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What it's like to feel ugly

Tom Rasmussen discusses what life was like growing up "ugly" in the eyes of society and finally finding beauty in their difference

The Sugababes Mutya Buena stares into a dirt-smeared mirror, and sings the immortal line: “When I was seven they said I was strange”. Tears begin to stream across my moon-shaped, acne plastered face. It’s 2005 — a year thick with nothingness, one in which culture was still stabbing round in the dark for an answer to what the millennium meant — and it was the first time I’d ever been made aware of the idea of ugliness as an emotional trait, not simply a physical one. A physical one with which I’d been long-suffering for the fifteen years of my life prior to hearing this masterwork from the best British girl band in history (come on, @ me!).

Prior to this empowering anthem, I’d simply been ugly. I always feel like I’m complaining on the internet — stop being homophobic, stop being transphobic, stop being alive if you’re a cis white man amirite ladies??? — but this isn’t me boohooing because I was ugly, or seeking sympathy from the self-love goddesses on Twitter and Instagram who tell me I was always a beautiful soul, no. This is just societal fact (different to actual fact, but we’ll come to that) — I had bad acne, I was ginger (still am), fat (still am), gay (still am), effeminate (still am), and have a giant head, bigger torso, and skinny legs (still do). Ergo uggo.

There’s no real way to describe what being ugly in the eyes of everyone else feels like. Yes, we all have our hangups and they’re completely valid, but hangups are very different to believing you’re actually butters. Especially pre the days of understanding that ugliness is just a capitalist construct.

First, there’s the deeply disheartening feeling of literally looking at yourself. It’s like every time you see yourself in the mirror you deflate, realise you’re a monster and sit, over and over again, in the fact that ugly people don’t fall in love, ugly people don’t have many friends, ugly people statistically get worse jobs and are undervalued in their potential.

Then there’s the awful things you do to yourself.

There was the crash dieting: ranging from self-starving to cutting out carbs, bingeing then mentally and physically punishing myself with horrible words or severe calorie restriction, weighing myself five times a day, to food catatonia where I’d eat three McDonald’s large meals and chuck it up in a hedge. Ultimately every diet would fail, and what would have started as a well-intentioned change would end as a reification that I was a failure, worthless, and that I couldn’t even say no to a cold Pizza Hut because I’m a fat shit.

“Skincare” was more skin-attack. I tried everything, but always the wrong thing. Agonising rock-based exfoliators, toothpaste slathered across my whole face, that fucking paint-stripping Clinique toner, actual turpentine once, Witch Hazel, not washing, popping, not popping, make-up, no make-up. Skincare was not as advanced as it is now, and so it just got worse. My acne grew acne, and as it spread I hurt my poor delicate skin even more. I was prescribed the sun bed by one doctor, and I doubled the dose: 12 minutes, four times a week. I’m ginger, so I literally burnt my skin off.

I wasn’t allowed to dye my hair, so I grew it into a bob and decided that if it had be ginger it would be shiny, blow-dried and stunning. Little did I know that at the time it literally looked like a mushroom. My god the naivety of youth. A spotty, turgid mushroom.

A spotty turgid gay mushroom. There was nothing I could do about being gay, except roll with the self-hate, so I just held on tight and sucked anyone’s dick who’d let me.

For me, the experience of ugliness was one of self-inflicted pain, self-inflicted punishment, and worthless, useless beauty remedies that made me feel more like a failure than had I have never tried. Even Clinique couldn’t work on ugliness this deep. Ugliness was an experience of isolation, even though a lot of people, I’m sure, were feeling it too. It was one of never speaking about yourself kindly, never looking in the mirror and seeing something good, never feeling deserving of love.

"For me, the most beautiful thing I ever did was forgive myself for not being ‘beautiful'"

But beauty is a belief system, not necessarily a set of products which work, or affirmations which cure you of society’s wrongdoings against you. It’s a system in which you’re placed, and you’re trying desperately to respond to. There’s the judgemental kind of beauty, competitive beauty, capitalist beauty; there’s the trying-to-get-by-in-a-system-which-demands-you-must-look-a-certain-way kind of beauty.

For me, at around twenty, my beauty belief system became one of trying to find the beauty in difference, after realising that beautiful and ugly are stupid, limiting, socially constructed binaries enforced to make us buy more, and exist less. And in the queer community, the one I found at around twenty, I discovered people who celebrated the things about me, about each other, that the world had previously decided were ugly.

I call it ‘Sugababes beauty’. The kind that decrees that beauty is about the way you move through the world, about how you accept people and approach the way people look and act as a whole. I mean, come on: "People are all the same and we only get judged by what we do. Personality reflects name. And if I’m ugly then so are you. So are you.” (Aware that not all people are the same, but it’s a nice, anodyne platitude that makes me feel less ugly).

And with that mantra, the fact of who is ugly and who isn’t changed. For me, the most beautiful thing I ever did was forgive myself for not being ‘beautiful’. “Ugliness” was once isolating, but it, since people became more aware of the structures within which we’re operating, has created movements and communities that have huge reach, and huge power. Fat Positivity (the good, radical type of course), skin positivity, freethenipple, #saggyboobsmatter, whole conversations around scars, stretchmarks, acne, being ginger, and being queer.

After all that, it turns out the people that are the richest with beauty are people who once felt like me because we’ve always seen the world from a place without the golden ticket of being at the centre of everything. Things from this place are endlessly more interesting, endlessly more edifying, endlessly more life-affirming, and endlessly more beautiful.