Dear Dr. NerdLove:
Would it be too much trouble for you to help solve an ongoing debate between me and my friends? I’m a brand-new college graduate and the “ugly” one in my friend group, just as I was in high school and will probably always be. I’m slim, fit, tallish but not too tall, I put time into my hair, skin, and makeup, I dress probably the best of all of us despite not being wealthy, I’m a super smart, funny, unique, creative person who, while introverted, is not shy or antisocial – I’m 95% sure the main problem is my face. I would like at the very least to get a rhinoplasty on my large, bony, semi-hooked nose, and double jaw surgery to shorten my extremely long chin and midface and bring the total length of my face more into harmony with its narrowness. But I’m afraid I’ll be in my late 20’s or even 30’s before I can afford it, by which point, why bother? On top of that I have thin lips, no visible cheekbones, and small, close-set brown eyes – all of which I do my best to correct with makeup, but having seen most of my friends without makeup, my best effort still falls far short of where they are naturally. My hair is long and shiny, but takes forever to grow and two different stylists have confirmed it’s too fine to bleach without risk of destroying it, so I can’t just go blonde and get an instant hotness boost like many meh-looking brunettes can.
My three best friends (the ones I’m close enough to vent to about my insecurities) are all big-blue/hazel-eyed, full-lipped, small-nosed, cute-faced girls. Two of them have amazing boyfriends, the third does not want to be in a relationship yet (although she could get one the second she changes her mind) but seems to sleep with a different hot, often older guy at least once a week. Yet they, like the rest of my friends, all complain constantly about being hit on by guys they’re not interested in, mobbed by guys at bars/clubs where they just want to drink/dance, asked out on dates by weirdos at work, guys pretending to be their friends just to creep on them, strange men coming up to them at the grocery store or gas station just to tell them they’re beautiful. Whereas I have literally never once in my life been hit on, even in places people go specifically to hook up – never been asked out – never had any guy but my dad tell me I’m pretty/beautiful – and can’t imagine I ever will.
From age 5-6 when my reasonably cute baby face started to turn weird, through 15-16 when I finally figured out how to dress and groom myself and went on Accutane, I never lacked boys calling me *ugly*…now, other women and sometimes gay guys compliment my outfits all the time…but otherwise I have never once had an unrelated male human being comment on my appearance in a positive way. I don’t even have any non-gay male friends (as opposed to just FOAFs) – possibly because, in my female friends’ experience, any guy who’s your friend really just wants to bang you, and nobody wants to bang me. (I will say that during the height of the pandemic, I noticed strange men *looking* at me, for the first time in my life, and even being somewhat gallant toward me, when I was wearing a mask…but none of them were apparently willing to risk chatting me up without knowing what I looked like underneath.)
A couple of nights ago I had a dream I was at a big, loud, chaotic party, the kind where you can only have a conversation by shouting directly in the other person’s ear, and caught a cute little redheaded guy staring shyly at me from across the crowded room; I did the thing where you smile and look away, and looked back to see him tentatively starting toward me, and smiled again to encourage him, and felt my whole heart and body light up and glow as I looked flirtily away again, absolutely knowing he was making his way across the room toward me. I woke up well before he got to me, and immediately started crying because it’s the exact kind of thing I long for, that would never, ever happen to me in real life. I know how to give the look…I just don’t get the response.
I do get occasional Tinder matches, but those guys never message me, and if I message them (which I really need to stop doing), they either don’t reply, or make it clear they’re not really interested. So I can only conclude that these are the guys who blindly swipe right on every girl, then when we match they actually look at me, and decide I’m not good enough. I’m still a virgin because it seems my only option would be to get super drunk and just throw myself at the grossest guys in the bar until one of them decides I’m worth a pity fuck, and somehow I still have too much self-respect for that.
When I ask my friends if they’d want to trade places with me, they accuse me of being antifeminist and not having empathy for their problems, while refusing to have empathy for mine. It’s getting to be a self-fulfilling prophecy where I’m less and less able to make the right supportive noises when they complain about all these creeps and weirdos, because I can’t help thinking how awesome it would be to have a constant parade of guys approaching *me*, and be able to pick which ones I wanted to sleep with/date – or if the one I wanted was too shy to join the parade, to at least be assured he’d probably be thrilled if I approached him. Rather than always bearing the burden of having to do the approaching, and getting my emotions and self-esteem trampled in the dirt again and again and again. It’s not that I fail to see the downside or am unwilling to ever listen to them vent, I just wish they would sometimes stop and count their blessings
(Note: I promise I am not chasing guys out of my league. I realize my friends’ boyfriends would not be a match for me, and I would not feel secure with a guy way better-looking than myself anyway. I actually prefer “adorkable” intellectual guys over classically handsome gym/frat/business bro types. But it sometimes seems like all men are fixated on the same type of conventionally cute/beautiful woman, and if they can’t get someone like that, would rather be alone and bitter than get to know someone like me. In fact the guy I had the most demoralizing crush of my life on is still whining online about being a virgin at 25, which he attributes mainly to being short, which I don’t care about and never have – it’s just that he feels entitled to an Instagram model. So the last thing I want here is to come off as a female version of him.)
Sometimes they try to turn this around and tell me to count *my* blessings, because at least I get to live my life free from sexual harassment. Nope! I get catcalled almost every time I go running alone, I was groped and had my bra unhooked by middle-school bullies (some of the same ones who called me a beast, a butterface, and made barfing sounds when I walked by), and when I was walking back to campus from downtown alone one night my freshman year, before I made any friends to go out with, I was chased by a man who probably intended to rape me, only I managed to hide beneath a parked car. I thought it had been pretty conclusively proven that that kind of shit is based on power and desire to intimidate, and has little to nothing to do with beauty or attraction. I see it as a completely different category of behavior from sincere compliments or guys (no matter how gross/ugly/creepy) approaching you in ways that indicate actual desire (no matter how unrealistic) for a date/consensual sex. The way I see it, attractive women get both (A) catcalled/harassed/assaulted/raped *and* (B) spontaneously hit on/asked out; unattractive ones get (A), but generally not (B). And while this may look like the unattractive ones getting less shit overall, it can also end up being a huge loss – not only because it reinforces the fact of your unattractiveness and undesirability, but because while the guys doing (A) are uniformly pieces of shit, sometimes one of the guys doing (B) will turn out to be someone worth going out with, who gives you a fun experience and maybe even gets to value you for more than just your looks. Whereas if you didn’t have the looks, he would never have spoken to you in the first place. (This is how both my best friends’ relationships started, a fact they seem to have wiped from their minds.)
Having said *aaaaallll* that, all I’m really looking for here is an expert acknowledgment that my prettier friends are indeed privileged over me, rather than us simply having different but equivalent privileges/disprivileges. And, I guess, any hope you can realistically offer for the future. As I edit this for the hundredth time, after I first started writing it on a drunk and lonely night of spring break while all my friends were hooking up, I’m just a few days from moving away to start my dream job in my dream city, where I deeply hope but still find myself doubting things will be different for me. Am I totally off-base in thinking cosmetic surgery might improve my life, especially if I can find a way to get it done while I’m still fairly young? Or should I give up thoughts of having wild romances with several different guys while young, and focus my efforts on finding just one weird dork who cares more about bodies than faces to settle down and have weird dorky kids with, even if we’re both 25+ year old virgins by the time we find each other? How would I go about that, and if I succeeded, how would I keep from feeling forever dissatisfied with my sexual past and not appreciating the life that I had?
Facing My Future
So… this is a lot, FMF, and I think it goes a lot deeper than the question you’re asking. There’s a whole host of issues buried in this and they’re all tangled around each other like horny snakes. But I’m nothing if not game for untangling weird wiggly knots, so let’s start with your initial question about cosmetic surgery and such and work outwards from there.
To start with: yes, beauty privilege is a thing. I don’t think anyone seriously disagrees with that. However, the idea of beauty and what it means isn’t black or white; it’s one great tangled mess that women with actual doctorates and decades of study have worked on. So they’re going to be a much better resource for that than a male loudmouth with an advice column.
I’m generally neutral about cosmetic surgery. I don’t think it’s inherently good or bad, nor do I think it’s something to be shamed for or to be viewed with disdain. I mean, bodies are in part vehicles for the brain to drive around, so if you want to trick that sucker out with some aftermarket mods, by all means, go for it. If you want to touch up the bits and bobs that start to drift and change as time and gravity make fools of us all, then hey, cool! If it was good enough for Dwayne Johnson or Marilyn Monroe, it’s good enough for other folks, if they’ve got the money, the ability to take the time to recover and heal and – importantly – they’re willing to face the not-insignificant risks that come with major surgery. And I don’t mean the nightmare stories about recovery from Brazilian butt-lift surgery or whatever, I mean the basic risks of anesthesia, infection and the other myriad risks that come from going under the knife.
However, it’s important to recognize that cosmetic surgery, no matter how minor or extensive, only addresses the exterior. In fact, it doesn’t matter if someone goes in for cosmetic surgery or changes their through willpower and discipline; internal problems can’t be fixed by exterior changes, even when someone is absolutely sure that their problems are strictly external. You will still be you when the bandages come off. Even if your transformation were purely through your own hard work… it’s still you who did the work and it’s still you on the other end of that journey. Your exterior may look different, but the brain driving it around is exactly the same.
This is a lesson that a lot of incels learned the hard way after spending new-car-levels of money on cosmetic procedures; after all that money, all that time and in some cases crippling amounts of pain, their problems didn’t magically go away. In fact, in many cases, it got worse, precisely because they “fixed” the supposed deficiencies they were suffering under and yet they still had the incel mentality they went in with.
So in your case specifically, FMF, I’d say no, I don’t think cosmetic surgery is going to help you, in no small part because this is an internal issue more than an external one. I think focusing on the external to the exclusion of everything else – and it certainly sounds like that’s what you’re asking about – will just make things worse for you. I mean, let’s game this out for a second. Let’s say you go in for those procedures and they work exactly as you hope they do: you get the precise face you wanted with no worries about side-effects, post-surgical complications or any other negative outcome. I think there will be a very, very small window in which you will be happy. And then will come the point where you realize that the folks who are giving you attention are the same people who supposedly ignored and disdained you and refused to see how wonderful and awesome you are. Are you honestly going to be able to live with the knowledge that the people giving you this attention are that shallow? To know that you had to break your face into pieces and reassemble it just to get them to consider you as a romantic possibility?
That’s not an idle question; that’s something that people face, all the time when they’ve made external changes without first addressing the internal problems. And, spoiler alert: it doesn’t go well. Those incels I mentioned that got surgical procedures done to “fix” themselves? They got even more pissy because it just “proved” that the “femoids” are shallow and beneath contempt and all the rest of the garbage they spew.
If I’m being honest, I feel that way about your desire for a series of wild relationships while you’re young, at least based on what you’ve written here. In general, I’m pro hooking up and pro casual sex. I’m of the opinion that sex is great, romance is great and folks who want more of either (or both) should go for it without shame. However, I think that some of what you’re looking for right now – the hook ups, and wild romances with different guys – aren’t coming from a good place. It’s one thing if someone, regardless of gender, is coming to that from a place of “I like sex, I like newness and novelty, I don’t like long-term relationships”. It’s another when they’re coming to it from a place of having something to prove and wanting those wild experiences in order to get validation or to “prove” something to… someone. Themselves, if nothing else.
This is, likewise, not idle speculation or my being down on hook-ups. A recent study by Billie E. McKeen, Ryan C. Anderson, and David A. Mitchell in Sexuality and Culture found that hooking up in order to manage negative emotions – alleviating bitterness, anger or loneliness, for example – were reliably predictive of negative outcomes: that is, you end up feeling worse about yourself in the long term. Speaking from personal experience, that tracks. When I was deep in PUA culture at the start of my journey, I spent a lot of time sleeping with folks because I was trying to prove something about me and it didn’t go well. At all. I had much better experiences when I’d found my own sense of worth and my sense of confidence and wasn’t relying on external validation.
I’m sure this wasn’t exactly what you were hoping to hear. At the same time however, I’m not here to jump all over your dreams; I want to help you get to the place where you could go for these things… if you still want them at that point. You might, you might not, it’s cool either way. But to do so, you need to address the inside before you work on the outside.
There’re a few things that leapt out at me in your letter that I think are important to dig into. First: it doesn’t sound like you and your friends don’t have the greatest or most mutually supportive relationship. To be fair, it’s understandable that you’re focusing on the downsides right now; you’re dealing with a lot of understandable frustration and misery. But when you describe them talking about the shit they experience, you don’t sound terribly sympathetic to the fact that yeah, it’s not fun to have people bother you when you’re just trying to be out with your friends. You even have your own experiences about how “any” attention isn’t automatically good attention. The guys who catcall you or the one who chased you – and fucking hell, I’m so sorry you experienced that – aren’t that far off from the guys who’re spontaneously hitting on your friends. Just because someone’s hitting on you or flirting with you doesn’t automatically mean that it’s wanted attention, or even that the person doing it is interested in you, so much as what you represent to them.
I can promise you – having been one of the guys doing approaches at bars and clubs – that many time, the thought process is seeing them as a number, not a person. It’s not “Hey that person looks like she’s got a lot going on, I bet she’d be fascinating to get to know”, it’s “there’s an 8, if I can land them not only do I get one lay closer to my goal but my bros will be SO FUCKING JEALOUS”. Or even “I want to get laid, I want to prove I’m a stud and I deserve a hot girl and I’m gonna get my rocks off and if she doesn’t… oh well, not like I’m gonna see her again afterwards.”
However, that lack of support seems to go both ways. You don’t say whether your friends are supportive of you. Do they hype you up and point out how awesome you are when you’re down? Do they point out the things they like about you or that they think make you attractive? Do they offer to help or provide reassurance or emotional support? This is no small thing; having people who are on Team You, who are ready to let you know how incredible a person you are is important. Far more important, I might add, then being told you’re beautiful by someone who’ll say whatever they think it’ll take to get into your pants.
If they aren’t helping you out, hyping you up and telling you that you’re awesome and that you look great (not “despite…” anything) then that alone may be an issue. Doubly so if they’re just doing the negging thing by telling you “oh you’re so lucky you don’t deal with this.”
So right off the bat, I think either you and your friends need to work towards mutual empathy and support… or you need better friends.
(More on this in a second.)
The next thing I notice is how your examples of beauty are very… well, white. The things you bring up as cornerstones of someone’s attractiveness (or your supposed unattractiveness) are almost entirely northern European features: blonde hair, blue or hazel eyes, small noses, Cupid’s bow lips, cheekbones, dainty chins. That’s not insignificant, because we tend to forget that beauty is cultural and we as a society keep denigrating people who don’t have white features as being less attractive. And even when mores change – witness the recent shift from skinny builds to curvy ones, particularly with rounded buttocks a la Kim Kardashian – it’s still very much in taking bits and pieces from BIPOC women and saying “OK this part is good”, while disregarding everything else.
So I think it may be worth examining what standards you’re using you measure beauty and attractiveness and just where it comes from. Not because you need to be more woke or whatever, but so you can recognize just how much culture and body standards that are literally marketed to you influence how you see yourself.
I mean, if we take your general description, you know who I see in my head? Michelle Gomez – most famous in the US for playing Missy on Doctor Who and Mary Wardwell on The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. While it’s true she doesn’t have the wide-eyed gamine look of certain supermodels, that doesn’t mean that she’s ugly or unattractive by any stretch of the imagination. We can talk about how much her looks play into the roles she gets cast in, but that’s a cultural issue, rather than a comment on her looks.
(And, again, to get personal: Dr. Mrs. The NerdLove points out that when she was in grade school and middle school, she was called “Broomhilda” for her profile. That, as she puts it, never held her back when she started dating.)
Taking some time and finding folks who have similar facial features to yours that you think are attractive could be useful to you. The more you can recognize that the standards you’re using to beat yourself with are arbitrary and that there’re people who look like you who you think are cool, pretty, hot, whatever descriptor you care for, will go a long way towards helping you believe in your own attractiveness.
The third and final issue I noticed is this: “I don’t even have any non-gay male friends (as opposed to just FOAFs) – possibly because, in my female friends’ experience, any guy who’s your friend really just wants to bang you, and nobody wants to bang me.” This in and of itself is… a lot. To start with, it really seems like this is a choice you’ve made; you don’t seem to be interested in or have tried to build friendships with straight guys. That’s an issue on a couple of levels, not the least of which being that having some guy friends might give you perspective and a little more insight into what men are like when they let their guard down.
However, it also seems to illustrate something I noticed through your letter: you are really focused on spontaneous, out of the blue attraction and attention, rather than something that builds over time. In fact, it seems like you’re kind of dismissive of the idea that anything other than a stranger being willing to come talk to you means… well, anything good. But honestly, the vast majority of people don’t meet their partners that way. I can understand why you focus on this; if someone’s motivated to come talk to you, it must mean you’re so desirable that they had to act or regret it forever. However – and again, I can tell you from experience – much of the time, you aren’t a person to them as much as a potential lay. Personhood may come along too… but not always.
Just as importantly though, one of the things that folks often forget is that, we don’t date or start relationships with people we just met as a general rule. And studies have found that while there’s a consensus of who is or isn’t attractive upon first glance, that consensus vanishes when we get to know someone, and uniqueness becomes far more important as a gauge of attractiveness. However, first one has to let folks get to know you. And, preferably, not just as a friend-of-a-friend. Attraction that’s spontaneous tends to be very shallow and short-lived; attraction that lasts is built over time, because it’s more than just looks. It’s personality, it’s shared interests and experiences, mutually held values, humor and so on. You know, the things that you need time to discover and to create together. Focusing solely on “comes screaming out of the clear blue sky” encounters means you’ve cut yourself off from the way most folks meet their partners and build attraction and relationships.
Now this doesn’t mean that you need to start becoming a Nice Girl and trying to work The Friend Zone, don’t get me wrong. What it does mean is that maybe you need to give folks time to actually get to know you and build something together, instead of assuming that they need to want you from the jump for this to be real, valid and meaningful.
I also wonder if you haven’t let your friends cut you off from this, intentionally or otherwise. The whole “guys who say they’re your friends just want to bang you” buys into the sort of toxic bullshit I’m always warning men against. First and foremost, it treats the idea that sex and friendship are mutually incompatible or that you can’t be friends with someone you want to fuck. That’s bullshit in and of itself. But also, it implies that guys can’t be friends with women which is also bullshit. Yes, there’re Nice GuysTM who will try to collect enough Friend Tokens to upgrade to sex, and there’re assholes who’ll say whatever they need to in order to get laid. But that doesn’t mean that there’re aren’t guys who aren’t genuinely interested in being your friend. And as I said… I think you may need better friends.
Having more friends – good, supportive friends – is important for overall happiness and emotional uplift. But if you’re treating guys who are approaching you for anything other than dates with suspicion or mistrust, or even just ignoring or deprioritizing them in general, you’re cutting yourself off from a lot. Not the least of which is developing the skills to turn a casual acquaintance into something more.
So what do you do about all of this? Well, to start with, I think you need to let go of the idea that you can only have these sorts of adventures or experiences when you’re young. The idea that you have some sort of deadline by which you need to get all your wild crazy experiences in by is, in a word, horse shit. Horse shit from a herd of cholera-infected horses. You can have crazy wild romances, adventures and absurdly sexy times at any age, and many times it’s better when you’re older. After all, by the time you’re in your 30s, you still have much of the energy and drive of your 20s, but backed by greater experience and greater resources. Hell, I know folks who hit their fifties and sixties and started to live lives that would make Hugh Hefner bite through his pipe stem, and they’re having the time of their lives. So you have more time than you think… or at least you will if you stop fetishizing youth to the point that anything after 25 may as well be death.
Next, get better friends and be a better friend. If things aren’t as dire as they sound in your letter, then great, I’m thrilled to be wrong. But as it is, it sounds like neither you or your BFFs are terribly supportive or empathetic to one another and that desperately needs to change. I don’t know if it’s something you all can build together or if this is a “scrap it and start over” situation, but you need Team You to back you up and remind you that you’re a certified hottie in and of your own right.
But by the same token, you need to be your own biggest fan and best advocate for your own gorgeousness. Letting go of the very narrow strictures of beauty that you seem to use as your yardstick will go a long way towards this, as will finding examples of beautiful and attractive women who don’t look like they were stamped out of a factory in Denmark. Finding more women who look like you, with similar features and hair and realizing that beauty comes in MANY forms is going to be vital. If you don’t believe in your own attractiveness, why should anyone else? All that happens then is someone tells you that they think you’re hot and you end up calling them a liar, directly or indirectly. Like I tell guys all the time: dress in ways that make you feel like a sexy bad-ass, regardless of what other people say. Do the things that make you say “goddamn, I am a nuclear-powered demon goddess” when you look in the mirror. Letting yourself believe is the first step to accepting that other people can and do feel that way too.
Likewise: don’t focus so much on spontaneous, out-of-the-blue approaches as the ne plus ultra of attraction. Sometimes, you need to let things build like a smouldering fire to get what you want.
And look: none of this is easy, and nobody gets through life without a little help. You’re clearly carrying around a lot of pain. Talking to a counselor may help you unpack some of this and help you get to the places I mention.
But at the end of the day: you have more than you realize, you’re stronger than you think and people value you in ways that you don’t see yet. You’ve got more going on than I think you give yourself credit for. You just need to get yourself to a place where you can accept it. Sometimes it takes longer than you’d prefer to get to that happy ending… but that doesn’t mean you won’t ever get there, or that it will be somehow less important, valid or meaningful when you do. But you can’t get there if you’ve convinced yourself that it only counts within this very narrow window of time and even narrower view of what’s “real”.