My heart dropped when my best friend told me she liked a guy I had a crush on in high school.
Not because I knew I never had a chance to begin with — trust me, I knew that. It was because I knew that she was pretty enough to get with anyone she ever wanted, and I now had to cope with the fact that she would have him easier than it ever took me to even have him glance in my direction.
Saying I “grew up ugly” doesn’t mean I was ugly — it meant that I never quite fit in the way other people did, regardless of the beauty standard I had to adhere to. The universalized standard for beauty, even in the areas I lived — Manila and Doha — was pale and skinny, and then the next thing that was some variation of pale and skinny.
Then I moved to Canada, and suddenly being pale and skinny and blonde and a myriad of other things were added into the mix. I am none of those things. I grew up darker than my peers and didn’t have the body type that was expected of me. What was worse was that I was around people who fit the beauty standard, and I had to be constantly reminded of my own deficiencies.
Growing up ugly meant I had to find other ways to make myself interesting.
If I could not be beautiful, I have to be funny. If I could not be beautiful, I have to be smart. If I could not be beautiful, I have to be witty. I had to become a million other things to be interesting. But I can’t be too passionate either, because that would be too overbearing. I couldn’t be too timid, because that would mean I was unapproachable. My entire life was spent catering to other criteria I could make an effort to fit into — my life was spent overcompensating for something I wasn’t born with.
Growing up ugly meant being okay with being the second pick. To have people you don’t even know coming up to you and asking about your friend’s relationship status. Growing up ugly meant being okay with being a wingman, even for the people you don’t want your friends to end up with. Growing up ugly meant you are the friend to stand on the side and wait for your friend to finish making out with that guy at a party.
Growing up ugly meant I always had to wait.
Over the years, I’ve accumulated a list of overly aggressive compliments for my friends whenever they post on Instagram labeled “insta comments” in my notes app. I’ve had this list since grade eight, and I open it every now and then to add something witty or clever whenever it comes up. I cater each and every comment to at least one friend and save the best for the ones I keep closest to my heart. In the list, I now have four different equations for the number eight.
But I keep my Instagram bare.
Growing up ugly meant you rarely take pictures of yourself. It meant having more photos in your drafts and archives because you never could look quite right. Growing up ugly meant always being the one taking the pictures because you could never imagine yourself as the muse. It meant posting a photo and then deleting it.
I hope one day someone will keep a reserve of their best Instagram comments and one day use one on me. But instead, I maintain a low social media profile, keep myself hidden and cheer from the sidelines.
But when I turned eighteen, there was a shift. I started to get attention from others. People from my high school who never once glanced in my direction suddenly stopped and reconsidered me. I was eighteen when the world turned on its axis and someone asked me for my Instagram in public. Eighteen when I found myself bearable to look at in the mirror.
But when you grow up ugly, you don’t know how to catch a hint. What constitutes “flirting,” you believe to be friendly banter? When people start being suggestive you believe them to just be nice. Growing up ugly meant you could not fathom the idea of anyone ever being attracted to you.
So you become vulnerable to the niceties and start treasuring external validation. Growing up ugly meant any modicum of attention is valuable, and so you open yourself to a world of hurt. These people are not stupid — they know your type. They smell the desperation and see you only as a placeholder for the next best thing.
You — I — realize that there is no winning.
Whether you grow up ugly, or grow up pretty or have a glow-up, people will only ever see you as one thing and one thing no matter how much you try.
There is no liberation in this sick, twisted and fucked- up world unless it comes from within yourself and no one else.
Until you start being okay with being just okay.
Now, I post the Instagram photo.
I leave it there.
This article is a part of The Ubyssey's 2023 creative non-fiction supplement, beauty.