real life

"Those three words unravelled me." An open letter to the man who called me 'the ugly friend'.

My friend is objectively beautiful. She turns heads in the street. She’s confident and gorgeous. Beside her, I’m average. With lipstick and a decent outfit, passable.

I’ve always been aware of the dynamic between us, but in our mid-thirties with careers and (mild) wisdom and a number of children between us, I thought the days of that aesthetic disparity had lost their significance.

Then, at a festival, a man trying to hit on her called me “the ugly friend.”

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She was preparing for a gig, and I was full of teary pride for her – she is starting out so a paid gig at an international festival is a big deal. He was trying to talk to her, and she didn’t realise in the mayhem of the crowd. She walked away, and I politely tried to return the conversation.

Frustrated at her inattention and deeply irritated by my presence, he spat the words at me like he was reprimanding a dog. I’d liked my outfit that day, a colourful jumpsuit with red lipstick. I spent the rest of the night folded into myself, wanting to go home and disappear.

The words unravelled me. I was reduced to a frumpy afterthought. The one that boys would look through to the long limbs and effortless smiles of more attractive girls.

Who turned to every angle of herself in a mirror and coiled with disappointment. Three words, and a man I had never met before and would likely never see again had pulverised my self worth.

Why was this the impact, now, at 33?

I have a career, a family, a sense of self that extends beyond my face and body. I am by these measures successful. I am loved. And a stranger made all these things collapse, leaving the disappointing bones and flesh of my physical self.

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I’ve been unkind to my body. I’ve starved and waxed and squeezed it. I’ve peppered it with retinol and Botox, pleading with the gods of aging to slow their impact.

I’ve marvelled at its strength and its ability to grow and birth my girls. I’ve loathed it and now thought I had come to terms with it. A normal-looking woman, with far more to value than the male gaze.

I have realised that that gaze still matters to me. I don’t want it to, but there is a part of my psyche that continues to long for the positive attention of men. And it makes me feel deeply foolish and petty and silly.

This is the most insidious thing about the impact of gender inequality and the leering social behemoth that we call the patriarchy.

It leaches into the corners of our lives and devalues us. On a beautiful day, when you are feeling happy and fulfilled and proud of your friend, it guts you with three words carelessly dispensed by a man in chinos. His view of me became far more important than what I thought of myself.

On coming home, I scrutinised myself in the mirror. I took selfies with my daughters and edited myself out of them. I found myself irrationally jealous of their beautiful baby skin and devastated that one day they might feel the same way as I do.

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I downloaded FaceTune and made my chin smaller and my lips heavier. I deleted FaceTune. I booked a round of Botox that we can’t afford. I cried in the shower. I ruminated about it with friends. And I would bet my second kidney that he never thought of me again.

An open letter to that man: I am sorry for you, but not as sorry as I am for the women you know. You are part of a sprawling problem. You are an actor on the spectrum of inequality that devalues women in the workplace and subjugates them in the street.

You are making the world a place where I am scared for my little girls. Your words hurt and, terribly, they matter. But they’ve given me a new strength. The next time a man reduces me that way again, I will tell him exactly what he is. What you are. And that is truly ugly inside.

Sincerely, the loved, fulfilled, clever, motivated, important, ugly friend.

To see more from Claire, you can follow her on Instagram here.

Feature image: Getty.

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