Look Out 10s, a 5 is Coming: On the Power of Unattractiveness
I’m not pretty.
I have a round face with a double chin that has no fewer than five prickly hairs pointing out of it on any given occasion; my lips are thin and consistently chapped; years of blackhead squeezing and acne scarring have left my skin worse for wear, all the more so thanks to prominent psoriasis patches across my nose, forehead and ears, flaky and raw; I currently have a prominent spot, glowing like a traffic light, on my chest that I’m desperately trying not to scratch; all the weight I’ve put on since moving back home almost five years ago has settled on my stomach and hips, leaving a few stretch-marks and leaving me bulbous and pear-shaped; and as well as having a lot of dishwater blonde hair on my head, I’m generally very hairy, with a landing stripe down my belly and my legs unshaven for several weeks. On top of all that, I also have furry toes.
If I were to grade myself like a frat boy with high aspirations and low self-esteem, I’d put myself firmly in the middle at number 5. I’m not distressingly ugly, but I’m aware of reality and mostly like what I see. It’s my face, my body, and in the grand scheme of things I’d like to improve about myself, my physical attributes are generally quite low on that list.
I have a very clear memory of the day I stopped giving a fuck about other people thought of my appearance. As a teenager, acne wreaked vengeance on my face with effective results. Kids can be dicks, so of course the bookworm with no socials skills and skin like a beat-up motorway was an easy target. Combine that with a skin condition that leads to flakes of skin gathering on your scalp like dandruff and the rumours went from silly to vicious. Never mind that acne and psoriasis are not symptoms of malaria, leprosy or AIDS: I was still alleged to have contracted all of those ailments (biology wasn’t their strong suit at my school). I spent a lot of time with my long hair across my face like curtains, hoping that, like the protagonist of one of my favourite novels, Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, one day I could grow it long enough to just live in it. Perhaps the cloak of braids could shield me from the stone throwing or pointed insults. Every word cut me like a scalpel until 5th year of high school, when a roaming band of troglodytes spotted me in a hallway reading a magazine and murmured a few crass remarks I’d heard before.
Then one of them called me ‘pizza pus’. I remember finding the insult so random, so hysterical, so exceptionally creative amidst a sea of repeats, that I burst into a fit of laughter. The boys walked off, confused that their scathing wit didn’t have the desired effect. It wasn’t so much a breakthrough as a moment of realization that their crap didn’t work anymore. However small it was, it was real power.
That’s not to say I can’t be vain. I certainly have my moments. I never wear make-up but I still get my eyebrows waxed and eyelashes tinted for special occasions. I love getting my hair highlighted from its natural ashy blonde do something more classical, and I wear my Rapunzel length with pride. I’m an absolute sucker for retro dresses, billowing skirts and vibrant bras. I still feel a slump in my mood during an acne outbreak or when an outfit I love looks lumpy and ill-fitting on me. Sometimes I feel despondent that I’m not pretty enough for other pretty people (mostly movie-stars, to be honest, but hey, we all need aspirations). As much as I have embraced my unattractiveness, even I can’t make myself immune to a society that traps women in its narrow standards.
Overall, despite my unruliness in regards to beauty standards, I still fit much of that miniscule and privileged mould: I’m white, I’m cis, I’m traditionally feminine in my choice of hairstyle and clothing, and my body is of a shape that is usually treated favourably by the industry, albeit preferably heavily Spanxed. There aren’t a massive amount of churned out think-pieces dedicated to deeming whether or not my kind of face or body is societally acceptable. Sure, now and then the never-ending debates on not wearing make-up or the dreaded “is plus-size encouraging obesity” false-flag will rear their heads, but I’m not bombarded with them like many women are. The limits of acceptable beauty by our culture are maddeningly limiting and dizzying in their contradictions: Don’t be too skinny but don’t “promote fatness” either; Showing skin is tacky but covering up in the name of your religion is wrong; Reject the “pornification” of our society, but be ashamed of hair that grows naturally from your body; Lena Dunham’s nakedness is empowering, but Beyonce and Rihanna’s comfort with displaying their sexuality is letting us all down. Nobody wins with this game, but we all end up playing it, willingly or otherwise.
Whenever I tell someone I don’t think I’m pretty, or I make a self-deprecating remark to that effect, I almost always hear a harried reply of “Oh but you are pretty” or “Don’t be silly, you’re not ugly”. It’s an earnest response that is appreciated on some level (except for when certain creeps assume I’m digging for compliments), but it’s indicative of our fear to even acknowledge unattractiveness as a viable option for living. Maybe we all have that “inner beauty” women’s magazines keep trying to tell me about, but the terror of accepting that maybe, just maybe, it’s okay to be unattractive is a trap I don’t wish to fall into.
I cannot speak for other women’s experiences, nor can I say with certainty that I will always enjoy the way I look, but for now, I feel freedom in my unattractiveness. I enjoy finding styles and ideas that work for me, free of concern for what others will think; I like to buy colourful skirts with silly patterns and stomp around in pink boots with a walk like a trucker; I eat ravenously in public, messy and blissful, no matter who’s watching; I like owning the power of walking down the street, hair tangled in the breeze, skin reddened in the cold, jacket bundled across my round belly, and just not giving a fuck. I’m so proud of every woman who finds their own route to that bliss, regardless of how they do so. I spent too much of my youth smothered by the fear that I wasn’t pretty enough for a bunch of disgusting little men I didn’t even like, and I deserved better. Now, whenever I look in the mirror or take a selfie, I find warmth in my self-acceptance — being unattractive can be pretty cool.