A few years ago, my friends and I made a pact to never tag one another in a photo without prior approval. I could argue that this is for security or privacy reasons, but we all know that’s bullshit. We made the pact because we didn’t want to look ugly in front of Facebook.
It is a shallow, self-obsessed, narcissistic mindset and we knew it even then. But down deep in our marrow we also know that being pretty really, really matters. It matters in dating, obviously, but it also matters in getting a job and making friends and getting free lattes at the coffee shop, and even in getting a judge to dismiss your traffic tickets.
As much as we may not want to admit it, being mainstream-style attractive is one of the most powerful privileges one can experience in Western culture. Like any privilege, being attractive doesn’t guarantee you an easy life, but it does afford you a sort of springboard to many different types of success.
I think that’s one reason the Subreddit PrettyGirlsUglyFaces has been so wildly popular. Attractive women take two photos of themselves -- one is your typical Facebook profile picture: sexy pouts, sideways glances, and duck lips. The other is the same girl making a terrible, silly, ridiculous face.
When a friend posted the Pleated Pants round up on Facebook, I was entranced. It was exciting and terrifying and immediately took me out of my comfort zone. As someone who has spent her whole life receiving messages that beauty is all that really matters, I knew I had to, at the very least, give it a try. Even if just for myself.
The results were so horrific and humiliating that I immediately trashed the bad photo. Then I pulled it out of the trash and forced myself to look at it. It made me a little sick.
My life has been a legacy of beauty. I may not have traffic-stopping looks, but I was a very cute little all-American child who was told way too often how adorable she was. As a result, I spent my childhood trying to find a way to be even more attractive: sneaking on make-up, wearing face cream to bed every night in second grade, always trying to find a cuter outfit, actively campaigning my mom to finally learn how to do French braids, and spending hours praying to God to give me big boobs.
When my adult teeth came in, however, God answered my prayers by making me markedly not cute. My teeth were so big and out of whack that I couldn't fully close my mouth, and getting my lips over my teeth was an effort that was only made worse by a ghastly set of braces in 5th grade.
In reaction to the shift from adorable to painfully awkward adolescent, I did a lot of harm to myself in the name of beauty. I won’t get into the details of my disordered eating, exercise and weight loss practices, but trust me when I tell you that I know what it’s like to hate your body and want to just cut something out -- like the softness of your thighs or the thickness you think you see in your arms.
I spent extraordinary amounts of time in tanning beds because of my pale, freckled skin. I had sincere hopes that if I could just get tan enough, the freckles might blend together and just look tan. And after a while they did. Consequently, I had 8 moles removed from my skin before I was 35, 3 pre-cancerous and one so dangerous I had to have part of my toe cut off and reconstructed by a plastic surgeon.
But ultimately, I was lucky. I grew up to be pretty.
It felt weird to write that just then. Did it feel weird to read it? There's an agreed-upon discourse we girls share, isn’t there? You say, "You're so pretty, Joanna!" and I say, "Oh, I have really big thighs," and then you say, "No, you do not. You should see my stretch marks!" and then I say, "Oh, you're fine! My belly's a mess, like a sea sponge, and I have scars everywhere!"
We can go on like this forever and almost every woman passing by would know how to speak the coded language of You're fine, but I'm a piece of shit. It’s our culture, we’ve been taught this language from childhood. As beautiful as each of us may be, it is never enough.
Social media only makes it worse. There are potentially 700 people looking at every photo I post on Facebook, judging me or desiring me or hating me or wondering what happened to my youth. It’s even worse with my headshot, which you see anytime you Google me or find one of my articles online. The body of my work is supposed to be what matters in my authorship, isn’t it? And yet the way I look in that photo really, really matters.
That photo was carefully constructed by my two talented photographer friends. One posed me and directed me about the angle of my chin, showed me where to look, how much to smile and how to hold my arm so it wouldn’t look fat. The other chose my clothes and put make-up on me, clipped back my unruly hair, and held a bounce board so that light would shine up at just the right angle. The result is the best photo ever taken of me, and I swear in 20 years I’ll still be trying to claim I look like that.
And it’s not that the photo looks all that different from how I appear in real life, it’s just that it matches up with all of my most stringent expectations of myself. I think most women can identify with having one really great photo you hope lives forever, and that’s what I think is good about PrettyGirlsUglyFaces. It sort of deconstructs our obsessive relationship with showing only our perfect selves.
But that’s not all it does. In an intense debate on Facebook, people criticized the project as being ableist, elitist, and even racist. The first reaction of my writing partner, Eli, was that it is basically just a bunch of women making fun of fat people.
It was sobering to stand on my privilege and realize that the critics were right. I believe that in some ways, the project is a deconstruction of beauty and social media and the ever-present quest for perfection. But it also makes clear what “ugly” means. It means looking fat, having thin lips, double chins, crossed eyes, and the general appearance of being disabled.
Upon the realization that this was all true, I felt ashamed for having participated. But looking at my “ugly face,” I remember the revelation I had at posting that photo. I will be honest: I literally thought I was going to throw up or have nervous diarrhea making that photo public. It was particularly bad when I put the photo in the conversation thread on my friend’s Facebook page. These people know me. And I look so bad. I actually broke out in a sweat pushing SEND.
But for that moment, stepping through the discomfort, I didn’t care who saw me like that. And I started to really see the beauty we’re all fighting for in these endless social media shares.
I do think that what’s happening at PrettyGirlsUglyFaces is rooted in ableism, fat-phobia and looksism, but it also points a giant flashing arrow at the shitstorm the beauty industry has created for us women. Two of my dear friends also posted photos, and we agreed that in that moment, we did something we’ve been absolutely terrified to do -- because we’ve been blocked by vanity and a profound fear that if someone saw us looking less-than-perfect we might somehow lose our value to the world.
At the very least, PrettyGirlsUglyFaces starts a conversation about how our society has been damaging women all along with its narrow, racist, fat-phobic and ableist beauty ideals. And that’s a good thing. As long as we also recognize what lies at the very core of our definition of “ugly” and do our best to try and put an end to those destructive messages.