A Little Too Much Character Building

Hannah Dale Thompson has lived both sides of the attractiveness divide, and cops to behaving much as her tormentors did, once she had a taste of the power of prettiness. Her article is far-reaching, and delves more specifically into how women and girls deal with each other, among and between social castes. But this portion leaped out at me as universal for those of us who could not cross a minimum peer-acceptability threshold in our younger days:

Being unattractive in your youth forces you to develop positive personality traits. That’s why comedians are not sexy. Relying on something other than appearance for attention breeds a larger-than-life personality. It breeds a confidence that is more than superficial. It breeds humor, and a social awareness and empathy that, I think, can only be developed from the outside. I am more charismatic, confident, interesting, and funny because I was an ugly sixteen-year-old. I am slightly less superficial and marginally more open-minded. I can stand up for myself. Three days after the best first date I have ever been on, my half-drunk suitor called to tell me I have more moxie than anyone else he’s ever met. I am proud of all of these things; people should take pride in overcoming obstacles and developing better personality traits. Even if the obstacles involve bushy eyebrows and the personality bonus leads to self-diagnosed histrionic personality disorder.

I think about this a lot – I almost certainly would not be the person I am today if I had not gone through the years and years of marginalization and reviling. But I’m also not so sure that’s a good thing. Yes, it made me more sensitive to others in different out-groups, it forced me to quickly develop a sense of comedy, and it inculcated in me an appreciation for less shallow aspects of culture and the people in my life. Would those things have happened anyway? Unclear. But with those positive traits, I also got to bring along a lot of anxiety, trauma, and a paralyzing lack of a sense of self that hobbles me to this day.

And I didn’t get to hop over to the other side, as it were, that Thompson describes. I had my situation improve in college, and nothing in life is ever really like middle and high school. But the damage was done, and I never “blossomed.” At best, I maneuvered among the choking weeds to live to see additional springs. If anything, at least, I hope I can say this about myself: That the garbage I endured was not required in order for me not to be an asshole today.

I also think about this phenomenon in relation to my kids: I want them to have happy, socially satisfying childhoods, but I also don’t want them to face zero challenges, to never have to examine themselves critically or overcome disappointments. But there’s such thing as too much character building. One can only take so much abuse before the character you are trying to build begins attacking itself. I will watch closely for this.

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