I have bad habits. I crack my knuckles (and my back, and my hips). I fidget when the subway runs slowly, as though wiggling my toes will make the train go faster. When I’m nervous, I tuck my hair behind my ears even if it’s already tucked back. Those are the little bad habits. For over a decade now, I’ve had the big bad habit of forming close friendships with women who are much, much prettier than I am.
My best childhood friend, a woman who is still one of my closest friends, was one of the few girls who somehow managed to glide straight through adolescence without ever being anything less than beautiful. Even in those peak gawky years of thirteen and fourteen, she was gorgeous: long slender limbs, olive skin, and somehow perfectly in proportion when the rest of us were widening and lengthening in all sorts of weird hormonal ways. In my senior year of high school, I became close with a girl who went by the nickname Malibu Barbie. She was the kind of California girl that 1960s boy bands wrote songs about: straight blonde hair, big blue eyes, a body that made the boys from our brother school lose the power of speech. I was not so physically fortunate. Rather than skipping over the gawky teen years, I seemed to have been served an extra helping. I was pale, freckled, with hair that couldn’t choose between frizzy and greasy and so went with both at once. My body swung almost immediately from rectangular and stunted from gymnastics to pudgy and stretch-marked from an exchange to France, where Australian women do get fat.
I was the ugly friend. I loved those young women dearly, and I tried my very best not to envy how beautiful they were. But standing next to them I imagined that I looked like Paul Giamatti standing next to Charlize Theron.
Years later, my bad habit persists. When I graduated from college a few years ago, I was delighted and comforted to be setting out into the “real” world with a handful of wonderful girlfriends. They were smart and kind and generous and supportive, and I felt so lucky to have found them. They were also all gorgeous. I was fine looking, and I had a few features I particularly liked, but these women, good god, these women! Today, they remain my closest friends, and they also remain knockouts. When you get the four of them together it’s like a United Colours of Benetton ad: everyone is a different ethnicity but they’re all citizens of the Republic of Hotopia. Next to them, I often feel like an exchange student from Meh-xico. Regardless of how I actually look, when we all sit down to eat a meal together, in my head I’m always the odd one out, a moth in a rabble of butterflies.
These aren’t the kind of things you admit to your beautiful friends, except perhaps in a moment of drunken honesty. As a feminist, they aren’t even the kind of things I like to admit to myself. After all, I’m supposed to resist The Beauty Myth. I’m supposed to be above measuring my worth by the dominant and unrealistic Western standards our culture uses to diminish and dispose of women. I’m certainly not meant to feel like I’m in competition with other women to be the most beautiful person in the room or in the friendship. I’m supposed to be above all that. Gloria Steinem would not approve. But like a lot of people, even a lot of feminist people, I’m not totally above all that.
But the reality is that these uncomfortable truths exist in a lot of friendships. Our ideas about how we look are shaped – or warped – by all the other ideas we have about ourselves, so that we are often the least reliable judges of our own beauty. We look in the mirror, and the eyes, or perhaps the heart and ego, play tricks. And when our friends are especially beautiful, things get even trickier.
In romantic comedies, my area of academic study, and in pop culture more generally, the ugly friend is a common and well-worn trope. She’s almost always socially inept, pitiable and pathetic, Melissa McCarthy’s Megan in Bridesmaids being a notable and welcome exception. She’s always the sidekick, never the star, so we never get a chance to get inside her head and find out how she feels, how she sees the world. In real life, being the ugly friend in a gaggle of gorgeous girlfriends can sometimes feel like you’re supporting cast in someone else’s story. That feeling is reinforced when you notice, as you’re walking down the street, that most people’s eyes, like a rom com camera, slide right off you and onto your beautiful friends. It’s a deeply unpleasant, genuinely pernicious feeling.
It creates competition, and resentment, and jealousy, as corrosive to friendship as salt water air on a scratched up car. It makes you bad at friendship, less able to empathize with the people you’re supposed to be supporting: “How can she complain about whatever problem I’m supposed to be helping her solve right now, doesn’t she know how lucky she is to look like that?”
You head knows that being beautiful doesn’t guarantee a care-free life. Your head knows that beautiful people have their own beautiful person-specific problems to deal with. Your head definitely knows that being physically attractive isn’t the most important thing in the world. Better to cultivate your mind, your heart, your wit. The competitive, resentful, jealous part of you, living in the foetid, hidden swamps of your personality doesn’t give a crap about that inner beauty shit.
That is what’s ugly about being the ugly friend. It’s not that you aren’t as good-looking as your friends – or don’t think you are. It’s that if you let it, that feeling will eat away at you, and at a relationship, until you can’t be the friend those beautiful women need you to be. You won’t be as willing to go over to their apartment in the middle of the night and sit in bed with your gorgeous friend because she saw a mouse and got scared. And you won’t be as willing to let them be there for you when you need a friend; it’s hard to trust and confide in those we resent.
The swamps are ugly, and if you’re not careful, you fall into them and get stuck there. The best you can do, to be the best friend you can be, especially to the best-looking people, is to drain the swamps as much and as often as you can. And of course, to remind yourself that while you’re busy envying the butterflies, there’s someone else who, when you walk in the room, suddenly feels like a moth.