The Ugly Truth: why women aren't happy with their looks

MIRROR, mirror, on the wall — which of us is truly happy with our looks, warts and all? Just 12% of women think they’re attractive, research by beauty brand Dove has found.

And while it’s a statistic unlikely to shock Jennifer Tress, who penned a memoir called You’re Not Pretty Enough after being told just that by her ex-husband, it’s one that she’s hoping to change.

“You’re Not Pretty Enough came from some place I could never have imagined,” Tress told Feelgood from her home in Washington, DC.

“Three years ago, I got into live storytelling. One of the stories I told was about the breakdown of my first marriage, and when my ex-husband told me I wasn’t pretty enough for him … [after I] found out he was having an affair.”

“When I set up my website (, I used that phrase as sort of an in-joke,” she says.

“Then something interesting happened. After setting up analytics, I noticed a startling amount of [web] traffic from people Googling phrases like: ‘Am I pretty enough for anyone to love me?’.

“It made me sad to see those searches month after month, so I decided to take action.”

Using that website, and now her book, Tress, 42, has since transformed an ugly comment into a worldwide body acceptance movement aimed at helping other women (and men) to learn to love what they see in the mirror.

“I administered hundreds of surveys and collected video responses, asking people questions like: ‘When was the last time you felt Not Pretty Enough?’, and ‘What was driving that feeling?’” she says.

“For women, especially, that feeling can take up a lot of head space. I wanted to acknowledge it, but also to focus on moving beyond it so that head space is available to focus on things that really matter.”

Like most other women, I’ve had my share of ‘You’re Not Pretty Enough’ moments over the years, including being told that my short hair made me look “even uglier” by a teenage boy and that I “need to lay off the spuds” by a 60-something-year-old woman.

Then again, I was also once told that I look like Elizabeth Taylor — but rarely choose to remember that when applying my make-up in the morning.

“When you look in the mirror, you’re actively looking either for what’s unique and great about you, or you’re looking for flaws,” says confidence coach Anna Aparicio. “Either way, you’re going to find it.”

“Women, and more and more men, often put themselves down over their looks.

“At my confidence seminars, I used to ask clients to say five things they like about their body and five other things they like about themselves.

“Eventually, I had to bring that down to three, because 20 minutes would go by with no answers — that says it all.”

Pretty is often the entrée into self-esteem issues “because it’s the easiest, and laziest, way to assess ourselves and others,” says Tress.

“It becomes an active choice to remind ourselves of the things we like about ourselves.”

Even Hollywood star Winona Ryder, 41, admits to struggling with her self-image early on.

Gracing the cover of Interview magazine earlier this year, she revealed: “I was in the middle of auditioning, and I was mid-sentence when the casting director said, ‘Listen, kid. You should not be an actress. You are not pretty enough. You should go back to wherever you came from and you should go to school. You don’t have it.’ I was around 15 or 16.”

In a world where women are under increasing pressure to glam up, it’s little wonder that a third of us suffer from ‘make-up agoraphobia’, refusing to the leave the house without our warpaint, according to a survey by Superdrug.

“There’s nothing wrong with wanting to look better, but there’s a fine line between self-improvement and camouflaging ourselves because we can’t stand who we are,” argues Aparicio.

“If you can’t bear to look at your reflection in the mirror, this is not something make-up or surgery will ever fix. You’ve got to work from the inside out.”

Dublin singer and actress Sarah Mulligan, 30, who is set to appear in the new series of Love/Hate, says she has decided to embrace her natural beauty.

“Personally, I prefer to be as natural-looking as possible. I can’t stand fake tan and wear little or no make-up.

“Even on nights out, I wear the bare essentials: mascara, lip balm and a little bit of concealer.”

Not even super-confident Sarah Jessica Parker could conceal her hurt at being voted World’s Unsexiest Woman by Maxim magazine in 2007 though.

“I would like to ask [the judges]: ‘What exactly is it that you personally find not sexy about me?” she said in Grazia magazine. “’Is it my figure? Is it my brain that bothers you?’” “Do I fit some ideals and standards of some men writing in a men’s magazine?” she asked. “Maybe not.”

“Am I really the unsexiest woman in the world? It’s so brutal in a way.”

Men are definitely more swayed by looks, says dating expert Sharon Kenny.

“Ninety-nine per cent of my male clients say they are looking for someone who is slim and attractive. My job is to manage those expectations.”

“We tend to think of men as highly visual creatures who will settle for nothing less than the ideal woman,” says Aparicio.

“If this were true, most women — myself included — would be single right now.

“Sight is not the only sense we use to decide whether someone is beautiful or not.

“I think men and women would agree that a physically beautiful person with a bad attitude quickly turns ugly in our eyes.”

With the average woman criticising herself 13 times a day according to research by Glamour magazine though, who needs enemies? “No man is ever going to want you” and “You are a fat, worthless pig” are just two of the type of insults women hurl at themselves every day, the shock survey found.

“I definitely think that women can snap out of [this cycle of self-loathing],” says Tress. “But it’s going to take an active mind shift.

“The best role models are those who don’t seem to focus on their looks as their primary source of identity, but rather their accomplishments, such as Adele or Hilary Clinton.

“Growing up, I was always pretty confident and outgoing,” she adds. “Like most teenagers though, I compared myself to the ‘pretty’ girls and thought I didn’t measure up.

“In my 20s and early 30s, my self-image saw a lot of highs and lows — but I’m in a great place now, and remarried to a great guy.”

“Some women learn to like themselves more and more as time passes,” says Aparicio.

“Others keep reading those magazines and watching those television programmes, and feeling worse and worse as time goes by.

“Personally, I’m much more confident now than when I was in my teens and 20s,” she adds.

“It’s been a journey of self-discovery, but I can honestly say that I’m delighted with the woman I’ve become.

“Ultimately, nothing is more attractive than a woman who is happy in her own skin.”


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