I was on my way home, just several meters away from the office. Compared to before, I probably looked more decent and dignified. I walk with confidence and an air of being street-smart now, because loved ones would tell me I looked easy to fool, that I was naive. True enough, I could be. I was. So good friends before told me too to be more assertive.
At a time when I have more faith in myself, and even believe in my own loveliness as I am and not with how society measures it, I guess there was a time to be tested.
With my tiny lunchbox in my hand and a red umbrella in the other, in a black cardigan given to me by my loving parents, I passed by my usual way; when I reached the area where there were big unkempt trees and a dirty gate, there was a group of male bystanders (erm, bysitters (?) because they were sitting on the sidewalk) in front of a small barbecue spot. You know how you put a simple grill at the sidewalk – that kind of barbecue spot.
Because I felt that something rude might happen, given our culture today of how people view women, I continued to stride on and rub my nose, as if I was nursing a cold. So that I would look discreet. So I would be unnoticed.
But I heard it.
“Good morning, Ma’am!”
I do not know if it was a good morning, but I knew it was a greeting that did not hold anything good at all. I just walked on, in front of the gate where on a stone pillar next to it was a common icon: a photo of Jesus and Mama Mary. Perhaps their presence there helped me to keep my calm.
While rubbing my nose, I heard another remark.
At first, I thought it wasn’t for me, but I thought maybe it was, because I was the only one passing at that time across them. They were at the opposite of the narrow road.
You know how you feel that words are directed at you? There’s that energy, there’s that volume – the voice is thrown as if it was like a ball across the street and it really intended to hit you.
“Ang pangit-pangit mo!”
I know that I’m not a swan; I’ve known it for quite some time already, growing up having self-esteem issues. It was as if one word of it wasn’t enough. Don’t we all like to repeat words like sama-sama, araw-araw, pangit-pangit?
And at first I thought I dodged this ball of an insult from people I did not know, but I guess I got hit a little. Got stung a little. Got a few tears brimming but did not fall when I was far away from the scene of the crime, waiting for the sign to go green.
I wonder if it was my hair or my face or my flabby-looking body and arms underneath loose clothes. And I wonder too if what was ugly to this group of bystanders was the presence of a young woman who now knows how to be braver, to be stronger, to be a believer in herself, to be informed about what true beauty is.
Maybe it was the first.
When I heard those words, I thought about retaliating. I started imagining how I could have shown that I was ready to fight for myself. A dirty finger, like how other people did in the movies? It isn’t me, and it probably would be something I will regret heavily afterwards. I do not know how I would be able to teach them that it was wrong – perhaps give them a piece of my mind? Or give them a smile, showing them that mercy was better, that kindness was poisonous to rudeness, that the world would be much better if we tried to get to know one another and realize how some words can burn, especially at the dangerous volume of decibels across the street.
Coincidentally, yesterday afternoon, a teammate and I were walking together from work. We stalled at the side of a narrow gate – a passageway which was divided by a pole; left part is 2/3 wide, right is 1/3 narrow. We first let an influx of people going our opposite pass through the wider part of the gate. There were so many coming through the wide part of the gate, so my friend went ahead to the narrow side. She was slim, so she fit easily, but when I tried to follow her, I gave a laugh saying that I would not fit!
“‘Di ako kasya!”
And then, as if we were in a cave, I heard echoes of what I said.
“Di siya kasya, di siya kasya, di siya kasya, di siya kasya, di siya kasya!”
These group of men coming through the gate the same time as us witnessed that. I have no doubt that they were the same people earlier today. One man kept repeating those three words, and what irked me was that he had the guts to tell those to me, to a stranger. Where was the respect?
I just drowned the remnants of those sounds with the bustling city sound of cars and honks. It’s interesting how we make fun of appearances, but we never really see through them and the stories behind ourselves entirely. Even if we are strong and underneath some fat is muscle, we’re still f.a.t. to some. It’s not like I can tell people after their remark that I’m strong, that I have gained muscles, these metabolic engines that help me, that I train so I could improve strength, so I could be healthy and help my parents and care for them. They do not see my struggles and wins to be stronger, to be more fit. They do not see the pain I experienced when I finished three repetitions of pushups today at the gym, the three kilometers I walked and jogged today, the times I have to use my inhaler because I pushed myself too hard, causing my lungs to breathe little, the many times I failed and succeeded, trying to be better than I was yesterday.
I didn’t know that I would experience another humiliating thing today.
While walking home, I really thought about how I could have taught them a lesson. Should I have shouted back? Should I have reasoned, “At least, I’m good at something!” as if to compensate for the absence of prettiness in my face. With a snarl and a loud laugh that pities their lack of creativity and imagination at throwing an insult, should I have told them that I told far worse words to myself than just ugly? Should I have yelled that I cared more about being kind than putting a heavy price on being beautiful or to try and fit these people’s standards – I had different notions of beauty, of how deep it is and cannot be seen. Should I have fought back?
Fighting back with rage and without thinking would have been disastrous. It would only make me like them: saying things without thinking at all of the possible consequences.
As I made my way to the corner of the street away from them, I asked God to move my heart. These words I’ve heard, I would be lying if I said they did not hurt me. Not so much but yes, they stung. I wonder what made them say it. I wonder if this group of male bystanders knew what love was.
Little by little, the silent rage in my heart softened.
I think about God and how He made us all.
What the man shouted to me is not true.
I am not ugly.
Nor is anyone.
I need this reminder, and perhaps you need this too, so friend, know that you are beautiful, and everybody is. You are, you are, you are, and your beauty is true and is never fading, never trendy like today’s worldly yardstick. You are loved. You are beautiful, my friend.
And I say this to myself too. I am loved by God, by my hard-working, selfless, understanding, patient, and loving parents, by family, by good friends, by our pets… And this is what makes me beautiful. Love makes us beautiful. And love is something within us all. It just is, and I hope that if that man did not see anything good in me, I hope he sees some good in himself and starts seeing more in others too. I have my dark days and nights too of crippling self-doubt, of anxiety. I just don’t talk about them much. But I hope I get to see some good in me too, I hope that we get to see how God sees us, how our loving parents see us…
God’s love and peace and the reminders of my parents’ love kept me calm on that way home. Younger Arli would have reacted worse, like crying bucketfuls of tears and doubting herself to the point of puffy red eyes and a runny nose and a further dilapidated self-esteem and worth. I must admit, I had a few tears. To heal and to be strong, one must acknowledge what is felt, what is true. I was hurt, but I will not let it get to me deep.
Maybe I am better today. Maybe I am stronger. But of course this is not without the immense help from the Lord and my family. I am stronger, because I fought back the right way. Not by teeth, not by eyes, not by violence, not by rage.
The words of Frances Hodgson Burnett from A Little Princess came to my mind earlier: “When you will not fly into a passion people know you are stronger than they are, because you are strong enough to hold in your rage, and they are not, and they say stupid things they wish they hadn’t said afterward. There’s nothing so strong as rage, except what makes you hold it in–that’s stronger. It’s a good thing not to answer your enemies.”
What kept me from retaliating was stronger than what made the man shout out his passion at my ugliness. It was the gifts God has given to us. Like love for our neighbor and our enemies, His living Word, mercy, and the striking yet graceful power of forgiveness at others’ lack of understanding of a person’s heart and at ourselves for thinking badly at first of our oppressors. I’ll always be thankful for Him as my anchor, as the Divine Reminder.
As I turned the key to our door, I realized that God had prepared me for this episode in my life. Maybe if it had not come, I would have reacted a different way. Maybe I would have not held forever my peace. For some reason, a good friend of mine messaged me last night and just told me to remember that I was beautiful. That was all she said.
God speaks to us in ways only we can understand, I read in a book by Fr. James Martin, SJ.
I did not comprehend why my friend said that.
The understanding only came to me a day after, coming quietly like a gentle bird – the afternoon someone called me ugly.
May Roald Dahl’s words from The Twits serve as the conclusion to this entry: “A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.”