Foreword: Here in Brazil, it is customary to say to children, upon catching them doing something considered wrong or bad (as can be imagined, anything that inconveniences adults for some reason), that they or what they are doing is ugly; when they are “good” (obedient, compliant, etc.) they are said to be “pretty”. Ugly and pretty represent the two sides of the same punishment-reward coin, further linking the notion of “good” to “beautiful” and “bad” to “ugly” and vice-versa and deepening the feeling that appearances are more important than essence. I wrote the following in one sitting, as an exercise proposed in a feminist group – the goal was to write about our personal experiences with sexism and adultism and how that had influenced our lives. When I finished it, I was astonished to find how accurately it described my feelings of inadequacy in a world filled with standards that I could not meet.
“Women should be pretty even while pooping”
I grew up hearing that.
Except I wasn’t pretty. I wasn’t pretty to the world outside my house because unless I had drastic cosmetic alterations done to me I would never be the skinny and chesty blond girl that is the current beauty standard; and I was not pretty to the world inside my house because my “beauty” depended on what I did, what I said, the way I behaved, what I thought, what I wore.
When I was about four years old I found out in the playground of the preschool I went to that I would never be superman. See, I couldn’t be superman, because I was a girl. It wasn’t the grown-ups who told me that – it was the children with whom I was playing, shocked into laughter by my lack of awareness. Oh, how ugly I was! The girl who wanted to be superman.
A while later, I found out I was even uglier than I thought. My mother, appalled, with my innocent note in her hands – “Ai loviu” it said – first corrected my English and then my intentions. A little girl doesn’t send that kind of note to another little girl. Why not, mommy? Because it is an ugly thing to do. There.
I was ugly.
So I had to make up for my ugliness. I had to please, however I could. And in my house it was difficult to please. Volatile adults aren’t normally easy to please. What may please in a moment may displease in the next. What renders affection in one occasion may result in a spanking at another.
I soon learned that my ugliness contaminated my words, which were offensive even when I never meant them to. “Is this singer still alive?” I asked once, curious about the voice that melodiously filled the silence of my father’s study. “WHAT?! WHAT?! SAY THAT AGAIN!” Luckily, the outburst of violence was contained before it became physical. I ran into the backyard, confused, relieved for not having been beaten and… angry at my own ugliness, which prevented me from perceiving the ugliness in my words. Ugly! Ugly… Ugly.
It’s just that some men, who don’t have much esteem for the female gender as a whole and even less for children, can be especially demanding with their daughters when they feel emasculated outside their homes (which, of course, tends to happen to them fairly frequently – all it takes is being cut off in traffic, having a female superior at work, not being the superior at work, etc.). They impose absurd “beauty” standards and severely punish any ugliness.
And many times their wives also feel very ugly and, on account of that, instead of defending their daughters, they just watch passively to the spectacle of violence. Afterwards, they hug their children and ask them to understand that their father is going through a difficult moment, ask THEM to make an effort to prevent this kind of thing from happening.
Ugly that I was, my existence was punctuated by tiger looks, swearing, adjectives, ear-tuggings, wrist-slappings, knuckle-knockings on my head and, of course, beatings, usually to my butt, ranging from the classic spankings with bare hands to the use of belts decorated with bits of metal, wooden sticks, measuring tapes. And of course, since my ugliness didn’t end along with my childhood, soon I was big enough to get beaten in flurries of slaps and kicks that seemed to come from everywhere at once.
In fact, ugly that I was, I was made to apologize for being beaten, “for having made them beat me”, for needing a beating to placate my ugliness. Because even though sometimes it seemed like beating me was a relief for whoever did it, like the person was looking for an excuse to do it, it was, in fact very unpleasant HAVING TO beat me. So if it happened to me it was because I had caused it myself.
At least I learned not to feel my anger, to keep it locked up inside me, so as to not become even uglier (ugliest thing it is, to be mad at the people who brutalize you for your own good).
Ugly that I was, those were my moments of truth. The rest of the time, when I was not being beaten, it was because I was pretending to be someone I was not. I was pretending to be pretty. And constantly afraid of being found out, that the fraud in my assumed beauty would be exposed… which naturally always ended up happening.
But I kept on trying. Maybe someday I would believe it myself. I was ugly so I had to please. More than please, I could not displease.
I was taught to fight, clench my fists and hit, hit hard, hit with all I had, to “defend myself”. I was taught, actually, that that was the best way to deal with conflict. But if I was ugly, if I was “a little shit”, for being a child, for being a daughter, for being a teenager, for being me, for being ugly… what right did I have to defend myself? I deserved whatever was done to me.
I knew how to fight, but I felt unworthy of defense – my life was a series of punishments for my ugliness and in spite of my best efforts I kept on being ugly, kept on deserving to be punished. So, in an effort to appease my necessity for struggle, for justice, I sought relief in other people’s causes, hunting down windmills, always derisively called “the paladine of the underdogs”. I had to fight for someone, given that I was unable to fight for myself.
My words were assertive, my posture, confident. My stories were invented, my aggressiveness was assembled, my sexuality exaggerated. To myself, to others. It was all make-up for my ugliness.
I was ugly, I had to please. If anyone showed any interest in me, I had to meet their expectations. Nevermind that I wasn’t into it. Nevermind that I wasn’t ready. Maybe that way I could get a little attention, a little notoriety… and maybe that could pass for beauty for a second.
I was a deeply troubled child; they were mostly young men looking for something in which to stick their dicks. Something, yes, because women are objects, not people. Especially ugly girls like I was. And I, who so wanted to be pretty, got even uglier. Now, not only ugly, but unclean. And it was my own fault. Because of my ugliness, my shamelessness. Oh, how ashamed I was of my shamelessness! Of not being able to stop. Of not being worthy of respect. I didn’t want it, I felt no pleasure in it, I had no reason to do it… but still couldn’t stop myself. I had to please. I could not displease. I couldn’t say no. I was ugly.
And in my school, those who heard that the ugly dike was already putting out wanted me to service them too. And when I said no (I don’t even know how I managed to say no, I think it was more a case of it being physically impossible to happen, of not having a place where it could happen), they started to torment me daily. They groped me when I passed by them, called me names, took my things, humiliated me. How dared I say no to them? Who did I think I was? Ugly like that? There was no point in challenging them to fight – and I didn’t know how to deal with conflict in any other way. The teachers knew, everybody knew, but they all thought it was well deserved. After all, I was ugly. I had it coming.
Until recently they still drove by my house during the night, yelling about my ugliness – “sluuuuuuuut!” A long time afterwards, when I bumped into one of them in the street, his reaction was bizarre: he stared at me threateningly, as if I were a criminal, with all the anger and entitlement of a person glaring at someone who owes them and got away with not paying their debt. That was the magnitude of my ugliness – enough to be held accountable for it, to be demanded to feel shame for it, with resentment and with loathing, by the people who should have already realized that they took advantage of that ugliness, who should be thankful for not having been arrested or prosecuted for that. But the shame, the ugliness, was my alone to bear. After all, no one twisted my arm, no one put a gun to my head. I went because I “wanted” to.
It was the same posture adopted by an old man who caught me with some boys and tried to blackmail me into fucking him too. When I say old man, I mean he was at least over fifty. Surprising even myself, I stood up to him, calm and lucidly explaining that he could go on and tell whoever he wanted because I would tell everyone he had tried to blackmail me. He left me alone… but years later, upon seeing me in the street, he stopped dead on his tracks and stood there, just staring at me with deep hatred. Who did I think I was, me, shameless girl, ugly girl, to stand up to him like that? So was the measure of my ugliness. A rapist felt entitled to stare me down.
And it wasn’t just him! There was another occasion in which, still a teen, I was once again doing ugly things in an attempt to stop being ugly (my whole life was devoted to that, after all) and I was caught in the act by a man in his thirties… who also tried to exploit the situation. The result was fortunately the same – I managed to repell the atack with a coldness that shocked even me. This guy I saw many other times after that, and he did not hostilize me further.
It was only many years later that I came to realize that I had, in both cases, succesfully fended off attempted rapes. Those were grown men trying to take advantage of the ugliness of a teenager. I keep asking myself how many teenagers and children end up giving in to this kind of pressure (“do it or I will tell everyone how ugly you are”). I wonder what it was that compelled me to stand up for myself when in other occasions I had taken whatever was done to me passively. Had I sensed an inarguable gravity in the conduct of those two specific men? Had I felt that they were therefore even uglier than me? Was it a bluff, a dare, was it counterphobia? Could it be that I was trying to be brave, telling myself that I was corageous, so that I would feel prettier, less ugly? Or that I was trying to convince myself that all the rest that I was doing was actually because I wanted to it? That I was ugly, but I wasn’t that ugly, that I was ugly, but I wasn’t a victim?
When the men I lived with, my then ‘spouse’, my so-called partner, leaped at me in punches and kicks all that came to my mind, as my head spun this way and that with every blow I received while paralised in shock and unable to react, was the first man who did that to me, the first man who showed me how ugly I was. And I felt that all that, deep down, was my fault. Because I was ugly. I had to have had it coming, it was the only explanation.
I ran my hand down my ugly face, saw my ugly girl’s blood and thought that not even daddy had drawn blood from me like that… I felt his fingers tightening around my neck and I fell to the ground and saw, as is if in slow motion, his foot coming to hit me in the face, me, already fallen, already defeated, defeated by my own ugliness, defeated by my inability to defend myself. In that split second, the animal inside me decided it would not die like that. I don’t know exactly what she did, but I got away. And I am certain that I owe her my life.
I dragged a suitcase weighing over fifty kilograms for what felt like thousands of kilometers, a via crucis, a walk of shame – humiliated, beaten, bruised, hurt… ugly – the people in the street swerving to avoid me. Then a cab stopped. The driver got out and, without uttering a word, took my suitcase, put it in the car, opened the door and told me to get in. That he would take me wherever I wanted to go. I was scared. I told him I was ugly, although not in those words. I told him I could not pay him. He told me he had a daughter and that he would never want to think that someone would just go past her when she was in such a state (such a state!) without stopping to help her. His eyes were clear, sincere.
And that hurt… it hurt more than the beating I had taken. That was a father, a father who did not judge me, who did not hit me, who was more concerned with me than with my ugliness. He helped me in spite of it. It was almost as if I weren’t really ugly, as if it were all just in my mind. And all of a sudden every slap, every beating, every pain I had ever had came at me all at once. I had to be ugly. I had to. Otherwise… I wouldn’t have deserved any of that. And the horror of having been treated that way unjustly was too much for me to bear. At least at that moment.
And later I found out I was pregnant with the man who had beaten me. And I had an abortion. Not because it was his. But because it was mine. Because I was ugly and anything that came out of me would be ugly too. And I knew the pain of being ugly. I didn’t wish that on anyone else.
Many years went by and one fine day, I, who had never even held a baby in my arms, started having this strange desire for children. That desire wasn’t just mine, wasn’t just for myself. I now knew and loved a very, very special person and the idea of us making a baby together was beautiful. Beautiful. So beautiful I even forgot how ugly I was.
I started noticing the children around me and the way they were treated, started remembering – remembering myself and how I felt when I was treated that way, how it felt to be an ugly child. I realized that there was a huge distance between what parents thought they were doing to their kids and the kids’ perception about what their parents were doing to them. And that that was very, very strange, since all parents certainly had one day been kids.
So I decided to do it differently. I started to read and seek out information and learn. And in the process of learning, I revisited the ugly little girl inside me. And I came back to that moment in that cab so many years ago, when my world, resting upon the pillar of my ugliness, nearly came crumbling down. At the time, I couldn’t kick that shit down and watch it all fall, whatever the fuck might come from that. But now I could. I had support, I had love, and above all I had a child who deserved – and still deserves – that effort.
It was then that I opened the door to the “beaten and hurt little girl who never leaves the kitchen” (reference to a poem by Manuel Bandeira) who was inside me. And we cried together in each other’s arms for a long time, as we still do, freely, over the ugly story of how we discovered our beauty. And we tell each other about every slap, every tug to the ear, every belt lash, every insult, every pain. Every sigh locked away in our chests, every anger boxed in, every resentment. And that way we go, healing ourselves, in the salt of our tears, in the warmth of our love.
As we go out to play with our daughter. Who will never, ever, be ugly. Not to me. And, I hope, not to herself.