Ugly

I’ve thought a lot (lot lot lot) about this post.*

I’ve thought about the point of it, and the importance, and about what I want to say, because I think I’m about to bring up something that would be good to talk about and I don’t want to screw it up.

The autumn of my senior year of high school is pretty dismal (maddening? miserable?), because I hate how I look.

That sounds both simplistic and kind of juvenile. But it’s not.

I’ve mentioned it before—the way that in the span of a few months, I’ve become completely unrecognizable to myself. I look in the mirror, and I hate my face and my hair and my teeth and the way that my nose has clearly (clearly) been broken more than once, and it kind of ruins my day.

Which, I have to be honest, feels like a total rational and feminist failure on my part, because I’m supposed to be way smarter than that. (Also, I don’t know who decided that. I think I did. Which does nothing to improve my day-to-day impression of myself, because thanks to the transitive property of equality, I am now both ugly AND stupid. Yay.)

For the first couple months of school, I think about how much I don’t like how I look, but never really address it head-on. I write about it some—a little—but not really. It’s like this looming, shapeless thing that I can kind of recognize, but can’t quite articulate.

This changes one afternoon because it’s been bothering me for so long that I get to this weird, desperate point where I suddenly feel like I can’t not talk about it. Which is actually a pretty impressive development, considering that during this particular era of my life, I never really talk much about anything.

What happens is, Wit is lying on his back in the hall by my locker. It’s during third hour, which means I have a free period and he has an English class he never goes to.

“You don’t look very happy,” he says.

“I think I might have become ugly,” I tell him, and am immediately shocked at how unbearable the words sound, all raw and stupid and pointy. Rolling the idea around in your head for months is one thing. Saying it out loud hurts more than I would have expected.

(Brenna from the future says, Oh, get a grip—you are not UGLY! You just don’t look like such a little kid anymore!)

(Which Brenna from the future totally fails to grasp is a huge part of the problem.)

While Wit doesn’t exactly confirm my deepest-darkest suspicions, he also doesn’t leap up to reassure me. Naturally, I conclude that he knows I’m hideous and is just too nice to say so.

“Well, it’s not like you’re freakish or deformed,” he says finally. “$%&@, you don’t even have a mustache.” Then he smiles and rolls his eyes. “See, without a mustache, how can you be ugly?”

He’s being lighthearted and goofy, not taking me seriously, and doesn’t he see that this is no laughing matter?

(He doesn’t.)

So, in an effort to make Wit listen, damn it, I say the bad, shallow thing that shames me even when I just think it privately to myself. “Boys used to ask me out last year. Even guys I didn’t know. But now no one does.”

Lying flat on his back in the locker bay, Wit is unimpressed. “Yeah, because you always said no. Look, if you went up to someone and asked for their number and said you wanted to hang out with them sometime, they’d be happy. They’d say yes.”

In this awkward, cinematic, vaguely Wes-Anderson-esque interaction, Wit is the voice of reason, even though he’s speaking to me from the floor. He is being totally, 100% sensible, but I don’t want to hear it because I don’t want the prospect of all future social and romantic successes to be predicated on my taking any sort of actual risk.

“Okay.” He sighs, rolling his head back and forth on the floor. “Okay, you look a little different—I think your face is bonier. I don’t think I used to be able to see your cheekbones as much. Maybe that’s just from this angle. Also, I can see up your nose, which is unattractive on anyone.”

“But I do look different, though.”

Wit laughs and shakes his head. When he stands up, there’s a big smear of dust on the back of his shirt.

I hook my fingers around the chain of my necklace and stare up at the skylight so I don’t have to look at him when I say the next part. “If I were like Cobalt, this wouldn’t even be a problem. If I liked a boy, all I’d ever have to do was flip my hair around and stick my chest out. I’d always know exactly what to do about everything.”

This is not only a pretty egregious logical fallacy, but also evidence of a kind of catty jealousy that in my previous incarnation as Ice-Girl, I would have scorned so hard. Like, this is the kind of pointless self-deprecation that is the sole province of girls who actually think about these things. Also, who am I?

Wit stares back at me like he also does not know who I am. “Cobalt?”

“I thought she was hot. I thought all guys thought she was hot. Here, you have dirt on you.”

“You don’t want to be like Cobalt,” he says as I scrub at his back. “She’s always trying to get people to look at her all the time, and she always acts like she has sex with more guys than I think she really does.”

“Am I as pretty as she is?”

“No,” he says, because he is unfailingly honest. “But it doesn’t matter. The kind of guys who’ll like you aren’t the same ones who will like Cobalt.”

And because he sounds so thoroughly sure of what he’s saying, and because it actually makes me feel a tiny bit better just to have said all this out loud, I nod and shrug into my coat and we head off down the hall together and go get coffee.

*****

Okay, before we get into the actual hard part of this post, I need to point out that there are two different things going on here. Well, three. There are at least three different things going on here. Or probably more.

For the sake of organization, though, I’m going to start with the first one.

First. (She says to her teenage-self …)

If, for some reason, you find yourself feeling profoundly ugly—especially if you’ve gone from essentially happy with yourself to utterly undone in a fairly short period of time—it might be worth the extra few seconds it takes to step back and do a quick situation-check to see if anything else is going on in your life.

Because I have a budding theory, based solely on personal experience, that sometimes the issue of how you look might just be something concrete to focus on so that you don’t have to think about a whole mess of other things.

Like, for instance, how one of your closest friends refuses to eat anything and is starting to look seriously sick, or the fact that you like a boy who smokes a lot of pot and never talks and who terrifies the hell out of you, and the only friend you can really communicate with openly and honestly calls you every night and most of the time that’s fine, except that sometimes you catch him acting really weird and a little bit like he might possibly have a crush on you and you’re desperately scared that something is going to go wrong and then he won’t be your friend at all anymore, because that totally just happened four months ago with your last boyfriend, who currently refuses to even look at you.

Or, you know, also maybe just a bunch of other different things that are more specific to your own situation. But it’s worth it to step back and take the inventory. Then remember that concrete considerations like your face and your body are way easier to obsess about than these other things, which mostly exist outside of you and often seem completely beyond your control. Sometimes these things are big and daunting and messed-up. Sometimes they’re really scary. But don’t go confusing your appearance with something that’s actually bothering you in your brain.

The second thing I want to say is pretty inconveniently tied up with the third thing, so I’ll do my best to disentangle them.

To start with, I have something very important to tell you, which is that right now, today, this minute, someone thinks you’re beautiful.

For a lot of you, you might be perfectly comfortable with that. You might even nod and smile and think of your person fondly and then go give them a hug.

However, because life is complicated and the media in particular is not in the business of making us feel good about ourselves, there are probably some of you who don’t believe me. And this is where the problem lies. This is where points two and three are pretty tightly intertwined.

Someone thinks you’re beautiful, and also there’s a whole chorus of other insidious voices out there (mostly trying to sell you something) telling you that they don’t and that they shouldn’t.

On the one hand, I feel like most of us have grown up being reminded that self-esteem is important and that we should embrace our individuality and recognize our own unique beauty. On the other hand, sometimes that’s really hard. Because often, we’re confronted with insanely mixed messages and a very narrow standard of what is considered beautiful. Which makes it difficult to actually put any of these ideas into practice, and some days, all we can do is try.

So I have something specific for you to try, which is this: try to remember that all the noise in your head is still just noise, and that someone in your daily world thinks you’re beautiful, and watch, I will prove it.

Right now, you have a friend who is completely smitten with someone who just doesn’t do it for you.

Right now, maybe there’s a celebrity you’ve drawn a billion pictures of, or made into a billion animated gifs, and even though you might be deeply infatuated with that person’s quirky fashion sense, or the way they smile infectiously in that one animation, I can pretty much guarantee that there’s someone else out there on the internet who just squints and says, “Really?”

Beauty standards are arbitrary. (Beauty standards are sometimes freakish and bizarre.)

Beauty standards are complex constructs that directly reflect elements of the society from which they arise and also make interesting terms papers, but they aren’t really useful on a day-to-day basis.

What I’m saying is, there are perfume commercials and Dolce & Gabbana ads and pop stars who work out eight hours a day and still get photoshopped into oblivion every time they’re on the cover of anything, and then there’s real life. And real life is where you’re attracted to people just because you’re attracted to them, and not because they look particularly like something out of a magazine.

It’s where sometimes you think your best friend is the most beautiful person you’ve ever seen because you love the way he sings along to the radio, or because of how excited she gets about vintage motorcycles or puppies or differential equations, and not at all because they have the clearest skin or the best posture or the straightest teeth. It’s where you get all pink-eared and smiley over that guy who doesn’t even come close to corresponding with the generic picture of the “ideal” guy that you have in your head, but so what? There’s just something magical about him anyway, and when he feeds squirrels in the parking lot and thinks that no one’s watching, he’s completely beautiful, and your heart beats like crazy.

And because this is happening all the time, everywhere, to a whole array of different people in different situations with different styles and personalities and different objects of affection, I can safely say, with very little room for error, that someone out there loves how you get excited about things, loves how you sing along to the radio or always do your homework or never do your homework, loves how you nervously doodle rabbits on scratch paper and how I grow venus flytraps in glass jars and dream about octopuses and can rarely find my keys.

I can safely say that someone thinks we’re beautiful, and who are we to tell them that they’re wrong?

*That’s probably how it got so long.

15 thoughts on “Ugly

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  1. This is just perfect. I remember feeling like I was unloveably ugly. It was hell. And I looked fine, it was just depression distorting reality and crush my confidence without me even knowing it.

    I want to hug teen-Brenna.

    • It’s amazing how easy it can be to see all the most crucial factors in retrospect, and still not make the same connection in at the time, even though it would be just the most helpful thing. (For instance, I am about a thousand-million percent sure that if anyone had suggested that instead of ugly, I might just be feeling anxious and overwhelmed, I would have honestly thought they were crazy.)

  2. I totally understand what you’re saying here — but what if you can’t figure out WHO thinks you’re beautiful? (I need to be a totally normal seventeen-year-old girl for a moment and say that I think I look nice. Not totally awful, but not supermodel-pretty. And I’m totally fine with that, because I’ve seen the pain that goes along with being drop-dead gorgeous.) But some days, it feels like no one outside of my family thinks that. Boys never ask me out. They don’t even flirt with me. My best friend says it’s because I scare them because I have a mind and opinion of my own, but surely someone isn’t frightened by that. And how long will I have to wait before I meet him?

    That was… rather angsty. But I’m a firm believer in telling the bald truth. (Which might be another reason boys don’t want to date me.)

    • You raise an important point here—a point that actually probably deserves a post all to itself. (In fact, when this whole thing was 1,500 words longer than it is now, it included two paragraphs on this very topic, and was also a total mess with no recognizable thesis.)

      Even now, my thoughts are kind of messy, so I’ll try my best to keep it together. Also, I can already tell that whatever I say next is going to be really long.

      The thing about boys (people) is, they’re pretty sensitive to things like tone. The biggest thing for me was recognizing that I could be very personable and charming and approachable—as long as I was with people who knew me really well. And I could also be really withdrawn and icy and unhelpful, and that was usually when I was first meeting people. For me, the trick was learning how to be my approachable self around strangers, because people are so much more receptive when they think you like them and would be sad if they died in a fire (who knew, right!).

      All that is a very roundabout way of saying that it’s totally possible for your friend to be right about boys being intimidated by you, but also that you also don’t have to change who you are, because chances are, you already have a warm, goofy, conversational side. Meaning that if you decide to behave that way in casual interactions, you won’t be faking it, just trying an old persona in a new situation.

      Also—and this is important—the girls who get flirted with aren’t always the funniest or the prettiest or the most sexual, or any of the (highly stereotypical) things we read about or see on TV. They’re often just the ones who seem approachable and like the boy won’t come away from the encounter feeling rejected or stupid, or like he’s just forced some hideous, mind-numbing social interaction on someone who didn’t want it. (That last one is Classic Gold Teenage Brenna.) Also, here is my best top-secret hint, result of years of scientific study: more often than not, these girls flirt first. I seriously didn’t even notice that until I was about 20, but it makes a big difference. There is literally nothing stopping you from doing the flirting, except that it will feel weird and awkward at first. And I promise you, it will feel awkward. But that’s okay.

      ALL THAT SAID. If boys are dismissive of you because you have opinions, then no. Not worth your time. Not even a little. Also, this is probably not what you want to hear because it’s still a little ways off, but the boy-quality gets a lot better in college. Especially once you get past freshman year, you’ll find that a lot more of them start being interested in awesome girls with awesome ideas. I think this is partly because college is, by and large, a more friendly environment for ideas than high school, but also just because by that point, guys as a group have started to branch out a little and their priorities aren’t *quite* so heavily weighted toward boobs and … boobs.

      Also, there is nothing angsty about any of this, because these are real, complex concerns. Figuring out how to have romantic (or any kind of) relationships while still being exactly yourself can sometimes be a tricky thing, and as such, it’s always worth thinking about.

      (Also, that thing you said on twitter? Totally yes. Shh, don’t tell.)

  3. This was a wonderful post. Tonight my DnD character’s vitality got sapped with one hit from an evil cleric that dropped my character from full hit points to zero. One hit. It was a vitality-draining spell and the evil cleric stole my youth. The party defeated her, but when I healed back up, even after using magical healing, my character still seemed aged a bit. I kept saying to the DM, “What exactly are you saying?”

    I have gray hairs, I’m 32, I wear my hair in not-the-most-flattering cut, I have age spots. But that’s all me. My character shouldn’t have to suffer such things.

    But why is it suffering? You said in the comments that you have more to say about, and I hope you do. It’s neat to read. I fully agree with your logic about attraction. The body and perception are very fruitful topics.

    • This post was seriously over 3,500 words originally, because I have SO MANY THOUGHTS! But some of the thoughts were getting in the way of other thoughts and so I had to streamline pretty aggressively. Now, though, I’m having more thoughts because I hadn’t even touched on the issue of aging, which is so complex.

      It’s pretty amazing to me, the premium we put on youth while living in a society where people routinely live a crazy-long time. How bizarre, to place such a high value on such a small slice of a lifespan!

      Attraction is one of those aspects of relationships that I just find really fascinating. We’re inundated with all these ideas about physical attractiveness, when in reality, it’s super subjective and no two people seem to have the same exact experience of it, or even the same triggers. It astounds me when people act like there’s some innate, factual ideal, because that’s just … such a lie.

  4. Lately, I’ve been wondering if love is sort of like a video game where you have to get through all of these levels and unlock all of these skills before you can fight the dragon and kiss prince/princess and live happily ever after. If this analogy works, I think *believing that you are beautiful* is something you have to level up to. I don’t think that it comes automatically to anyone and I don’t think that you can use a cheat code. You have to figure it out on your own. It probably involves fighting all of these monsters that look a little various reality TV stars.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that I went through a phase where I didn’t like the way that I looked either. But if I could go back, I don’t think I’d change anything. Because maybe if I’d changed something, I’d be a different person–a different person who ends up with the warlock, the three-headed spider or that thing that lives in the ice caves. And maybe, I’d never even get a chance to meet the prince. Or maybe I’d be the kind of person who’s incapable of being happy with the prince.

    Does this make any sense?

    • I was actually talking with a friend recently about something very close to this. It’s funny to look back now and know in only the vaguest, most theoretical way that I used to be prettier—or at least younger—and also that at the time, I had no idea, because it somehow didn’t seem like enough. I’m really happy with how I look now, even with my crooked nose and my crooked teeth, and I think you’re right about believing you’re beautiful being something you have to level up to.

      And maybe, I’d never even get a chance to meet the prince. Or maybe I’d be the kind of person who’s incapable of being happy with the prince.

      This is a wonderful way to think about so many different aspects of life. I’m pretty sure that a big part of my actual growing up was just learning how to relax and stop worrying so much about whether or not I was okay. I know this is just common sense, but when you’re happy with yourself, it’s crazy how much easier it is to be happy with all the other good things.

  5. A really good post, and I say this as someone, who, if I did any kind of quarter-way honest catalogue of my high school experience, would have to devote a hell of a lot of time to the vicious unproductive cycle of that “total rational and feminist failure … which does nothing to improve my day-to-day impression of myself, because thanks to the transitive property of equality, I am now both ugly AND stupid”. But, in the end, even if I could go back several years, there’s no way I’d get my past self to change her mind, so there’s no way to get around working past that, I guess. But this is a very well-worded essay on that sucky and difficult thing.

    • even if I could go back several years, there’s no way I’d get my past self to change her mind

      Oh, I know—no way! I think this is one of the areas where it’s really just balls to be a teenager and also very analytical. It’s amazing how you can understand on a core level that you should know better, and still, no matter how hard you try, you still don’t really know any better.

  6. “He is being totally, 100% sensible, but I don’t want to hear it because I don’t want the prospect of all future social and romantic successes to be predicated on my taking any sort of actual risk.”

    I had a similar conversation with a friend (who was not unlike Wit, actually) when I was 17. The idea that guys might not ask me out because they didn’t want to get rejected, *not* because they weren’t interested…it was a total revelation to me. Which is silly in retrospect, because I was myself was terrified of rejection; I guess it’s another example of the narcissism of youth, lol (“I am the ONLY PERSON who is afraid of talking to guys I like NOBODY UNDERSTANDS”).

    I’ve actually been thinking about this lately. I’ve found that the way I feel about my appearance really *is* directly proportional to how good I’m feeling about my life, and whether I’m around people I care about. I’ve also found personally that I don’t care what people in general think of my face as long as the people I think are attractive like me, you know? I think it’s really hard to find someone who likes you in the same way you like them. Up until, like, last year (!) I didn’t realize that when I was saying “Guys don’t like me,” what I really meant was “The guys I like don’t like me back.” But in talking about it with other people, I see that it’s just a human problem, that everyone has no matter what they look like. I suspect there’s very little anyone can do about it, apart from maintaining acceptable levels of personal hygiene and accepting everything at face value.

    “I can safely say that someone thinks we’re beautiful, and who are we to tell them that they’re wrong?”
    This is a really lovely thing, and it actually helped me a lot to think about it that way. I pretty much came to the same conclusion when my friends and family would say “No, you’re pretty!” and I realized I felt delusional/like a douche for saying, “You’re just saying that/you’re wrong,” you know?

    • The idea that guys might not ask me out because they didn’t want to get rejected, *not* because they weren’t interested…it was a total revelation to me.

      Back when this post used to be way (way) longer, this was actually one of things I was fiddling around with. Then I took it back out because the whole structure was getting way too convoluted and jumping around too much, and this idea in particular seems important enough that it really deserves a whole post all to itself. So, definitely something I still want to talk about in the future, especially since it really does seem to be human nature to simply ignore it when it doesn’t fit with our perception.

      It’s so easy to assume that what we’re feeling is exclusive to us, when really, everyone is kind of in the same spot, facing the same stakes and running the same emotional risks. And even though I feel like I have a pretty good handle on that concept now, at 18, I’m not even sure that I would have believed it. It would have been like having your mother tell you you’re beautiful—in high school, that’s a sentence that doesn’t even seem to have a formal meaning. It’s like nonsense words.

      I didn’t realize that when I was saying “Guys don’t like me,” what I really meant was “The guys I like don’t like me back.”

      Oh, exactly, exactly this. I had the two things all mixed up together in my head for so long, and it wasn’t until I got them untangled that I really started to be more clear about what I was looking for and what I had to offer, and also that it was very specific and there was nothing wrong with that.

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