Ask Polly: My Boyfriend Thinks I'm Ugly

Dear Polly,

The amazing man I’m with told me to improve my looks when we first got together. We’ve been together four years now. Here’s the story:

When he first met me, he had fallen for me straight away, always coming in for coffee on my shift at the local cafe, always texting first, offering rides home, asking me out first. He was very sweet and persistent.

I was hooked and I said yes, yes I will be your girlfriend. Then some shit started…

He never complimented me on any of my physical traits, yet every weekend we hung out, he would somehow manage to tell me that he wanted me to have larger breasts like so-and-so, get more toned legs like this person, grow your hair long and put on some eye shadow…. A lot of similar things were said over and over for probably the first six months of our relationship. I think I didn’t confront him for so long because I really liked him otherwise. I was also only 20 at the time and really wanted this relationship to work.

I was incredibly hurt every time but I held my disappointment and devastation inside. Then one day, I was mad enough to confront him. I told him that what he was saying was downright hurtful and that he shouldn’t be with me if all he can think of is improving me and making me more like other women he probably desired.

He was completely shocked at my confrontation as if he didn’t realize he was hurting me. Right after that he never compared me to anyone again, he even started complimenting me and saying that I was the most beautiful woman in the world to him.

I usually tell him to drop it with the comments because I don’t believe him. It annoys the hell out of me that he always tries to overcompensate.

You might be wondering why I stay with him? Well, he’s WONDERFUL. He does dishes, takes out garbage, is kind and thoughtful. He always wants to buy me anything and everything I want, even though he can’t cause we’re not rich, but he always tries his best. He listens to me and is interested in my life. He supports my goals and dreams and always believes in me when other people do not. He is faithful and compassionate. It’s difficult to leave such a lovely package.

My theory for his actions at the beginning of the relationship is that, he was just being completely honest, without any thought for consequence. On the very downside, his ridiculously honest comments at the beginning of the relationship have given my self-esteem a beating. Sometimes during sex I feel inadequate cause I know I don’t look a certain way.

BUT… why oh why did he say such cruel things and then try to over-compensate??? It is very very annoying.

AND HERE’S THE TWIST. The other night he decided to compliment me. I got mad and started saying he has been lying all these years. And then… he admitted that he had been!

He said that I am not the most beautiful woman to him. He was just trying to make me feel better and mend the wound.

WHAT THE FUCK. Why go through all the trouble of lying just to tell the truth? Sigh. I am pretty relieved to finally hear the truth. Because I always knew.

Now I don’t know what to do, I’ve been largely ignoring this issue, sweeping it under the rug.

I would love some straightforward advice. I want to know if it’s worth it to stay with a man who didn’t really want me for who I was physically. I know relationships are not based on physical attraction. But do you think his actions have been unreasonable? I feel hurt and kind of ugly. Should I completely forgive him and keep focusing on the positives of our relationship?

He has since said, “Physically you are an okay, pretty girl, but that’s it. Many girls are much hotter than you.” I know this is true. I’m glad he can be honest again. But I don’t know if I can get over the fact that he lied for sooooo long.

I really don’t want you to tell me to follow my heart, and that it’s up to me to choose what I do. (Because that’s what people have told me.) Please tell me what to do… OR tell me what you would do if you were in my situation now.

Thanks in advance.

Not Hot Enough

Dear NHE,

First things first. Your wonderful man is a fucking moron, no more, no less. Straight out of the gate, he was a total and complete idiot, not to mention a sexist dimbulb who had the gall to reduce you to the sum of your (individually analyzed and rated) parts. Sadly, this is just how dudes (and women, too) are grown in this poisonous culture, to see each unique flavor of gorgeousness as some mutant strain that needs all of its lovely originality beaten down and smoothed over until we all resemble bland catalogue models and Disney-branded fuckdolls. If your dipshit boyfriend had a magical looks mixing panel, so he could adjust your nose shape and cup size and leg length and waist size and eye shadow levels just so, you’d come out looking like a cross between Pamela Anderson and some nondescript child star from an ABC Family sitcom, trussed up in Ru Paul drag. And you would be BUTT FUCKING UGLY.

The camera (and therefore the dick sitting in the greased hand) may prefer big watery doll eyes and baby piglet, button noses and tits like two overinflated volleyballs, but in real life, even clueless dudes like yours prefer real adult humans with words that spill out of their misshapen mortal mouths. So what’s a poor guy to do? After several decades of training his dick, via strenuous porn- and US Weekly-aided beatdown sessions, he goes and falls for a regular, real-life woman with thoughts and feelings and tits that aren’t turgid, an ass that isn’t airbrushed, features that aren’t supernaturally inoffensive. He thought you could make a few simple changes and get him off faster. Lazy, tactless, almost unforgivable, if not for all the other good stuff about him.

You kept your mouth shut for way, way too long. You were young. HEY LADIES! Don’t bite your tongue when your new paramour starts clumsily hurting your feelings about your physical features. Make it crystal fucking clear that you are unique and beautiful in your own way and if a dude can’t see that with his lazy pig eyes then he should get his rocks off with 2-D images and leave you the fuck alone. (You can get this point across without sounding like a vengeful evil queen in training, of course. Theoretically. Not that I’ve tried.)

Now, plenty of smart women out there might tell you to dump the dude immediately. Not me. I believe you when you say that he’s great. I really do. Considering how toxic and fucked this culture of ours is about looks, we cannot lay that giant burden of blame on a probably very nice dummy boyfriend. He stewed in these toxic cultural juices for way too long.

And sure, clearly he went overboard in his awkward attempts to fix everything. You waited WAY too long to speak up, and he was mortified when you finally did. He had NO FUCKING IDEA he was hurting you. So he starts saying you were perfect in every way instead. He is not a smooth guy. Bu this heart was in the right place when he tried to clean it up.

So then what happens? THEN you grill him exhaustively about his sweeping and exaggerated lying about your looks, which — I don’t know, lady. I get it, I totally do, but you’re starting to really push it, ripping the old bloom off the rose as if that’s going to help. So finally, you leave him no option but to tell you EXACTLY WHAT HE THINKS. (Ladies: Don’t fucking ask.) And here is what he thinks:

“Physically, you are an okay, pretty girl, but that’s it. Many girls are much hotter than you.”

Do you notice that this statement is basically what the mirror tells the evil queen in Snow White? The magic mirror tells the evil queen that she is beautiful, sure, but SNOW WHITE IS ONE THOUSAND TIMES MORE FAIR. Which translates, roughly as, “You’re OK. You’re like a 7, maybe an 8. But Snow White? She is hot as shit, dude. She’s like an 11. And I’ll be honest, there are tons of 9s and 10s out there. But you’re pretty. You’re a 7. Maybe an 8 with make-up. You’re at least an 8.5 when you’ve got my dick in your mouth.”

OK, fine. Magic mirrors don’t have dicks.

The point is, your boyfriend’s exact words match those in a fairy tale for a reason. Unbeknownst to most people, the moral of “Snow White” is not “Don’t taste sketchy fruit from pushy old ladies.” It’s actually “Don’t expect to be the hottest girl in the world, because you never, ever, ever will be. Even if you think for five seconds that you are The Hottest Ever, those five seconds will go POOF! and then some other little button-nosed, pale-ass hussy will roll right up and steal your thunder and you’ll be all GODDAMN IT I AM THE HOTTEST KILL THAT BITCH!”

(This is also the moral to a few of the better Tori Amos songs.)

So here’s the thing: Nobody gets to be the hottest. And thinking that there’s one hottest out there, or that there’s some 1% of hotness that floats around among 18- to 35-year-olds, constantly pushing out the elders and bringing in the youngsters, is deeply fucked. The whole statement “Many girls are much hotter than you,” is at once completely accurate for every woman alive, including your lower-rung Gisele Bündchens, and also totally inaccurate, because the so-called “hottest” are, in many cases, humans who’ve been sanded and sculpted and airbrushed into shapes and forms so common and bland they might as well be a hologram.

And that’s not to mention what happens when you actually speak to many of these sorts of strange people who are either naturally designed or custom-designed for the camera. Some of them are rocket scientists, absolutely. Others, though, have been so constantly besieged by their own stupefying hotness — always surrounded by fawning, babbling menfolk — that they have no onboard navigational systems and, in fact, are a little depressed and worried that no one digs them for who they really are. To the point where, if you say to them, “You’re super hot,” they feel like you’re saying, “You’re dumb and worthless inside. I will never look past your camera-ready face and see a real person.” I know it’s hard to feel sorry for hot ladies. But what I’m telling you is true. Hot people are sometimes very insecure, and a little dull in their repetitive, self-centered, not-all-that-sensitive-to-mere-mortals style of insecurity.

In conclusion: Worrying about all the hotter girls in the world, or thinking that you should move toward their ranks somehow, is understandable, yes, but it’s also totally fucking stupid, a waste of time, AND (as the evil queen in Snow White so beautifully demonstrates) a really good way to destroy your emotional health and ruin your entire life.

Competitive hotness is also terrible for your soul, and your personality. Stay in shape, shampoo your hair, sure, but don’t start thinking about your relative hotness in the room, in the neighborhood, in the town.

Because here’s the real truth. Are you listening? EVERY WOMAN YOU KNOW IS AN OK, PRETTY GIRL. Every single one. Every woman has been told there are hotter women out there. Sure, we all believe that there are these fine gradations of hotness that can be ranked. WRONG, MOTHERFUCKERS. Each face and body is uniquely gorgeous and riveting and special, and the healthier and happier you are, the more clearly you can see this. There is no hotness target you need to hit. You simply need to be active, eat raw green shit as much as you can stand, and — this is the crucial part — BELIEVE THAT YOU HAVE SOME SPECIAL SAUCE that is yours and yours alone.

Because even though you are soaking in this poisonous, monkey-spanking, Hooters culture, the fact of the matter is that the world outside your door LOVES that special sauce.

Let me tell you about myself. I am not and have never been the hottest. In high school, my best friend was widely agreed-upon to be the hottest girl in school. She was voted “Best Looking” and everything (Yes, we old people endured that shit). I was the ok-looking chick who got her leftovers. Sometimes the leftover dude would actually sit and sulk when his buddy disappeared in the next room with my friend. He would SIT AND SULK instead of making out with me, that’s how much he wanted her and was uninterested in my lukewarm leftovers.

Why did this happen? Because at the time I was gunning for the hottest one, too. IN HIGH SCHOOL, WE WERE ALL GUNNING FOR THE HOTTEST. And when you blindly gun for the hottest (LIKE A LOSER, ahem) you deserve to feel like lukewarm leftovers.

But when I look at old photos of all of my girlfriends from high school? We all look like different flavors of pretty. We are like a bouquet of flowers. We were all lovely in our own original ways. No one was the absolute most riveting. People who couldn’t see the bouquet, who would rather pick out one and say THIS ONE IS THE FUCKING BEST ONE are the sorts of people who dig red roses over peachy tulips and plucky daisies and interesting green weedy clustery flowers you’ve never even seen before.

Now I’m 43 years old. Do I think I’m gross? Sometimes. But generally speaking I feel good about myself. I run 4 miles four times a week. That doesn’t render me magically gorgeous, but it does allow me to imagine occasionally that I’m not wretched. My husband says the right things and I don’t dissect those things. I suspend my disbelief. I never accuse him of lying when he claims that NO ONE LOOKS NEARLY AS GOOD AS I DO. He is wrong, of course. I don’t ask him to be specific about who looks better and who looks worse. Ok, I do sometimes say stuff like, “I’m lucky you have such shitty eyesight.”

I’m not above it all, believe me. And there are days when I look my fucking age, and yes, I wonder how it will be years from now, when I look like Walter fucking Cronkite. I cannot wrap old age in my loving hippie embrace. When I eat too many cronuts, my face looks like an ass cheek. I occasionally long for sticky overpriced French eye creams that I cannot fucking afford.

But I know that no matter what else is going on with me, no matter how old and Cronkite-like I get, I’ll still have a little swagger, damn it. I will not stop believing that I have that special motherfucking sauce.

Beauty is not about the facts or where you rank on some scale, and only an idiot would try to put it in those terms. You, letter writer, are probably, in the words of the magic mirror, A THOUSAND TIMES MORE FAIR than me. You know what you need? More spark. More special sauce. More swagger.

You need to stop asking this boyfriend of yours specific questions. Do not ask him about your face or your ass or your tits. NEVER do that. Do not squeeze your thigh and point to it. Do not point out bad photos where you look like a praying mantis. Do not ask him where you rank. Why would you trust HIM on that front anyway? Like I said before, as nice as he is, he is obviously a moron about knowing when to shut his mouth, and what not to say when it’s open. Why would HE know how you stack up, or what beauty actually is, for that matter? The only relevant question is: Are you attracted to me? Do I turn you on? And clearly, if you asked him those things, he would say YES YES GIVE IT TO ME.

So you need to decide for yourself what makes you a special, irreplaceable flower in the lady bouquet. You need to notice that The Hottest and OK, Pretty are exactly the same when you’re talking to them, listening to them, spending time with them. My favorite, most interesting friends look the most beautiful to me, and I get confused when other people seem to see them differently because they don’t know them well. Your boyfriend seems to adore you. He is not cheating on you or flirting with randos online. He doesn’t own a cardboard cut-out of Pamela Anderson that he puts on top of your body when he fucks you.

The problem now is that you want to edit the stupid shit he’s said. You want him to read from a new script that will erase the old one. NOT POSSIBLE. Your big task now is to accept that men and women are not the same, that lots of men on this planet are at least a little dipshitty in the same dumb animal way that your boyfriend is, and that that’s just the way the world is today. A man is not a woman. Women are confused and weird in other ways. Women also do stupid shit. But right now, let’s accept that your guy has bad taste and can’t appreciate the bouquet of womankind, thanks to the cultural pollution he’s inhaled and ingested. Let’s gently nudge him toward seeing the REAL BEAUTY that’s around him, not just in you, but in all women whom he maybe considers less than officially hot. Let’s readjust his badly calibrated instruments through generous, kind attempts at enlightenment. Here and there. Gently. He is slow and clumsy. Be nice about it. He has a crappy palate, like someone who’s eaten nothing but Chicken McNuggets since the day he was born.

You should move past that. He adores you and gives you the love you want. Accept his donkey mind and American dolt taste and be done with it. What the fuck does HE look like anyway? Is he shaking off mega-wattage supermodels everywhere he goes? I fucking doubt it. Let the guy dream about perfection that doesn’t exist, if he must. He just doesn’t know yet that perfection isn’t hot at all, it’s bland and fugly. He’ll grow up and figure it out. Maybe.

But you also need to grow up and get over his shortsighted comments. Figure out that you have a special, special sauce that puts all of the Hooters blandness in the world to shame in a single instant. Figure out that your pull is so strong that your dude, even with his badly calibrated instruments, didn’t notice this or that flaw at the outset. All he wanted was you. Once he got you, he wanted to perfect you, because he is the whack product of a whack culture. Not your problem. His problem, his sickness, period.

Now, if you don’t read this and think, OF COURSE! MY SPECIAL FUCKING SAUCE! I’VE ALWAYS HAD IT! (I mean, what are all those boys doing in the yard, anyway? That’s my milkshake, motherfucker!) If no part of you is like FUCK YEAH, MY SPARKEDY SPARK!? Then you’ve got work to do. Work that has nothing to do with him. You have your own sickness. You need healing.

Therapy, maybe. Not to talk about your boyfriend’s ideas about your body. To talk about YOUR ideas about YOUR SELF. Why do you suspect that he will abandon you, or find you to be NOT GOOD ENOUGH (if, in fact, that’s what lies at the center of this anger you have toward him)? Who told you that you didn’t stack up? Who told you you were just ok, nothing special?

YOU ARE SOMETHING SPECIAL. It’s obvious to everyone else, isn’t it? Why can’t you yourself see it? Do you think you need big tits and eye shadow to see it more clearly?

Be patient and kind to yourself. Nudge yourself gently in the direction of noncompetitive appreciation of your place in a gorgeous bouquet. You will come to understand and appreciate your glorious place on this planet. You may need a therapist to help you with this, or not. Just don’t stay angry and scared, and stop giving your power away to other people. Look at the truth and then decide for yourself what YOU want to believe in, moving forward.

Most of all, don’t pin any of your struggles on your status as OK, Pretty Girl. From one OK, Pretty Girl to another, THERE ARE A MILLION KINDS OF FAIR. Stop treating yourself like cold leftovers. Embrace exactly what you have, love love love your pretty face for all of its distinct prettiness, and enjoy it like crazy. It’s not about actually being THE MOST PRETTY, it’s about feeling pretty. Feeling pretty IS being pretty. Learn to do the things that make you feel pretty. Accept your slow monkey boyfriend and look past his clumsiness, straight through to his big heart. He will learn, and grow. Feel the love, seize this glorious, shining day, embrace how gorgeous and unique you both are, and smash all the mirrors that say otherwise.


You’re not quite hot enough either? Write to Polly and discuss.

Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is The Awl’s existential advice columnist. She’s also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses. Photo by Don DeBold.