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The thing about ugly duckling syndrome
A reflection of self-worth
We want to hear from more voices and broaden our own perspectives, so we recently asked members of the Diem community to pitch their own stories for this newsletter. Our next guest essay is by Colette Fountain, a journalist based in London who enjoys writing about internet culture, dating trends, and niche subcultures.
Want to write for us? If you want to pitch a guest essay idea for the newsletter, read this guide and email our editor, Taylor Majewski, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There wasn’t really a defining moment in my life when it suddenly felt weird to be single. There wasn’t a shift when I turned 18, or when I was the only person in my friend group without a partner. It was the kind of realization that snuck up on me.
I think my early adolescence was defined by ugly duckling syndrome, meaning I was someone who received little attention from the opposite sex throughout my formative years. As a result, of course, I developed a complex about my own value and self-worth.
There are some things that are burned in my memory. On nights out, I remember being the girl that guys would come up to when they wanted my friend’s phone number. I stockpiled insults. There was the time a man told me that I could make dreadlocks out of my eyebrows. There was the time a man told me that I wasn’t conventionally attractive.
These small interactions shaped me for a long time, informing the hunched, shy, and quiet way I moved through the world. I learned to base my worth on things other than my looks, like the way I made people feel and my academic success. I painstakingly avoided drawing any attention to my acne-scarred, gap-toothed, bushy-browed face. I was desperate for a “glow up.” All I wanted was to be reinvented as a desirable, likable version of myself.
For a long time, I kept a list of all of the medical procedures I was going to undergo as soon as I turned 18. I knew the price and the perfect surgeon for each one. Between college and university, I changed huge aspects of my appearance. I cut off all of the mousy, beige hair that I learned to hate and dyed it brown with one blonde streak. I got a septum piercing to disguise my harsh, angular nose. Notably, I lost weight.
It started to work. During my second year of university, I went on my first-ever date. Since then, I’ve had a spattering of dates, gaining confidence with each one. Little by little, I’ve stopped hating myself, but it’s been challenging to now navigate external validation later in life.
For many years, attractiveness was my ultimate pursuit. My personal style became more revealing. On dating apps, my interests were thrown to the wayside. Instead, I chatted with men who would describe what they wanted from me (usually something to do with whips, handcuffs, or anything impersonal). But sexual, surface-level male attention didn’t fix the deeply ingrained feeling that I was undesirable.
There are two paths for the ugly duckling, both of them awful. First—the lack of male validation in childhood makes you retreat so far into yourself that you’re almost entirely incapable of dating, so unsure about how to navigate communication, compliments, and romantic attention. Two—you over-sexualize yourself and allow others to treat you poorly because you feel so grateful to have been looked at.
Time and time again, I found myself playing “the cool girl” with men. I would try to act easy, or funny, so they would look past my perceived flaws. I’m 22 and I’ve still never been in a relationship, so I struggle with the idea that someone could like me as an entire being. I try to convince myself that I’m complete on my own—through solo dinners, cinema dates, and an interrailing trip through Europe last summer. But I do feel pangs of jealousy whenever I see a happy couple, sad that I missed out on the ease of navigating dating as a teen when it seemed less important.
I wish I could say that the only way I built my confidence was through self-love and affirmations. The reality is, of course, that I still place a lot of my own value on male validation. However, some other things that I found have helped include: going out to nice dinners with friends, trying “empowering” dance or pole classes, sticking post-it notes on my mirror with things I like about myself (not just physically). But mostly, talking to a professional. I been in therapy for almost a year now, which has helped me unpack a lot of the complex feelings I had around self-worth, despite my initial cynicism for seeing a therapist in the first place.
I’m still not fully there, but I think I’ve accepted that fluctuating self-esteem is a natural side effect of being in your early twenties. Despite that, I’m happier and more confident than I’ve ever been—so I know I’m OK on my own—but I feel for the insecure, teenager I once was.
I’d like to tell her it gets better. I’d like her to be kinder to herself—to look in the mirror and see herself as beautiful.
This Week’s Diem Commentary
👀 FTGC (from the group chat): “Does anyone out there who lives with a man also experience completely inane questions? I’m talking about things like: ‘Where’s the washing powder?’ or ‘Do you know where the Ibuprofen is?’ Is this learned helplessness an epidemic?” Feel free to vent here.
👀 How do you get over someone you dated for a short period of time? An important question.
👀 NJP (no judgment please): Do you ever check your partner’s phone behind their back?