a guest post by Kaylee Jones
We all know the story of the ugly duckling. He grew up an outcast, because he looked different from his peers. However, after seeing his reflection in a pond one day, he realized he had never been a duckling at all; he was a swan who’d grown up judged by a duck standard of beauty.
The story has been used as a parable to teach individuals to accept their own unique beauty, and by extension - themselves, in a world filled with subjective standards for both.
I was your stereotypical ugly duckling.
I had knobby knees, a bad haircut, and a wardrobe full of 90’s clothes. I grew up in a time before social media and makeup tutorials helped guide young girls through their awkward pubescent years.
My beauty routine consisted of Bon Bon lip glosses that looked like edible optical illusions, hair clips shaped like butterflies, and body glitter as an everyday accessory.
There was no contouring. Highlighter was a utensil I used to study, not to accentuate my cheekbones. I crimped my hair, and I was proud.
Feeling nostalgic? Stop. This wasn’t the theme of a party; it was our lives.
Today I feel much more comfortable in my own skin, but please do not take this as me saying I grew into a beautiful swan. There is a chance that if I’d had the technology growing up that girls do now, I may have been different.
Maybe I would have had an opinion on my haircut, known how to draw winged eyeliner, curated a personal style, and known how to pose for pictures. But even now, as a 26-year-old woman I still struggle with knowing what to do with my hands in pictures and, let’s be honest, with winged eyeliner.
Although, perhaps it wouldn’t have made a difference at all. Growing up, I preferred to stick my nose in a good book over a compact mirror. I like to think my classmates’ rejection of me helped me to develop beauty in other areas of my life, when the reflection in the mirror did not seem beautiful, or before the reflection even mattered to me at all.
Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.
I’m not the only one who seems to think so. The benefits for growing up as an ugly duckling seem to outweigh the downfalls. We learned to treat the underdog with respect, so we developed empathy. We learned to focus on improving our minds, so we expanded our intelligence.
While I’ve joked about my entire generation of 90’s girls growing up as ugly ducklings, I admit it must be exceedingly more difficult for the modern woman.
Unrealistic standards of beauty are no longer confined to actresses and models in the pages of a magazine. Now they’re on our phones, in our news feeds, on display in the photos of our closest friends and acquaintances who become social media famous and amass large followings because of, at least in part, their beauty.
The pressure to be beautiful has become overwhelming, but it’s a pressure I am fortunate enough not to feel to the full extent, as beauty was never the yardstick by which I measured my value.
Now, I’m not arguing The Ugly Duckling story has a universal message for all women. In fact, some individuals argue the narrative helps construct a negative mentality for women where beauty is something you can develop over time, and accordingly, their goals shift to creating an unrealistic, photoshopped version of themselves.
However, I believe the story of The Ugly Duckling teaches us we look for beauty in the wrong places, and that our negative experiences as individuals who are not conventionally attractive actually work to our benefit.
After all, being an ugly duckling didn’t make me less boy crazy as a girl,
it simply made me less privy to the drama that followed the attention of boys.
I see this as an advantage, as it meant I had fewer distractions during key years in my development.
It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength.
Even now I sometimes feel like an ugly duckling, comparing myself to the other women in my pond. However, it’s important to remind ourselves that we may be swans, in our own right, simply swimming through an Instagram stream of ducks, judged by a standard of beauty that has nothing to do with our own value.