IMAGE:  courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

There were girls with horse faces who I wanted to be. Everybody said the prettiest girl in the third grade was Jessica Massad, and maybe it was true. But the one whose face I loved, the one I wished I looked like, was Carolina Berkowitz. It was hard to say what it was about her appearance that mesmerized me. It wasn’t just her long face, which looked as though it had been stretched out, or the big bump on her nose, or her skin the color of Magic Rub; I’d hardly even taken account of all those things individually. Rather, it was their overall effect, the perfect way the sharp angles and sloping lines fit together. There’d been other horsey girls: at synagogue, Courtney Langer’s bony face jutted incongruously out of ruffled dresses that seemed too fussy for her prominent features. She had the habit of tucking her chin down against her Peter Pan collar, as if purposely accentuating her long forehead and sunken cheeks. Michelle Kleinberg was in my brother’s class; her oblong head rocked side-to-side everywhere she went. I found the trait so endearing I adopted it, hoping it might somehow elongate my head, but my mother said it was a nervous tick and made me stop. The same thing happened with Sari Warsaw from camp, whose big, protruding front teeth were the most beautiful ones I’d seen. I mimicked her overbite by sucking on my lower lip constantly; later I needed a night brace.

On the coffee table lay a magazine with a cornrowed Bo Derek on the cover. The headline read something like “Battered but Beautiful,” but I didn’t think Bo Derek looked all that great. “She’s ugly,” I told my mother. She seemed offended. “She’s beautiful,” she said. I looked at her face again and I could almost see it. Later, I also could not recognize the beauty of my second grade teacher, whom everyone said should be a model. Eventually, I agreed that she was beautiful, but I was still unsure what made it true. When I looked at her face, it seemed so ordinary.

At a creative writing program one summer, a friend revealed to me that a boy we knew had privately referred to me as “the girl with the teeth.” That year in school, I felt my front teeth expanding like a tumor. They were dilating exponentially, destined to take up my whole face. Occasionally, I had to run to the bathroom in the middle of class to confirm with the mirror that I wasn’t a monster.

I could barely get through drawing my seventh grade self-portrait. “Draw what you see, not what you think,” Ms. Silverman had instructed, doling out mirrors, pencils, and paper. In the middle of class, she peered over my paper. “Rebecca,” she told me, “your eyebrows are much bigger than that.” I thickened the eyebrows slightly in pencil. “Bigger,” she insisted, before pausing. “I want you to put down your pencil and actually look at yourself.” She inched the mirror closer to my face. She was right; they were big. And my nose was bulbous, and I had no cheekbones, and my hairline was asymmetrical. Though I’d seen my reflection thousands of times, I somehow had no sense of what I actually looked like. I almost wished I hadn’t found out. It wasn’t that I’d thought myself beautiful; it was just that the face in the mirror was so deeply inferior to the one in my head. I held back tears as I rushed to complete the portrait, the watery eyes in the mirror staring back at me, disappointed. Senior year of high school, once again assigned to make a self-portrait, I cut a baby with a cleft lip out of a newspaper ad, adhered its giant head to the center of my canvas, and declared the collage my pièce de résistance.

On an almost-date at the Met, I showed the boy I liked a painting called Thérèse Dreaming: a brown-haired girl bathed in sunlight lounges with one leg up and one leg down, exposing a glimpse of white underwear. She rests her arm over her head, tilted to show her profile. Her eyes are closed, but her furrowed brow, a harsh line on her soft face, suggests deep thought. At Thérèse’s side, a cat licks milk from a saucer. “She reminds me of you,” the boy said. The painting, like all of Balthus’s girls with cats, had been a favorite of mine since childhood. The Balthus girls were special in that I could simultaneously admire them and envision myself as them; they were beautiful, but also ordinary in the way that I felt ordinary, with round cheeks and bookish clothes and solemn expressions. Years later, I returned to the Met for an exhibit on Balthus. One room featured many portraits of Thérèse, a favorite muse of the artist who posed for him throughout her adolescence. In one painting, Thérèse looked just like a younger version of me: her cheeks were full, her lips downturned, and her eyes dark and a little sad. I turned to the wall to read the museum’s description: it stated, after a few sentences of biography, “Thérèse was not pretty,” as though it were an indisputable fact. I examined the portrait again, the faraway, almost hollow look in Thérèse’s black eyes. If she was not pretty, then neither was I, and maybe I didn’t want to be.