresh--the whole time I was reading (riveted!) I still wasn't entirely sure where it was going.

noodge

amazing. what a wonderful writer, funny cartoonist, and BEAUTIFUL woman.

reminds me of being so fair skinned growing up - i went from "i like my freckles on my nose" around 7 or so to hating going to school from 10 through 17 because i was called "Powder" or "Chalk Girl" every day. People asked me not to rub up against them in case my whiteness rubbed off. Going on the beach was a fucking joke. Then - around the mid to late 90's - everyone started to LOVE fair skin - i got "oooh, your skin is so milky, like porcelain" along with unwanted touching. I wanted to punch them all in the face. The picture of her with the red lipstick perfectly illustrated how I felt at that point.

madge

carolita! muy bonita! this article is so wonderful!

it reminds me of a poem i wrote in high school, about looking at myself in the mirror and being like "hey, you are pretty cute" and then realizing that i was the only one who thought so. didn't care, though. still don't. just glad to be grown and in a world with awesome people like you in it.

carolita

@madge that's the most adorable thing I've ever heard.

jetztinberlin

Oh wow, I feel so weird even using these words now (and that's a tribute to how damn good this piece is), but Carolita, you are truly gorgeous in every. possible. way.

automaticdoor

This is an amazing piece and you are gorgeous, both inside and out.

thebestjasmine

Man, I was just thinking this weekend of a moment like this for me at a new school in 7th grade. It's clearly stuck with me for 20+ years. Middle school is terrible. The judgment and ownership that we put on other people's bodies are terrible.

Lily Rowan

Ahh! Thank you for this.

Isn't being a grown-ass woman great? Because seriously, fuck them.

madge

@Lily Rowan being grown is AWESOME in so many ways. someone should write a list. being able to say "fuck them" at any time of the day or night would be near the top.

Lily Rowan

@madge And I think you can even say it when you're young, but you don't really MEAN it until you're grown.

Katie Walsh

@Lily Rowan GROWN ASS WOMANHOOD!!!!!!

Lumpy Space Princess

@Lily Rowan I've been trying SO hard the last few years to be able to just say 'FUCK THEM!' and mean it. I've been trying a little since fourth or fifth grade when Kiernan Curley threw a dodgeball at me while yelling "catch, Fat Girl!" But lately... I've been Really trying.

js
js

This is simply the most moving and powerful piece I have read on-line. Literally took my breath away. I will be keeping this and sharing it with my stepdaughter. She too has a 'different' look and like Carol, she is also incredibly beautiful. It's also a very powerful reminder to never judge anyone or assume you know things about them because of the way they look - I would be tempted to assume just from looking at pictures of Carol that she was a haughty, pandered to, everything comes easy to her type because I see her as so incredibly beautiful - what a lesson for me. I still have a lump in my throat.

katekari

Great writing, great illustrations! What a wonderful little bit of narrative this is.

HappieLovesIt

Tremendous article.I've already read it again and I'm still blown away.

L M
L M

my moment came in fourth grade: a little black girl came up to me (mostly white school, I was def. the only hispanic/mixed-race girl), and said, "you ain't white, you ain't black. what are you, yellow?"

ah, youth.

laurel

@Lucia Martinez: I grew up Italian among Latinos. One day in junior high a boy told me, "You act white but you ain't white. I don't know what you are."

angelinha

@laurel Isn't it fascinating how vividly we remember everything other little kids told us about ourselves? In the early days of Facebook I reconnected with a kid from my elementary school who I vaguely remembered as the kid who wiped boogers inside his desk. Immediately he sent me a message saying, "Hey, you're the girl who stuck up for me once when everyone was being mean!" I felt really good about myself until I read the second half of his message: "Then I did something mean and you walked away saying you guessed everyone else was right after all."

My message to little girls: only say nice things because once you are all grown up you will all remember every mean thing anyone ever said to you ever.

hands_down

I honestly can't comprehend how you were considered an "ugly" model. Can't wrap my head around it.

melis

Just another bit of evidence that everyone between the ages of 11 and 15 should be put on an island and forced to fend for themselves.

melis

"You can mock Carol all you want, Stephanie, but that's not going to fix your iodine deficiency. Less name-calling, more fish-trawling."

insouciantlover

@melis I've been trying to push for a proposition to pass in SF that would do this very thing.

PistolPackinMama

@insouciantlover isn't that called Lord of the Flies? Except it will have lip gloss battles and thirty-second relationships. Like summer camp. Survivalist summer camp for Junior High kids. Aiee!

melis

Because I never get tired of saying it: Sucks to your assmar, Piggy!

Valerista

Yes! I totally understand.

I'm the usual mix of some okay features and some that are seen by people as ugly (I do have a big nose). It's weird to me that nobody's commented on it in 40 years to my face, but it's a family nose and I know what it looks like, so I guess I've been lucky. But I already know I have a honkin' aquiline schnozz, so I don't think it would bother me to hear that.

Some body part I haven't considered to be not-so-great? Yeah, that would hit me harder.

And you're very pretty, by the way.

myeviltwin

The animated GIF is really, really special.

cherrispryte

I suppose I should stop being surprised when I click on something here by an author I don't recognize and it winds up being the best thing I've read all week.

steve

You Crossed the Desert and endured the Wreck of the Hesperus.

Gnatalby

This is so great. I think a lot of us have had the experience of whiplashing between "HIDEOUS! And ROCK STAR!" like, within seconds while looking at the mirror.

Heike

Excellent piece, thank you. Your description of the turning point, when the sheep who bleated 'ugly' started bleating 'lovely'; of realising that you had allowed such idiots to get to you, was absolutely brilliant. This is the best example of rising above, ever.

dietrich

This is one of the best articles I've ever read on The Hairpin, and explains why it's the only ladyblog I read. And the attitude toward rejection is so inspiring-- yet devastating that the most visceral feeling of rejection is so, inescapably, always linked to surface appearance. Ahhh, I just loved this! Thank you!

laurel

Knock. Out.

flyingcarrot

This was great. I too, was tormented in school, pushed down and called a dog. Even adults would say things to point out how tall and irregular I was. I tried slouching to appear shorter. All of a sudden in adulthood words like "too skinny" became replaced with "slender".

nancydrew

You have thick hair, big lips AND you're an amazing writer. Loved this so hard.

Judith Slutler

Giant Lips Solidarity.

Acertainromance

MORE OF THIS, PLEASE.
Definitely articles like this that initially had me hooked on the Hairpin.

Toonz

wow. this is...wow.

scully

You knocked this out of the park. Truly amazing writing.

Petrichoria

...
We are all so foolish,
my long bebop solo begins by saying,
so damn foolish
we have become beautiful without even knowing it.

-Nightclub by Billy Collins

MishZ

Created an account just to tell you what a wonderful article this was. You can really write (as well as draw!) I hope to hear more from you! And I know it doesn't matter, really, but I do think you are truly gorgeous.

SBGBlogs

You're a fantastic writer and this is a fantastic story and you're great.

This is the kind of thing I wish I'd read in middle/high school when I was struggling with accepting what I looked like.

I can't even formulate more words beyond this.
Just... awesome.

hairdresser on fire

This made me really, really happy today. Thank you for sharing your story, so much.

Probs

So great, and I like the little note about not brushing one's past behavior off as "I was just a kid." That gets you some leeway, sure, but I'm positively ashamed of how I acted round about the 6th grade, good lord.

whateverlolawants

This was one of the best Hairpin pieces I have read. Well-written with a very personal yet universal story. Seriously, thanks for sharing and GO YOU! I will be sharing this. (<3 Ecuador <3)

WastedPaper

I'm little late to the game, but when I started reading this at work, I knew I had to wait until home so I could absorb it slowly and without distraction. And I'm so glad I did.

carolita

Best comments ever. Thanks, everyone!

sevanetta

Carolita. CAROLITA. I loved this. I relate. I was in year 7 when people started commenting on my 'big nose'. When I was in year 8, there was an Aboriginal girl (Indigenous Australians, who also by horrid stereotype may be seen to have big noses) who used to shout 'Hey, BIG NOSE!!!' at me every morning on my way to roll call. My friends said 'Well, that sux, but you do have a big nose'.

I look like my father's side of the family, who are Italian. So I have strong eyebrows, big dark eyes, a large mouth, and not-tiny ears, although I have a small face and was very short and skinny back then (still short, got a few curves now). It took me until I was in my early 20s to decide that a tiny, cute nose would not balance my strong eyebrows, big dark eyes, large mouth, and not-tiny ears, and that strong eyebrows look better with all my dark hair anyway.

I still refuse to pluck my eyebrows into oblivion (they aren't thick anyway, just dark) and now I say my big nose is for sniffing out a good meal (joke made up with another self-deprecating, big-nosed, dark-haired girl). I wear red lipstick that's way too red too!

You are GORGEOUS. We're all gorgeous. And you create great cartoons. Fuck the idiots!

lovelettersinhell

@sevanetta Ha, the kids at my school weren;t creative enough to come up with a better name for me than Big Nose either! (well, and also Big Bird, but that was unrelated to the nose, and due to the fact that i was five foot nine by age 12).

Millipenny

Why is there water coming out of my eyes??!?!? Thank you so much for this amazing article.

mouthalmighty

This is straight-up lovely, as are you Carolita.

So good.

I kind of want to write "The Evolution of Pear-Hipped S. Elizabeth."

gigglefest

@S. Elizabeth Love it. I was lovingly nicknamed "ass-zilla" by my older brother's friends for most of my middle school experience. Awesome.

young preeezy

Thank you for this!

D.@twitter

I have to say, what I like best of all is the msg: trying to get other people to THINK about what they have done, and are doing; to not forgive themselves so easily. It's an idea I'm going to try and inculcate in my (hypothetical) children.
And maybe I'm just being vindictive, b/c I was made fun of a lot, but I really enjoy the idea of people being tortured over the horrible things they said about me...even though they're probably not. :P

ohgodtheglitter

@D.@twitter This is SO true. I was horribly bullied in middle school to the point where it made me start obsessively pulling out my hair. The Regina George-like girl is now an elementary school principal. My mom is a teacher in a neighboring district and knows there will come a day where she will see Regina at a teacher-y event and is DYING to go up to her all "Sooo, Regina, I hear your district is implementing all sorts of anti-bullying programs. As a former bully yourself, what points resonate with you the most? What tactics will you employ to make sure no one has to go through what you put [Janis Ian] through?" Then be all BESTIES!! *squint smile*

Jeff Berlin@twitter

Hi Carolita,

I'll never forget the day I was at City Models in Paris and saw your card on the wall. I thought immediately, wait, Carol Johnson... is that Ape Face Johnson, from 67? Glad you had the last laugh. SO poetic. It's been a short while since we've spoken. Let's meet up next time I'm in NYC to catch up. Great story, BTW. I'll retweet.

carolita

HAHAHAHAHA! Remember in Milan, Jeff? Someone came up to me in my penzione and said they just met a photographer who said he knew me from junior high, and his name is Jeff Berlin. And I was like, "Oh, yeah, I remember Jeffry Berlin! Last time I saw him was when we were both in the dean's office after I tried to punch him in the lunchroom. You tell Jeffry that Ape-Face Johnson says hello!" I had fun making you feel guilty for a while, and you were a good sport about it. I made you drive me down to DC once, didn't I? :)

See everyone? Some people make up for it later. Me and Jeff are friends now.

Anna_anna

Carol - I remember those Jean Paul Gautier shoots - they were one of the things I pulled out of The Face and stuck to my wall as a teen. I thought you were beautiful.

Anyway, this is an amazing piece, wonderfully written: it wasn't just the pictures that sent me straight back to high school. It's also the piece, having been a devoted, daily reader, that finally sent me to the comments box.

carolita

@Anna_anna thanks, Anna! This is a great publication, isn't it? I'm so honored they wanted my piece.

rayray

So late to the party but this was great! I had people telling me my lips were freakishly big when I was little, too, and now what with Angelina Jolie and people getting stuff injected into their lips and suchlike I'm like fuck yeah, voluptuous! WHY was this ever a bad thing? And echoing the sentiments that you are a talented and beautiful lady!

misspufflehuff

CAROLITA I DIE FOR THOSE LIPS!!! You were always a beauty - kids and fashion people are super-mega-dumb.

Also - never let them take your 'ita' away from you! 'Carol' is fine, but 'Carolita'? Soars at the end like a bird and brings everyone a smile.

Keep working it lady. Liked this a lot.

carolita

@misspufflehuff My mom called me "Carolita" whenever she was happy with me, and "Carol" when she was not. So, one day, I decided I was gonna call the shots from now on, and made everyone call me "Carolita." Friends tell me I probably saved myself thousands in therapy.

Deborah Taylor@facebook

Phenomenal essay! You should write for Cracked.com too, as your writing and drawing talents are not just intelligent but truly hilarious- go on with your bad-Janice Dickinson-self!

Deborah Taylor@facebook

Phenomenal essay! You should write for Cracked.com too, as your writing and drawing talents are not just intelligent but truly hilarious- go on with your bad-Janice Dickinson-self!

No Sex City@twitter

This article was so, so, SO good. Amazing insights; I thought all of you ladies--models that don't look like models and even the models that do look like models--were always confident with every facial feature you have that helped set you apart in a fashion spread. Here's to hoping I see your name popping up more places on the internet; the mix of comedic relief in both your writing and drawings really made this piece pop for me.

Mamavalveeta03

I'm crying, I'm laughing, but most of all, I'm deeply moved. Not that you need any validation, but this is a fantastic piece of work. And jr. high kids, no-scratch that-ALL of us, should read it! Thank you!!

carolita

@Mamavalveeta03 aw, we all need a little validation now and then, eh? I never turn my nose up at heartfelt validation. thank you!

Kingsle

This is a fanstastically written article, hilarious and heart-breaking at the same time. I loved the illustrations. But the first thing that struck me, looking at the modeling photos, was "WOW. She's gorgeous."

Dejamuse

Sometimes it's fun to poke at people's stereotypes when you're a grown ass woman: I was at the MAC cosmetics counter trying on lipstick. The sales associate offered me a color. I told her I wanted a different tone of red because I have big lips--I didn't want them walking into the door before me. She said, they're not big, they're pretty. I stared her straight in the eye and said, "They are big AND they're pretty. And by the way, I said I HAD big lips I didn't say I didn't like my lips." The look on her face when she realized her assumption was fabulosity at its best. Sometime you have to let people know what they're REALLY saying to you . . .

whimseywisp

LOVE LOVE LOVE THIS. THANK YOU SO MUCH!!!!!!!!!

Yuzu

This was great! Please write more!

rocknrollunicorn

This was great! Love the illustrations and pictures. I had some similar stuff (didn't we all?!) on a more minor level as a kid

1) My sister and best friend ganged up on me when I was about 10 over my giant lips. I forget exactly what they called them. I tried to tell them that they were "full" and that was good, but they laughed and laughed. Whatever, I have always and still do love them.
2) There was a boy in junior high who used to HARASS me by calling me a dog. Looking back on it, I was SO LUCKY my class was small and only a few other guys joined in (them, only occasionally. Original dude? EVERY TIME I SAW HIM. "have any puppies yet, doggie?" etc.) Somehow, this only mildly pained me at the time. Possibly because I always took more pride in my brains than my looks. But: I saw him in a bar a few years ago. He looked old and worn out. He looked me up and down and told me I looked good. And that felt like winning, as superficial as it is.

I'm Not Rufus

Thanks for this really engaging read, Carolita.

Frog Doctress

Oh, wow. Great writing, great voice.

I still remember all those horrid names, special, just for me: bigfoot, flatface (never got this one), conehead, werewolf girl... 'was you bowlegged as a baby?' Fuck all those people. Fuck em!

carolita

One of my biggest points of pride, however, is that I didn't. Fuck them, I mean. Never went out with any of those boys. Waited till junior year of college for my first date. (:())

Appreciative Inquiry

Very insightful and extremely well-written. I am also interested to know why -- especially during preadolescence-- the opinion of others, even people we don’t respect, has such an effect on us : "What awes me to this day is the power that popular opinion can have over someone as confident and unselfconscious as I was”, aptly said. Thank you for sharing so eloquently your experiences.

Samia Tamrin Ahmed@facebook

wow...I am your fan from now...pls keep writing.....:D

5bells

Oh, my god, I feel you on this. So much. Except I was too-skinny Jew nose (and once, after getting badly sunburned, a flat-chested clown). So many people think they can say anything about you if you're thin. I went through crazy lengths to hide/disguise my facial features, too. I think being an artist helps, though--one day, I had run out of things to sketch, so I drew a self-portrait from memory. Then, I got a mirror and objectively sketched my features. I dunno, I was a weird kid. But at least I realized that my self-image was wildly distorted. Then at some point I was re-classified as being somewhat hot, as long as I'm wearing makeup and fitted/low-cut clothing. Now, when someone compliments my looks, part of me still thinks something like, "You think that because of the expectation that our culture considers thinness equivalent to attractiveness, regardless of bone structure, but in reality, hetero men, barring any creepy fetishists/social-acceptance-obsessed tools, are drawn to fertile-looking women, biological imperative blah blah blah." Ugh sorry didn't mean to ramble, just...yeah shit is crazy. Thank you for writing this.

tulgeywood

This was so awesome, honey!
When I was in the eighth grade, I overheard the following conversation, between two girls:
"MAN, did you know JESUS was JEWISH?!"
"NAW, MAN. He don't got a big nose."
And as a Jewish kid with a voluptuous nose, I was just like, "Oh, wow.I was unaware this was still a thing."

janedonuts

Is it too late to comment on this? Because I loved it. Thanks to you, Carolita, for sharing your story, and thanks to the Hairpin for publishing it!

tee
tee

This made me cry. Thank you.

Also your Bir' piece. I have just read every piece you've written for the Hairpin, all in a row.

Killerpants

@tee I am in the process of going back through Carolita's archives as well. It's making for a great day of reading.

I also just decided I'm going to start a list of things to share with my boyfriend's daughter as she gets older. She's 8 years old, and so shy and self-conscious yet incredibly smart, creative, funny, and talented. I want to have a mountain of things to share with her when she's going through these horrible things as she gets older. This will be on that list.

sandra stephens@twitter

You and your lips are just beautiful.

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Your description of the turning point, when the sheep who bleated 'ugly' started bleating 'lovely'; of realising that you had allowed such idiots to get to you, was absolutely brilliant.
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