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The Inevitable Ugliness Of Women


The kid’s a lot like her daddy. Sometimes I get out of the shower when my endorphins are all popping and zinging after a run—zoom buzz crackle—and I see myself in the mirror and say “Damnnn, motherfucker, you’re rocking 40 like 3 the hard way.” But that’s to be expected. I’m a narcissistic blogger gazing selfishly at my self-absorbed navel.

My daughter’s different, though. She’s a little girl staring at her reflection in a pool of water—in love with herself—and it’s beatyful. When I found her note I wanted to mix it up into a bubbling red potion that she sips from every morning for the rest of her days.

Because it’s coming. Everyone knows it’s coming and that it can’t be avoided. Sure, we can (and will) support and bolster her sense of self with worthier props: her intelligence, her integrity, her sense of humor, the mere stunning fact that she’s a girl in the world. And that’ll matter. It will; it really will. But it still won’t negate the fact that our culture is cocked and loaded with its finger itching to shoot her in the face.

There will come a day when my daughter will feel ugly for the rest of her life.

Do you remember? When you were beautiful? And then? … You weren’t. How did that happen? When?


Dear Women. I have tried to love you. I’ve smelled your hair and kissed your shoulder and written poems about your bones. I’ve studied your neck with my fingers for hours. I’ve looked you dead in the eye, shocked into presence by your sight, and said My God you’re beautiful (and I meant that shit too). But not once, not with a single one of you, have I made a dent in your armor. You’re so tenaciously devoted. Married. Committed to being not pretty.


What a fucking pity. To know with our heads that it’s bullshit. We say intelligent things about impossible cultural ideals and the arbitrary nature of beauty. And we shout defiant things about refusing to measure ourselves in shallow ways, about our insides, about how much they count. But it always feels like we’re still in the emergent phase of trying to believe ourselves.

Ladies. We know you know you’re beautiful. We know you know that it doesn’t really matter. But our girls need you to either believe that it doesn’t matter or to really emerge into feeling beautiful. For myself, I prefer the latter. JUST LOOK AT THOSE BLUE EYES AND LOOK AT HOW THEY SHINE IN THE LIGHT! Or perhaps what I hope for most is a new way of seeing that permits the nobler qualities we wish for our daughters to blur and mingle with the physical apprehension of them. I can’t abide in a world without beauty. But I can help labor toward creating a world in which the definition of beauty is cracked open to form new relations and connections to women.

With poems. Poems for women. Poems for my daughter. Poems wherein visions of beauty are lodged more in feeling than seeing. ALL DAY LONG WITH HAPPYNESS AND LOVE!

Reader Comments (62)

Shit. Amen. Goosebumps etc

March 7, 2012 at 8:13 PM | Unregistered CommenterCri


Yeah, this.

March 7, 2012 at 8:17 PM | Unregistered CommenterMaria

I spend a lot of time with kids and I wonder this--when did they even care what they looked like? How do they learn to hide their feelings (not entirely a terrible thing)? When did we make them self-conscious? Because the reality is that even if you tell a woman they are beautiful they are NEVER allowed to admit that they think that too. Make that potion for you daughter--and all her friends.

March 7, 2012 at 8:30 PM | Unregistered CommenterLisa

The ugliness of this world -- how our society teaches us to see ourselves, for example -- ingrains in us the belief that we are, too, ugly. In learning to see the beauty of the world, we can learn to see the beauty in ourselves. We must teach our children to see these things.

March 7, 2012 at 8:31 PM | Unregistered CommenterLiz

I hope to live long enough to gather all the words it would take to recount my own tangled relationship with beauty. Here, in the middle--or just past the middle--of that story, I can only gesture dumbly. Sounds like. Two syllables. Rhymes with.

I'm going to borrow these words of your daughter in the meantime. Looking at myself with happyness and love. Tell her thanks from me.

March 7, 2012 at 8:44 PM | Unregistered CommenterKyran

"Do you remember? When you were beautiful? And then? … You weren’t. How did that happen? When?"

This made me cry. Because it happens...exactly like this.

I vow to try harder to believe otherwise, dear BHJ. Thank you for the inspiration.

March 7, 2012 at 8:45 PM | Unregistered CommenterClare

When I saw your tweet with the title of this post, I thought it was going to be about the ugliness of women in how they are with each other, so often and viciously played out in the "real " world and vividly on our own little Internet. And honestly, I came into this post with a predisposition to apathy. That I'm so over all of that. And talking about it.

But then I read your words.

Damn. Damn, damn, damn.

I wish it were possible to bottle up that feeling and sip a little each day. I wish I knew when it was that we go from feeling beautiful to ugly, because I'd keep my girl home from school that day and we'd spend the day admiring how our eyes twinkle and how our voices really do call out the wind. I wish it were that easy. I don't know how to break that cycle, if it's even possible. Perhaps doubt is simply burned into our DNA?

I will tell you this, though, after 38 years of mostly hating my looks, I'm starting to cycle back to that childish appreciation of myself. Maybe that's just me, or maybe it's not uncommon in women, I can't say. But I hope it is the latter. That at some point, women, some earlier or later than others, find the wisdom through our experience to realize that beauty is so much more than we thought. And regardless of how we fit into the oh so narrow specifications of popular beauty, we ARE gorgeous.

Truly wonderful post, BHJ.

March 7, 2012 at 8:46 PM | Unregistered CommenterCarabee

God damn it. You've done it again. This is it. Add the issues around hunger, feasting and fear and this gender has its love cut out for it.

March 7, 2012 at 8:50 PM | Unregistered CommenterHelen Jane

forever and ever amen.

In my mind, I think we get wrapped up in what was, what will be, and what we look (sound, act) like from an outsider's point of view. I spend most of my time alone and in silence so, I am rarely treated to others' opinions of what I look like (act like, sound like) and the freedom is enormous.

I love the idea that I am not this or that measure of beauty or humor, sarcasm or wit. For almost the whole of every day, I just am.

March 7, 2012 at 8:52 PM | Unregistered Commentersummer

poked a very raw nerve.

made me cry.

i wish i could overcome the dissonance of which you write.

March 7, 2012 at 8:58 PM | Unregistered CommenterA work in progress

The prettiest ever. Mind spinning.

March 7, 2012 at 8:58 PM | Unregistered Commenterkate inglis

i was born to the lucky parents who found beauty in DO- in create in art in move in dance in speak in think. i forgot it for a couple of years, but yeah. found it again. the wrinkles and stretch marks have nothing on that shit.

the eyes only sparkle if they move in moonlight. everyone's ass looks good dancing.
the myth and lie is that beauty is held- captured in photos, in dead eyes, all skin and bones and still.

the real deal---both from what's witnessed and from what from the inside feels like fuck-yeah-i'm-hot--- is that beauty is movement, is go, is curve and swerve and create.

March 7, 2012 at 9:05 PM | Unregistered Commenterkathleen

My father, a very beautiful man, particularly physically but also deeply, used to tell me when I was a little girl and then a painfully ugly, awkward girl that I should stand in front of the mirror and say, "I'm beautiful." He told me that he said it to himself when he was a very skinny, shy boy. I'll always remember that -- that even though I didn't quite believe it, the possibility was there because he said it.

March 7, 2012 at 9:19 PM | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth

"Ladies. We know you know you’re beautiful. We know you know that it doesn’t really matter."

I'm so interested in whether or not you really believe this is true. Because who knows? In my (I gotta say it, because it is) extensive experience, not everyone does. Believing that she does, not believing that she doesn't, robs her of something really important -- the right to feel that way, a chance for help, something.

Those who do have found a good place, in many cases a place of privilege, that not everyone is allowed, or able. And as much as I could tell myself it doesn't matter? I will always know it does, to someone, somewhere. The royal they, of course. It's also very much up to me what I do with it, how I react, how I move through the world regardless of externals, to whom I say "Fuck off" and to whom I conversely say, "Thank God. Thank God you're here. I can really rest in you." And ultimately, I can rest in me. That's where the beauty is. That's the change.

Your baby will know it, I believe it. I see it in her eyes, hear it in her words, and thank God. It's because of who she is but also because of what I've read and know of who will be there when that moment hits where she thinks she isn't. Pulling for her, anyway.

(Good thing I only comment once in a blue beautiful moon, eh?)

March 7, 2012 at 9:22 PM | Unregistered CommenterLaurie

"But it still won’t negate the fact that our culture is cocked and loaded with its finger itching to shoot her in the face." Chilling and brilliant. It begged for cut and paste.

March 7, 2012 at 10:08 PM | Unregistered Commenteranymommy

"Pretty is as Pretty Does."

That's what I was told the moment I questioned my pretty. So, yeah, I never grew up thinking I was pretty on the outside. But I learned whether what we were or weren't on the outside didn't matter. Beautiful Bitches are a dime a dozen.

Pretty bones. That's the stuff you're made of.

March 7, 2012 at 10:24 PM | Unregistered CommenterSilver

How did it happen and when? The first time an unkind word created a feeling of shame at age 6 or 9 or 12 and that girl decided she wasn't good enough anymore. This is a stunning piece of writing.

March 7, 2012 at 10:37 PM | Unregistered Commentermosey (kim)

I love this post, and yet it makes me sad too. Because us women are fighting a losing battle for our self esteem in this world that we live in. You see it, we see it. What we know intellectually and what we believe in our guts are different. For us to really change our beliefs a whole lot else will have to change too.

I so hope your little girl holds onto that feeling she has about herself. It was wonderful to read. It was like watching the way little kids dance - with complete abandon. They don't care who's watching.

March 8, 2012 at 1:16 AM | Unregistered CommenterGappy

it's funny how when we learn to externalize our view of ourselves we so often seem to learn to see with impossible, unreal eyes, and not the way those who will come to love and appreciate us will see, later.

it takes years to trust those human eyes, even a little. i wish it were not so backwards.

March 8, 2012 at 4:36 AM | Unregistered CommenterBon

fucking brilliant. damn.

March 8, 2012 at 4:58 AM | Unregistered Commenterneena

Love it! I just went to see "Miss Representation" yesterday with my sister, my 11-year-old niece and my aunt. It was all about how the media distorts women's images and downplays women's intelligence and real power. This was the perfect complement.

March 8, 2012 at 5:12 AM | Unregistered CommenterAverage Jane

I just can't believe it, and then I look at myself from the outside and I think about what an idiot I am but it doesn't make me believe it any more.

March 8, 2012 at 6:15 AM | Unregistered Commenterthe grumbles


Anyone ever tell you you're good at writing?

March 8, 2012 at 7:39 AM | Unregistered Commentertwobusy

My answer is way too personal and about-me-not-about-your-post for your comments section. Anyways...I get this so hard. I am so afraid that my daughter is going to stop seeing how amazingly magically beautiful she is. SO afraid. And I know it's coming.

I may just throw this in her baby box for someday when she needs to read it.

March 8, 2012 at 7:50 AM | Unregistered CommenterMr Lady

The weird part is that we do it to ourselves. Look at a women's magazine. It's like a how-to guide for self-loathing.

I didn't get the feeling, when I was in Southern Mexico and Costa Rica, that women had this same feeling. They women I met and saw seemed pretty confident in their own beauty and seemed to love beautifying themselves, wearing their best clothes even to do errands. I love this video, which reminds me of that:

March 8, 2012 at 8:13 AM | Unregistered CommenterSuebob

This is so big and beautiful and such a punch in the gut. I might print your daughter's poem and hang it on the bathroom mirror.

March 8, 2012 at 8:16 AM | Unregistered CommenterNichole

I remember. I remember when I was little - maybe 3, less than 5, I had a babysitter who liked to tease me with "You're pretty! Pretty ugly, that is!" I'm sure she was teasing. But I didn't understand it then. I started to listen.

I remember the first time a boy in my class made a comment about my nose. I can't remember now if I was 9, or more like 12. But I'd never thought about it before then. I didn't know it might be too big. But I did for every day of my life after that. I still don't like my profile.

I remember the first time someone called me fat. It was my sister, and we were fighting, so I figured she didn't mean it. It didn't occur to me until later that maybe I was, at the time. I'd never been chubby in my life. It was a new thought for me.

Mostly I learned through observation, of the boys who were not interested in me, and the girls they seemed to like. I filed away the ways in which I didn't measure up. Oh. So that's what pretty is. Funny enough, most of those girls were my friends growing up, and I'd never thought of them as anything special, or of myself as somehow less, until I realized that others did.

And I remember the first time I started to question that long established belief that I was not pretty. I was in college, and for the first time in my life, surrounded by people I didn't know, instead of people who had known me since I was 5. And a few of those people.. guys.. actually seemed to think I was hot. And I started to hear it from them enough, that I wondered if it could be true. Not absolutely true.. of course not. But enough that I considered the possibility that maybe I wasn't ugly.

Ten years later, I still do not know. I go back and forth on it. There are days when I see the girl they must have seen. And days when I can't see her at all. I still compare myself to other girls.. usually friends.. and wind up feeling inferior. But I try to hear the compliments when they come. A lot of the time, they still don't sound true to me, but I like hearing them. And little by little, they have made me feel like there must be some truth to them.

I don't know how to stop the cycle. I don't even know how to reverse my own. But never believe that a compliment is meaningless. We hear them. They matter.

March 8, 2012 at 8:21 AM | Unregistered Commentervoicimespensees

i'm speechless and don't know what to comment. thank you so much for this.

March 8, 2012 at 8:23 AM | Unregistered Commenternic @mybottlesup

Your little daughter's poem is wonderful! But now, seriously, I'd be pretty darn SCARED of a 25- (or 35, or 45...) year-old woman who could honestly feel that way! I actually know one, and she's...WEIRD. It's part of the human condition (for both boys and girls) to enter the scary world of adolescence, where all is "changed, changed utterly," and innocence is replaced with knowledge.

Painful? Puzzling? Perplexing? Oh, yeah. All that. But most of us emerge on the other side wiser and happier, not (as you suggest) beaten down, ashamed, and self-loathing. Now, I do grant you this much: "fair" or not, it's a wholllle helluva lot easier to make that wondrous transition if you are CUTE, whatever "cute" means in your particular culture. Holds true in the animal kingdom, too. But that is not the fault of "modern society" and the media---it has been that way since the days of Cleopatra, Helen of Troy, et al. But look at the terrific, brilliant lives lived by many of those who were---let's be frank---born ugly. Happens. Yep, sad but true. Examples: Edith Wharton's face would stop a clock, but she wrote magnificent novels and had a cool life. In our own day, there's Sarah Jessica Parker---nobody could ever call her an oil painting, but she's talented and spirited, so needs not cry because she doesn't look like Michelle Pfeiffer.

Well, my stars, y'all, we ALL get ribbed, teased, called names when we're little (and if we're honest, we probably lobbed a few choice insults at our sisiters and brothers, too) but...hello there, we GET OVER IT.

March 8, 2012 at 8:56 AM | Unregistered CommenterZelda

Nice to meet you. You're not nearly so scary as I've heard. So, so pretty.

March 8, 2012 at 8:58 AM | Unregistered CommenterHeather

You should be the next poet laureate. And you should start with this love poem to women. I will read this to my daughter tonight. I will mix it into a bubbling red potion that she can sip from every day.

Actually. Maybe your girl should be the next poet laureate and she should start with her love song.

March 8, 2012 at 8:59 AM | Unregistered CommenterKate

My god.

Pretty all true sent me over here, and she was right.

Incredible. Tear inducing incredible.

Thank you.

March 8, 2012 at 9:36 AM | Unregistered Commenteralexandra


I don't remember myself in the before, but I remember my daughter. It was magic. I have never been so enchanted by anything in all my life.

March 8, 2012 at 9:49 AM | Unregistered CommenterAdrienne

I spend way too much fucking time thinking about beauty; mine, hers, whoever's. I'm tired. I want to be okay with ugly, with age, with dry gravity wrinkle grey and just stop thinking about it all. I don't want to give a shit if my eyes are twinkling or blue anymore. Let them fade and cloud and dull. Whatever.
Girls/gals/women should smash more mirrors and buy more books.

March 8, 2012 at 10:01 AM | Unregistered CommenterElle Vee

I have been thinking about this, the time when it changed for me... I was trying to write about it, and have stopped and started and stopped again. When you spoke of the commitment, something crystallized for me. I know how to proceed, now. Thank you.

I think it will help your girl a lot that you are ready for this battle now. And I think--though this is always our own battle to fight, as women--that a father's early influence can have more impact than a dozen boyfriends who get to know us long after we don armor.

March 8, 2012 at 10:02 AM | Unregistered CommenterKim

Thank you.

March 8, 2012 at 10:12 AM | Unregistered CommenterJayme

All very well expressed and written. But don’t ignore the fact that women help perpetuate the ‘model’ of what is pretty. While some women want to be considered equal in the board room, others want to strip at clubs. Yes, everyone should have a choice in what they do. But with those choices, come consequences, impressions, ideas, stereotypes, etc. – no matter how wrong they may be – and models, opinions, ideals of what beautiful is are formed which have a resounding impact for all women.

March 8, 2012 at 10:13 AM | Unregistered CommenterIn The Beyond

Thanks for this post. Particularly your efforts in cracking, wide open, the definition of beauty.

March 8, 2012 at 10:43 AM | Unregistered CommenterSarah

I love your writing, and yes I remember I was 9 my Auntie said that I really should grow my hair because my short hair made me look like a boy, also helpfully reminding me that I should stay as skinny as I was because no one liked a fat girl either. I can still hear her. The borderline eating disorder was only a matter of time.

So what is sadder for me is that inevitably throughout history it is WOMEN making other women feel ugly, small and not enough.

You write a beautiful post and I hope you show it to your daughter someday when she needs to see it

March 8, 2012 at 12:38 PM | Unregistered CommenterSharron

You could not convince my daughter that she is not beautiful. We told her all the time when she was little and as she grew older. And she is 27 and I still tell her she's gorgeous - and she is. And everyone who sees her believes it. And she turns heads. And she gets hit on everywhere she goes. And she's really got no more going for her than most other girls. Honest. But damn, she's confidant.

So keep telling your Elle Bee she's beautiful and she will be and she'll know it. And keep that note and show her when her faith is shaken and tell her it's the truth.

March 8, 2012 at 12:45 PM | Unregistered CommenterJeannie

Forever and ever amen.

March 8, 2012 at 12:48 PM | Unregistered CommenterJustShireen

Yesterday on my walk home a chariot appeared towed by a crazy artist on his bicycle, Faelo the drug-burned genius. "GET IN!" he yelled. "IT'S MADE OF WHEELCHAIR PARTS SO IT'S TOTALLY SAFE!"
I swayed from foot to foot. I don't know. I'll look stupid. It's NOT safe. My skirt will fly up. I'll look stupid.
This is how I ended up with every spring a funeral march, watching the one who loved me leave my self-inflicted ugliness behind. "I just don't feel that way about you any more..."
..."OKAY!" I yelled and climbed in, knees akimbo, unladylike, ridiculous, mysterious, wild, with HAPPYNESS AND LOVE ALL DAY LONG "LET'S GO!"
We rumble at a fast clip, the wind in my hair and up my skirt. The locs in the lowriders stare and the working woman having her afternoon cigarette watches. I am Helen of the Hood in a madman's chariot. I smile at them, I wave like an idiot, I look STUPID with HAPPYNESS. I grin at my adoring invisible irrelevant throngs, WOW WHAT A BEATYFUL LADY I AM.
Thank you for helping me see that when it comes to my beauty, IGOTTHZZ.

March 8, 2012 at 8:04 PM | Unregistered Commenterlitmiss

This is brilliant. I somehow escaped the thinking I'm ugly/fat/whatever gene. Whatever, I have had my own doubts and struggles, I believe I am firmly rooted on the edge of the spectum so that could be it.

I can't say I ever thought I was beautiful, though, either. I just didn't think much about it.

But I think about that phenomenon people experience; well, women anyway, when they look back at pictures and wonder why they worried so much about their looks -- they were actually kind of cute/pretty/sweet. And then they wonder about why they wasted so much time thinking they were not beautiful when, actually, they were(!!!). But they never internalise that idea into the present, which means they feel mad about aging, and worry some more. But then at 60 they look back at 40 and gain and wonder ...

I've just often wondered, what's so hard about not worrying about it. But then, I guess that's what weird wiring will get a person.

March 9, 2012 at 7:48 AM | Unregistered Commenterkaren

Me too, Karen. I do the stuff and play with my looks but I don't think about how other people feel about it very often.

March 9, 2012 at 8:44 AM | Unregistered CommenterSummer

No matter how confident you are about your looks, aging is very humbling. Honestly, I always knew I was lucky in the looks department. Still am. And my husband makes me feel beautiful. But the pull of gravity is one powerfully accelerating mo-fo past the age of 50.

Talking about it helps. Laughing about it is even better. But still, I will admit to some grief over it. I hear tell this gets better at about 80. That the aggravation turns to gratitude. I am hoping to get to that point sooner than 25 years from now. ;-)

March 9, 2012 at 10:17 AM | Unregistered CommenterClare

Truth. You write the truth. I am a woman who knows that truth and I have a daughter who will know it too. Great post

March 9, 2012 at 3:01 PM | Unregistered Commenterjennie

The best thing that I hope to do for my daughter is to teach her that we are what we do.

March 9, 2012 at 8:17 PM | Unregistered CommenterA Lady

Damn. This made me feel like questing for the source of my own red bubbly potion... Thank you.

March 10, 2012 at 6:32 AM | Unregistered CommenterTracy

I don't ever remember feeling beautiful. And that totally sucks.

March 10, 2012 at 8:01 AM | Unregistered CommenterMomo Fali

This reminds me of another post I adore, which is here http://blog.pigtailpals.com/2011/08/waking-up-full-of-awesome/. At 43, I still don't understand why this is so easy to intellectualize and so hard to own for myself. It's silly.

March 10, 2012 at 12:26 PM | Unregistered CommenterABD

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