My New Ism

I started writing this a few weeks ago – something I saw today made me post it
The thing I saw today was this advert from a LinkedIn profile, it was on the Everyday Sexism feed – but I think this is not just sexist (although it clearly is that), but also comes under another bracket, one which is across genders.

It has lead me to think about another marginalised group who are often the butt of jokes, but who don’t really have a voice.  I think it may be one of the few “isms” that doesn’t really get talked about. Yet it is a form of discrimination against people for something for which they are entirely faultless.

I have lost count recently how many times I have had to listen to comics  (usually male) discussing (on and off stage) the “rough” people they have been with (usually women).
I will call this practice uglyism. The word “ugly” is, well, ugly.  Phonetically, however, I find it rather pleasing. Perhaps I shall work to reclaim it. I am ugly, and I am proud.
Now, of course, the debate about beauty and attractiveness could go on forever. Different people find different things attractive. Beauty is very much in the eye of the beholder. And an inner beauty can outshine the most beautiful of outer beauties.  I find people beautiful if they have a beautiful outlook. However, the very fact that the things I have mentioned here have happened, means that, despite protestations to the contrary, people do, and always will make judgements and pass remark on people according to their aesthetic attractiveness, and usually how close they are to what is perceived as generally attractive or “classically” attractive. Though what exactly it is, is difficult to quantify.
Let me try to be clear what I am speaking about here.
There is a difference, a huge one, between being ATTRACTIVE (which is very subjective) and being GOOD LOOKING (still subjective, but I think less so).
This is about not being “conventionally attractive”, or “pretty” or “good looking”.  The fact is that I don’t see people in magazines that look like me. If I was an actress, I would have no choice but to be a “character actress”.  I would never be a female romantic lead, as it is well known that  people who are not good looking do not have sex.  And attractive people don’t want to see or think about us having sex.
But, you know what? I do have sex. And I have had sex with some incredibly good looking men. Not because they are doing me a favour. Not because they felt it was a charitable act. Not because they were drunk, playing “shag a minger” or doing it for a bet (well, not always). But because I can be pretty good at it, even if I say so myself.
So why are people on TV and in films, that are not good looking, rarely portrayed having sex, enjoying sex, having sex with good looking people who don’t regret it, or having a healthy attitude to sex without hangups?
In film and on TV, often even the “plain” people are conventionally good looking, but made up and costumed  to seem unattractive. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you “Ugly Betty”.
It is very difficult to discuss being “not one of the beautiful ones”.  It makes people very uncomfortable if you describe yourself as being “funny looking” or “ugly”. Social mores seem to dictate that they must respond in a pavlovian way with “of course you ARE pretty.”, “you ARE beautiful” and other such responses which in turn make you feel uncomfortable  (because everyone knows overcompensation is going on) and everyone just goes back to their drinks and tries to forget the conversation ever started.
I would like, for once to start a conversation with “As someone who is not conventionally attractive…” without the person I am talking to seeing it as me giving them a cue to disagree and to flatter me.
This whole piece will probably be interpreted by many of its readers as “fishing for compliments”.  May I state here, categorically, that it is not.
It’s OK, I am perfectly happy with who I am and how I look. I haven’t always been, but, as I’ve got older, I’ve realised that aesthetic beauty really is only the tip of a very large and attractive iceberg.
I can remember 2 distinct points in my life growing up when I realised that I was not one of the pretty girls:
I was about 10 years old, and a boy on the estate I lived on (his name was James, surname escapes me) started calling me “goofy” and mocking the dark circles under my eyes. I had literally no idea until that point, that I had protruding teeth and that my face somehow made me stand out from others. I remember asking my friend if this boy was right, if my face was a bit different, if my teeth did protrude etc. And he, with that beautiful honesty that only children have, broke it to me that, well, yes, my teeth did protrude a bit, and that I was a bit funny looking, but that I was still a laugh and that it didn’t matter.  And we continued playing kiss chase. And it bugged me, and I worried about it, but not too much
Then…
I was about 14/15 and a girl in my class, who I won’t name, as I am sure she would be mortified to know that this throwaway moment at a sleepover at a friend’s house had such an impact on me, said something to one of the other girls there, not realising that I was behind her in the room.  I may be paraphrasing slightly as it was over 20 years ago, but what I overheard was something along the lines of “Angela Barnes isn’t one of those people that just says “oh, I’m so ugly”, expecting everyone to go “no you’re not”. She actually IS ugly and she knows she is”.
In a strange way, I wanted to genuinely thank her. It was the moment I realised that I didn’t have body dysmorphia, I’m not being paranoid, people do think about me the way I think about myself.  And from that moment, I could get on with my life knowing my place in the ranks of the attractive.
That day changed something in me. I began to feel apologetic for the way I looked. Something totally out of my control…  I began to not like having my photo taken, I would hide my face behind my hair. I would only smile with my mouth forced shut, I would hide behind my friends.
My Dad used to get so frustrated that I wouldn’t let him, an amateur photographer, take my picture. He would say “What if you get kidnapped, we’ll have nothing to give to Crimewatch”. And I would think “Aha, it’s OK, look at me, I have this face, I am kidnap proof”.
 Now, in my 30s, after many of life’s ups and downs and wrestling with feelings of inadequacy, I have more than come to terms with how I look. More than that, I am thankful. I love my lumpy body and my funny face.  I have also learned to appreciate the actual benefits of not being aesthetically too pleasing. These include:

1) I know that people who want to spend time with me actually want to spend time with me, not just because they think I am a glamorous accessory

2) I have developed a robust and, I hope, individual personality. I have never been able to rely on what I look like to make friends. And I am good at making and keeping friends.

3) I can read the Everyday Sexism Twitter timeline and realise how lucky I am that I never have to deal with being leered at in the street, being manhandled in bars or having my physical attributes loudly discussed and phwoarred at within earshot. Occasionally, people in bars etc have made disparaging comments about the way I look. But I think “at least I’m not a prick in a bar who has to belittle strangers to feel better about myself”

4)  I am not worried about “losing my looks”.  The pressure on women in particular to grow old without actually ageing is ridiculous. It must be very difficult to have been an exceptionally attractive person, and to have used that to your advantage, and to watch that power fade with every wrinkle and grey hair.
The fact is, nobody chooses their face (Plastic surgery aside). We are a lot more careful (not as careful as we should be) these days about mocking the obese, even though, for some, there is a degree of control over that. But for us uglies…
I have seen and experienced a couple of things recently which have highlighted what I refer to as “uglyism”. Here they are:
A comic that I know and like very much, and who happens to be a classically attractive man,  fairly recently tweeted the following “My reaction when I realise its [sic] Monday is similar to that when the not-so-hot girl would pick me at the school dance…”
Now, I do understand what he is trying to say here. However, this attitude really bugs me. Being fancied by someone ugly doesn’t affect your attractiveness. Less good looking people don’t have lower standards. If someone fancies you, and they happen to be of a different race, that doesn’t change your race. The thought of someone being actually somehow offended or upset or dejected because I fancy them (yes, I know he wasn’t referring to me in the tweet) is insulting to me. And, the truth of the matter is, that I don’t fancy this particular person even one little bit. Despite being able to see that he is a handsome man. So that news should really ruin his day. What’s worse than an ugly girl fancying you?  An ugly girl that doesn’t fancy you. Ha!
Usually, people end up with people of a similar attractiveness to themselves. That makes sense. But it should be no less flattering whoever fancies you, male/female/black/white/tall/short/beautiful or “not-so-hot”. Whether you find them attractive or not shouldn’t really affect the fact of the flattery.
And if I do fancy you, whoever you are, you should be bloody well flattered, I am fussy as hell.
Another example of uglyism in action:  At the Edinburgh Fringe last year, I was out drinking late with some comedian pals (I know, drinking late at the Fringe, rebels). I realised that I’d probably had enough, and announced, at about 3am, that I was going to walk home.  Our flat was very central, it was about a 10/15 minute walk home.  I left, walked myself home and all was fine. Now, I was out with one of my best friends in comedy, who I won’t name, suffice to say that he is a young and good looking comic. The other comic I was with was my Edinburgh housemate, and she happens to be an extremely tall and attractive comic, in fact, before doing comedy, she was a model.  She is also in a very long term relationship, so I don’t think the following act by my male friend was motivated by a desire to, for want of a better phrase, “get off” with her. However, not 30 mins after he had happily waved me off, full of gin, a bit wobbly, late at night, my young good looking male friend refused to let my very attractive housemate do EXACTLY the same journey on her own, and walked her to the door. Subconsciously, and I do think it was utterly subconscious, something in him assessed that she would be more likely to be attacked or run into trouble on the way home than I would.
Maybe he just thought that I am more hardy, and would be more able to handle myself. Maybe it is more discriminatory to the poor fragile pretty girl/china doll who he assumed wouldn’t possibly be able to look after herself. Either way, a decision has been made based on our aesthetics.
I also wonder whether, if I were “pretty”, would I be doing the job I am doing now?  How many stand up comedians, male or female, are “good looking”?  Is it easier to laugh at somebody with a funny face?  If I were stunning to look at, maybe that would be a distraction from the words that I am saying. I could add that to my list of reasons why being “ugly” is a positive. When I speak, the listener isn’t basing their reaction to what I say on the best way to get me into bed.
Whenever I am interviewed about anything comedy related, I am asked to define my style of comedy. I find that something that is difficult to do, I just write what I write. However, many reviews of my act have described me as “self deprecating”.  This was not something that happened consciously. My comedic persona is, like most comics’, an exaggerated version of me. And I don’t personally identify as being  downtrodden.  Perhaps what they mean when they refer to me as self-deprecating is that I am just honest about myself, how I perceive myself and how I am perceived by others. This is taken to be negative, but actually, nothing that I say about myself in my set is anything of which I’m not proud. Yes, I refer to myself as being scruffy and unconcerned with the daily rituals of primping and preening that other women put themselves through. But these are not qualities about myself to deprecate. These are qualities I embrace and am thankful for. It is other people who translate what I say as deprecation. Not me.  Again, the assumption that not being one of the pretty people, and declaring yourself as such, must be somehow self loathing.
For the record, I like being me, pretty much as much as anyone likes being themselves. That is not all the time, but enough of the time to get by.
So, please, if you hear me refer to myself as “funny looking” or “not conventionally attractive”, or, indeed “ugly” it is OK for you to agree with me. Just don’t make anybody’s unattractiveness (to you) the butt of your jokes or a reason to discriminate against them, or assume that they feel bad about it.
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20 thoughts on “My New Ism

  1. Angela, at your request, I’m not going to call you pretty OR brave (though I will call you adorable, cute and funny, if that’s OK). This really resonated with me, so thanks for writing this.

  2. Nicely put. I’ve always looked at that horrible transition of sexual capital that happens when social “desirability” power shifts from “pretty women” to “successful men” at around the early 30’s. Where pretty girls are reframed as desperate biological time bombs or “cougars”, while steady income men become the suddenly valued resource. I’ve often been glad that my variable looks mean I’ve never had to rely on beauty to sustain attention. When I hit 45 I’ll still have a personality, and others will have a vastly reduced set of social tools.

  3. Pingback: Off Day. | Closing Musings

  4. Lovely. I always cringe when supposedly right-on comedians lay into Cherie Blair or Camilla Parker-Bowles or Anne Widdicombe for daring to be less than beautiful. I remember Sarah Ferguson got absolute shit as well. Not that I particularly like any of them, but still. It’s even worse when it’s on a panel show, then it really does reek of the playground.

  5. OK, so I read the Grauniad piece, and this fuller version, and I really, really can’t agree that you’re ugly – unless you’re defining “ugly” as “not looking like an airbrushed magazine photo”.

    I get your point about judging people based on physical appearance, but you really look just as attractive/ugly/normal as more or less all the women I know and those I have dated. Am I missing the point?

  6. Interesting article, thanks.
    Would it perhaps be fair to say that, like me, your looks or otherwise are not an important part of your self-definition? That’s where I find most “offence” tends to happen, where others put emphasis on some aspect of me that I see as irrelevant, enough emphasis to regard it as defining, I’m only guessing, but I’d guess your self-definition might have things like “funny, intelligent, literate, practical, competent” quite high up the list, with any statement about your looks failing to make it into the top ten. I know if someone told me I wasn’t intelligent, I’d be devastated if I believed therm, but if they told me I was ugly, I’d just shrug in a slightly puzzled way and wonder what planet they were on to imagine that mattered.

  7. An interesting piece here and in the Guardian. However, this has long been a topic amongst people like me with cleft lip and palate (and similar facial disfigurements). We can be quite militant in defending each other against the slings and arrows of conventional notions of beauty. But for every person who accepts their cleft as something that makes them who they are, there is someone else for whom its a cause of withdrawal and depression. I could go on … at length …

  8. “But, you know what? I do have sex. And I have had sex with some incredibly good looking men.”

    I think it’s much easier in many ways for women to be ugly – men will shag anything. Try getting laid as an ugly man – it’s a challenge, it has to be said.

    Also, it seems a bit sad that you are apparently ranking your sexual conquests by how good-looking the other party is. It seems a bit odd in the context of this piece.

  9. It’s interesting how people use the word ‘ugly’. I don’t like it when people talk ugly, that’s to say being rude, inconsiderate or talking behind someone’s back……you my darling are far from ugly.

  10. My high school boyfriend called me – endearingly – “funny face”– another guy I was dating in my 30’s told me with an amazed tone (“like, can you believe that?”) that his brother thought I was “cute”… and the jokes of course, about my never needing a masectomy since I had nothing there, this from lovers to my face…. still, I never realized how unusually unattractive I was until I hit my 50’s and there it was. But the beauty of growing old has been, I can now relax and just enjoy being old – nobody expects me to be a babe, and I am treated much kinder than I was in my youth, when I didn’t quite meet the standards…

  11. Hello fellow ugly-one. You have largely mapped out my life perhaps fifteen years ahead of yours but the comments and approach to my looks is much the same. I take the photos and have become quite good at it as I do not want to be in them (Olive from On the Buses meets Crystal Tips). In fact I do know that when I die my children will find it hard to prove I existed. But that’s not funny and your piece was.

  12. Good looking/ attractive / pretty people can have lovely personalities as well….fair few comments denigrating the ‘non uglys’ as lacking much upstairs when the looks fade, bit unfair I thought.

  13. “Ugly Betty” beat you to the punch but neither of you are proper ugly, which actually helps your argument a bit, since the theme of underlying beauty has a reasonable platform.
    And that’s a good thing for the ugly: to have an ugly-enough representative who’s not so ugly that you end up feeling sorry for her, thereby reaffirming your prejudice.

    Instead of pity, there’s a genuine conviction in this piece that the beautiful might be missing out, so it’s okay to embrace your flaws.

    BUT is this enough?

    Until society learns to cope with the truly ugly, people like you (half angel, half beast) are bound to betray the latter, once you’ve earned the respect of beautiful people like me.

  14. Dear Angela,
    Thank you for this piece. As studies have revealed time and again, people are unfairly discriminated against (or for) based on their looks, which is a sad comment on our societies, and reveals how powerful media, advertising, and other industries can be. The tremendous number of angry responses you solicited just confirm the presence of this problem, and affirm how important it is for people to point it out. The responses, both here and in the Guardian, that quibble over your looks (or are more virulent) completely miss the point you are making: beauty is subjective, and so anyone can be made to feel ‘ugly’. Kudos to you for pointing it out, lest we (again) forget.

    T. Williams

  15. Thanks for writing this. It touches on many thoughts I have often had myself and reminds me of lots of many instances of the bullying/ harassment/ abuse which I faced for 8 long years by boys as a young girl growing up. Obviously this massively affected my self esteem, to the extent that I had surgery to change my face they claimed for themselves, as ugly. I believe in doing whatever it takes rly to make u feel better about yourself and happier in your skin, but I have to say that my operation was very long, frightening, painful and left me with permanent numbness. It is really nice to see that someone has endured being told they are ugly (mind you, I don’t know how great the extent of this was?) and still been able to accept it and just take it and live happily. Well done and thanks so much for writing this.

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