Two Women on Being Called “Ugly”

Does it hurt or not really?


The other day I overhead someone in the office proclaim “ugly” as an ineffective insult. It struck me as immediately true, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why beyond the obvious. Had I always felt that way? An anecdote sprung to mind from last summer, when someone called Harling, our Social Media Editor, ugly, and I’d seen her react in such an interesting way. Because of that and because I love her and her sharp-as-a-tack brain, I asked for her thoughts. At first it seemed like we agreed too vehemently to unearth any wisdom, but after a while we stumbled upon something kind of great:

Haley Nahman: Early on, before we fell in deep and intimate love, I just liked you a normal heaping amount. I remember one day you were recording video for Facebook Live and some piece-of-shit hater vermin commented that you were ugly. You read the comment aloud to me and then laughed. I was shocked (and also confused, because wut) and annoyed. But you didn’t seem to give a fuck. You moved right on. Or appeared to. Do you remember that? I was so impressed.

Harling Ross: I do!! One of my very first Facebook Lives. And my very first troll.

Haley: How did you feel?

Harling: Mostly curious about what would make a random person on the internet say that (it was a woman by the way — I clicked on her profile picture and she looked to be around my age). It didn’t really offend me because it seemed like such a lazy insult.

Haley: You would have been more offended if she was like, “This wasn’t funny or interesting”?

Harling: Yes, or like “You really seem unprepared for this interview” or even calling out a specific feature that I’m sensitive about! The word ugly is meaningless. It’s very pre-school. Especially so coming from someone on the internet. It stings way less than it would coming from someone like…your mom. Or a significant other.

Haley: I talk about this a lot re: comments under my stories. When they’re straight-up mean or misinformed, they roll off my back. But when they’re more thoughtful and pointed and critical and they really get at something that I think is fair, they’re much more likely to get me thinking and feeling something. Have schoolyard insults always been ineffective? Or are we just smart enough to shake them off now?

Harling: It probably depends on how you actually feel about yourself. I don’t think I’m ugly. I’m not saying I’m Gisele Bündchen, but I don’t think I’m UGLY.

Haley: Lol, you do not even need to hedge here!!!! You’re beautiful Harls, but yes continue.

Harling: Thank you. I came here for constant praise of my looks. That ugly comment probably would have stung more at other points in my life. It was surprising that it was from a woman though. Because — although Man Repeller is really lucky to have such a nice community of readers and commenters overall, which feels rare and special — when we do get occasional nastiness, it’s usually from men. Saying things like, “You truly are man repellers,” which is just…so silly. It’s almost funny.

Haley: That’s my faaaave comment.

Harling: Especially because we don’t even use the term “man repeller” literally anymore and also: Do you speak for all men, sir?

Haley: I completely agree. Also, on a lot of of our fashion posts on Instagram, someone will be like “…sorry…” I’ve never once been bothered when those were about me.

Harling: I love those.

Haley: Same. The time I remember being most bothered by Instagram comments was when, under your post about my No Effort Diet, loads of people were like, “Congratulations……” They were accusing me, I think, of missing the mark with the whole story. Even then, I remember thinking, “Ok, ok, ok, I can take that criticism.” Again, the difference there is that the “insult” was attacking my creativity, my idea, rather than my appearance. Those just hit harder.

I still have plenty of insecurities when it comes to how I look (you remember my self esteem story?). But these days I draw more of my worth from my own perceived level of intellect and emotional intelligence, my ability to think and empathize. That is where I am more sensitive to insults.

Harling: Yes — agreed. As we get older and start to shift which stores we pull our worth from, it’s easier to shrug off appearance-based insults from other people. Or even from your own head. This quote from Leandra’s Why I Don’t Wear Makeup is relevant to this discussion:

“More important than that though, I am comfortable with how I look. I don’t hate what I see when I look in the mirror. Even if legions of others don’t agree. I have accepted the reflection that reliably bounces back at me for its perks and its flaws. I understand that there are thick, dark circles under my eyes. I have grown to appreciate them. I have noticed that my nose grows a little hookier on a near-monthly basis. That’s fine. I know there are wrinkles ready to stake their claim as full time residents on my forehead any moment now. My dad has those, too, and I find that endearing. My eyes will never be blue, my bone structure will never allow for you to mistake me for a Scandinavian model. I am who I am and even if that infers ‘ugly as fuck,’ I think it’s, I don’t know, beautiful.”

Haley: I wonder if ugly is only particularly ineffective in the orbit of Man Repeller. Because our entire business was created as a subversive space. So when someone says that it’s like…that’s the point!! That’s why I’m so tickled by the comments on our IG that say we are “truly man repellers.” It’s like….THANKS!

Harling: So true.

Haley: It’s strikes me as very tone deaf and misguided to attack us in that way. But maybe “ugly” lands differently in a different environments. Maybe it bears more weight in a place where traditional beauty is a more valued currency.

Harling: Man Repeller is not trying to meet the beauty standard. It’s trying to smash it up and remake it in a radically inclusive way that will make you feel better than you did before you got here.

Haley: Exactly. Maybe part of MR’s mission, in a way, is to make ugly more ineffective everywhere. Because it still has power in a lot of spaces. But we’ve reclaimed it in our very name.

Illustration by Maria Jia Ling Pitt; follow her on Instagram @heysuperstar.

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  • rachel

    I think part of it depends on the source, too. If some random guy on the street said I was ugly, whatever, but if a friend said “you look really ugly today” that would sting, because its coming from a place I trust and automatically believe. The source is important to how I see compliments too– if a guy I don’t know tells me I’m hot it’s inconsequential, but if a friend tells me my skin is glowing that day its more likely to make an appreciable difference in my confidence.

    • In grade 6 my class went on a field trip to the mountains. We were hiking up a hill and I started sweating, and I said a sentence that included the phrase “I’m hot.” A girl that I thought was my friend replied, “No you’re not, no one has a crush on you.” And it really hurt. Now I laugh about it but it still stands out as one of the meanest things anyone’s ever said to me, and I think it did hurt because I wouldn’t have expected her to saying something like that.

  • Kirsten

    Wow, I love this so much. Thank you both for sharing!

  • a) harling i want your ability to shake off shit like that it is a power i do not fully possess yet

    b) the part about smashing up the beauty standard? yes please keep doing that it is important and refreshing

    c) i still remember a night in college when i was out, wearing a shortish skirt and a woman commented on it’s length by very eloquently saying, “that skirt is so short i can see your vagina.” she followed that up by telling me i wasn’t pretty enough to wear an outfit like that anyway. very insecure 21-year-old that i was it STUNG and stuck with me and looking back i wonder how a female could say that to another female. in person, too.

    as i get older and it continues to seep in that the definition of beauty, of worth, is much more than someone’s subjective opinion of your appearance, i am truly glad there are platforms like this that stand out amid the noise and help to reiterate that point.

    • Harling Ross

      a fun thing to do is pretend you’re Taylor Swift and sing ‘Shake It Off’ in your head and/or out loud

    • Nel Dunkley

      Agreed: it’s shaming younger women’s youthful exuberance & fertility. An elderly aunt of my (now 90yr old) mum said to her in adolescence: nobody would look at you if it wasn’t for your nose (it has a pretty retrousse shape), and her two sisters were utter beauties, whilst she was ‘attractive’. She always complimented me & was sweet in that way to me. Old school, though: trim figure or she feels sorry for that person (never get a worthy boyfriend) if they get fat! I’ve always been healthy & lean and never got a worthy boyfriend so stuff that 😁

  • Max

    I was the booked guest on this early Facebook live, and Harling you are in fact beautiful, outside and inside.

    • Harling Ross

      MAX!!!! There’s a you-shaped hole in the office and it’s bad for morale.

  • klc

    I love this so much. When I feel ugly or bad in general I am going to read this and pretend you two are my best friends.

    • Harling Ross

      no pretending necessary

  • Olivia AP

    This is great. First of all only a very small portion of the whole world’s population will meet the beauty standards we see in magazines and TV, beauty is a broader concept. And as Leandra said your physical appearance is given and as you get older you see in yourself traces of the people you love, I don’t have a small nose (and I think mine is getting bigger as well, or my face smaller (?) lol ) and even when I can change it, for me it’s my family’s nose (although nothing wrong if you want to change how you look)
    And I don’t get why women will call another women ugly, we get enough shit from men to be shitting on each other, it seems like some mean people think their “beauty” is correlated to other people’s “ugliness”. Fuck them…

  • Unfortunately, I am not able to imagine a situation in which Harling is considered/called ugly. It just won’t go into my head (the same is true for everyone else, but I got stuck in the beginning of this post and cannot move on).

    • Harling Ross

      <3 <3


  • Delaney

    This is so refreshing. Also, I think when someone calls another person ugly (or any insult at all), it most of the times is not about them. It’s the person doing to insulting that has insecurities or is in a dark place that triggers the need to diminish others.

  • I always feel better than before I got here. xoxo

  • lily

    I have never had a boy tell me that I was ugly but when I was growing up other girls said it to me? Like I have 3 different memories of that happening and looking back now it’s just like what??????? What are you gaining from telling me this? Do you feel better about yourself? Also A+++++ to the Leandra piece. “I don’t hate what I see when I look in the mirror.”

  • Imaiya Ravichandran

    go awff!

  • Lola

    This article is the reason Harling and Haley (and the rest of the MR gang) will forever be my woman crushes.

  • BK

    Years ago when I was living in Berlin, I was wandering the down boulevard to the pub with my best friend after dinner when, out of nowhere, two young guys came right up into our faces and in brutish teenaged German that stank of cigarettes, proclaimed that, whilst my friend was “pretty cute” (she is), I looked “disgusting, just so ugly!”, and they cackled off into the night, thoroughly pleased with their sterling silver, unparalleled foray into social commentary. At the time I rolled my eyes and kept walking, but of course it carved out a little niche in my skull and kept popping up front of my eyes at unexpected moments. My friend spent the next day being oddly more maternal towards me but other than that didn’t bring it up at all, which I was grateful for; in retrospect I can tell that I was in fact for some reason ashamed that it had even happened to me, and by extension ashamed that my appearance had caused such offence to warrant a remark from strangers. I don’t think I’ve ever even told anybody this story until now! (not bc I’m still ashamed but just because these days I don’t it isn’t really that interesting a story in other contexts)

    One day shortly afterwards, tormented by the taunts of my two Teutonic assessors, I sat down in front of the mirror, had a good hard look at my face, and realised that I was in actual fact Not Beautiful. I have freckles, but weird ones, not cute ones, as well as a witch’s mole on my giant forehead; heavy, unseductive eyelids, and protruberant ears which contrast oddly with the pointy little face of a general criminal. My resting facial expression is best described as a sneer and I have a naturally sarcastic voice to match, regardless of my mood; I’m like a girl Malfoy but without the refined bone structure, pet peacocks or war criminal father. I only look weirder with makeup on so I avoid wearing it, which means I can’t even convincingly disguise myself into something more alluring.

    During my self-evaluation, though, I realised though that it was impossible for me to actually hate how I looked. I look like my mum a bit, my uncles a lot, and when I really thought about it, I discovered I had never actually put a lot in stock with my personal appearance anyway. I put far more effort into being kind, generous, loyal and independent than I do my looks because at the end of the day, beauty fades and there are other more important things to care about. Also, just putting it out there: Malfoy is like 10x more interesting, cool, and memorable than Harry and I am willing to engage in hand-to-hand combat to overcome any who think otherwise.

    • Sabah Malik

      war criminal father, you made my day

  • Heleen Peeters

    Thank you for this…. Also I wanted to add that I first started feeling less hurt about when someone called me ‘ugly’ when I read Leandra’s article about ‘why I don’t wear make up’, and about that forwarded e-mail , remember.. I suddenly started to see myself in a different perspective because off what i was reading.. (Leandra and all of you girls over there are so beautifull) and I’ve been hooked to Man repeller ever since.

  • Jackie Homan

    Harling and Haley, both your faces and your words are beautiful <3 This piece was amazing and really inspiring and heartwarming

  • doublecurl

    The flip side of this though is that when “ugly” is used in a way that transcends appearance, like “you’re a truly ugly person” it can be one of the most deeply cutting things you can say about someone.

  • Adrianna

    My instagram stories are a mix of selfies and my daily life in NYC. Half the people who view every single one called me ugly when we were tweens or teens.

  • CatMom

    Yes. So much.

    I recall the exact moment the insult “ugly” stopped meaning anything to me. I was maybe 22 or 23, and I was waiting to cross the street at a stop sign and a guy sitting in a truck, waiting at the stop sign said “Hey beautiful, can I get your number?” I don’t even think I reacted, really – maybe something like “No thanks.” And when I got to the other side of the street, he leaned over and said out the passenger’s side window, “Yeah, well you’re ugly anyway.”

    That’s when I realized that “ugly” didn’t really mean anything – and neither did beautiful. They were just expressions of how pleasing I was to this stranger, and they clearly had nothing to do with my appearance, since I don’t think I sprouted a tail between the time I stepped off the first corner and onto the second. In a way, it’s kind of a victory – it means you’re doing something that, as a woman, you’re not “supposed” to do.

    • Kate

      This is a really smart comment. You’re dead on. I hope you managed to laugh at him. Best medicine for misogynists.

    • Hannah T.

      I love this.
      Insults don’t mean anything to the person they are targeted at. Insults are just how that person feels about themselves. Not just insults but in this instance.

  • Serena

    Harling Hayley, your friendship warms my heart. That is all.

  • Marty Funkhouser

    You are beautiful, no matter what they say. These words can’t bring me down. No No No!

  • magicalhat

    Such a good story! I wish we would talk about it more. I watched all my ugly duckling friends growing into beautiful swans and I kept waiting for my moment. But then one day I looked into the mirror and it turns out I’m actually a platypus. Not even a real bird, but that’s ok right? We all have our role in the ecosystem and that’s cool.

  • Annabel

    i love you guys

  • PCE

    I love this! I feel the same way about people calling me “fat”… in high school it would rip my insides when someone would refer to me as fat, but now I just laugh it off. It’s almost like, Really? If that’s the worst thing you can come up with to say about me then I am doing okay in this life. I’d be more offended if someone called me dumb, or mean, or selfish than if I’m called fat. I’m not sure when that changed for me, but I think it comes with age and maturity. You reach a point in your life where you come to realize how many other things are more valuable in life than appearances. It’s liberating!

  • Rachel Askinasi

    Rock on…seriously. I think the bigger take-away is that insults are effective as insults when they attack the things about you that you aren’t quite solidly sure about, or something you truly value on high.

    When someone makes a face at my outfit, I find that I couldn’t care less because I know I think it’s awesome. But when stabbs are taken at the way I do my job, that’s when I feel the deep zing.