Editor's note: This is the fifth part of a six-week series on the perceptions of beauty. Last week, we looked at body image issues among men. Next week, we'll look at beauty across cultures. Kat Kinsman is the managing editor of CNN Eatocracy.
(CNN) -- I have a big nose. If you feel like being euphemistic about it, you could call it "prominent" or "distinctive." On the slightly more complimentary side of that, "striking" or "exotic" are options. If cruelty or comedy are your aim, hurl "schnozz", "honker" or "beak."
None of these words will change its size, curvature, placement or the fact that I greatly enjoy seeing it right there, jutting out from the center of my face.
This was not always the case.
Lately, a school of thought has sprung up, centered around the notion that people should reconsider how they talk to young girls. On the surface, it's a fantastic, empowering thing, positing that young females are too frequently complimented on how pretty they are, rather than the things that count, like intelligence, creativity and self-reliance. I was never imperiled on that front. Not even close.
With a boyish bowl haircut and an outsized nose as the prow of my moon-pale face, I did not sail easily through the rites of womanhood. I was ugly and was told so, both in words and by omission. I remain unsure which was worse: being directly informed of my unattractiveness, or simply never being told I was the least bit lovely. Sure, it's all skin deep, but it can sink in and leave a scar.
The worst offender on the insult front was a girl we'll call "Elle." She was my best friend in that conflicted and wicked way that only junior high girls understand. One minute, she'd be saying how much she treasured our friendship, how she wished she got grades like mine or that people thought she was as nice as me.
The next she'd be telling me, in front of a crowd, that I was crazy for thinking a boy I thought was cute would ever like me back. Not when there were pretty girls still alive on the planet. Elle wasn't racking up the modeling contracts either, but at least she didn't have an axe handle bisecting her face.
She always said later that she was sorry. She must have said it four or five dozen times after the night she and another friend of ours, on a school field trip far from home, took turns holding me on the floor of a Chicago hotel room while the other circled, pointing out all my flaws, then swooping in to flick me, slap me, harm me.
They planned this for me as punishment for having made the cheerleading squad while Elle didn't and winning the local spelling bee. Elle's mother told her that she should be more like me, and I paid the price. They said it was for my own good, toughening me up for our new high school.
My nose got the worst of it -- pinched and honked over and over to a chorus of "ugly", "hideous", "witch." They knew I'd never tell anyone, and I didn't. I might be a twisted little goblin, too hideous to love, but at least I wasn't a tattletale.
Something in me fractured that night, and as it shifted, another part freed. There was no way I'd ever be beautiful -- so I didn't have to try.
It's astonishing how liberating that felt. I could focus on the things that brought me some measure of happiness while I was plotting my escape from my small town. I painted, I edited the yearbook, I wrote horrible angsty poems, I made weird and delightful friends and talked to boys like they were actual human beings, because I knew there was no chance they'd think such a funny looking girl was flirting with them.
And oh, was I funny looking. I made certain of that; freakishness provides excellent camouflage. If you've violently and vividly taken a detour from the lockstep of the beauty parade, no one can fault you for not being in uniform. While other girls -- even my friends (I'd freed myself of Elle and her minion midway through high school) -- fussed over tanning beds, Sun-In and their crushes, I cheered them on, spoke to the boys on their behalf, and pulled my purple-tinted hair over my Goth-painted face so the world was spared the insult of seeing it. It was lonely, knowing bone deep that I was undeserving of love, but I could root for others' romance from the sidelines, and that felt almost as good.
In the first few weeks of art school, I ceased to hide, stuck a ring through my right nostril, dyed my hair the most shocking shades I could find on the shelves and was surprised as a person could be when a boy said he loved me. It flamed hard and burned out quickly, and I assumed he'd just been kindly enough to overlook my obvious facial deformities -- though he surely seemed to spend a lot of time painting pictures of the rest of me.
And then it happened again. Only this time it was different. I looked across the diner table to see my new boyfriend Jon and our friend Helen staring at me rather intently. I instinctively grabbed a napkin to blot my lipstick, and yanked my flaming crimson hair down over my face. "What?"
Helen nodded contemplatively. "It's your nose. Definitely your nose."
Jon agreed. "Yep. Definitely."
The grilled cheese sandwich I'd been enjoying suddenly threatened to reappear on the table. I could not take this. Not from the two of them, who I'd started to find essential in my world. "My nose...what?!"
"It's the thing that makes you beautiful. Like, it doesn't look like anyone else's. It's the thing that makes you look like you." Helen went back to chewing her fries.
"Yep," Jon said. He returned to Helen's fries, and I quietly imploded inside.
In an ideal world, none of us should have to buttress our sense of self worth with statements from other people. In that world, we'd also have eco-friendly jetpacks and free puppy-petting stations on every street corner. But the fact is that they do matter -- the words said, as well as those that aren't. That single off-handed remark from a couple of people I loved helped me start to feel OK about my face. My nose: the thing that I'd cursed and mourned -- and yet somehow never considered shaving down, was the thing that makes me...me. Which was an apparently not entirely hideous thing to be.
Some years later, I ran into Elle. It was our 10-year high school reunion, and I'd heard she might be manning the door. I'd also heard some other things. When I walked in, she gasped.
"Youlookbeautiful!" she said in a rush. My heart was pounding from the shock of seeing her, but I did my best to remain composed.
"Thank you. You do, too." And whether or not I meant it, I think she needed to hear it. Elle had gotten a nose job, and for what I could tell, a breast augmentation, too.
I excused myself after a moment or two of polite catch-up and wandered to the bathroom, where I stared at my face for a minute or so. It looked the same as it always had, but something inside had shifted into place. For good.
I'll turn 40 in just a few months, and it feels odd to say, but I love my face more now than I ever have. If anything, it's stranger looking than before -- more angled and lined and harsh in certain lights. But I don't hide it anymore. I put it on live television once a week and use it to address large groups of people at conferences and kiss my husband with it and stick pictures of it on the Internet and refuse to spend a second more apologizing for it. Why? Because it's the only one I'll ever have, and it's what makes me unique in all the world. And that's as plain as the nose on my face.