For the first 10 years of my life, I grew up in a small town tucked away in a corner of Iowa that had the best snow days, the biggest backyards, and the coziest rocking chair in the world, which I’d curl up in with my grandma every weekend. It was the type of town where parents let their kids play in the neighborhood without a worry in the world until they were to come inside. Nobody was cruel or dangerous. It was truly a dream. So the summer before fifth grade, when my parents sat my brother and me down and told us we were moving to Phoenix, Arizona, a part of me was scared, but a bigger part was thrilled for the adventure. I couldn’t wait to move to a bigger city and make new big-city friends. What could go wrong?
I remember walking into my first day of school with my platform flip-flops and floral skirt ready to find a new group of friends to call home. It wasn’t long before I did—we called ourselves “The Ferocious Five” and coordinated outfits practically every day. I felt like the coolest girl in school hanging out with these bubbly, beautiful girls who everyone seemingly wanted to be friends with. We stayed close friends into middle school.
One night in seventh grade, during one of our sleepovers, a couple of the girls were talking about their boyfriends and asked me if I had a crush on anyone in school. I didn’t. My mom always told me I couldn’t have a boyfriend until high school, and I always obeyed. Just before the conversation ended, one of the girls said something I’ll never forget: “Shelby will always just be the ugly friend because she has a big nose.”
The Ferocious Five laughed, and I’ll admit I did too.
I had never thought about my nose in my life before that moment. No one had ever said anything about it back in Iowa. The next morning, I woke up before everyone else and snuck into the bathroom while they were still asleep. I analyzed my face from every single angle possible to see if their comments were true. I tried to let the thought that I was different roll off my back, but once that seed was planted, it was over.
At the time, I rationalized that this lack of acceptance had to be because the kids in Arizona didn’t like me. It was because of them that I now hated how I looked—and they did a good job of it. Now, I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror without reviling what I saw. But I didn’t know how to tell my parents about my new insecurity, so I started blaming it on other things. I started to tell them I hated our house, I hated where we lived, and I was unhappy. My mom tried everything she could to make me feel better, but because I was too embarrassed to tell her why kids bullied me at school, she always failed to understand the root cause of my sadness.
Mainstream media didn’t make things much easier on my pre-teen self-esteem. When I wasn’t at school or in front of a mirror, I found myself constantly comparing my facial features to those of my favorite pop culture idols like Miley Cyrus or Selena Gomez. I was obsessed with Hannah Montana and lived for watching her perform as both Miley and Hannah during her Best of Both Worlds tour. I wished a different version of me existed too.
By the time high school came around, I told myself I would be known for something more than just “girl with a big nose,” which I was convinced was my sole reputation. I ran for student council and was elected every year; I got my first boyfriend. For a while, it seemed like my life had really turned around.
It’s weird how one snide comment can ruin all that. One day, I walked into my history class, where we were playing a version of Jeopardy to prepare for the next day’s exam. This kid on my team didn’t know an easy question, and when he got it wrong, we all jokingly booed him. He stopped dead in his tracks in front of the class, stared at me in my middle seat row, and—as if he’d been planning to say it all day long—called me a “bitch with a big nose.” I was stunned. Truth be told, I wasn’t taken aback by what he said—after all, having a “big nose” isn’t inherently bad, just like having “big eyes” or wearing a “big hat” aren’t inherently bad—but more so how he said it. It was like he was implying that my nose was a life sentence, this shameful burden I could never cleanse myself of. It was as if I was cursed.
Flashing back to that seventh-grade sleepover, I grabbed my things and slipped out of class while the rest of the room gossiped about what had just happened. I made my way to the nearest restroom, sat there, and cried. Out of all the people who had booed this kid, I was held accountable, and just because of my nose? Because of something that I was born with and had no control over? It didn’t make sense.
They tell you that everyone is more mature once you get to college, but sadly, the rock bottom of my bullying experience was yet to come. I don’t personally blame GoFundMe, but that’s where it happened.
In college, a couple of girls and a guy who didn’t like me (to this day, I’m not sure why) made a GoFundMe page lobbying to raise $5000 to buy me a nose job. The page featured a huge picture of my face and was shared multiple times on Facebook. When I saw it pop up on social media, I was so shocked I started to physically shake at the sight of it. The group of people who made the GoFundMe comprised girls in my roommate’s sorority and a guy who was in a fraternity on campus. Eventually, enough of my friends saw the shares on Facebook and stuck up for me that the group who posted it took it all down. I’m not sure what happened to them in the end; I didn’t really follow up. The last thing I wanted was to be involved with these people who thought it was fun to feed off of a person’s insecurity. Rumor has it they received repercussions in their sororities and fraternity and were eventually kicked out, but I can’t say for sure.
The day of the GoFundMe incident, I remember locking myself in my room for several hours and staring at myself hard in the mirror. You know how when you repeat a word over and over again, after a while, it starts to lose its meaning? Funny enough, that’s what happens when you stare long enough at your nose. It’s just a shape. The difference between a big nose and a small one is a matter of what, a few millimeters? I couldn’t grasp why everyone was so fixated on something so small. At 22 years old, I still couldn’t escape the downfall that was my face and was still surrounding myself with people who obviously thought the same way.
If I think about my most unmitigated opinion of myself—how I felt when I looked at my reflection getting ready for class in the morning—I was always content with the image facing back at me. The woman I saw was a badass who worked her butt off to land her dream internship in college, who had the best parents a girl could ask for, who didn’t care about others’ opinions in any other aspect of her life. So why let anyone ruin my life over a nose?
I think in the end, it all boils down to this: If you surround yourself with people who make you feel beautiful, you will, and if you’re around them enough, no one else will be able to undo the self-confidence they help you find. Growing up, I don’t think I always had the best taste in people. I had good taste in people I thought were cool. But now that I’m older, my friendships are the most beautiful thing I have in my life. It’s not facial features these people define as beauty. To them, I’m not seen as someone who was cursed at birth. I’m seen as a woman who can do anything she sets her mind to, who has a handful of resilience in her pocket. With them, I found self-love, and I no longer allow the feelings prescribed by others break me. Today, whenever I pass a mirror, I smile because I know nothing can change that.
Here at Byrdie, we know that beauty is way more than braid tutorials and mascara reviews. Beauty is identity. Our hair, our facial features, our bodies: They can reflect culture, sexuality, race, even politics. We needed somewhere on Byrdie to talk about this stuff, so… welcome to The Flipside (as in the flip side of beauty, of course!), a dedicated place for unique, personal, and unexpected stories that challenge our society’s definition of “beauty.” Here, you’ll find cool interviews with LGBTQ+ celebrities, vulnerable essays about beauty standards and cultural identity, feminist meditations on everything from thigh brows to eyebrows, and more. The ideas our writers are exploring here are new, so we’d love for you, our savvy readers, to participate in the conversation too. Be sure to comment your thoughts (and share them on social media with the hashtag #TheFlipsideOfBeauty). Because here on The Flipside, everybody gets to be heard.
Opening Image: Imaxtree