Every single one of them.
The girl in the front row has the whitest, straightest teeth and I try hard to earn her dazzling smile. The boy in the back middle has a fascinating freckle pattern that I want to draw constellations in. This one has skin the exact color I like my milky coffee. That one has a nose I’d like to replace my own with. The other has silky, thick hair that could be in Pantene commercials.
Maybe it’s a reflection of my age, and my own rapidly diminishing beauty. Maybe it’s the enviable majesty of humans in their late teens, at the peak of attractiveness. Maybe it’s our society’s current embracing of the whole range of beauty in human beings across race and culture.
Or maybe it’s The Love Boat.
At age 12, my friend Amy’s mother bought each of us copies of a guide for teen girls by Jill Whelan, who stared as the daughter of Captain Steubing on the show. I only remember two pieces of advice from Whelan. The first was awful, and I rejected it immediately. She suggested that when struggling with weight loss, lunch could be fulfilled by one apple, cut into very small pieces to make it last longer, sprinkled with cinnamon. Terrible advice people – eat a balanced diet, exercise, get enough sleep, drink a lot of water – that’s the only way to be healthy.
The second piece of advice was life-changing for me. Whelan pushed back against prevailing beauty ideals and said that every single person has some beautiful part of themselves. She didn’t mean on the inside. Sure, sure – inner beauty is most important, but we all want to be found physically attractive as well. Whelan said, if you really look at a person, you will always find something beautiful about them.
I tried it out right away, and found she was right. The practice has become a habit for me, and I frequently entertain myself by looking for the beautiful part of strangers around me. As a teacher, I see hundreds of students a day - in my classroom, and in the hallways, during assemblies and fire drills. I often wonder if they see themselves as beautiful, as I see them. I’m sure they don’t – teenagers are notoriously insecure and after all, their current physical forms are relatively new to them as they finish puberty.
I also think teenagers focus on the wrong kind of beauty sometimes. The most average becomes the most attractive. What I find gorgeous is the exotic, the unusual, the unique – a full mane of curls when most girls have pin-straight pony-tails; a brilliant-colored skirt in a sea of black yoga pants; a man-bun standing above dozens of lax bro floppy bangs.
And you, you on the far left, two rows back - the high blush in your pale cheeks is so lovely I forgot what I was saying. You are so beautiful. I just wanted you to know.