real life

'I've been called ugly to my face. Twice.'

I have been called ugly to my face twice. It is a confronting confession to open with, but I have to blurt it out or I would never have the courage to continue.

The first time I was 18 and waking up in bed with a boy I had met at a university party the night before. We had talked in the dim light at the party, pointlessly enough as it turned out, about the unwarranted value placed on appearances. And then we had slept together and indulged in some serious kissing, but despite his unrelenting efforts, that was it. We were squashed into a single bed at the residential college, our bodies sweaty and unfamiliar smelling. The room was bare brick, uncurtained, and the harsh Australian light woke us early. The young man looked at my pimply, freckled early morning face, the one he’d been kissing so passionately a few hours before, and said, 'You are quite ugly, aren’t you.'

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I feel as if I’m confessing something shameful, something I’m sure everyone would rather I didn’t mention. Ugliness cuts to the core and the wound won’t heal, but it must never be spoken of.

The second time was a year or two later in New Zealand. I was standing with my boyfriend outside Margot’s cafe on the Coromandel Peninsula. Margot was a big-breasted woman in her forties, ancient to us 20-year-old commune-dwelling immortals, and a mother of eight brown-skinned, mostly naked children. She was, I realise now, what’s called a fine-looking woman, intensely sexy in a rich experienced way that we young things wouldn’t know about for another 20 years. She inhabited her body fully. Her clothes were loose, but they still revealed her voluptuous shape as she moved around her rainbow-painted cafe.

There was a loose group of other people there, some from another commune over the peninsula. One of them was German Peter, a thin blond man with a weird air about him (I think now of Tasmanian psychopath Martin Bryant). He had a thick accent, but his words were perfectly clear when he looked at me in a lull in the general conversation and said, 'You are an ugly one, aren’t you?'


More than 20 years later, I still feel, along with the humiliation — it was true, of course, it was true; insults don’t hurt that much unless they are true — horribly let down that my boyfriend merely turned away. Of course in those years of pacifism and the Vietnam War, we tried not to engage in violence, personally or politically. My lover had acted correctly; he said nothing, did nothing. But how I longed for the avenging blow across that grinning face.


My relationship with the way I look is, like most people’s, problematic, and what is problematic must be talked about. It’s taken all of these 20 years since to have the courage. Am I masochistically asking for the morning-after insult again? I have to take that risk because I am in my forties and soon it will all change again. I want to talk about the way I look before it does.

About my ugliness.

And my beauty.

You see, I have also been called beautiful to my face twice.

The first time was in the beer garden of a pub in Sydney when I was 26 and a friend was having his first book of poetry launched. It was a warm autumn afternoon and there were lots of writers standing about drinking wine in the sunshine. I was often shy in groups but somehow I became the centre of attention. Attractive males from university days gathered around, a famous poet came up and introduced himself, men listened and waited to talk to me. I could see in their eyes that I was desirable, and it was as intoxicating as every romance writer has ever claimed it to be. I thought I was Scarlett O’Hara at a garden party. I was witty and charming and ever so pretty; I knew it, I could feel it on my skin, see it in the glow of their bodies. As I talked, I kept glimpsing a handsome and sexy man a few tables away whose eyes were always on me. Finally, holding me entirely within his attention for moments, he mouthed clearly and slowly, "You are beautiful."

The second time was in the New South Wales Blue Mountains when I was in my mid-thirties. I was with a friend of mine, a writer, on her land halfway up the mountains. The men had gone for a walk, plunging through the undergrowth in search of the furthermost extremity of the land, as men will, and my friend and I sat with the remains of the picnic, ready for the more intense level of conversation possible when the men have left. My friend was writing a book about a woman mathematician who was beautiful and her daughter who was not, so it was not just a personal question when she asked, "Tell me, what is it like to have grown up beautiful?"


My first reaction was as if I’d been insulted. I felt offended and my face reddened. She must be having a go at me. Why is she attacking me? But I saw that she was serious, and I was even more flustered. Jerky contradictory words started coming out of my mouth. I felt flattered and at the same time still suspicious — surely it was some sort of trap?

There actually was a third time. It was whispered to me tenderly as I was giving birth. You are beautiful.

Beauty and Ugliness in Paris

I know I was beautiful once for six whole weeks. I went alone to Europe  — London, Paris and Rome — when I was in my early thirties. From the day I landed there, and all the days and nights until I returned, I was admired. Of course, I’m confusing beauty with desirability, or using the words interchangeably, thereby revealing my dependence on the gaze of men. It’s foolish, such dependence on the approving eye, but for a few weeks I was a woman who drew the gaze of men every day and it went to my head. 

The first night in London, a businessman in a crowded cafe flirted outrageously, the next morning a young Frenchman asked me to go to the theatre, in the afternoon a travelling Australian I met at the museum asked me out to dinner. In Paris, the shy Italian policeman staying in my hotel invited me on a boat ride on the Seine, French men asked me to dinner every night, an Italian businessman I met in the Luxembourg gardens asked me to coffee, an American persuaded me to lunch.

There’s a passage in Violette Leduc’s La Batarde, which I read more than 20 years ago when I was still an adolescent; it’s where she is walking over a bridge in Paris with her lover, Hermine. A passer-by makes a remark to her companions about Violette, which only she hears. There follows several pages of anguish as Violette disintegrates. Hermine and the reader are utterly mystified. "I had been given a staggering blow full to the chest," she says at first. And then, "I tried to make sounds, Nothing came out but the hiccups of a baby being fed, as though I were trying to spit out a great store of grief that would not shift from inside my chest." Finally, at the end of the chapter, after experiencing her utter despair, the reader is told the words the woman on the bridge had uttered: "If I had a face like that I’d kill myself."


Last year I was staying in a motel with my husband. I went into the bathroom to wash my face before bed and looked into the mirror, which had one of those strip fluorescent lights. A blotchy plain face stared back at me. I looked away hastily, my heart banging, the muscles contracting painfully. How could I have been so ugly all this time! I had been under the illusion that I had improved somehow over the years. I climbed into bed with my back to my husband, sunk in misery and furious that he had been pretending I was desirable all these years. Tears ran down my face in the dark.


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There are some for whom the mirror is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter what light, what mirror, what clothes, what mood, they are always unarguably and breathtakingly lovely. Once, in India, I saw an extraordinarily beautiful woman in a red sari walk into the airport lounge. In that moment the whole lounge went silent, several hundred people struck dumb with her beauty.  Her black silk hair flowed away from the honey brown of her skin, her lips caressed the air, her every movement was a definition of grace and sensuousness. She would be beautiful every minute, every day and week of her life until she was old. To bear such beauty without flaw or variation might be difficult, but it is a burden most would desire to take up.


I cannot remember ever liking the look of myself as a child. As a seven-year-old, I can remember complaining bitterly to my mother, "I don’t want this horrible red hair." I vowed to give up believing in God if I didn’t have sleek black hair by the time I was 12 (I hadn’t heard of hair dye). Equally unappealing were the freckles all over my round face and the way my cheeks rose to make my eyes small and squinty whenever I laughed. In every book I read, the horrible children were invariably red-haired and freckled with small, mean eyes. I certainly never saw any such marred people in films or magazines.

As a teenager I came to terms with my hair, even began to like its thick waviness and burnished colour. But I even more hated the freckles, which were now mixed with pimples on the still solid cheeks. In a misery of teenage self-loathing, I tried to face the fact that my looks would never enchant, never cause anyone to fall in love with me. The weight of ugliness felt like a life sentence, but as my characteristic blind optimism re-surfaced, I decided that I would have to be awfully nice or amazingly interesting to win love. Difficult, but not quite as difficult as beauty.

I try to trace the origins of my features. After all, it’s not my fault. My grandmother must have passed on her red hair; the small breasts came from my mother; small pale eyes from my father. Freckles I can’t find, but they were probably covered over in the tinted photographs.

I’m a random recombining of the gene pool. I could have turned out looking almost any way: dark-haired, brown-eyed, olive-skinned, like my younger sister; curly-haired, green-eyed, fair-skinned like my older sister. It’s all chance. And why does it matter, anyway? Who cares that love, fame and fortune are bestowed on beauty, while scorn, infamy and poverty are allotted to ugliness? Every beautiful princess is good; every ugly stepsister is evil. The correlation between beauty and goodness is ancient, the central motif of thousands of years of storytelling. And why wouldn’t you be evil if you had to be ugly? Surely someone should be made to pay.


Cultural and Mathematical Beauty

It is usual to argue, nowadays, that beauty is cultural, conditioned; that different features and varying sized and shaped bodies are considered beautiful throughout the world; that even within a culture, the criteria for beauty changes over time. It is pointed out that Indian men admire plumpness, that Africans desire full, rounded buttocks, that the English like fair narrow faces, that Americans prefer rosy wider-boned faces. These facts are used as evidence to support the view that beauty does not exist of itself, that it is merely the construct of a particular society at a given time.

I think that is hair-splitting nonsense. I’ve done no research on it, but I can assert that every face I’ve ever seen that is considered beautiful by its own culture — Ethiopian, Japanese, Aboriginal, French, Kau, Navaho, Maori, Arabic or English — I too have considered beautiful. And faces adjudged plain or ugly by those cultures, I have agreed were plain or ugly. There is taste and personal appeal, but aside from that, there is still beauty. I can see it — and besides, others have done the research for me.

Scientists have measured the length and proportions of eye to mouth, nose bridge to eye edge, upper lip to nose, tip of chin to mouth and dozens of other small measurements on thousands of faces. They found that in every face that the general population has agreed is beautiful, the proportions of that face conform to the Golden Mean, a proportion based on the mathematical relationship discovered by Fibonacci in the twelfth century, but used for centuries before in art, architecture and music. Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, it is 1.618.

Other People’s Beauty

Whenever I see another person for the first time, there are several cognitive processes, which happen almost instantaneously. My mind first decides whether the person is a man or woman; next, whether the look of them is pleasing to me or not; finally, narcissistically, whether their appearance is more or less pleasing to me than my own appearance.

On my first day at high school, the girl sitting behind me tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around and was confronted by the prettiest face I'd ever seen. Smooth brown skin, large laughing hazel eyes, very full red lips. She looked impish and very sure of herself. Sensuous too, although I wouldn’t have known the word at the time. I think I fell in love with her face instantly. "My name is Peter," she said, or that’s what I thought, not having heard of the name Peta. We became best friends for a year, me because I couldn’t stop looking at her, and Peta because she fancied my older brother.


Another girl spoke to me that first day. Her skin was blotched with freckles so dark and large they made mine seem almost insignificant. Her hair was coarsely wiry and her eyes, red-rimmed and pale-lashed, but it was her lips which shocked me the most. They seemed to be turned inside out, like a dog’s lips bared. I kept stealing glances, fascinated, trying to find the words to describe her, but having to look away because she was too repulsive. It struck me even at twelve years old, that it was unfair someone should be so ugly no-one could bear looking at them.

I don’t know what happened eventually to Peta or to the nameless Ugly One. Peta went to boarding school in Sydney at the end of the year and I never saw her again. The Ugly One I saw once, wearing loads of make-up and a very short tight skirt, climbing into a car full of boys.

So What Do I look Like?

Description No 1: Ginger hair, small pale eyes, freckled skin inclined to redden at the least exposure to sun, exercise or wine, flat chest, stocky legs, elephant’s knees.

Description No 2: Thick coppery hair, sparkling blue eyes, high cheekbones, warm smile, small firm breasts, slim body, tight curving bottom.


Last year I was marking university students’ stories for a creative writing class. They had been told to write stories from their own life, and one young man had written about a 'game' he and his friend used to engage in when they were teenagers. They would pick out an ugly girl by herself at a shopping mall or in a cinema foyer, then they would walk over together and sit with her. In the next part of the game they would chat her up, remark on her cool bangle, her pretty hair, stroke her arm, perhaps buy her a cup of coffee. The suspicious look would start to fade away from her face. Perhaps her new hairstyle really did look nice. She would begin to smile a little; her body would not be so tight. Then, just when they could see she was relaxing — perhaps she might even begin to flirt a little herself — came the final stage of their game; they’d look right into her eyes and say, "How come you’re so-ooo ugly?"

And then they laughed, oh how they laughed. The expression on her face! And their masterstroke, the best part of the game, they didn’t get up and walk away after razor-slicing her heart. Oh no, they sat with their victim, hooting with glee and patting her hand consolingly.

It was a well-written story. I still remember the effort it took, fists clenched, not to fail him.

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