The Dawn Chorus

Fresh Australian Feminism

There’s No Prize For Being The Ugliest

Posted by Mel Campbell on December 23, 2008

Yesterday I was on a tram opposite three girls who looked to be aged somewhere between 15 and 20. They looked like they’d been out at the pool or the beach, because they had that mussed-up hair, and bikini strings peeped from their clothes.

I was looking at them longingly, thinking how fresh-faced and gorgeous they all were: the very epitome of what all women are expected to look like. One had amazing blue-grey eyes with lots of eyeliner; another girl managed to be both slim and buxom; the third girl had long, foal-like legs and lovely, honey-coloured skin.

One of them got a mirror out of her bag and started staring crossly at herself. “I look so awful,” she groaned to her friends, “Like a drowned rat. Time to put that bag back over my head.”

Of course, her friends refused to countenance this; “You look fine!” and that kind of stuff. But I began to think about the way women learn so early in life to criticise their own appearance to their friends. It’s almost like a little competition: who’s got the fattest thighs or the stumpiest legs; the worst skin; the frizziest, more unmanageable hair; the biggest nose? And our friends so often respond by pointing out their own shortcomings: “At least you’ve got boobs! I’m flat as a surfboard!”

Why is this? Perhaps it’s a desire to appear modest, not to boast. Perhaps we’re fishing for compliments to reassure ourselves that other people find us pretty when we might not ourselves. Or perhaps it’s pre-emptive and defensive: if you’ve noticed your own cankles, nobody else can humiliate you by pointing them out.

But it’s ridiculous! I wanted to go over to these chicks and say, “Y’know, a while ago a Facebook friend of mine uploaded some pictures of me from 11 years ago – I couldn’t believe how wonderful I looked when I was 20, but at the time, I thought I was hideous! You have no idea how much I envy you your looks. Just enjoy them, for fuck’s sake! There’s no prize for being the ugliest!”

Of course, they would have looked disdainfully at me and gone, “Mind your own business, you weird, fat old lady.”

We’re so distrustful of other people’s attempts to reassure us of our own beauty. I still can’t help feeling that feminist statements like “Ladies, love your bodies!” and “You are beautiful!” fundamentally miss the point of why women feel ugly and unhappy in their bodies, but at the same time I can’t think of how else women can stop competing with each other for who’s the worst.


12 Responses to “There’s No Prize For Being The Ugliest”

  1. Sara Lewis said

    Woah… I was on that tram too. Listening to their conversations too. Moreland tram on Lygon? Around 7ish last night? Sitting at the front? I should really learn what you other DC writers look like!

  2. rachel said

    Great post, Mel. Very evocative. I suppose part of the self-criticism comes from the fact that no matter how beautiful we may be, none of us can ever live up to the standards set by the photoshopped celebs we (as a society, if not individuals) pick apart nonetheless. So if even those heralded as the most beautiful are not beautiful enough, how can the rest of us ever be?

  3. Bronwyn said

    What you write reminds me very much of Odd Girl Out, when the girls (from 10 to 14) talked about being ‘fat’, and not liking to be the girl who is ‘all that’. (Those three were certainly ‘all that’, in looks if not in character …) Yes, women and girls do tend to use code words about their bodies, and especially their feelings about them.

  4. Mel Campbell said

    @Sara – Holy crap, small world, eh?

  5. Kat said

    I often ponder how the view or lens that we view ourselves and others effects our perception of beauty (even constructed beauty) rather than a more objective means.

    We are taught that looking in the mirror is to see faults, to check for what is wrong. To make a judgement on what needs fixing.

    When we flick through the tabloid magazines we are focussed by red circles on cellulite and crows feet.

    When we are tired or grumpy or self conscious we either pick apart strangers appearances, or, when our self esteem is down, compare others to ourselves often finding where they live up and we don’t match up.

    Sometimes I am just in that people watching mood… happy, a little distracted, and I am surprised at how “beautiful” the general public is (thinking to myself the whole cafe staff and customer base could be in a movie).

  6. Simon said

    Off topic, but did anyone else see this story from The Age:
    Theophanous falls foul of the political and personal

    People here are generally more sensitive and angrier than me (the reason i read it), but i find the first paragraph astounding, particularly this line:
    “But from a political perspective, it is the best outcome for John Brumby.”

    Is the ‘political perspective’ comment meant to qualify, or completely absolve, the ‘best outcome’ remark?
    From any perspective how Paul Austin can call a rape charge the ‘best outcome’ is truely staggering, regardless of the qualifiers he applies.

    Accounts of Paul Wolfowitz’s time in Cabinet and at the World Bank show that anything short of rape can certainly continue for quite some time without any repercussions, but do politicians really have to be charged with rape to be removed on character grounds?

    Apparently had the police not placed charges “Brumby would have been faced with the delicate task of “managing” him out of the the ministry”. Could Brumby not have made a clear statement by simply removing him for his actions anyway? Half the electorate is female, a number of studies show women tend to vote for labour or green parties more than men. What backlash would Brumby avoid by keeping him?

    While not surprising, it is still quite an indictment of the Victorian Labor party, and The Age’s political correspondents.

  7. Mel Campbell said

    Hi Simon – that is indeed off topic. I did a search for Dawn Chorus posts about this issue, and saw that Clem wrote about it back in October. Until another Dawn Chorister revisits the topic, perhaps discussion about Theophanous could happen at that post? (People can follow your comments from the “Who Said What” list on the left.)

    Anyway, I was thinking about body etiquette between friends some more because I stumbled across this post, which asks readers whether they’d lie to protect the feelings of a friend who asked, “Do I look fat in this?”

    It’s interesting the way that the discussion avoided why the friend might ask in the first place. (One commenter suggested it was because she might have felt uncomfortable and was seeking reassurance from her friend.) Perhaps she wants her feelings to be hurt; perhaps she’s playing this fat-blaming game. In which case, the question isn’t whether or not to tell the truth; it’s whether or not to play the game.

  8. Zoe Brain said

    Some of us looked more awful than you can imagine at age 20.

    Now we look not particularly good, but at least no longer frighten the horses, even if below par.

    We’re all insecure to some degree about our appearances, and alas, sometimes with good reason. But the improvement is so massive, it’s difficult not to smile all the time. We now no longer stand out as “different” from others our own age.

    So although there’s some envy at missing out on so much when we were young, especially motherhood, and we’ll never know what it feels like to look in a mirror and feel sexy, vibrant and confident… we count our blessings. We took the scenic route, and although it wasn’t easy, and wasn’t fun, it was interesting.

  9. audrey said

    Mel, I blogged this for today’s Sunday Mail.

  10. tina_sparkle said

    reminds me of the SATC episode where the girls are talking about their most ‘hated’ body parts and samantha proudly declares that she loves every part of herself.

    a very thin girl in my office fishes for compliments by complaining about her body and I just want to punch her in the face. in the modern age of saturation celeb-trash it’s no wonder that we feel we need everyone else’s approval about our bodies, but at some point we have to own our insecurities about our appearance and instead focus on who we are and what we do as individuals.

  11. SC Raine said

    @ Tina Sparkle : *very* thin girl, constantly asking for reassurance? I’m guessing (just from that alone & yeah, not my place tosay or anything I know but a-n-y-w-a-y) she may have a problem & you may want to try and have a serious talk with her regarding body image issues and possible anorexia.

    She may well need your friendship and your help.

    Of course I could be completely wrong … but.

  12. SC Raine said

    Of course, Tina, you may also be few steps ahead of me there too -I’m not implying you’re NOT already offering / doing that.

    You’d be surprised how reassuring it is to recognise these three essential truths :

    1) There is only one person you have any real say over & that’s yourself.

    2) People (partners, v.close friends & family aside) don’t think of you or judge your appearance anywhere near like you’d expeext -try reversing the scale -how often do you look at passers-by and judge their appearance? If the answer is very rarely, that you pay not much attention to those who don’t directly concern you then I think you’re in the majority. If yousee someone ataglimpse and forget them almost as soon as you see them, that’s how 90 % of the people around you probably see you. We are important to ourselves, we are our whole worlds’ but to most we are just part of the crowd.

    3)Men don’t care about women’s flaws anywhere near as much as women think they do. Usually style or clothing isn’t their prooirity and what you mean to them and how you treat them and regard them is infinitely more important than whether your thighs are skinnier than 95 other girls out of 100 or whether you’re AA & DD or whatever else. The three best things you wear are your smile, your skin and the look in your eyes. Everything else isn’t even skin-deep!


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