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REAL LIFE The ugly truth about not being pretty

Taunted for her buck teeth and squinty eye as a child, she is the ugly duckling that never became a swan, but Shona Sibary wouldn't change her 'quirky' looks

By Karen Pasquali-Jones
December 30, 2011
Image Credit: Supplied picture

Mae West once said: ‘I believe it is better to be looked over than it is to be overlooked.' She's right of course. But then, what did she know? Like many women lucky enough to be born beautiful, she couldn't have understood how it feels to go through life bearing the knowledge that you've fallen from an ugly tree and hit every branch along the way.

Until the age of five, I was blissfully unaware of how my looks were going to affect my life. Of course, starting school changed all that. I'd been born with a birthmark rendering me blind in my right eye and while that had been surgically removed it took years for my eye to open properly - to this day I still have an obvious squint. And as if this wasn't enough, my front teeth were so crooked that they earned me the nickname ‘Bugs Bunny'.

Today, 35 years on, not much has changed. I may have learnt not to care so deeply but I know how having a face that is ‘different' has held me back in many areas of my life.

So it came as no surprise to read that there's a new kind of racism emerging in our society. Lookism - the discrimination against people's appearance to the detriment of their success and wellbeing - is currently the subject of several court actions in the US, with some experts arguing that ugliness is no different from race or disability.

While I'm not rushing to find a lawyer, it is comforting to have my long-held suspicions confirmed - that beautiful people have an easier time of it. While I may not have been endowed with the looks of Brigitte Bardot I am, at least, not stupid.

Having gorgeous parents didn't help. My father was a model in the 1960s and my mother was a cross between a young Elizabeth Taylor and Vivien Leigh. I'll never forget being taken to an eccentric great Aunt's house for lunch when, midway through the meal, she put down her fork and said: "Well, you clearly haven't inherited your mother's looks. I hope, for your sake, that you've got a strong personality."

I was crushed. I sensed, even at that age, that being pretty gave you advantages I didn't have. Friends, for a start. The girls with blonde hair and straight teeth were always the most popular, ruthlessly excluding geeky girls like me.

A move to Australia with my parents when I was 13 only made matters worse. At an inner-city Sydney school, I was suddenly surrounded by seemingly Amazonian, teenage girls - tanned, sporty and, of course, naturally confident. I was yet again firmly placed on the social periphery - never once invited to a surfing party or barbecue during my entire time ‘down under'. A year later, I begged to be sent back to a boarding school in the UK. At least there I could get on with the business of feeling ugly without having to wear a bikini.

Unfortunately for me I was not one of those ‘ugly duckling' type teenagers either. There was no Hollywood moment of blossoming into a beautiful swan before the end of school Prom.

Of course, many adolescents feel insecure about their looks, but it has taken me years to accept that I am not a ‘looker'. Another early inkling of this was when I asked my mother, at the age of ten, if I was pretty. She answered that I was ‘attractive'. I realised I didn't even have a face a mother could love.

It's all about perspective

I've occasionally flirted with the idea that I might have a ‘quirky' look - along the lines of the actress, Joan Cusack. Someone not obviously beautiful but with interesting, redeeming features nonetheless. Yet I've even come to accept this isn't the case either. My face is, quite simply, neither that unusual nor that pleasant. And no amount of make-up or fashion sense is going to change the fact that builders don't whistle when I walk down the street and heads don't turn. I may as well put a bin bag over my head for all the impact my face has.

Which is fine. I am what I am and nothing (apart from millions spent on plastic surgery) is going to change this for me at the age of 40. But when I see how doors open, literally and metaphorically, for friends of mine who are less physically challenged, I feel like that five-year-old in the playground all over again, burning with indignation that she can't play because she has buck teeth and short brown hair.

I recently went on a holiday with a friend from school to celebrate our joint 40th birthdays. She is single, blonde, and very attractive. At every step men were holding open doors for her (and then letting them swing in my face) and carrying her bag, while I had to cope with mine. I felt invisible - but I consoled myself with the fact that at least I won't have to go through the agony of losing my looks, because they were never there in the first place.

Under the skin

But according to beauty and mind medics, Debra Luftman and Dr Eva Ritvo - authors of The Beauty Prescription - The Complete Formula For Looking and Feeling Beautiful - your physical attributes are only part of what makes you attractive. And, luckily for me, research shows that others see you as 20 per cent more attractive than you think you are. That's because, when you look in the mirror, you're simply judging yourself on looks. All you can see is your reflection - but none of the personality.

"There's so much more to beauty than looks alone," says Dr Debra. "A great figure and lovely skin may turn heads and get you noticed, but beauty is also about the way you move, speak and express yourself. It's about good health, warmth, spontaneity and charisma."

Which is probably just another way of saying that if, like me, you've pulled the short straw in the pretty stakes, work on your personality.

But while there have been many times in my life when being ugly has set me back (for example, while I was doing my drama degree at university, I was given the part of Bottom in A Midsummer's Night Dream, despite the director knowing full well I was holding out for Titania, Queen of the Fairies), there have been times in my career where being unattractive has actually helped.

One of the first jobs I got, straight out of journalism college, was working as PA to Bob Wheaton, the editor of BBC Breakfast News.

While I congratulated myself on landing a role that several other girls had gone for and secretly put it down to my killer news instinct and honed research skills, someone in the news room one day told me that his girlfriend paid close attention to Bob's female editorial assistants - and, as far as she was concerned, the less attractive they were the better. That was just the first of many occasions as an adult when I've wished DNA had been a bit kinder to me. Being a journalist and writing about my life doesn't help, because it requires me to have regular photographs taken, which I hate, unless I have a bucket at hand to place over my head.

According to self-esteem expert, Simon Gelsthorpe, a psychologist with Bradford District Care Trust, in the UK, , being judged on how I look is all about other people's prejudice and has nothing whatsoever to do with my actual appearance. (I should just mention here that we had this conversation over the phone and he has never met me).

Nevertheless, he believes that how other people behave towards you might have an impact on self-esteem, but it actually says more about them than it does about you.

"Lookism is essentially the same as racism or sexism," he explains. "It's to do with their bias and nothing to do with reality at all.

"How you feel about yourself is based on a range of real-life factors - such as, do you have close family relationships, do you have a wide network of friends, a good job? It is not all about appearance."

So true. And I feel incredibly lucky in countless ways. Beauty is obviously in the eye of the beholder because Keith, my husband, doesn't throw up whenever he looks at me and my children tell me daily how pretty I am, (which is sweet, but clearly a blatant attempt to get more chocolate).

I just wish I knew how it felt to have a face that could launch a thousand ships - or, at the very least, get the postman to wink at me in the morning. After all, deep down, isn't being pretty what every woman secretly wants to be? Call me shallow if you want but, as an American comedian famously said: ‘I'm tired of all this nonsense about beauty being only skin-deep. That's deep enough. What do you want - an adorable pancreas?