April 7, 2013

Lifting the Curse of Ugly: A Love Story. ~ Marina Smerling

Photo: Cea

For anyone who’s ever been called “ugly…”

For anyone who’s ever looked in the mirror and thought, “Not enough…”

I was starting to fall in love.

Roger was funny, smart, quirky and spiritual. We’d go on unusually simple dates—just sitting on a rock, or in my car—contemplating the meaning of life, our dreams, our fears. He laughed at my jokes, was comfortable in silence, and had a softness to his voice that endeared me to him. He seemed so sweet, so receptive.

I trusted him.

One night we were sitting close together on a bench in one of my favorite parks in Berkeley, when he told me he was struggling with something. I wanted to be both courageous and supportive, and so asked him to tell me.

“Okay, it’s just that…it’s just that…on a 1-10 scale of attractiveness, you’re a…”

“Stop,” I said, my heart suddenly pounding in my chest. “Don’t tell me. Find some other way to say it.”

He took a deep breath, and then said, “It’s just that I think I’m more attractive than you, and I feel embarrassed to be seen with you.”


My heart stopped. The stench from a nearby skunk slowly filled the night air. The two of us sat in silence, a dismal cloud of stink and despair hanging over us.

In my shock, I attempted to empathize with Roger’s distaste for my appearance, not realizing I was totally turned around inside. Finally, this reality took hold, and I declared that we were going home.

When I dropped him off, some words along the lines of “You don’t deserve me” emerged from my gut, and that was that. Goodnight. F*ck you. Bye.

The Impact

Within a couple of weeks, Roger and I talked. I came to see quickly that he had spoken from an old wound, a place that doubted his own worthiness.

But the pain persisted. He had hit me in a place that was vulnerable, a place that so many of us women hold as sacred—our beauty, our attractiveness, our worth in this world.

For a few months, when I looked in the mirror, I couldn’t see my beauty. It was like I had donned a new pair of glasses, glasses that only perceived “not enough.” All I could see was frizzy hair, too many freckles or cheeks the size of Alvin the Chipmunk, whereas before I’d light up when I saw myself in the mirror, adoring the person who appeared there.

Suddenly a mirror became something to fear, a truth-telling device that pointed unrelentingly to God’s error in Creation. When I passed someone I found attractive on the street, I’d lower my eyes, not wanting to risk the shame of rejection, the shame of being found out—that I was unworthy…and ugly.

I went out and bought boots and new pants, better fitting clothes, and conditioner to smooth my hair. Whatever it was, this defect that Roger had found, I would find it and uproot it. I was determined to overcome ugly, determined to prove him wrong.

A Mere Construct

Beauty, of course, is a “mere” social construct, one that centuries of racism, sexism and ableism play into, sculpting social norms about “who’s hot” and “who’s not.”

No doubt, I could spend hours, days, months deconstructing beauty’s standards, attempting to shred them to pieces and leave their patriarchal, hegemonic vestiges to shrivel up and crack in the gutter. Frankly, that sounded pretty good.

When I wasn’t worrying about smoothing my hair, I wanted to kick some ass, deconstruct some social constructs, punch Roger in the face and let that be that.

And yet, as much as I wanted be mature and intelligent, throw some feminist literature in the man’s face and saunter gracefully away, there was the question beyond academic understanding—the one that woke me so many nights—yanking my body up out from the sheets, only to double over in tears:

“Brother, why’d you say that? Why’d you say that mean thing? Why’d you say that to me?”

And suddenly I was five. A child hit on the playground, hurting and astounded as she looked up at her playmate, not understanding what happened.

Friend. Trusted. Gone. 

Shocked, dumbfounded, with an aching heart, this young one needed help.

No finely tuned thesis of patriarchal fuck-up would do. This one needed a hug the size of Texas, and as long as the Nile.


My friends were deeply supportive, washing me in love and affirmation, lambasting Roger’s assertion, and attempting to hold a mirror up to help me see what I couldn’t.

But for all their efforts, they couldn’t touch the little one inside, the one to whom logic couldn’t appeal.

In the end, what I needed was Mama. Not just the woman who gave birth to me, but Tree Mama, Friend Mama, Earth Mama. Mama the divine, the Beloved herself. Here, holding, cuddling, caressing me.

I began to ask: Mama, can you feel me sad in this place? Can you feel me sad and confused, wondering why this man said this thing?

And slowly, after days of wandering the lone desert between my ribs, I heard her respond: Yes, I can. I feel you quiver and shake. I feel you ache and double over inside. 

Like a loved one’s hand on my forehead, feeling for a fever when I was sick as a child … I began to understand that I was not alone. There was someone feeling the fever with me. Mourning the pain of this body with me.

As I felt the back of her hand on my suffering, my heartache, the pain became bearable. The pain became alright.

And feel me, she said, feel how much I love you, feel how you are loved and whole and complete under my hands, here against my chest. Feel how much all of creation loves you.

And it was here that I discovered this: The thought of ugliness was painful not because it was true, but because of the old feelings that emerged when I thought it.

The thought evoked the lonesomeness and fear of childhood—not knowing if my mama would be there. Because it’s only in that space that the kind of thought, “I’m ugly, I’m not wanted, I’m unlovable,” could arise and actually be considered.

Those thoughts stemmed not from some ultimate truth, but from the fear of a small child, wanting a Mama to love her and hold her tight.

Embracing the Hag

But alongside the innocent child, another voice was roaring to be heard.

The early morning dreary-eyed incarnation of Kali, the inner hag, is angry when she hears Roger’s words. She rises up with daggers in each hand, eyes burning with rage, and with a fierceness welling up, declares: This life is sacred, and it shall be honored.

She wears pink sweatpants that fit too tight, a large shirt that flattens my boobs and pulls the thick beige snow hat that dampens my skin tone tight over my ears. She’s concerned with warmth, not prettiness, and as she walks out into the world, she’s here to serve life, to protect it and to care for it.

The hag is here for truth and truth alone.

And the truth, the hag proclaims, is that we are loved beyond words, beyond reason, from the tips of our fingers, nails painted pretty, to the bottoms of our toes, scrunched and smelly in our shoes, from the crown of our heads, gracing the sky, to the heels of our feet, dragging dust over the earth.

Uncursing Ugly

Ugly. An unspoken curse. One that, as women, supposedly foretells our destiny: unworthy and alone.

And so we hide—our pimples, crooked spine, menstrual blood, moments of desperation, our grimace, anger and the fierceness in our gut. Meanwhile, we evade, make pretty, put on a smile, and pull up our britches.

But what beauty lies here, in the things that we curse? What gets lost when we toss out “ugly?”

Could it be a wildness, power and an unfettered love—a boldness and bright anger that, set free, just might bring down all order and dismantle the status quo?

Could it be, too, our vulnerability and ignorance? The innocent parts of us that fumble, that don’t have the answers, that don’t know how to live, make dreams come true and—oh God—be someone?

Because if this is so, then uncursing ugly means freeing our lives.

It means reclaiming the wild beauty in us called Being, as powerful as it is clueless, as fierce as it is tender. Reclaiming our ability to open, to soften, to be seen without guarantees, and to speak from our experience, immediate and vivid. Reclaiming, too, all the people whom we have shoved into society’s margins: our family, our communities, ourselves.

Lifting the curse off of ugly, we welcome the beggars, vagrants and deviants to come and drink deeply from the liqueur of life—Being itself—poured into the mouths of our clueless children. The women broken wide open, daring to be seen, welcomed at last to the table of grace, and satiated.

And when all is said and done, maybe “ugly” is okay. When we’re tired of fighting, day in and day out, we can turn to “ugly” and say:

Have me. Defeat me. Ugly, I’m yours. Just let me love this body. Just let me be grateful for the miracle of this life. 

The Pretty Prize

Ultimately, I don’t want to be pretty for prettiness’ sake.

I want what pretty offers: the allure of love, connection, inner peace.

But beneath that is something deeper. “Am I pretty?” really asks, “Do I get to love?

Because ultimately, beyond any other desire to know or get anything in this life, I want to love. I want to soften my borders, slow down my eyes, and love with not just my heart, but the whole of my body, pulsing, beating, breathing with the simple acceptance of what is.

Wanting to be “pretty” is thus code for:

Please, let me love. I’m tired of holding it all in.

Uncursing ugly means no longer waiting.

My New Glasses

I know now that what Roger said wasn’t about me; it sure as hell sent me spinning, and digging down into the trenches of my being to find answers, but the initial pain expressed wasn’t mine.

I wish I could have seen that at the time, and felt that “ouch” in the air between us, dying to be heard, and been able to say to Roger, “Dear boy, what happened?”

I would have wanted to ask, “What’s in your heart?

Judgment and ranking systems are not so interesting. But hiding beneath years of scar tissue, an ancient fear of unworthiness and not belonging, an aching desire to be loved and to rest as you are, “Yes, tell me about that one, dear.  Tell me about that one.”

The Aperture of the Heart

No doubt Roger’s words stung in his own ears. It hurts to be closed and viewing others with a critical eye. It hurts because we cannot love ourselves in this state, as much as we cannot love any other.

A dear friend says that when he starts to judge others, he knows it’s an indicator of the aperture of his heart.

When we’re closed down, believing we ourselves are unlovable, we see others through this lens, and cannot enjoy them. And when we are immersed in love and naturally wide open, we see things and people as they are—wild creatures of this earth, to be admired and appreciated and enjoyed and savored.

And this is truth—this wide-open seeing. This is what it means to see not just others—but ourselves—clearly.

A New Scale

As for “society’s scale,” I still don’t know my place on it. Maybe I’m an 11, or maybe a negative one.

Suddenly, that scale doesn’t seem so interesting anymore. The one that matters asks instead: What is the aperture of my heart, and can I allow myself the joy of surrendering it wide open?

And when I do, this beauty is off the charts. In my heart of hearts, my capacity to receive you is one zillion, my capacity to be received is three times that at least, and this capacity to love is infinite.

This is how we love, wide open and without borders, beyond scales and measuring sticks. This numberless place, simultaneously infinite and nothing, a glowing star resting on a dime in the center of our hearts, is the only true “scale” of beauty there ever was, and ever will be.

In the end, I just want to love. I want to touch you, and let you see me. I want to shine through and through. I want to say to life, from every pore of my body:

Pretty or not, here I come. 


Marina Smerling is a warrior of shameless-heartedness, here to figure out how to love herself and others even when grumpy and she can’t find her keys. A renegade attorney, she offers counseling and couples coaching based upon the ancient esoteric principle of: “Dude, there’s nothing wrong with you.” Reach her at www.shamelessheart.com.




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Ed: Stephanie V. & Brianna Bemel

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