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The Ugliness Project

ugliness project

A year ago I embarked on something I called The Ugliness Project. Someone gave me a piece written by a young woman who was in terrible pain because she believed strongly in her own ugliness.  In this moving essay she articulated every single feeling I’ve had about myself at one time or another, and though I never sent it, I wrote a letter to her, that turned out to be a letter to myself as well.

As long as I’ve been aware of myself I’ve had feelings of not being good enough, and certainly not pretty enough. Pretty enough for what is irrelevant, because when you feel you aren’t pretty it doesn’t matter whether you are or not because I promise you are not. It is impossible to feel hideous and be pretty. And so I embarked on a project to dissect and ideally deconstruct those feelings, and maybe even replace them with something more positive.

My project had all the qualifications of an earnest grammar school book report including colored construction paper, photos taped to said paper, and handwritten paragraphs beside each of the fifteen pictures laid out in chronological order from age seven to my mid-thirties. In each paragraph, I tried to recall how I was feeling about myself at that moment.

I think what shocked me the most was that in most of the pictures the girl I see ranges from pretty to very pretty, with an awkward moment at age thirteen.  I can see myself in each one, the same face I see now, apparent in all of them, and yet though I can see what was there then, it is still tough to go from those pictures to the mirror and find those same features somewhat older and try to find my own beauty, but I know it is there.

People who love me, when I am willing to talk about it, all swear that they think I am beautiful, but of course, they do. That is part of loving someone; seeing their beauty. I have met people who I thought were unattractive and as I got to know them they became beautiful to me. I am trying to learn to be that generous with myself. To grasp that it doesn’t matter if someone thinks I am beautiful because of or in spite of my physical appearance, they are equally real. Just as the great beauty who is unkind and unpleasant becomes unattractive.

In the letter I wrote to Joanna (and myself) I wisely wrote:

Every day you spend believing and buying into these thoughts is a day stolen from you.  It is a day you are denying yourself both your own self-regard and the love of others.  It is a day spent alone and in isolation, apart from the world, you feel unworthy to take part in.  Every day (and those days mount up so fast you will not believe it) you spend hating yourself and believing that what you are is ugly is a day of being ugly, no matter how beautiful you are, and you will make yourself as ugly as you fear you are.

And so I go to the mirror and look deep inside my own smile. I look for the person I know is there. Would I be happy if by some miracle that face was a bit thinner and younger? Sure, but if my Ugliness Project has resulted in an even slightly more beautiful me, it has been a success.


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  • December 9, 2014 - 8:59 am

    Peggy Gilbey McMackin - Deep article Nancy, good job. Admittedly, this is a really difficult topic for me,it troubles me tremendously, especially surrounding young women. I’ve seen many physically beautiful young women really struggle. I’ve also seen many average girls appear even more beautiful just in their giving, kindnesses towards others and generosity. I hope your ugliness project has been a success, and based on your photograph, you look very pretty to me! Have a great day.ReplyCancel

  • December 9, 2014 - 12:42 pm

    Erin Schaus Egbert - Such an incredible heart felt piece. Started my day with it. Thank you.ReplyCancel

  • December 9, 2014 - 3:54 pm

    Jocelyn Craft Mathis - Lovely, Nancy. And so true for so many of us.ReplyCancel

    • December 11, 2014 - 8:17 am - Thanks Jocelyn, yes I’d love to make a project of convincing people of their value and beauty.ReplyCancel

  • December 9, 2014 - 7:47 pm

    Chloe Jeffreys - This was so heart-breaking, Nancy. You are so lovely to me, and yet I know that those words feel hollow when you feel so incredibly bad about yourself.ReplyCancel

    • December 11, 2014 - 8:16 am - Chloe, thanks! Maybe I need a dragon tattoo of my own, even if it’s virtual not actual. I hear women with dragon tattoos can take on anything 🙂ReplyCancel

  • December 10, 2014 - 2:15 am

    Angie Walker - What a great project.ReplyCancel

    • December 11, 2014 - 8:15 am - Thanks Angie, it was illustrative!ReplyCancel

  • December 10, 2014 - 1:34 pm

    Janelle - The problem with mirrors is they don’t show the inside, and that’s where the real beauty lies! 🙂ReplyCancel

    • December 11, 2014 - 8:15 am - Janelle, The trick is to find the right mirrors! Thanks for stopping by.ReplyCancel

  • December 10, 2014 - 11:50 pm

    Prajakta - It is awful when even the innocense of 5 year old is marred by superficial beauty. I heard a 6 year old say she wants to go on a diet! To slim down. It is horrifying and no real solution except that you need to start believing in yourself. I had written something long back. Maybe you’ll like it –

    Stopping over from yeahwrite!ReplyCancel

    • December 11, 2014 - 8:14 am - Prajakta, I couldn’t agree with you more!ReplyCancel

  • December 11, 2014 - 4:08 pm

    Asha Rajan - We’re always most critical of ourselves, aren’t we? I love the positive note at the end though, that you’re working to see your own beauty. That’s a great lesson, indeed.ReplyCancel

  • December 11, 2014 - 7:37 pm

    Liz - I have often looked back at old pictures of myself and wondered, “Why didn’t I see the beauty then that I see now?” After encountering this often enough, I started telling myself that maybe I could only see my own beauty in retrospect. This small thought has helped me be a bit more gentle with the person in the mirror. I also like to think of this line by ani difranco, “It took me too long to realize that I don’t take good pictures because I have the kind of beauty that moves.”

    I hope that through your Ugliness Project you are able to find your beauty & that you will blieve in it as strongly as you have believed in your ugliness.ReplyCancel

    • December 12, 2014 - 9:33 am - Liz,
      Thanks, isn’t it funny about the old picture thing, trying to reconcile the younger me with the current me… I’m getting there, it seems to work like the half-life of radium.ReplyCancel

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