By: Suzanne Maiden
We all can easily identify who they are. The ‘unattractive ones.’ We learn at a very early age how our culture, and our specific sub-culture defines beauty. Interestingly enough, many cultures agree on what constitutes facial beauty; body weight and shape seem to be more variable.
Northern American culture values thinness and fitness. The oxymoron is that our population is one of the fattest in the world. In Brazil for example, voluptuous bottoms in women are considered very sexy. In Greece the female who sports a Botticelli body (which would be defined as ‘fat’ by our society) are courted for their voluminous curves. And, the well known song “Baby’s Got Back” speaks to the African American culture who value women with fuller figures. One of the lines in the lyrics speaks to women’s measurements and what is ideal. The lyrics sing: “…36, 26, 36? Only if she’s 5’3″…” Again, facial features seem to be more concrete and less flexible in beauty definition.
So what happens when the individual who does not meet the cultural criteria of beauty? The metaphorical ‘Ugly Duckling’ scenario emerges. They experience rejection by their peers. I was the ‘Ugly Duckling’ during my high school years. Nobody asked me to the prom. Nobody asked me out. I was awkward and didn’t really fit any specific peer group. I was unattractive and had not yet discovered my athletic talents. I had one best friend, Alison, and we did everything together. The internal experience and deep psychological wounding of being cast as the Ugly Duckling never completely fades. The experience indelibly shapes our future internal definition of self.
Now, I eventually ‘came into my own’ in my mid to late 20’s. I learned how to control my mass of naturally curly hair, my acne subsided, and I learned to wear figure-flattering clothes vs. my former too-big-shirts which I used to mask my big boobs. I chuckle now, because in high school I was 5’7″ and weighed 117lbs. I actually had a beautiful figure, but because I have a classic hour glass figure, it did not meet the current criteria of beauty. I felt huge and ridiculously tall next to the my petite classmates. The profound impact to my psyche permanently shaped me. Not only did I never feel pretty enough, I felt downright homely.
I attended my 20 year high school class reunion; I made sure that I looked really good. I had the sweetest experience. Several of the males didn’t recognize me, and were falling all over themselves to figure out who I was. One said, “Oh my God, I can’t believe I don’t remember you!” He continued to look at my name-tag and obviously couldn’t recall any memory of me. I smiled and said, “Yeah where were you when I needed a date to the prom?”
Having been formerly cast and identified as the Ugly Duckling, I feel anyone’s pain who shares this experience. Now as a practicing Family Therapist, and with some hind-sight, I suggest the following for anyone who thinks they fall into the Ugly Duckling category:
1) Identify your own talents and gifts
2) Develop these talents and gifts – maybe you’re gifted at painting, writing, music. Maybe you have a unique hobby, regardless of how obscure, that makes interesting conversation. Use it. People love interesting people. A famous ‘unattractive’ celebrity was author, Truman Capote. He was insanely popular in New York society – and a party was not considered complete without him. Every hostess coveted his presence.
3) Use your sense of humor. A good example is Woody Allen. Most people would not describe him as ‘hot’ or handsome. But Woody Allen is slap-your-mama funny. People adore him! Be able to laugh at yourself.
4) Realize external beauty fades and is so temporary. Only internal beauty is long lasting. Yeah, yeah, you’e heard it before, but really think about this. Why? Because the beautiful people will eventually be at a handicap when their beauty subsides – if they haven’t developed any other aspect of ‘self.’
5) Be kind and generous to everyone. People respond to kindness and generosity of spirit – even the beautiful people. We’re all insecure, I don’t care how beautiful other’s perceive us to be, most of us doubt ourselves and feel inadequate relative to others. The proverbial grass always looks greener. A kind word and generous intentions yield more dividends than a beautiful face or body.
The long term impact of being early identified as the Ugly Duckling becomes part of one’s psychological landscape. History cannot be changed, but it can be cognitively tweaked. The way in which we regard the experience can be shaped. I am actually glad I had the experience of being cast as the Ugly Duckling. The experience forced me to develop other aspects of myself that I would not have done otherwise, it gave me considerably greater compassion for others who are ‘less perfect’ and I learned the value of genuine kindness and compassion. I would not change it.