Ask Glenna: I Fear I Might Be “Ugly” And It’s Causing Me Pain

We’ve been getting some great questions. Keep ’em coming. This is the third installment.

Hi Glenna,

Love your advice column. I am writing to in the hopes you will help me find a new way to think about my looks and how important it should be to me. I am 48 years old now and still sensitive to the fact that me, and the rest of the world (apparently) doesn’t seem to think I am attractive.

I’ve had various therapies in the past such as counseling and hypnosis to try and help me ‘not care’ about it. That’s all I basically want. I understand nobody is universally attractive and the logical part of my brain tells me that it means nothing if the majority of men I meet do not give me signals that they like me, but almost every encounter with someone of the opposite sex leaves me questioning myself as to why they didn’t flirt with me. It’s not about men. It’s about me.

The weird thing is, I don’t actually walk through this world feeling unattractive and self-conscious. I know that the only one judging my appearance is me, and I usually avoid mirrors because I feel happy and confident until I look in one.  I have often visited nightclubs and restaurants on my own, and gone into places where I know I could be judged on my appearance, and it never used to bother me. But things have changed in the last ten years or so and it is harder for me to socialise because I now have genuine anxiety that someone is going to say or do something that will crush my confidence.

I’ve had a couple of very mean things said to me by drunk men, and I’ve been mistaken for a man more than once, partly because I am very tall, and I guess partly because I am not very feminine. Those things damaged my already fragile ego but I try and balance out any negative self talk about that by reminding myself of the times in the past that men have been instantly attracted to me.

I am also separated from my husband who ignored me sexually and romantically for the last ten years of our relationship. I would blame my obsession on him except that I’ve been dealing with insecurities about my looks since I was a teenager. On one occasion, when I complained about the lack of sex in our relationship, he looked me up and down and asked me who would want to sleep with me. My reaction to that was to feel hurt but, within about a month of that happening, I went out and had casual sex with a man I met in a club, partly to prove to myself that there were men who wanted to sleep with me, and partly in defiance of my husband’s attempt to cripple me with insecurity.

During my twenties and thirties when I socialised a lot, I had lots of male attention but, as flattering as that was, I put it down to men looking for casual encounters. Let’s be honest, those kinds of men don’t particularly care what their conquests look like so it did little to bolster my confidence and, in fact, made me worry that they only approached me because they subscribed to the notion that ugly girls are easy because they are desperate.

I spoke to a street seller the other day and, as I walked away, I heard him look down at his dog and say “what a gorgeous looking lady”. At first, I was flattered but, as I obsessed about it for the rest of the day, I eventually decided that he’d only said it in the hopes that I would buy something! You don’t have to tell me how crazy it is that I can’t take a compliment at face value. I know!!

I am not one of those who can’t leave the house without make up and I only wear it when I am socialising. I don’t particularly care what people think of how I look, because I know it won’t change what I think of myself.  I think the main reason I don’t make more effort is because I don’t look the way I want to when I get dressed up and put make up on, so why bother?  I do feel blessed in some ways. I am kind and intelligent with a good sense of humour. I am a little over weight but I have a strong body and a well balanced physique, good skin, nice eyes and an attractive smile. But I also think, deep down, that the things that are ‘wrong’ with me are so wrong, that they cancel out the positives.

I am comfortable with the idea that I might just be one of those people you would call ‘plain’ or ‘homely’, but my fear is that I might actually be ‘ugly’, and that is what is causing me pain. How do I get to a place where I let go of what I can’t control and start being kinder to myself?

Teresa

Dear Teresa,

First of all, you are not ugly. I know this because it is not possible for anyone to be ugly to everyone, except for those who exemplify horrific, truly evil behavior. The aesthetics of looks, alone, are purely subjective. As I am sure you already understand this on an intellectual level, I am guessing it does not help relieve the immense pain that your worry has been causing you.

It seems like convincing yourself not to care about looks results in you not having a reason to put effort into looking your best, going out, and meeting new people. Not putting effort into looking your best, going out, and meeting new people results in isolation and a lack of male attention, which results in negative self-talk, which you attempt to overcome by convincing yourself that looks don’t matter…and repeat. However, when you do make an effort to look your best, go out, meet new people, you are still dissatisfied, because you already decided that you should be. Men may very well be flirting with you and you may even take one home, but, since you have convinced yourself that they are all on some sort of blind flirting rampage or are just out to sell you products, you completely discount any and all signs of genuine interest. If you find that most of the men you meet don’t flirt with you at all, consider that:

 A) You probably don’t flirt with them. The purpose of flirting is not to compliment someone, it is to express interest in pursuing a relationship. If someone is unavailable or are under the impression that you are not interested, there is no reason to flirt.

B) Flirting is really hard to do. Subtle attempts to get someone’s attention are often too subtle to notice. Flirting takes courage and there are billions of great people who just do not have enough confidence to make a move. Seeing as how you are a part of this vast majority, I am sure you can empathize with shyness.

C) Flirting is weird. Most of the time it is inappropriate. It would be scary if every male you encountered were to start drooling.

For the above reasons, flirting is an unreliable way to measure your attractiveness.
Teresa, I just do not think that you can free yourself from the loop you are stuck in by trying to justify or reason your way out of it. This is more than just insecurity. You suffered the neglect and emotional abuse of a very broken individual for a whole decade. It seems as though your ex-husband’s incredibly cruel words have become a part of your inner monologue.

Please understand that what you went through was absolutely trauma. This could be the root cause of your negative thinking, and healing from that experience could give you back your sense of self-worth. Finding a good therapist who specializes in emotional abuse recovery and joining a support group for survivors like you are good first steps. You may have to shop around to find resources that work best for you, but you are not alone, and the help you need is definitely out there. I promise.

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  • Teresa

    HI – thank you so much for answering my letter. I suffered a bit of anxiety after I sent it, fearing you would think me self-obsessed, so it means a lot that you took me seriously. Thank you again. Your answer makes total sense and I guess fear of feeling like a victim of my husband’s behaviour, especially when I fought so hard against allowing it to affect me, has stopped me seeing it for how damaging it was. My focus was on the emotional, financial, mental and (rare) physical abuse taking place and, maybe because I knew that his actions said more about my husband than they did about me, I didn’t realise it might do me harm. I have attended a survivor group but my reason for seeking help was to be ‘heard’ by someone who would understand exactly how I felt and wouldn’t just tell me I was being over-sensitive, or over-reacting, or had brought it on myself. Coincidentally, the hypnotherapist counsellor I visited first, to get help with how I felt about my appearance, was actually the person who helped me to understand that I was in an abusive relationship. From that point on, even though the anxiety over my appearance continued, my main focus of attention became figuring out what was ‘wrong’ with me that my husband would treat me that way. The turning point for me was reading Lundy Bancroft’s book – Why Does He Do That. I know this seems like a plug for the book but the reason I wanted to mention it is because I always worry someone reading these kinds of comments might be in a similar situation themselves and reaching out for help but not know where to turn. Reading this book is a great place to start. As for you, Glenna, bless you. I really do appreciate what you are doing for me and the other people who visit this page. I have taken your advice on board and I will see what help I can find. Thanks again.

    • Jennifer Tress

      So glad this was helpful! And so glad you fought the anxiety and pressed “send,” because you are not alone in your feelings (by a long, long shot) and being brave enough to share helps OTHERS, so thank YOU. Also appreciate the book recommendation! Much love to you, Teresa!

    • Bongo Charm

      I am an ugly man.
      I say this the same way I might say I am a strong man or a smart man
      or a man who can fix your car. I say this without hesitation, without wincing, without the slightest hint of shame, apology or deference to beauty. I say this gratefully and with a smile.
      Ugly is the prism through which I view the world and while my world
      is no less amazing than your own, it is absent a number of desirable
      if dangerous qualities. My world is somewhat less mysterious and lacking certain aspects of sexual magic. But the psychic ecosystem is shaped by the ebb and flow of dualities, complimentary forces that fire both our inner and outer lives. Ugly is the cover but it is not, and never will be, the book. The book is my only concern.
      Have I always been this glib about my own appearance? Hardly. Ugly
      is a four letter word applied only to the most heinous aspects of our world. But if, as Joseph Campbell suggests, life is a hero’s journey from darkness into light, it is critical that we understand the forces shaping our destiny. Ugly is a bitter pill, jagged and razor sharp, that once
      swallowed triggers a powerful, visionary experience. If you can find the strength of character to fight your way to this most painful of all truths you will emerge finally and forever free; because while aesthetic beauty may be subjective, the accepted standards are absolute, the scale written in stone and simple enough for a child to understand: One thru ten. And what are we actually judging? Bone Structure. Hair. Skin. Teeth. And what drives this judgement? Some biological imperative buried deep within our DNA relative to sexual attraction as it applies to reproduction – a small, temporary window that will cloud over, crack and eventually shatter as we age. Beauty is temporary and for that reason it is a curse.
      Ugly is a verdict handed down by a cosmos we can never under-
      stand. But if it is a crime it a crime of which I am guilty. Here’s the problem. Until you accept the verdict, as long as you remain in
      denial, you will suffer. Because you know. You have always known.
      And to bury it beneath a $300 haircut or a layer of make-up or
      behind the wheel of a Porsche is to exile yourself, your TRUE self,
      to a dream world. As crazy as this sounds I have finally, after years
      of self-recrimination, shame and misery, after bouts of depression
      that drove me to the brink of suicide, arrived at the conclusion that
      ugly is a gift. It allows me to see the world for what it really is, to see people for what they really are and to understand myself for the man
      I have become. It’s a long, difficult climb, uphill all the way, but the
      view from the top is stunning.

      • Letzbnice

        I don’t mean this to sound overly religious, but I think as humans we are unfortunately flawed in a way that this verse from the bible illuminates (from the book of 1st Samuel, verse 16:7), “… for the Lord sees not as man sees; for man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” As I personally believe that we are all created purposefully by a loving creator and as such all have the same value and beauty in the creator’s eyes, unfortunately our human nature often includes this frailty of judging people by the current societal standards of external beauty. There are many places in the bible where it is stated that we are loved by God. Feelings of inferiority and unworthiness come from our fallen human nature and can keep us separated from seeing and accepting that love. Which leads to all kinds of awful human behavior that damages so many souls. So sad.

  • Lost and Found

    Hello!!
    Firstly I want to thank you for posting about the role of appearance in people’s lives Glenna on your website. It is a thing overlooked and misunderstood by many and I think your website gives fresh perspective to it. I think my life in the last few years may contribute towards Teresa’s discussion about her dilemna about her appearance. At least I hope it could help somehow.
    When my wife died unexpectedly back in 2011, I found myself in the same boat as some other people on this forum. My wife had been wonderful to me despite my being grossly overweight and unattractive and when she died I knew deep in my heart that I wanted to be married again one day but I was so out of touch with the dating scene that I didn’t have a clue about what I needed to do towards this end.I was grieving, depressed and very fat. I was lost..butI knew that if I wanted to remarry one day I would have to take serious steps towards taking care of my appearance. Thus I almost immediately started working out. For me working out became a step I took towards one day finding Miss Right and it became a form of grief and depression therapy. It became away of life for me. I also joined some grief groups as another way to deal with the loss of my wife. There I met a stunningly gorgeous widow who welcomed me initially..but from the first I sensed a air of anger about this woman. Yet nonetheless I couldn’t help myself from falling for this woman. Needless to say that was a mistake. She basically told me, in not so many words as only women can do, that I was too over weight for her. Her rejection of me made me not only deeply hurt but ever more determined to shed my excess pounds at the gym.
    A year later I was still in the same grief group, still working out, and seriously bulked out, but not quite so much where I really wanted to be with my appearance. Miss Gorgeous was at one group meeting and I think she changed her mind about me when she saw my changed appearance…she even made physical contact with me. I found myself looking at her with different eyes..I couldn’t make myself forget the cruelty of her words when I first met her, yet I knew I still had feelings for her. At this point I wasn’t dating yet, and was sort of discovering that my grief wasn’t going to be a thing to be “fixed” by working out or by attending grief groups. I acknowledged her newfound attitude or attraction or whatever it was towards me but kept my distance from her because I just couldn’t forget the her horrible treatment of me when we first met.
    Today I still workout and diet assiduously and have shed most of my weight.. I have noticed that women even look at me now out of the corner of their eyes and sometimes even stare at me… I guess I have become…attractive!! I have moved on out of the grief groups and have been dating for a few years… I am pretty sure I have met Miss Right and am going to propose to her very soon. Miss Right is an angel on earth for me. I have long ago moved on from Miss Gorgeous and I still have feelings for her and wish her no ill in any way. I still grieve for my wife and I know now that I will do so until I die but today I am a Found man, with my new angel beside me. I hope my story can give some hope to some of your readers Glenna. Thanks for reading my post!
    Lost and Found