“I am writing as an ugly one for the ugly ones: the old hags, the dykes, the frigid, the unfucked, the unfuckables, the neurotics, the psychos, for all those girls that don’t get a look-in in the universal market of the consumable chick.” – Virginie Despentes.
I was conventionally beautiful for two years of my life. Bleached blonde hair, plucked eyebrows, small waist, double d cup breasts, smooth shaved legs, not too much makeup, not too little. I was, and still am, openly bisexual, but I used this as a tool to establish myself as a sexual being in the eyes of men. Instead of focussing on my sexuality and gender, and how they related to me as a person, I would use bisexuality as a party trick. Want to see two girls kiss because lesbians are oh so hot? Call Veronica, she’s down. She’s cool. I was the cool girl, a la Amy Dunne. I modified my interests, features, sexuality and even gender to suit the ideals of the men around me to make myself more and more consumable. I saw myself, personality, body and face, as things to be constantly improved upon. I would exercise intensely only to improve my body, not caring how tired and moody it made me.
I objectified myself before anyone else ever did.
Eventually, two years later, I was fed up. My scalp burned from monthly bleaching, my skin stung and broke out as a reaction to makeup, my stomach rumbled constantly, my breasts shrank. I was miserable, feeding off of the attention given to me by men interested in my body.
So what do you do when you realise, finally, that you value yourself more than the whispers of the men surrounding you?
I made myself ugly. I shaved all of my hair off, I stopped shaving my legs, I stopped plucking my eyebrows. I deliberately wore baggy clothing. I stopped wearing makeup. I stopped caring. Ugliness is not only comforting, it is safe. The amount of sexual harassment I received drastically decreased, and I now feel comfortable with walking alone at night. Keeping this in mind, it did not go away. Sexual harassment is still something serious I face, but at least it has reduced.
Ugliness, of course, is subjective, as is beauty. For the purpose of this essay I am taking ugliness to mean whatever our patriarchal and Eurocentric society deems as ugly. This means body hair, too much makeup, not enough. This means any woman not adhering to white and Eurocentric bodily standards.This means fat anywhere other than hips, breasts and buttocks. This means clothing that is too formless or too revealing. This means acne and scars. This means you must look stereotypically feminine. Which means you must be consumable. Which means being meek and humble. Which means only speaking when spoken to and altering your personality to flatter the room and the men within it. I know how tiring it can be. To only raise your voice to be flirtatious or to confirm the thoughts of men. Never saying anything of significance, for fear of being judged, or even worse, patronised. Yet being patronised is all that ever happens, because you dumb yourself down. God forbid you make the boys feel emasculated by your intellect. Shut your mouth, brush your hair, no one finds a funny girl sexy. A politically informed and socially conscious mind is not sexy. Intelligence is not sexy. Intelligence is not a commodity, like your sexuality is.
To completely reject this male ideal, to say “fuck it” and leave, is ugly. And I don’t care. I am judged. I am patronised, I am still harassed. But I don’t care. I now identify as agender, but prefer she/her as pronouns. By choosing to make myself ugly, I not only changed my physical appearance, but began to speak my mind. I realised that my voice has merit. I began to create, to write music, to paint. Ironically enough, by making myself stereotypically ugly, I finally found myself beautiful. I realised that I am a person, worthy of love and healthy relationships.
This is not to say that I completely ceased. I still shave my armpits because it’s more comfortable to me. I occasionally wear makeup and I admire women who do. I’ve continued to shave my head for the past four months because it makes me feel beautiful. Every little step I take to make myself less consumable to male society, empowers me and in turn makes me feel gorgeous. I change my clothing styles frequently and while I hardly ever wear low cut tops, I love to expose my stomach, because I think it’s cute, and seeing it makes me happy. I exercise often and it makes me feel good about myself. True beauty is knowing that people may find an aspect of your features distasteful and ugly and not caring because you know that that aspect is gorgeous. In seeking ugliness, I found beauty.
I wondered if other women had similar experiences, and decided to ask.
1. Do you believe in cosmetic ugliness? If so, what is it to you?
It exists in that it is something that utterly influences our lives, and people believe it exists, but I can’t say it’s important or should be something people worry themselves with. -Raniera, 16, New Zealand
I find myself believing in this a lot of times in my life. I find cosmetic ugliness just like a shell in which you can refuge if you feel too pretty or too ugly for the world to see. I feel ugly also when I feel ugly inside, and I want to put that inside out. I think I need to be ugly too, sometimes, and maybe I see freedom in ugliness much more than how I see it in beauty. – Serena, 20, Italy
I believe the concept of ugly is something we are socialised into seeing. I don’t think ‘ugliness’ is a trait that would exist without beauty standards, Eurocentrism, the media, societal views etc – for example the idea of what is beautiful has changed over time. To me ugliness is when someone isn’t a good person. I think some people give off a warm/loving energy, and then there are some people that you feel uneasy around – those are the people I would consider ugly. It’s more of a feeling than what they look like. In saying that, of course I totally buy in to the concept of beauty/ugliness because it’s impossible not to. -Rose, 21, New Zealand
Obviously some peoples faces I find very appealing and others less so. You aren’t going to find everyone attractive, but people look like people. I feel I see them as that and I’m trying my best not to class their looks as ugly or pretty. I think it’s tricky in general though, as ugly is thrown in our faces. Despite the definition of beauty changing through history, it seems as though cosmetic ugliness has been consistent (across time from the ‘ugly sisters’ to ‘ugly Betty’) : big nose, frizzy hair, small eyes, crooked teeth, frown… – Sophie, 16, Scotland
No, I don’t. -Teal, 16, New Zealand
2. What do you believe male society sees as ugly? eg. body hair, too much makeup
This depends on the male, but they are told to think that anything that veers from the path of controlled white femininity is ugly. As entities, this probably doesn’t have much effect on their actual attractions, but as a group, they police this absolutely. -Raniera
Yes, yes!! Men are really superficial about that sort of care. I see my “boyfriend” tell me that I look beautiful with anything on or nothing on too, but he also says “don’t let your porcelain skin get tanned!” or “don’t put make-up on your face!” and I find it so very hypocritical.
They just think girls need to shave, of course, and they need to not use so much make-up, it seems they think this is “unfair”. I heard some guy says me, because I don’t use make up on me, that I was much more fair than the other girls who use so much make-up on them, because “how do they look without it on them?” They also say it like I could not do anything but be with them in the matter, so much they think they were right ….
Also, some boy said to me I wear too short skirts, but not because he didn’t like it, just because he was afraid of something like, I think, free sex expression. I so hated that all… -Serena
I think women are judged on their appearance in a way men aren’t, men don’t really care what other men look like. So they see body hair, having ‘too much’ fat, darker skin, being ‘too’ tall, masculine features (could include hairstyle, build, voice, clothing), acne – as ugly. Then there’s this whole thing where you have to look attractive and like you put in an effort but not too much effort, and you have to be sexually attractive but not ‘slutty’. -Rose
Male society are openly turned off by too much hair, visible stomach fat, acne, bad teeth… the same things that some girls are turned off by in boys, but they’d be a “bitch” to point it out. -Sophie
Stereotypically and generally I believe they see body hair and acne as being “ugly”. Which is weird because they’re both natural things. -Teal
3. Have you ever deliberately made yourself unattractive to men? (What I mean is, have you ever knowingly refused to follow what you believe to be sexist and Eurocentric beauty standards, worn baggy clothing, not trimmed body hair etc.)
Yes, when I was around 13 I would often deliberately make myself look odd, by cutting my own hair, wearing unfashionable glasses, or altering my appearance (for example, I would sometimes dye my teeth blue or black). More recently, when I am walking home late at night, I will often deliberately try and alter my body shape and walk from that perceived as attractive, so that I’ll feel less likely to be preyed upon. -Raniera
Yes, I did. I let my body hair grows up this summer, and my face hair too. I did it mostly because I wanted to free myself, but I was so excited to the idea it would be ugly for men to see, because I do want that. It only lasted for a month or two, I cannot remember properly, because I feel like I need to have my girl issues, and all the pain that concerns the matter. I love being a girl and I want to understand all the suffering of the matter to fight against it and free myself in a effective way. This was what I thought, and I need to say I thought about it a minute after seeing the film by Bertolucci “Last Tango in Paris”. -Serena
In a way. I don’t think it’s necessarily a conscious effort, but I feel very uncomfortable showing much skin or much of my shape. I think it makes me feel vulnerable and I don’t want to attract attention. I feel safer doing this. It’s shit, but I do notice a difference, like I get cat-called more in summer when it’s hot and I’m wearing less clothing. It makes me feel unsafe and objectified.
I also have tattoos that I think have given me a sense of control over my body. In the past I did the same with self harming. I wanted to make all the bad things in my mind visible. I’m not sure if this relates to men… I think it does in a way, as they lead me into feeling that I was an object, therefore I developed a strange relationship with my body and had this feeling of dissociation (still do), so choosing what I do with my body makes me feel more in control. -Rose
I personally don’t wear makeup because I don’t really want to draw attention to myself. and I often wear a lot of baggy clothes i.e. big hoodies or t shirts that I’ve borrowed from my brothers -Sophie
Can’t say I deliberately have! -Teal
4. If yes, please describe in detail your experience with this: Did you feel safer, less preyed upon? Did you feel judged? Did you feel freed?
I think the surface feeling is absolutely one of relief and release; from the impossibly high standards foisted on me as soon as I reached puberty. But if I think about the reasons why I felt it necessary to alter my appearance in this way, I was/am absolutely still trapped within a system. When I was younger I did it because I wanted to be in control of people’s reactions towards me. I thought that as boys would already think I was ugly, I may as well choose why they came to that conclusion. It was a very superficial sense of control, as no matter how liberating it may have been, I was still altering my appearance for men, not for myself. -Raniera
I felt safe, but I felt judged too. As I said, I need to shave again after a month or two of that. I also catch my mom saying to me “if you let your hair grow in summer, it is not very aesthetic” and she also continued saying to me such things that make me feel like I was doing something that she didn’t like. I did not really care about it! But it makes me realise, well, my people are really bigoted and really out of their minds to think it is good to say “shave!” to a girl who likes to let her body or facial hair grow. I also experienced some ways of wearing something not so “sexy” and really big on me, and I find myself experiencing this again. I like clothes, and I do not like so big clothes on me, but I feel safe in a huge sweater even if I don’t like it. Also, I am starting feeling safe in my naked body really much more than before now, and clothes are just being something I really don’t want around sometimes, for it makes me safe I could have fantasies on others that just involve me when I do not wear nothing while reading in my room, or just standing in the metró with no underwear. -Serena
Generally I think I follow beauty standards well enough to be accepted/found attractive. I don’t look different or ‘ugly’. Being seen as ‘attractive enough’ gives me a sense of validation in a shitty, misogynistic, shallow society. Yet I feel like I often draw the line to allow myself a sense of empowerment. For example, I bite my nails and refuse to get them done, I don’t wear heels, I only shave if I feel like it, I won’t wear clothes I feel uncomfortable/exposed in, I wear basic make up when I can be bothered, I don’t spend a lot of money on cosmetics, I don’t do my hair etc. I don’t think these things are because I’m trying to appear unattractive to men, rather they’re not things I care about/feel are necessary to me/basically can’t be fucked. I suppose not following certain expectations of me as a woman does make me feel a sense of empowerment/confidence. -Rose
I definitely feel safer when I do as it allows me to disguise my shape in a way that I hope I won’t get preyed upon when I’m out and about. Also, since time it’s seen as sloppy if a girl dresses in a way that isn’t tight or short (but is comfy!). It helps me breathe easier knowing that potential predators are likely to be more disgusted with the way I dress and will hopefully leave me alone. However, as it seems as lazy or unappealing when I wear baggy clothes and no makeup, I feel I have to keep my hair really really long to still feel like I’m viewed as feminine in other situations. I’d love to shave my head. -Sophie
Interviews have been edited for grammar and clarity.