When I was fifteen, I was voted the third ugliest person at school.

Over twenty years have since passed. Rational adult me knows that I’m not ugly; I have had plenty of men find me attractive, as well as a handful of women. I have aged no better or no worse than the bulk of my peers, I know how to dress in clothes that suit me and have learned to apply makeup. Rational me also knows that beauty is only skin-deep and doesn’t really matter. It’s not a mark of character, or of goodness.

Being voted third ugliest, though, set me on a painful life course I am only beginning to appreciate as my 30s draw to a close.

In some ways, the course wasn’t so bad.

At first I focused on my mind. I don’t want to be pretty anyway, I told myself. I’m smart. I don’t want to be like the pretty blonde bimbos. I then developed my sense of humour to be the ‘funny’ one, the girl with self-deprecating humour that made people laugh, never mind if it was often at my own expense. I decided that I’d never get a boyfriend anyway, so I might as well just be friends with the boys, so was the girl that was always available to hear about how much they longed for my better looking friends. I was put in the ‘Friend Zone’ years before it became a ‘thing’, and to this day pride myself on my ability to establish genuine friendships with people of both genders.

And yet.

I developed an unhealthy binge and purge regime for much of my 20s, as my weight was one thing I could control. I have recently come across the term ‘part time bulimic’, and realize that it applied to me during this time. I couldn’t change my face, but I could change my body. If I didn’t have the willpower to eat and exercise, I had two fingers that I was able to put down my throat.

I dressed conservatively for years, lest I be noticed. If something suited me I would buy it in multiple colours, too scared to try anything else. Even now, it goes against my better instinct to wear anything bright, floral, or a bit different. Even now, when someone compliments how I look, a small part of my mind wonders if they are making fun of me.

I wore minimal makeup for a long time. Not because I didn’t want to, but because I didn’t want to make an effort. I was self-sabotaging; I didn’t want to try in case I got it wrong. I’ve since swung in the other direction. I spend far too much time and money in my hunt for that one potion or product that will repair my self-esteem.

I hid behind glasses.

I once told a close friend I had developed feelings for him. He was one of my best friends; we always laughed and talked and enjoyed each other’s company. He wasn’t interested; he was in the process of falling for someone else. I asked him: what’s she like, this other girl? I am so attracted to her, he replied. I got over my friend within the week, but those words reminded me of who I was. I was the girl you laugh with, talk with and enjoy the company of, but I am still the third ugliest.

I was in two relationships in a row with men who told me to lose weight. I believed them. They both cheated on me, and I gave them both second chances. I didn’t believe I was worthy of more.

I pick fights with my partner about my looks. I try so hard not to, but when I am feeling bad it slips out: I look a bit fat, don’t I? My skin’s really not very good, is it? When he disagrees, I feel good. But when he agrees with me – for he will always tell the truth – I feel vindicated. Of course this is true. When we first got together he wasn’t sure about me as a girlfriend, I was well entrenched in the ‘friend zone’. Rational me knows that this is the best foundation for a relationship, but part of me is sad that he I was never a beautiful stranger who caught his eye. Rational me is usually in control, but when I am tired and moody, the third ugliest girl slips out.

I am only now trying to break out of the ‘cool girl’ dynamic with other men in my life, but it goes against the habit of two decades. I am still friends with men; all good men, but men who think nothing of talking in front of me about what women they find attractive. Men who enjoy ‘bantering’ with me, but still fall for women who are taller than me, thinner than me, and better looking than me. The ‘other’ mould of woman, the sort that aren’t party to conversations that involve talking about whether particular women are hot or not. While I don’t want my friends’ affections in that sense, I still feel bad about myself when they talk about how attractive they find the women in their lives. I shouldn’t. It’s not rational. But deep down, what I hear is a reminder that I am not in the camp of women they are talking about. I am reminded of being 15 and the boy I liked at school telling me how much he liked someone else because she was so pretty.

Recognizing the effect this stupid vote has had on me is the first step in a long process of healing, and I am getting there. Rational me is more dominant now, and I am more confident in who I am. While I’ll never be approached by modelling agents on the street, I know that I scrub up fine. I also know, and tell my daughter, that beauty is only skin deep. I have decided to stop spending time with the men who talk about other women’s looks in front of me, and have developed a much healthier relationship with food since having children. I haven’t made myself vomit in ten years.

But.

When I was fifteen, I was voted the third ugliest person at school. That’s not the tragedy of the situation, though. The tragedy is that, even when I am looking my best, I study myself in the mirror until I see that 15 year old girl looking out again.

The tragedy is that, in my heart of hearts, I still believe it.

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