¡hola papi!

‘I Think I Might Be Ugly’

Illustration: Pedro Nekoi

So I don’t know if I’m a narcissist, have extreme vision problems, or my mirror is haunted by a Lovecraftian entity warping my sense of reality, but: I think I look good. Thing is, I don’t think anyone else shares that view. 

I know this is typically the opposite problem for people who live with dysmorphia, where they view themselves as being hideous despite being breathtakingly gorgeous. For me, though, I often feel genuine love for the person I see in the mirror. I feel enamored when I see flattering photos of myself. I love myself. Well, I do until I’m reminded I’m wrong for doing so.

If I were to describe my appearance, I’d say I check most of the boxes of what could be considered conventionally “decent looking” (not hot enough to have a recurring role on Riverdale, but still cute enough to be murdered as part of a B storyline). I’m happy with my weight, wear clothes that I think suit me, and have above-average tattoos and a perky ass. People don’t tell me I’m ugly, but they don’t tell me I’m beautiful, either, and when you’re beautiful, people tell you you’re beautiful.

It’s pretty clear my confidence isn’t terrible. I’m normally the first to message guys who are likely out of my league because I don’t wanna write myself off. Sometimes it works! I’ve hooked up with absolute 10/10s, which grants me some temporary pride and validation until I soon discover they just hook up with anyone simply because they can, not because I’m special. 

I know it’s wrong to need validation from others. My self-love should be enough! But it’s just not. I find myself deleting pictures of me on my phone instead of posting them because I know they’re just gonna flop. I give up styling my hair when getting ready because I know no one cares. I don’t say nice things about myself because I probably sound delusional doing so. 

I think I’m good looking, I truly do, but how can everyone else be wrong? Being desired isn’t everything, but being undesirable is a life sentence of nothingness. 

Sincerely,
Undercover Ugly

Hi there, Undercover.

Ah, yes. If self-love manifests in a studio apartment but no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

I’m interested in this question because I, too, identify as an Undercover Ugly. I don’t really have the self-esteem you mentioned, but I do have a nagging notion that the narrative arc of my life is frequently interrupted by a certain inadequacy, one that I can’t quite name but often feels a whole lot like “not cute enough.”

And so, Undercover, if anything I say here sounds like tough love, just know I’m also directing it at myself. Don’t you feel better already, knowing that we’re in this together? No? Well, too bad, because much like my failed dates at various Brooklyn bars with 4.3 stars on Google, you’re stuck with me for at least another few minutes.

I’ll start by asking what perks you think hot people are enjoying that you are not. Per your letter, you say you feel good about yourself, you dress well, and you hook up with people you find attractive. I’ll have to consult Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but my gut reaction is that you’re doing pretty good. I, too, wish more strangers would remark on my beauty upon first laying eyes on me, but there’s simply no accounting for taste.

Either way, let us for a moment be a little ridiculous and entertain our sneaking suspicions, Undercover: Yes, you and I, we’re “ugly.” We fall outside the conventional beauty standards set by Society™. People do not stop us on the street and ask if we’d like to guest star as “Hot Person” in their sketch-comedy web series. The guys we find attractive tend to pass us over because we simply fail to meet the criteria.

Now, is any of that true? I don’t know, nor do I think it’s a particularly useful question. Here’s a better one: If any of that were true, would we, card-carrying members of the Uglies Only Club, not deserve to feel good about ourselves? Would we not deserve love, romance, sexuality, the simple pleasure of wearing a nice outfit? Do you look at random people on the street and think, “That person has no business being so confident”?

Look at you, Undercover, living in a cage you yourself have decorated, your “leagues” and your “checkboxes” and your ratings 1 through 10! And for what? For whom? How does this serve you or anyone else? What are you doing if not failing your own imagination?

Even if a good chunk of people were to tell you right to your face that you are not attractive, well, what about what you think? What about how you feel? What about your Dolly-given right to define things for yourself, to have your own criteria for what makes something beautiful or worthy or precious? Isn’t that more compelling than just being born into praise from a sick culture that changes its mind every few minutes?

I’m not in the business of sugarcoating anything. I can’t lie: It doesn’t feel great navigating a world that has made exclusivity into a science. You can and will be excluded for any number of things in this life: colorism, your size, the way you express yourself — the list goes on and on and on.

A select few people will be deemed worthy and will be celebrated in ways you will not. You yourself will likely reap benefits from the whole process while others are punished. There is nothing fair about it. There are brutal things about this life. Sadly, until I collect the few remaining Forbidden Artifacts, I don’t have the power to fix that for you right now.

But concurrent to this harsh reality is another and not insignificant truth: to a certain degree, we have the power to name ourselves, to determine what we make of the hand we’ve been dealt. When I feel ugly, Undercover, it’s exactly that. A feeling. A story. A way of seeing myself, a method of moving clunkily through a world that doesn’t want me. That’s real. That’s unpleasant. It’s a place, and I’m a regular.

In life, though, we visit many places. I’ve also felt desirable. I’ve felt capable of giving and receiving pleasure, of being enchanting, of holding a secret gravity at the center of my existence, one that draws others in quite effortlessly, and why wouldn’t it? The fact that I can’t pitch my tent here, in this place where I feel good, is unfortunate. But movement is inevitable. We either learn to go, or we suffer as we’re dragged.

In short, Undercover, human life is largely hallucinated. There is no “gotcha” here. You are not secretly ugly. Sure, when you’re rejected or when no one retweets your selfie or when you’re just in a funk, ugliness can feel a lot like the truth. But it isn’t. Or if it is, then it’s a temporary one. You aren’t more or less deserving of anything based on your looks, nor is anyone else out there, doing their best, piloting a body. The most important thing is how you feel. If you feel hot, you’re hot.

So my advice is to just be hot. Thank you. Please buy my book.

Con mucho amor,
Papi

Originally published on May 24, 2021.

This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s Hola Papi newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack. Purchase JP Brammer’s book Hola Papi: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessons, here.

‘I Think I Might Be Ugly’