Personal Essays

My Ugly Duckling Manifesto

This is the story behind my Thought Catalog article To Every Girl Who’s Convinced She’s Still An Ugly Duckling‘.

When people see a photo of my boyfriend, or meet him in person, their reaction is always, “Well done!”

And they should – he’s a good-looking guy of the tall, dark and handsome variety. Strangers, colleagues, friends, parents of friends… They’ve all said it to me. And what goes through my mind isn’t a smug, “Yep, that’s my boyfriend!” It’s something more along the lines of…

Do they think he’s too good for me? Did I do something extraordinary to capture such a specimen? Does #PUNCHING flash up in neon letters above my head? Am I kidding myself here??

At first I brushed it off, told myself it’s a compliment. I tried to just be proud of my boyfriend, who I love so much it feels like a volcano in my chest is spewing kittens and confetti. (I know, gross).

After nearly two years of hearing them, the two little words well and done have become about as complimentary as a gift-wrapped turd. They make me feel like I’m not worthy of my boyfriend. Like I hoodwinked this beautiful man into settling for me. And I’m then filled with the need to explain it somehow by saying, “Oh, I was thinner when I met him!” or “He used to have a bad haircut!” It also makes me want to punch the condescending douche-bag in the face.

I don’t though, because I know deep down that the issue is mine, not theirs. I don’t have low self-esteem exactly. I like who I am and I appear pretty confident most of the time. My problem is this:

I was an ugly duckling.

I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that I was not a pretty teenager. From about 8 to 18, I was an unfortunate, weird-looking, wonky-faced freak. Yes, everyone goes through an awkward stage. Mine was on a whole other level. Don’t believe me? My own mother admitted I needed some help and she could see that through a haze of maternal denial.

When I was 13, a boy I fancied at school asked to speak to me. He took my hand and smiled sweetly. “I just had to tell you,” he said, “that you’re the ugliest girl I have ever seen.” And that was just the start of the bullying.

When I got my first boyfriend, I wondered if I’d finally become pretty, and he said, so kindly, “Don’t worry, it’s not about looks for me.” I felt like I should be grateful – grateful! – but inside I was dying.

When I was 16, I had major surgery to correct some of the wonkiness. This wasn’t just for aesthetic reasons but it did mean a change and improvement to my face and appearance. After a week in hospital and a painful month of recovery, during which I ate 500 calories a day on a liquids-only diet and avoided all mirrors, it was time to emerge. My transformation moment had arrived!

I was still me, disappointingly so, but with a better jawline. It was another year before my life started to change.

I would like to say at this point, to those even contemplating surgery, that it wasn’t the physical change that had the impact. It was entirely in my head. I didn’t have to worry about my jaw, so I smiled more. I joined a drama group and gained in confidence through the stage. I studied really hard for my AS Levels, got top marks and felt good about my abilities. My posture improved. I got a part-time job and started to earn my own money. I enjoyed putting new outfits together, because I didn’t want to disappear into the wall like I used to. I wasn’t so depressed so I ate fewer chocolate hob-knobs. Yes, the surgery helped, but it was only one small change in a big transition.

The result was boys started noticing me. I had sex. I lost more weight. I had a date for prom. I went to uni. Men started noticing me. I had a long-term relationship with a guy who adored me and other suitors to casually tease and then discard as I wished. I was no Victoria’s Secret model, but the ugly duckling had definitely grown into something more swan-like. And I felt good.

At least, I thought so. But I was still judging my worth by male attention and on the road to a confidence crisis.

This came when I was twenty-three and I attempted a doomed relationship with a beef-cake even more insecure than myself. While he suffered from a bit of self-loathing, he was buff and cute – a dangerous combination, and wow, didn’t he know it. Once the novelty of dating a guy with a six-pack wore off, my fragile confidence began to crumble. My ex saw no harm in flirting with every girl who paid him attention, would even pose topless for photos, and then took pleasure in telling me all about it. “I could have any girl I wanted,” he’d say. “Aren’t you lucky?”

Lucky enough to dump the asshole and walk away. But my old demons came back to haunt me – my cheeks were too big, my face wasn’t symmetrical, my nose wasn’t straight, I was too fat, too plain, too weird-looking… The list was long. And how did I seek affirmation and reassurance?

Duh! By swiping through Tinder of course. Every time a match winked from my screen I felt a little less ugly. I was determined to rack up as many guys as possible, to prove to myself that I too could have anyone I wanted.

This is, as a male friend once explained, why ugly ducklings make such easy targets.

“You,” he said, “are a classic ugly duckling. Guys can spot an ugly duckling a mile off and they’ll treat you like one until you call yourself a swan.”

Not on my watch, I thought. Any man who got close was cut before they could cut me. I was brutal, using guys for my own fix and never speaking to them again if they dared to contact me.

When I swiped right on the wonderful human being who’s now my boyfriend, I thought, “He’s fit. He’ll sleep with me and never text me again.” Already, I’d decided I wasn’t good enough for him. I expected to be discarded. But no matter how often I tried to distance myself or cut him out, he kept texting and I kept replying. I tried very hard to stop it becoming serious, to a point that makes me shudder because I now know what I almost sabotaged. I almost screwed up the best thing to happen to me because I didn’t think I was good enough.

That’s why these back-handed compliments are so evil. Whether it’s “Looks don’t matter to me”, “Aren’t you lucky?” or “Well done!” the self-doubt that they trigger is kryptonite to an ugly duckling.

The only way to stop it is for society and cultural values to change, for everyone to value intellect and personality over appearance. Ha! Yeah, I know, pigs’ll fly. But we can make a start with ourselves. If we gauge our own worth based on appearance alone, the rest of the world will too, so it has to start with us, the ugly ducklings.

Because there are positives to being an ugly duckling. We’re less shallow. We see the good in people. Yes, we’re often insecure and vain, because we remember what “ugly” feels like and it terrifies us, but it means we don’t take beauty – outer or inner beauty – for granted. We’re more compassionate and we promise never to judge a book by its cover.

Maybe we can take those positive, beautiful traits and use our bad experiences for good. And maybe, most importantly, we should apply that same kindness to the person we see in the mirror.

So next time someone tells me “Well done!” for dating my hot man, I’m going to tell them, “Well obviously. I’m a goddamn swan.”

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