Eighth grade. I’m sitting next to a boy I would consider a fairly good friend. Our last names begin with the same first later and we’ve always had similar schedules, so at the very least we spent enough time together to have developed a certain rapport. He’s a good guy, a straight-shooter; he’ll be honest if I ask him the question.
“Am I pretty?”
His eyes go all wide, mouth falls open. The look only flashes across his face for a quarter of a second, but it’s long enough for me to gather that 1. I’ve put him on the spot and 2. He’s worried his answer will hurt my feelings.
“I just want to know,” I say, shrugging. Shrugging is good, right? It means I don’t care. And I don’t. Care. I totally don’t. “Like honestly.”
He nods slowly, eyes surveying my features as if he hasn’t been sitting next to me for years.
“Just be honest,” I say again.
“Okay.” He looks to be in legitimate pain, like he’s slowly ripping a Band-Aid from his ball sack.
“I mean yeah,” he says finally. “But your nose is kinda—”
“Yeah. I thought so.”
My hasty answer isn’t because I’m embarrassed. I do think so. I know so. My nose isn’t what anyone would consider a good nose. Instead, I cut him off because he seemed a million times more uncomfortable with telling me I’m ugly than I was with acknowledging it myself.
After our quick exchange, I didn’t feel crappy or down. I was glad to have enough self-awareness to accurately evaluate my own flaws, or at least what those around me would interpret as my flaws. It was freeing for me say ‘this part of me is so not hot’ and know most people would agree.
I can’t get with the premise that everyone is beautiful. Beauty, by its very nature, is scarce. If everyone is beautiful, no one is beautiful, right? But I’m a twenty-something in 2013, which means I grew up in a culture that really really wanted me to have great self-esteem and now an ugly person can’t post their ugly mug on instagram without a hordes of ‘nice girls’ flocking to the picture to talk about how beautiful she is. And the uglier the photo subject is, the harder they gush: ‘you are so beautiful and so brave, honey.’
But this isn’t necessarily about that. This is, as it has come to be expected from people my age, about me. This about my face’s complete and utter lack of symmetry. This is about my small, crooked teeth and prominent gum line. This is about my large pores and short, stubby nose. About my skin that scars easily and my excess of body hair. I’m a butter face. I have these weird bags under my eyes that won’t go away. I’ve got knock-knees and stretch marks. I am not, nor will likely ever be, anyone’s idea of conventionally attractive. In fact if judged objectively, (and up close) in the context of my culture’s currently accepted beauty ideals, I’m ugly. And you probably are too.
Shh. Deep breath. It’s fine. It’s fine. See? Being ugly is not so bad, is it?
Whenever I make self-deprecating comments about my appearance, shit gets so tense as people decide whether or not to insist that I’m Perfectly Fine The Way I Am. The same happens on my blog: if I joke that I’m hot I’ll get several messages calling me ugly; but if I appear to be genuinely unhappy with my appearance, hundreds of people respond with things like ‘fuck the haters.’ I get it; some people only shit on themselves to fish for compliments, but what if I am the hater? What if I agree with the ‘haters’? What’s with the need to defend me from my own powers of perception?
Recently, a friend of mine posted an article about what not to say to your overweight friends. One of the suggestions was to stop telling your fat friends that they aren’t fat. It was insulting because they, having eyes, are obviously aware that they’re overweight.
Can the same not be said about being ugly? Stop telling your ugly friends that they aren’t ugly? And also, stop bringing up how pretty my ________ is when I mention how ugly my ________ is. Because I am so totally okay with being ugly that it doesn’t need to be sugar-coated. If you want to talk about my ‘inner beauty’ (or total lack thereof, because I’m a terrible person, honestly) fine, whatever, but responding ‘you look really pretty’ after I bring up I’ve had an awful day? What’s the point?
Telling everyone that they look hot isn’t radical or necessarily even positive in its implications. It perpetuates the same bullshit beat into our heads by the rest of our beauty-obsessed culture: A person’s actual worth is somehow intrinsically tied to their physical appearance. I mean why else would ‘ugly’ be such a cutting insult? Why is ‘your nose is big’ not a benign observation along the lines of ‘your shirt is red’? It’s not a character assessment, is it? Why can’t we discuss our bodies the way we talk about a painting or an interesting photograph? It’s too personal, I guess, but if you can successfully ‘step into’ another person’s shoes (via empathy and shit), doesn’t that mean you have the ability to, first and foremost, step outside of your own?
Maybe, for a lot of us, the answer is no, not when it comes to Being Hot. That might explain the results of a 2008 study by a University of Chicago student. In the study, the participants were shown three photos of themselves: one normal photo, one modified to look more attractive, and one modified to look less attractive. When prompted, they tended choose the more attractive photo of themselves as the ‘real’ photo.
Sound familiar? Ever take a million pics of yourself only to be disappointed when, for some reason, most of them aren’t as hot as you? They don’t look like the solid 8.5 (maybe a 9 on a good day) that you always see in the mirror? That’s because the hottie in the mirror doesn’t exist. You’re not ‘unphotogenic.’ You’re ugly. You’re hella ugly.
Shh. Deep breath. It’s fine. Most of us are ugly. Your mom is ugly too. It’s so chill.
Conventionally attractive people will make, on average, over $200,000 more in a lifetime than those of us who aren’t naturally good-looking. Which means that I can dispute the idea that my worth is tied to the clarity of my skin—unless I’m talking about my net worth. I’ll get further in life if I pluck my eyebrows, invest in a decent concealer and wear flattering clothes. I get that there is some value in looking good, and I even think it’s totally okay for ‘looking hot’ to be your end goal (but good, luck, trololol) And for some of people, outside opinions are important when it comes to correctly assessing how we look, including casual compliments on a new nail color or haircut.
I also recognize that not all of us see our best selves when we look into a mirror. Things like body dysmorphia and eating disorders can skew a person’s perception of themselves. And while it’s not so bad to confirm that uglies are ugly, it can dangerous to agree with a bulimic boy when he says he’s fat.
There’s also the issue of ‘how’ and ‘why’ in regards to what, exactly, conventionally attractive is. Beyond basics like symmetry and clear skin, the requirements can be problematic in how Eurocentric they are. It can be short-hand for how ‘white’ a person looks, regardless of their actual ethnicity. But that knowledge should give ‘conventionally attractive’ less power, shouldn’t it? Is it really some personal accomplishment to look like (to use the words of one fashion designer in Elizabeth Philip’s ‘Beauty of Color’ documentary) a white girl dipped in chocolate? (Congratulations, you favor the oppressor?)
This isn’t a call to go around telling people how ugly they are. No one needs to tell ugly people that we’re ugly, we usually already know. It’s more a suggestion that, as individuals, we all step back and rethink how and why we value or own physical appearance, like why we need to feel attractive to feel good. Looking in the mirror and thinking ‘hey, everyone, come see how good I look!’ might be good for my self-esteem, but not needing to look ‘good’–entirely internal validation–is infinitely better.