Ugly Duckling Syndrome

Flickr credit to: -MAKI-

Yesterday I saw Shallow Hal  – a film I’d already seen many times. The entire premise of the film impressed me, and watching it again (with my new and improved mentality about beauty privilege), I thought I was going to start crying.

Hal is an average looking dude who likes above average looking women, which is his only criteria for approaching a girl. So when his perception is altered by Tony Robbins via hypnotherapy, he starts to notice the inner beauty of all the women he meets.

So, what I wanted to touch on precisely is what the film calls, “The Ugly Duckling Syndrome”. This is when a girl who grew up ugly, ends up developing a personality out of necessity. The character talks about how some girls are ugly for so long, when they do become pretty, they don’t even realize it. This is considered a rare but desirable find; an attractive girl with a personality who doesn’t know/believe herself to be good-looking.

All the ugly women are virtuous: volunteering with burn victim children, helping their sick grandmother, working at a non-profit for blind children. Overall, these women are funny, gracious and selfless. They’re just really, really ugly. So, despite how wonderful they are as people, men don’t seem interested in them.

In the film, Gwyneth Paltrow tells Jack Black that she knows what she looks like, and doesn’t appreciate it when he calls her beautiful. I know the feeling of knowing what you look like, and people not really understanding that. Of people trying to convince you of a reality you don’t believe in. Even though in the ugly duckling fairy tale, he eventually becomes a beautiful swan.

However, it’s worse when you see what it’s like to be born a swan, when you’re just a duck.

When I was in high school, participating in some sort of production backstage, a girl said to my friend, “You’re so pretty.” And at some later date told her that she earned her beauty, that she deserved it.

I remember when I much younger, and me and my best friend at the time had a crush on the same person. Our shared love interest knew, but ended up choosing her over me. I was devastated. Then one afternoon, he had written her a (love) letter, suggesting that maybe I was jealous of them. Of course I was! But my friend – blonde-haired and blue eyed – was significantly more attractive than me. I knew, even then, that I didn’t really stand a chance. 

So as I sat there, tearing up at the not-so-great film Shallow Hal, I wondered if I would ever stop being a duckling, and become a swan myself. I try desperately to find other ducklings, but it seems few people like to admit to not being attractive. In a culture where “everyone is beautiful”, people are afraid of what it means to be a duckling, a sort of social pariah. Everyone wants to embrace their flaws, fall in love with themselves. I mean… that’s all well and good but…

Am I the only person willing to admit to being an ugly duckling?

How come the first step to self-acceptance isn’t admitting that we’re not all swans?



21 thoughts on “Ugly Duckling Syndrome

  1. Hi parisianfeline, yet another dissertation here. Sorry about the length. Another post coming with links and the whole response.

    I never thought about it directly until I read your post: I think I’m afraid of the fact that maybe I developed my intellect, wittiness, fierceness, and personality because I wasn’t pretty enough/thin enough to get any of the attention that would have otherwise distracted me from becoming smarter and sharper.

    You are definitely not alone in identifying as the “ugly duckling” type. I do as well, but I always feel like I’m validating the existence of such a concept in labeling myself as such. Question One answered.

  2. Pingback: Ms. Queenly’s Response to “Ugly Duckling Syndrome (via parisianfeline)” « Ms. Queenly's Blog

  3. Question Two.

    While I identify as an ugly duckling, I also question the legitmacy of swan beauty. (Which might explain why I don’t really subscribe to ballet and literary allusions to ballet. I refused to see that Black Swan movie and I think the ballet scenes and anything to do with European “high art” in LK Hamilton’s Anita Blake books is just overdone…). This way of thinking keeps me from being down in the dumps about my atypical looks.

    I think the first step to self-love, that is loving yourself especially when other people/life situations try to destroy you, is admitting to yourself that you aren’t everybody else instead of just trying to change yourself into a swan or “becoming one (like those girls who have to grow into their long necks). Even if that means embracing the label of ugly-duckling.

    Instead of everybody trying to become swans, why not admit that you aren’t one, right? Good question.

    Read the whole dissertation:

    On being Ugly-Duckling-fat:

    On being considered “light-skinned”:

    • Black Swan was so amazing!!! *squee* But, I really love ballet over other dance forms – specifically modern. Whenever I see ballerinas, it makes me wish I was one!

      My biggest obstacle in life is constantly comparing myself to other people. It’s a huge flaw to be sure, and I can’t seem to really break out of it. It’s made particularly worse in terms of female beauty. Even though I’m petite and thin, I was never really “rewarded” for it. I’m not prettier because of my thinness.

      But I definitely am going to check out your other links. Don’t be afraid to leave long winded comments! I love comments. More so when they’re lengthy!!! 😀

      • Thank you for accepting my long posts so openly ^_^

        Comparing yourself to other people is a really really hard habit to break in my experience. You can’t just think you’ll stop doing it and magically it happens. If you really want to stop, its a 24-hour, 7-days a week, every second kind of routine, its a daily excercise.

        I’ve broken myself of it a little or maybe a lot. I’m down to letting myself do it sometimes, listing off differences as quickly as I percieve them, then stopping myself from thinking about it repeatedly during the day unless I feel my thought process in comparing is somehow conducive to stopping almost completely someday. I feel like its worked miracles for my shy confidence.

        I think the goal is to stop doing it a lot. Stopping completely maybe unrealistic…

        • No problem! I love long comments. 😀

          I try to be aware of when I’m comparing myself to others and when I’m criticizing others. Because both happen rather frequently. Comparing myself to others normally runs rampant when I’m reading other women’s blogs or learning about someone’s specific talents and achievements. But I was thinking today how I need to find a way to curtail it, by focusing on myself, and what I want out of life instead of trying to get what other people have. Because if I wanted those things, I’d have them, right?

  4. I think for the most part that women who may have been considered unattractive in the past, don’t think of themselves as unattractive due to the large availability of products that make you attractive. You have fake hair, lashes, nails, also skin lightners and bronzers, tons of make-up, push-up bras, booty pads, and every kind of cosmetic surgery you can think of to take away or hide whatever you don’t like.

    I never considered myself to be very attractive, but rather average looking. I have learned to accept how I look. I used to be one of the women wearing those items I listed above (some, not all), but in the past few years, I have opted for the natural look. My own hair, nails, lashes, little to no make-up and all my own body parts!

    It takes time to accpet who you are and to enjoy who you are and what you look like….flaws and all. And some of us (me!) have more flaws than others.

    Would I consider myself an ugly duckling…..Nope. I’m Kendra and there’s so much more to me than what I look like.

    • I’ve never had my nails done (mostly because they grow long naturally); I don’t wear eyelashes or weaves although I do relax my hair, I’ve never been into designer clothes and shoes not only because I’m poor but because even when I was in elementary school I thought it was a waste and pretentious–I never wanted it; I also never wore tons of makeup. Only now have I began to see that a little makeup isn’t bad and even at that I don’t own six tons of the stuff. I’ve never tried to become a swan.

      I do admit that I broke a cardinal rule of fat/body postive activism: Without realizing it, I was waiting to lose weight to live my life.

      Aside from this major detraction, I’ve spent most of my life as a quiet rebel against the superficial.

      Yes, it takes time to embrace yourself and to enjoy who you are and what you look like. Part of my identity politics personally includes understanding the kinds of labels people would stamp on me and deciding for myself whether I believe I gel with those labels or not–that includes ugly-duckling-ness.

      But I definitely agree: I’m more than a label and I’m more than what I look like. Who I am as a whole isn’t really comparable to who someone else is and I am learning to embrace myself and who I really am through this thinking and self-reflectiveness.

    • “I think for the most part that women who may have been considered unattractive in the past, don’t think of themselves as unattractive due to the large availability of products that make you attractive.”

      Definitely. i’ve heard about this before, typically from male comedians. But it’s also something I think a lot about especially because it’s considered the norm when you talk women being unhappy with how they look. It’s like make-up and the right outfit is considered the savior of low self-esteem. Which I strongly disagree with. But, the outside tends to be focused on when people try to force the interior to match. I don’t really think it works that way for people with deep seeded issues. But maybe it does for people who just experience a mild sense of dissatisfaction.

      I definitely feel that I’m an average looking sort of person. When I first started college, I met a lot of people who thought I looked like someone they knew. It really put a dent in my self-esteem because it meant I was common looking, to be mistaken so often for other people. Even though it doesn’t happen as frequently, when it does, I feel that commonness all over again. I’m not sure how to deal with it since I can’t really alter my face without invasive surgery. :^ But in terms of everything else, I’m really minimalist and prefer to keep my appearance really simple. And I’d rather spend money on the movies or books. 😀

      I wonder if I’ll ever be able to accept who I am in terms of my physical appearance since it’s all encompassing of my self-image. :/

  5. Hmm. I dunno what to think of this. I mean, I agree, there are some people in this world who just aren’t that amazing looking. But I also believe beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I always thought I was an ugly duckling, until I met my ex. He made me feel beautiful in a lot of ways I never experienced before. So now, while I’m not supermodel, I know I’m attractive in my own way. And I have a beautiful heart. Some people may find me attractive, some may not. But what’s most important is that generally, I find myself attractive, not because of my looks, but because of my heart.

    • Glad to see you here Akirah! 😀

      I have mixed (though predominantly negative) feelings about “eye of the beholder”. For a really long time, I never knew what that meant, then I realized that it meant the person who is gazing upon you. So, when I think of it that way, I guess it really alleviates the stress from having to worry about being aesthetically pleasing to everyone. Admittedly, there are a lot of famous beautiful people who I don’t find to be all that attractive – like Scarlett what’s her face and Megan Fox.

      I haven’t had the fortune of being with someone who thought I was really beautiful. So I don’t really know what that feeling is like. :[

      But I think it’s great that you got to experience some self-discovery with your ex. Self-acceptance is important, though difficult to attain.

  6. I like Akirah’s comment. When I was in high school, I used to compare myself to a friend who I thought was beautiful. She always got the attention, dressed in cool clothes, and had GUYS. She had started dating and I still hadn’t really dated anyone, and I was always jealous. I had a really low self esteem and basically, hated myself. It was pretty sad. I have flaws, but I started to truly value myself and think I was beautiful once I started dating my current SO. We’ve been together for 3 years and he always makes me feel absolutely beautiful. I don’t know if beauty is in the eye of the beholder always. But, I do think that getting external validation helps. People say you have to love yourself first before others can love you. But I loved myself after I realized I was worthy of being loved!

    • When I was in high school, I remember my older cousin telling me about how she got her self-esteem. She was a freshmen in high school when like 20 guys approached her, interested in her. So that’s how she knew that she was attractive and had something to offer. I haven’t had that happen to me, and spend a lot of time wondering about myself. I definitely understand the situation with your SO; I meet many girls who are very similar. Many times I wonder if I really need to fall in love with myself before someone else will – as that is very common advice – and I’m glad to know that it’s possible to be in a healthy relationship without having to have a perfect/super positive relationship with yourself. 😀

      Thanks for your comment Akhila. :]

  7. Shallow Hal was a great movie and bravo to the beautiful Ms Paltrow for taking part. Society is very quick to stick labels on plus size women and mock them behind their backs and indeed to their faces. Shallow Hal showed very sweetly how it could be if one looked beyond the distribution of flesh on the human frame and saw people for what they really are – each of us carrying our own individual spark of humanity. My clients are all bbw’s and the term ‘big beautiful women’ is especially apt in this context. Their beauty is often original and not necessariuily acknowledged by the mainstream.

    • Hey Judy!! Thanks for stopping by. 😀

      Shallow Hal is really interesting because I haven’t seen a lot of movies like it before. I’m not sure how many movies have discussed the issue of beauty standards and how they can impact our ability to get past physical requirements. The concept of beauty is intriguing because there’s no way for everyone to be represented in mainstream media. Everyone looks just a little bit different – and although there are many similarities – it’s impossible to look to TV, movies or music to make yourself feel better about your own body. But it’s always enlightening for a movie to tackle a widespread issue.

  8. I think the key to self-acceptance is to understand at an early age that only you define your self-esteem. Like Kat Williams said, it’s SELF – esteem. I believe parents should reinforce to their children constantly that no one defines who they are and how they feel but themselves, everyone else can kick rocks. beauty is what you say it is. it’s StyleFree. Meaning, if you think you’re pretty then dammit you’re pretty. If you think you’re ugly, then that’s cool too. So what? Life is bigger than looks. At some we all die anyway. 🙂

    • That’s true – I agree with a self-sufficient ego. The idea you mention of being in charge of how you perceive yourself, and not letting other people dictate how you should feel. I think this is particularly important in a climate where people are demanding that mainstream media change their beauty standards so that THEY can have healthier self-esteem. Your self-esteem is your own business, not anyone else’s, but this is not a popular thought. We are trained to look to others to increase our sense of self-worth in some capacity. But it can be difficult, I think – as I struggle with trying not to need other people’s opinions to validate me.

  9. Just wanted to say something about my experience here… (straight-ish/cis-ish girl)

    I grew up feeling like an ‘ugly duckling’: everyone else seemed to be doing hair and makeup and dresses and I didn’t really understand. I wore pretty baggy clothes and people thought I was a boy a lot (I got called ‘sir’ a lot at some point).

    My attitude for a long time was “I’m ugly and no boys will be interested in me ever”. And really I don’t get the same kinds of attention that I see some other people getting. Honestly what worked for me wasn’t any kind of magical epiphany where I learned to love myself no matter what anyone said: really my first partner told me i was attractive over and over and over again until I believed her a little bit. Now I think I’m pretty fucking attractive, though I pretty much look the same as I did when I didn’t. I’ve been lucky enough to date wonderful people who have always been really lovely to me. (well, except one… =P)

    One thing I like about being not-so-conventionally-attractive is that if people are interested in you, it’s not just because you’re pretty. I see pretty girls getting so much attention, and honestly I think I have the better deal: people who are interested in me tend to be so for reasons that have more to do with my personality / interests. (though having clothes that fit me / hairstyles that suit me are helpful, tbh: my partner is pretty adamant about me not going back to super-short hair).

    Somehow getting lots of external validation has helped me to need it less, but I’m not really at the point where I completely believe I’m awesome yet. I like people to tell me I’m attractive and interesting and smart and funny and nice!

    • Hey Julia!

      Thanks for dropping by!

      Oh yes. I’m at that stage now, where I don’t think anyone will ever find me attractive. So I’ve kinda arrived at a point where I’m trying not to let it get me down. And I was chatting with a girl on Twitter last night who was telling me all about the boys who have been hitting on her since before puberty. And it made me anxious and jealous. I always wondered what it would be like to be conventionally attractive and have anyone I desired! I experienced rejection based on how I looked, which made me feel all the worse. But I haven’t found anyone who has wanted to be with me, and so I’m sort of not really counting on it to help me get my self-esteem together. :3

      I don’t find many people who are interested in me. In fact, it’s been several years (like 3+) since anyone has had a crush on me! Or at least, that I knew about. Though, I highly doubt anyone had any secret feelings for me. I went to an all women’s school where it was pretty typical for girls to hit on each other. So, I try not to think about it too much, but then I end up thinking about it all the time! Not much help. 😮 So I can’t really speak to specific people liking my personality or anything. I’m starting to believe that I’m not anyone’s type, and I guess that’s cool too.

  10. I think that with the change in our society the definition of beauty is also changing. It almost seems to me that no one really cares about looks anymore unless you live in like Southern California or something. I guess its safe to say that the white male along with hollywood determined what beauty really was but its now all about the booty and breast (and in mens terms body shape). If you have these then no one really gives a damn about a persons face anymore.

  11. I totally think I’m an ugly duckling I’ve never been noticed at school I’ve been called fat, ugly etc. but all of a sudden people have been complimenting me saying I’m gorgeous and all that, people are also talking to me more and I’m being accepted now.

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