This morning became an “ugly” day.
I looked into the mirror and cringed. Avoid reflective surfaces, I mentally noted.
These days come once in a while, ever since the snide comments of being a pork chop* started in primary school. Today it was because my skin looked like crap. Some days I feel fat. Some days my hair doesn’t look right. There’re a million and one reasons, I suppose, none more logical than the last.
I’ve never had the courage to admit that I have body image issues. I do. They’ve been around for so long that I sometimes forget they’re always there. It can’t be helped when all your peers all thought you were ugly; especially in middle school in Hong Kong, where nothing matters more than appearance.
I was bullied, predictably.
“Oh, everyone would get a boyfriend sooner or later…” sideways glance at my face with a smirk, “except maybe [my name].”
“You were probably very beautiful when you were a kid. They say the more beautiful the kid, the uglier they grow up to be.”
“How can you become so fat? Can’t you just eat salads for lunch?”
These comments aren’t just from my cruel, teenage peers. The second one was from an adult and the third from my teacher. These casual, but stabbing, remarks resurface when my defenses are down.
It’s a constant war. Even ten years later.
On the bright side, though, growing up ugly also taught me some important lessons.
The world keeps moving
Just because you feel ugly today doesn’t mean you can skip school, skip work, or skimp on your duties. The world does not revolve around how good you feel. In fact, most people won’t notice the little changes in your appearance that you fret about. If I didn’t go to school or work every day I felt ugly, I’m sure I would still be in primary school.
Same with any other feelings I have – no matter what your mood is, the world still moves and you still need to move with it. Whether I’m sad, homesick, or just plain grumpy, there are still things to do. I whisper to myself: “Tough it out, my dear.” In the end, I always feel better about actually accomplishing something than feeling sorry for myself.
External approval is bullshit
If I needed people to think I wasn’t ugly before I approached any stranger or cute guy for a chat, I would not have met any friends or partners, ever. Being ugly is so ingrained in me that every time someone walks by and looks at my face, I immediately assume they are snickering inside about my ugliness. Even on my best days where I wear fashionable clothes and a bit of makeup, the same feeling always creeps up. Rationally, I know that some people probably think I’m at least a bit pretty, but the feeling clings on like my skin.
But, I still have amazing friends, lovers, and colleagues. So, my timid rational mind concludes, there can be only one explanation – people like me despite my appearances. Not everyone is shallow. The same goes for whatever “strange” way of thinking or acting I have. (And believe me, I’m not what most people would call normal in how I think and act.)
My low capacity for beauty gave me thicker skin for everything else. And I’m grateful. Seriously.
Beauty really is in the eye of the beholder(s)
This realisation only hit me after I started travelling abroad. I grew up back and forth between Canada and Hong Kong. Unfortunately, the expectations of how East Asian females should look and act hang on despite the plane rides. We’re supposed to be petite, to be weak, to be fragile, and to be dependent. We’re submissive and would do anything to please men (ha!). We have a saying in Chinese that describes beauty – the woman has to be so weak that she can’t stand against the wind; feeling pity and thus protectiveness about a woman adds to her allure. I grew up with these expectations that, I can say, 100% do not fit who I am as a person. It’s not a wonder people categorized me as ugly, because by every cultural standard, I am.
Once I started living in Africa and Europe though, I discovered beauty standards are vastly different. Not only am I “exotic” (a word I hate, but reluctantly admit), but I am also beautiful because of the varying standards. My breasts and butt and hips are no longer fat, but curvy in Africa. My comparatively light-coloured skin becomes desirable. At the same time, my easily tanned skin becomes a sign of health in Europe. My eyes, hair, height…everything is suddenly prettier if I just jump on a plane for a few hours. Strange world we live in?
There’s really no pleasing everyone. The most beautiful woman in one continent would be considered average in another. So what’s the point in fighting to be the prettiest?
Gotta stick together, my sisters
I propose this not as a generalisation, but as an observation: women often fight over the scraps that men let us have. Men are the ones who set the beauty standard in our society. We are the ones living under the constant male gaze. Yet, we try to step on each other’s head, just to climb up that ladder of the male-set beauty standard.
It’s time to stop. It’s high time that women stopped putting each other (and themselves) down, in order to get male approval. Whenever you bitch about another woman, think about it, are you helping perpetuate the standards of how women should act, set by men? Is she really a slut? Is she really a bitch? Is she really too ugly to get that guy?
Twelve year-old me would have been happy if my girl classmates stuck up for me instead of joined in those taunts. She would have grown up with more confidence if her girl-friends didn’t constantly self-police by pushing those damn beauty standards.
Maybe today wouldn’t have been an ugly day. Maybe I would have had thinner skin.
Maybe I’m happier with thicker skin…?
*Pork chop was a common bullying term for ugly girls when I was growing up in Hong Kong.
Anonymous | Canada