Confessions of an 'ugly friend'

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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.

31 comments

  • All through growing up and even now guys are always surprised when they find out that yes, I am friends with the smokin hot chicks they are talking to, they can't beleive it, I know all to well the joys of being the ugly little firend to the uber pretty girls, guess what helped not resent their genetically blessed assests was the fact that they were adorable, charming and humble girls, so even though I knew I was the odd one out, I never felt it, I love my gf's and find it the most amusing game to watch guys turn dumb when talking to them, makes for great entertainment for me, not so much for them lol

    Commenter
    Cam
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    September 21, 2012, 8:18AM
    • I can certainly confirm this experience - but from the male side. One of the first things you 'learn' as a teenage boy watching girls is that they go around in pretty/ugly pairs - with the latter not necessarily ugly at all, just less lustrous than the first.
      This is so entrenched in the male experience that there are even names for the less fortunate of the pair - we used to call her 'the bodyguard'. There are far more disparaging terms which I won't go into...
      However the experience of being overlooked for the beautiful people is not an exclusively female one, if that's what you are implying - it may be less stinging for a man (or teenage boy) to experience this, but believe me women are not alone in this regard - and they are also not alone in being the superficial counter-party doing the judging.

      Commenter
      gabe
      Location
      fitz
      Date and time
      September 21, 2012, 9:57AM
      • So you see two women and feel the need to parse them up into "one pretty, one not". I think this says much more about the way you view women than it does about female friendships. Unless the women in question are identical twins, of COURSE you will find one subjectively more attractive. That doesn't mean that she is, or that the women considered that as a factor when entering the friendship.

        Commenter
        Red Pony
        Date and time
        September 21, 2012, 1:34PM
    • It may sound odd, but i'm not really attracted to those types of 'perfect' women. Never have been. The ones i've met and interacted with have never given me that 'spark'. To me they seem more like works of art than people - to be appreciated for their aesthetics, but from a distance. I'd much rather a more ordinary woman who has vivacity and life in her appearance, rather than surface perfection.

      Commenter
      DM
      Date and time
      September 21, 2012, 9:59AM
      • I know I'm not beautiful. My hair is long (after years growing it from super-short) and straggly but to me it's "wild" and different to those boring, sleek poker-straight styles. Much of my limited wardrobe are clothes from charity stores (which goes with my ethic of trying not to be a of consumerist zombie). I like to read international news to be clued up on the global situation. I am an ethical vegan so I am healthier than most people. I have a partner that lives in Europe and I visit him twice per year for months on end. He is the male equivalent of me. I am not beautiful but I pretend that I am because these qualities I possess are more important and I know this and know that no other man is worthy of me ;)

        Commenter
        Ms Anthropist
        Date and time
        September 21, 2012, 9:59AM
        • Sorry- but off comment here but being an ethical vegan is a political statement and does not relate to your health- do you have any evidence of being healthier than most?

          On comment- this occurs to men also, I was the "wingman' on many occasions helping the more attaractive mate get the girl he wanted- I agree also with comments above that attractive (superficially) women are not what I am interested in- I prefer those vivacious and willing to give themselves in a relationship.

          Commenter
          Keylargo
          Location
          Perth
          Date and time
          September 21, 2012, 3:54PM
      • Wow, that's pretty honest stuff you're talking. I have had friends in the past who I have (and lots of guys!) considered very beautiful and it can be hard as it can do your ego no good at all. I think it does get better as you get older (I'm 50). I am trying hard to look after myself and I know I am "still" attractive, but I have never been naturally beautiful or pretty as such. My sister is/was very pretty and that was hard as well because she blossomed very suddenly from a plain Jane to a gorgeous teenager and we were only 15 months apart and I was going through the really ugly duckling phase.

        I was looking at photos of Debbie Harry the other day and my god, that woman was so beautiful, I would have sold my soul to look like her. But like the rest of us, she has aged (rather gracefully I think).

        And Chloe, not false flattery here, but I would consider you a rather naturally beautiful woman in your picture! You've got fantastic cheekbone and overall structure - but I'll bet you still look in the mirror and see yourself as a frizzy teen?

        Commenter
        Ms Patonga
        Location
        Vaseline on the mirror isn't as good as Botox
        Date and time
        September 21, 2012, 10:03AM
        • Sadly I ruined two invaluable friendships as a teenager because I was the ugly friend. Looking back I wish I had not been so obsessed with trying to be as attractive (because it was never going to happen) and instead just enjoyed their company and had fun.

          Jealousy is a terrible emotion and not an easy one to overcome once it sets in.

          Commenter
          Anon
          Date and time
          September 21, 2012, 10:04AM
          • beautiful people's problems are in generally less problematic than ugly people such as myself.

            Commenter
            sydney
            Date and time
            September 21, 2012, 10:04AM
            • There's only one point i'd take exception to in this article; that being the worship and idolisation of beauty is a Western construct. Every race and culture has its ideals of beauty. Do not suppose for one minute there are people on the planet immune to their racial or cultural apogee of beauty. It's just human nature.

              Commenter
              reality bites
              Location
              sydney
              Date and time
              September 21, 2012, 10:07AM

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