Sunday, December 4, 2011

On Being The Ugly Friend, or, the one in which I remember how gender stereotypes are harmful

I'll be the first person to admit that I am not like my peers.  I never have been.  I never will be.  The majority of the time--99% of the time, even--I am quite alright with that.  I can fit in enough in enough, but I am definitely different.  Most of the time, actually, I don't even think about it anymore because I hang with people on the same wavelength as me.  My friends are people who get it, and get me, and are people I feel good around.  I guess that's why we're friends.
This weekend, though, I had a holiday party thing I had to go to for work, and I stayed with some of my colleagues from work--friends from work--who invited me to stay and go to a Christmas festival near their apartment the following day.  What fun!  I love working with these folks.  They make great colleagues, we laugh, we help each other out, we support one another, and we serve as sounding boards and idea generators for one another.  I could not ask for better people to work with.
So I went, I hung out, we had fun, we laughed a lot, and I came home.  Driving home yesterday afternoon, though, I had this distinct sinking feeling in my stomach.  It had been coming for a while and had been building throughout the afternoon.  I ignored it, because I knew I had fun, I knew spending the weekend with them was better than spending the weekend at home in SmallTownUSA by myself, and I knew my friends had fun as well.  What's the problem?
I'm not good at ignoring things for long, though.  My mind likes me to think things to death, and if I attempt to avoid that, it only serves to make it worse.  So I started thinking.
My friends, Amanda*, Sarah*, and Matt*, were the primary cool kids I hung out with this weekend.  Other people were there at various points, but Amanda, Sarah, Matt and I were the fearless four who went adventuring.  Amanda and Sarah are, in a word, gorgeous.  They both in different ways exemplify our culture's ideas of beauty.  Although we were just going to a street festival in the cold where people drank beer and bought gingerbread cookies,  Amanda spent at least half an hour doing her make-up before we left.   She straightened her hair.  She tried on three different outfits before settling on the skinny jeans, tall boots, sweater with a cowel neck and a belt that emphasized her skinny waist, and I swear to all that is holy, her purse matched her boots.  When we met up with Sarah, she was also in the skinny jeans, with boots, a cute holiday-ish shirt, and an adorable little peacoat.  Every hair was in place, her eyelashes were aligned, and she had a cute little purse that Amanda flipped over.  Their jewelry all matched and I'd bet money that their underwear matched their bras.  And Matt?  He wore a red shirt with a black tie and a pullover sweater so he looked like he stepped out of an L.L.Bean catalog.  I was, without a doubt, the ugly friend.  If I'm honest with you--and I do believe in honesty--I spent much of my time walking around focused on the fact that I was the bruised or misshapen banana in this bunch, and praying to the Goddess-of-Women-Who-Don't-Fit-In that nobody had a camera in their adorable, shoe-matching bag.
To be fair, I was at a distinct disadvantage because I had only what I had packed, did not have access to my full wardrobe or make-up or accessories, and...let's get real.  Even if I had, I wouldn't have looked like that because that's not how I dress.  My hair is always in some sort of disarray, my body is far from perfect, my accessories never match, and I don't own any matching bra and underwear sets.  Sure I'll wear some mascara, but that's typically the extent of the makeup, and my eyes are terrible and have been rejecting of any contact I have tried in the past 5 years, so I seem to be stuck with glasses until I can afford Lasik.  To make me feel even better, Amanda and Sarah commented routinely on their appearance, asked one another for opinions, and commented on how much they had eaten, or hadn't eaten, and which clothes were going to fit or not fit after the upcoming holiday season.  When Sarah posed questions about what to wear to an upcoming winter wedding, and which purse would match her dress, Amanda was able to think it through and come up with an answer.  Me?  I just agreed with whatever was said as I, honestly, have no opinion or experience to offer on whether a clutch with feathers or a clutch with sequins would be better with a black strapless dress with gold sequins and a little poof in the skirt at a winter wedding.  (The answer, for anyone curious, was feathers).
So we're walking down the street and we started going into stores along the very expensive stretch of road we walked along.  There were jewelry stores, purse stores, shoe stores, and expensive cupcake stores.  There were random expensive clothing stores, insanely expensive furniture stores, and another jewelry store.  We walked through the festival, sometimes going into stores to warm-up, and it was in these stores that my sinking stomach feeling originated.   See, when women shop together, I've found, we all comment on what we see and what we love and what we don't like and what we can't imagine anyone ever buying.  This proves difficult, however, when the women you are with act like they would buy out the store in a heartbeat and, had someone given you a thousand dollars upon entering the store and told you to buy whatever you like, you would have left empty-handed.  There is something in me that just can't justify ever spending that much money on a purse.  And the shoes?  I would either break my leg, wobble like an elephant on stilts, or never get my foot in the damn things to begin with. 
But you know, even being the ugly friend, even having nothing to say about the $500 purses, and even being the only one who didn't try on a pair of $185 heels didn't bug me as much as this: the signs/mugs/plaques.  You know what I'm talking about?  They have signs like these in all cute little shops.  They can say anything, but these signs held primarily quotes about lipstick and shoes and what it "means" to be a woman.  What women should be like.  The way, supposedly, that women are.  "A girl should be two things: fabulous and classy," said one, with pictures of high heels and lipstick around it.  "Shoes are the foundation of all fashion," said another.  My friend pointed to it, and nodded knowingly.  "That is so true," she said.  I nodded.  "Yup," I said.  One can only crack so many jokes to avoid the awkwardness, and one can only disagree so many times.  "Just around the corner in every woman's mind - is a lovely dress, a wonderful suit, or entire costume which will make an enchanting new creature of her."  "A dress makes no sense unless it inspires men to want to take it off you."  The quotes were endless.  My friends agreed, "yes, that's TOTALLY true."  I laughed with them.  As The Ugly Friend, it seemed only appropriate: one can't be The Ugly Friend and also disagree about things every woman wants!  That would indicate being perhaps a hopeless cause, or worse. 
At one point, I was desperate for some sort of validation.  As Matt and I stood waiting for Sarah and Amanda, I pointed to a sign that said something to the effect of "All a woman needs is a good pair of heels and some great lipstick."  I nudged him and motioned towards the sign: "I've gotta tell you," I said, "I just don't buy it."  I motioned in the direction of the $500 purses.  "And that?  I just can't understand."
"Oh," said Matt.  "Huh."
"Yeah," I said.  "Just not how I was raised, I guess."
"Hmm," he said.  "Every woman I've ever known went crazy for this stuff."
And just like that, the final bottoming out of my stomach happened.  Perhaps, because I was different, because I don't wear skinny jeans and match my earrings to my purse and my purse to my shoes, perhaps I am less of a woman.  That feeling--that feeling of being less of a woman, of not quite meeting the criteria I am supposed to fulfill to keep that title--is what stuck with me in the car ride on the way home.  I am different, and somehow less than, and not what I am supposed to be.
It's not anything my friends said or did.  If anything, it's my own insecurity playing out and has nothing to do with them, but it's also the effect of a society that has taught men and women alike that, just as "all men" are macho and strong and manly and brave, women are interested in shoes, moody, cry at the drop of a hat, are sweet, and match their lipstick with their purse.  When people--such as myself--don't fill that stereotype, and are among people who either fill that stereotype because that is genuinely who they are or because they drank the Kool-Aid, the only logical conclusion that can come up in the moment, sometimes, is that they are less than what is expected.  Are there women out there who love fashion and shoes and lipstick?  Absolutely.  Is there anything wrong with that?  Of course not.  Is this trend representative of all women?  No.
I don't generally mind marching to the beat of a different drummer.  Sometimes, though I wish the drummer would just, at the very least, be in tune with the music of the others around me. 
*All names have been changed.


  1. Angie unduplicatedDecember 5, 2011 at 9:52 AM

    Pretty women keep our kind around to make them look better, and because we do not compete. Workplaces give us default friends. Two things are certain: femme up and they will ditch you; express interest in a definite sexual partner, and they may laugh at you or disparage you. You have to keep your job so work around these facts. Please, though, find some additional friends with your profile and not theirs, women and men who do not equate femininity with consumerism gone wild.

  2. Not all pretty women keep ugly friends for that reason, of course. Some do, and it's nasty. Others actually care about their friends, even the ugly ones. But it can be impossible to be very close friends with such women anyway. There's not only the constant awkwardness of being ugly in a beautiful crowd, but also them blissfully embracing all the consumerism and sexism thrown their way, and expecting the intellectual feminist friend to nod and laugh along. There's just too much fundamental differences for a strong friendship.

    (You were nervous about posting on Feministe's shameless self-promotion sunday - don't be nervous, your writing is interesting and definitely worth everyone checking it.)

    -Sunatic (tried using my Livejournal account to not be anonymous, but it keeps giving an error message...)

  3. Can't agree with you, Angie. Women can't be shoved into stereotypes like that. Pretty women have the same feelings and insecurities as the rest of us.

    AutoD, you are the least ugly woman I know. Sure you felt that way, but you know as well as I do, ugly comes from inside, not from a purse or a matching bra and panties set. But beyond the platitudes, WTF? You're cute as can be! You have your own style. What's more beautiful than that?

    I know I can't talk you out of your feelings, but don't dwell there with them. I'd be bored silly talking about purses and makeup all day. I can only play in the shallow end for so long and then I need something real. You don't need to stay there long either, especially if it's not fun for you.

  4. Angie, thanks for your comment! I have to say that I also respectfully disagree, though, and I'm afraid I may not have made the point I was attempting to make here. The people I work with are good people, and I do not believe that any of them would attempt to hurt me in any way. My insecurity stemmed from being a woman attempting to fit into a mold that supposedly encompasses "all women" (according to popular media/society), but does not actually include me. Most, if not all women struggle with fitting or not fitting into some subjective societal standard of "beauty," and we all have our own insecurities about our subjective beauty (and intelligence, and everything else). I don't wish for this to be a post saying "the people I work with are materialistic and shallow," or even "materialistic and shallow people are bad," or "pretty people are shallow and materialistic and that makes them bad/untrustworthy, etc." I don't believe any of those things. I have known some fantastic materialistic people and some kind shallow people with wonderful hearts. This is meant only to be a reflection of who I am, today, in relationship to my peers and in relationship to current societal perceptions of beauty and what it means to be a woman.

  5. Sunatic, thanks for your comment and encouragement! Come back and read/comment again. :)

  6. Reticula, thanks. :) That's a good way of putting it--I definitely don't do shallow well. At least, not for long periods of time. In fact, I'm pretty sure I dive into the deep end prematurely all the time. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn't, but in the long run, it almost seems to work out better for me than staying in the shallow end of the pool. *hugs*

  7. I think your insight is phenomenal and I've been in your shoes too. I've been known to wear skinny jeans, and high heels, and attempt to match purses (that happens about 1% of the time) but while reading your post, I realized that there are people who dress up because they enjoy it and it makes them feel good (me) and those that dress up because they think they HAVE to (the friends you spoke of). I hate how some girls get all sorts of dressed up all the time and always look perfect. How do they do it!?!?!?!? It's positively exhausting! Those girls are superficial, at least to some degree. Anyone who cares THAT much about their appearance must think that's about all they have going for them; they must think that dressing/acting like that is the only way they're ever going to make friends, and have guys interested in them. Perhaps some guys will only be interested in the "perfect" girl, but I'm willing to bet those guys are just as superficial.
    I've had the same feeling you spoke of when you were driving home. When I worked with people at the restaurant (not my normal group of friends), I wanted to be friends with them because it was better than not having friends at all, but I kept thinking to myself "These are not my people". Sometimes you have to make do with what you have, and just wait until you're in a different place with other people. Stand up for what you believe in. Believe me, you are the better person in that bunch. You're interested in things that are actually important. By refusing to be like them, you are declaring that you are secure in who you are, and that is wonderful! You are my people and I love you for you!

  8. ( I know this is late, but I just got my computer fixed and and finally able to read this blog again.)

    I just heard this on a TV show the other night : "so what's your problem?" "That I will habituate and lose the vision." and...yeah

  9. I know exactly what your talking about I felt the same way and it took me awhile to get over it! This is an awesome post and I don't think people realize what it is like, unless they feel like the "ugly friend". Also what helped me to get over it is every day find one thing I liked about myself and focus on that. Also working on figuring out my own style and what looked good on me and not following my friends style. Everyone is different and beautiful to someone, love yourself! I also did "The Best Friend" web series, The Best Friend is a a comedy web series. The episodes explore the relationship between two best friends who are very different. One is the "pretty" girl and the other thinks she is the "ugly" friend. It's on I think anyone who has felt this way will enjoy this series! xoxo