Thought Catalog

I Would Rather Be Called “Ugly”

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There is a palpable divide amongst those who have gone through adolescence — and its accompanying schooling — and rather enjoyed the whole ordeal, and those who didn’t. While there are various social castes and exclusive activities that are bound to divvy up the crowd a little bit, few things cut them more into two solid groups than “The Pretty Ones” and “The Ugly Ones.” As with most social phenomena at that age, it’s quite similar to how things work in the real world, only heavily amplified and with an added sprinkling of pure cruelty when the occasion calls for it.

You know which category you fall into. If, like me, you had deep, cystic acne, years-long braces, triangle-shaped hair, and the farthest possible thing from a functional fashion sense — it couldn’t be clearer. Whatever your aesthetic handicap was — especially if it was something that could be latched onto with an easy joke or a cruel barb — you could be sure that it would trail you for as long as you were stuck in the educational prison with these people. You quickly learn to be jealous of the pretty people, for whom life seems unbelievably easy and fun. You realize that not only is life unfair, but that it is heavily unfair in their favor, and that the incredible advantages and perks to being born beautiful are just a party to which you are, at least for the moment, not invited.

But beyond that, you realize that shiny hair and full lips are not a crutch on which you can ever fall back on. Through necessity, and frankly, through desperation, you start to think about what other things you can use to your advantage. You realize that making people laugh, being a friend you can always turn to, or becoming really good at something — whatever that may be — are all ways to carve out a “you” that isn’t immediately pegged for being unattractive. Your defining characteristic could, if you chose to work at it, become something other than your crooked nose or flat chest. I remember deciding actively that I had to try to be the funny girl, because to be the girl whose skin looks like a permanent, sandpaper-textured solar flare was not who I wanted to be. Sure, there were always going to be people who teased or looked down upon me for my appearance, but I was able to have real friends — and even a boyfriend or two — who saw something in me they liked and wanted to be around.

When I left adolescence, as happens with so many of us, the more acute signs of ugliness started to fade away. I learned how to dress for my shape, got acquainted with a hair straightener, and finally found some skin medication that made a dent in the problem (though it is by no means eradicated, trust me). I know when I look in the mirror that there are still things a plastic surgeon would be eager to fix — my nose looks different from each side, for example, and is quite crooked depending on the angle — but I have reached a kind of stasis where I’m okay with how things look. I’m not a model, and will still feel the occasional pang of jealousy when I see men and women who are so naturally gorgeous it almost hurts to look at, but things are okay. And like many people who grew up with less-than-ideal physical attributes, when people comment positively on my physical appearance or notice me in the street, I still think, on some level, it’s a joke. I’m starting to accept, though, that I’m not the girl I was before, and that there are things about me that do look nice. As with any adjustment of this magnitude, it just takes time.

The one thing, however, that I’ve discovered really rubs me the wrong way when it comes to my appearance — notably when coming from men who might be interested in me — is when I am called “pretty.” There is a difference between the genuine compliment from someone who likes and respects the person you are and simply wants to let you know how they feel, and the tossed-aside acknowledgement that, whatever may be going on inside, you meet a minimum requirement of aesthetic appeal. In fact, when some men have offered up “pretty” or even “sexy” as their most genuine statement, I have never felt less so. I would much rather they found me wholly unattractive, but still saw fit to give me the time of day. Sure, I may meet some bottom-cutoff-point of physical beauty for them, but one day I won’t, and it would be nice to know that I am still worth talking to even when I don’t. “Hey, pretty girl, come here,” or “Ooh, pretty girl,” sound more like insults than anything.

And I don’t think that cultivating a personality, learning to crack jokes, or being a good friend is exclusive to ugly people who were forced to make the effort. I know that there are plenty of model-beautiful people who also have so much to offer the world in every other department. But I also know that those who have been considered both “ugly” and “passably pretty” in life can tell the difference between someone looking past your face to enjoy the person inside and someone giving you a two-second once-over to put you in the “decent-looking” column and call it a day. “Pretty” doesn’t mean anything. Sure, it’s objectively better than “wretched,” but for the wrong reasons. Though I know that life is verifiably easier for people who are more aesthetically pleasing, I wish it were an adjective we could just wipe from our vocabulary completely. I don’t want it to matter, and I would much prefer someone who found me physically unattractive but loved to be in my company. If nothing else, I would know it was sincere — something I earned.

And yes, it is irritating when people who won the jackpot on the genetic lottery complain about how the world doesn’t take them seriously because they are so blindingly beautiful, but one day they will be ugly, too. They will no longer be wanted by strangers, or given a leg up by their beauty, and seeing the other side of the coin will be something they’ll have to face, completely unprepared. In the end, it would be nice to just get rid of this coin entirely. It would be nice if we praised people for their ugliness — and called it what it was — because to slap some makeup on them for a photoshoot and make them passably attractive in order to celebrate their other accomplishments is ridiculous. Female politicians shouldn’t have to be wrinkle-free. Aging actors shouldn’t have to go under the knife every other month. Balding men shouldn’t have to invest in painful treatments to grow back a sparse little tuft of hair. We don’t need to soften their ugliness to appreciate who they are.

We work for “funny,” we work for “charming,” we work for “smart” — and nothing is more satisfying than knowing people appreciate who we have put in the time to really become, instead of just the body were born in. TC mark

image – Matt Dinniman
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  • Anonymous

    Although it might sound arrogant but this article is so true. Nowadays I think “you are interesting” is a better compliment than “you are pretty/beautiful”.

    • http://twitter.com/emilcDC Emil Caillaux

      Yeah, but it’s hard to pull the first one off without sounding creepy.

      • Sarah Fusaro

        Isn’t that the truth! :) 

  • Anonymous

    NOBODY ENJOYED ADOLESCENCE. PERIOD.

    AND MY CAPS LOCK IS STUCK. 

    • Brandon h

      Maybe not, but some people got through it a lot easier than others. 

  • Lady

    I appreciate this article…but you do know that people have differing tastes and weird things that get them going, right?  There may be trends set by the media, but the men who call you pretty or sexy might REALLY get off on your crooked nose.  I take pretty to mean “I like looking at you.”  And there isn’t just one standard people like to look at.  There are infinite things–especially if they like who you are.  Things that are interesting to look at are often not “trendy” as far as aesthetics.  Besides, appearance has a great deal to do with how you carry yourself.  “Sexy” for instance, has very little to do with a person’s actual aesthetic, but what they do with it.  I saw a play recently, and the femme fatale in it was 1) Not particularly good looking according to the standards we see in the media, and 2) Not really a very good actress, either.  But I could see why she was cast, because damn if she wasn’t sexy and magnetic.  

    Just because you don’t think you’re much to look at doesn’t mean other people don’t love to look at you.

    • blabla

      I totally agree with this. And besides, Google Images tells me Chelsea Fagan really is quite a good-looking girl who looks like she puts some thought into her appearance, so it’s not all that odd that people call her pretty sometimes. Smart and sexy don’t cancel each other out.

  • C H

    this really doesn’t sit right with me.. that a sense of humor is a coping strategy and better than having good skin is a just the replacement of one sense of value of another… I get the drift and it’s admirable but.. Your judgement of  is present in your writing… Clumsy and petty. You’ve missed a more important commentary about self worth. 

  • rc

    I have always felt this way. I squirm every time the P-word is used on me but never could articulate why. Thanks!

  • Shoeler

    I think that “pretty” has become a colloquialism for “you’re ok” or “I’m too nice to say you’re just ok”.  Pretty, in my esteem, has never been in the vernacular of the jerks or DBs.  They just flat out don’t care.  The real problem with the current iteration of pretty is it’s not “gorgeous” or “beautiful”.  And that’s where the rub exists.  

    If you’re not secure enough to accept a compliment of “gorgeous” or “beautiful”, then that’s on you, not on the compliment giver  I’ve dated women who I’ve called gorgeous or beautiful whose physical looks belied a much more amazing personality.  Those two magic words, when used by a gentleman, aren’t about just physical beauty – they’re about how enticing you are – how magnetic your personality and overall presence are.And JLUA – “interesting” is way worse imo.  God, I hope I’m freaking interesting.  Why in the world would someone show interest if I weren’t!

    P.S. other dudes – learn to gracefully accept compliments too.  Even if you don’t agree.  Ladies – same goes for you.  See the intent, not the delivery.  :)

    • ariel

      Why would you take “pretty” are “you’re okay”? If someone goes out of their way to compliment you then they find you attractive. I was an ugly duckling in high school and I still have a look that may not be the societal norm, but if someone calls me pretty, beautiful, cute, sexy, hot, or gorgeous it always makes me feel good. They went out of their way to come up to me and give me a compliment, I’m not going to self loathe and over analyze that.

  • http://twitter.com/admiralaakbar ayshaa

    This post reminded me of this quote from Prep, one of my favourite books on adolescence.

    “This possibility was not flattering to me; it was terrifying. There were other things a guy could think I was, and he wouldn’t be entirely wrong – nice, or loyal, or maybe interesting. Not that I was always any of those thing, but in certain situations, it was conceivable. But to be seen as pretty was to be fundamentally misunderstood. First of all, I wasn’t pretty, and on top of that I didn’t take care of myself like a pretty girl did; I wasn’t even one of the unpretty girls who passes as pretty through effort and association. If a guy believed my value to lie in my looks, it meant either that he’d somehow been mislead and would eventually be disappointed, or that he had very low standards.” 
    ― Curtis Sittenfeld, Prep

    • Tangledxxup

      I LOVE this book.

  • Danaynay

    Ugly duck syndrome. If you grew up all awkward and acne-laden, in a way you’re still that person in your mind. Even if you have turned into what is consider “pretty,” you always assume people still see the teenager you were or the ugliness you presume is still evident. I admire people who can shrug off the awkwardness of adolescence and accept being called pretty, beautiful, sexy, etc. as a genuine complement. It’s a matter of self-confidence more than skin, shape, clothes, etc. Maybe spend some time assessing your self-worth, as another commenter said, rather than worrying about the meaning of “pretty.”

  • Adamcrittenden

    Haiku #?

    I have this eye that’s
    a little off. It rolls back
    to see how ugly (I am).

    • joe

      this is a brilliant haiku.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002448686428 Davey Kuraner

    Shut up. You’re all pretty. Have a wonderful day! :D

  • Lena

    Thanks for this article) 
    I really needed this one, right at this moment 

  • Lena

    Thanks for this article) 
    I really needed this one, at this very moment

  • http://www.twitter.com/mexifrida Frida

    “when people comment positively on my physical appearance or notice me in the street, I still think, on some level, it’s a joke. ”

    I become INCREDIBLY uncomfortable when people comment on my appearance.
    I am so self-conscious about it, as a result of the years before when I knew people looked down on me, that it irritates me and sometimes makes me want to cut the person out because I just plain feel uncomfortable being around them now that I know they are taking the outside into account.
    I want to be the one who determines my feelings and reactions, not my past. 
    This article really helps towards getting in that path. 
    Thanks, Chelsea.

  • Sarah

    I’ve never posted a comment on TC, but Chelsea, you are my favorite writer here, and this article was perfect for me.

    It’s just that the past couple days I’ve really had to be reminded that there’s more to me than attractive or unattractive.  The fact that I am not obviously “pretty” means I cultivated a personality that I like.  I am coming to accept the fact that I don’t have to be pretty. 

    Besides, I remember one of my male friends telling me: “Sometimes I know a girl isn’t pretty, but I like looking at her anyway.”  I thought it was one of the sweetest things I’d ever heard. 

  • Michele

    I learned I was the ugly friend when my ‘friends’ stopped inviting me out but make sure to add “i can hang out with any kind of person. they don’t have to be pretty” as they rush out with their prettier friends to the best lounges in town to pull rich men. The only time they call is to hear how hard it is to be an ugly person and constantly refer to you as the ‘down to earth’ friend and how much they want to get back into indie while simultaneously blasting the most annoying pop music. And while you struggle to take care of your sick parent, needy boyfriend, and put yourself through school, they tell you how bad of a direction your life is going because you currently can’t afford to put yourself in school and then turn around and wonder why you are so self conscious and have low self esteem while they are driving to meet their sugar daddy. If I can even find the time and energy to find some self esteem and try to beat this beauty system, my life would be a shit load easier. Because OBVIOUSLY the pretty ones are really the ones with the most issues, not us :)

    • Michele

      Sorry guys. I probably should have vented elsewhere

      • joe

        no worries. i hope your situation improves soon. and it sounds like you’re not so much the “ugly” friend, as you are the friend worth having.

  • joe

    “I would much rather they found me wholly unattractive, but still saw fit to give me the time of day.”

    This really stuck with me. I’ve never met someone who I found so attractive that I could ignore major personality flaws, like being mean or rude or ignorant. When someone is ugly on the inside, it always shows in some form on the outside.

    Your articles are so worth reading, all the time.

  • Edeson

     ‘Having grown up ugly, I relied on the beauty of my soul to endear me to the world. Living this way, it became apparent to me that the world’s relentless fixation on looks offered little compared to the magnificent inner lives of most everyone, especially the aesthetically unfortunate. And anyhow, I’m pretty now too, so.’

    lol

  • http://raymondthimmes.com/ Raymond Thimmes

    I know this is an older post but damn, you are wonderful. 

  • http://BlueShame.com Lady Blue

    From what I gathered, you’d rather be called ugly instead of pretty because you find the compliment insincere? You’re not ugly though, just average/plain. I don’t know if I get it.

  • hungry but I smell good

    This article pretty much explains how I feel right now.  I’m always a bit surprised when I realize that someone notices me in the street (especially if they are attractive, it usually makes me wonder if they need corrective lenses because they can’t see the zit on my chin). 

     It is starting to happen more often, probably because I’m finally losing all that freshman-meal-plan-poundage. Yay for working out! (JK, I’m usually broke and decide to spend money on smelling good instead of food). Whatevs, the point is that there is a strong correlation between confidence and perceived attractiveness, as far as I can tell. Probs because others can sense that I don’t give a shit.
    Anyway, on being called ‘pretty’, I definitely appreciate when it happens in the form of a heartfelt comment. However, “hey pretty girl, come here” is pretty much on par with typical NYC street-jeering-encounters (a la construction workers and “hey mami”–  BTW, wearing huge-ass noise-canceling headphones is my favorite method of passive-aggressive method of retaliation).  Those encounters make me feel like a slab of meat, or tofu, or whatever. Objectification of women, what else is new…. (*le sigh)I’ve got to say, last month a guy that I hooked up with told me that I am smart. And it felt 1,000,000,000 X better than any time anyone ever called me pretty/beautiful/cute/sexy. It still makes me feel really great, in fact. I dunno if that is why I’m sort of smitten with him now (or maybe the compliment was the catalyst for the best sex of my life?)  …Well, the point is– compliments that are non-appearance based are AWESOME and it may be wise to utilize them more often, in the case that they are sincere.

  • http://anxietypanicattackhelps.com/ugly-duck-syndrome-grew-awkward-acne-laden-way-youre-still-person-mind/ Ugly Duck Syndrome: If You Grew Up All Awkward And Acne-Laden In A Way You'Re Still That Person In Your Mind - Anxiety & Panic Attack Helps
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