He told me I was ugly

Messing with my head: Comparing myself to a photo of a beautiful woman a friend sent to me is an acid test of my self-belief, self-worth and self-love. Photo: Delwyn Verasamy

Messing with my head: Comparing myself to a photo of a beautiful woman a friend sent to me is an acid test of my self-belief, self-worth and self-love. Photo: Delwyn Verasamy

I had this friend. He was a good friend. I adored him so much that he was one lunch date or hug away from becoming my best friend.

He was not perfect.
There were things about him that I did not like. One of those things was how he did not like certain things about me. So we would argue. But this was okay because I have never shied away from fights. Fights were merely a means to solve misunderstandings. We fought to get to know each other. At least that’s what I would say to justify our high highs and our even lower lows.

When I realised this was happening, I decided to take a step back from our friendship. I was too close to the picture to see its entirety. So I let him know that, for the two weeks that I would be out of town, I was cutting our line of contact. Just to see how I would do without him. We would not make phone calls, send texts, make mentions on Twitter or Instagram, nothing. He agreed. And for two weeks I existed without his assistance on how to feel.

It felt light. But as soon as I got home, I reached out to say hello and share my findings of what time away from our friendship was like. It was our last conversation.

“Friend? Hey, I’m back at home. I miss you. How are you? Where is my belated birthday wish?”

“Hey Zaza. I’m glad you made it home safe. Happy belated.”

“O sharp?”

“Yeah I’m okay. You’ve just been gone for so long I don’t know how to talk to you.”

“I guess that makes sense. But hurry up and get used to it because I miss you, my broer!”

“Lol I want to show you something.”

“Awe, show me. What is it?”

“It’s my photography work. But you can’t share it with anyone.”

“I won’t nana, pinky promise.”

“There you go.”

“Oh wetsa portraiture nou? Lekker for you!”

“She’s beautiful isn’t she?”

“Awe, she’s gorgeous.”

“Lol why did you say it like that?”

“Like what? She’s beautiful, I agree with you. Is that why you sent the picture, to see if I thought she was beautiful?”

“You’re being weird, Zaza. Where’s the enthusiasm? Why all the questions?”

“I’m just trying to understand why you sent the picture lol.”

“She’s beautiful.”


“Lol. It gets to you when you realise a lot of women are more attractive than you, ne?”

“Huh? What are you saying?”

“You’re not as attractive as you think you are. Looks aren’t your thing, and it’s okay.”

“Where is this coming from???”

“You walk around thinking you’re the shit and as your friend, I’m here to remind you it isn’t like that bra.”

“WTF??? I don’t know if you’re trying to be funny but that’s a stupid joke. I’m not entertaining this. I’m not gonna let you mess with my head like that. Nope. No, no, no. I’m not doing this with you. I’m not gonna let you hurt my feelings so randomly. This isn’t necessary.”

“Getting your feelings hurt? I’m playing with you dog, geez. I’m sorry. Besides, ugly isn’t a bad thing because beauty isn’t everything.”

“Not funny.”

“Wow, I said sorry. Aren’t you confident Zaza? Where’s your confidence? Fuck what I said, be confident.”

I was dizzy with confusion and archived our chat because I could not bring myself to think about what he had just said. I did not want to process it because I did not want to believe him. And to do this, a new routine had to be established. I stayed up in my dark room and made a mental list of dos and don’ts to make sure I did not have to address the matter.

I will avoid mirrors and windows at all costs.

I will keep my chin down at the basin when I brush my teeth.

I will get up early enough for my brother to be my eyes when I get ready for work.

He will tie my braids, brush my edges and tell me if I have soap residue in my ears.

On my way to work I will busy myself with reading on the train and loud music in my headphones.

I will always look down to avoid shop windows.

The playlists I create will have nothing to do with the topic of beauty.

I will not tell my best friend, mama or journal about it.

I will not think about it.

I will not address it.

I will keep going until I am in my dark room where I will shut my eyes and wake up to repeat this new routine.

I repeated this to myself until I fell asleep. Unfortunately, as soon as my 5am alarm rang the next morning, I neglected to remind myself of the plan. Instead, the first thing I did was look at the picture of the beautiful girl. I pinched my screen to zoom into the beautiful stranger’s features. I studied her: her smooth Ricoffy skin, her round face, her long narrow nose, the cupid’s bow on her full pink lips. I stared into her huge pupils and noted the delicate lines framing her round cheeks and the slight hollowness under her eyes that made her look breathtaking, militant, tired but kind.

I thought of myself. How my features were confused. Was my face heart-shaped, oval or round? Why does my chin protrude as much as it does? Why are my eyebrows uneven? Does my button nose qualify as cute or does it make my chubbiness more apparent? Is chubby still cute? Are the black marks on my right cheek protruding beauty spots or warts? Why does my face dip in certain places and rise in others to create shadows under my eyes, nose and chin when I stand in the light? Who do I go to for all the answers?

With no one to ask I used her face as a reference. I looked and looked until I accepted that my features failed to meet what was established by this benchmark, this standard. She really was beautiful.

As the day progressed I managed to keep the promise of avoiding my reflection and kept my head occupied with the beautiful woman in the picture. I daydreamed about what she sounded like, what she read, what she wore and who her friends were. I thought about how attractive my brothers would think she is. I imagined how often suitors awkwardly confessed their attraction towards her.

She must have so many followers on Instagram, active followers who always comment with flowers, hearts and fire emojis. I bet only a hundred of them are her friends, the rest just adore the beautiful stranger. The scenarios rotated through work, on the treadmill, on the train, in the bath and in my bed.

I pictured her this way because these were things I didn’t experience. And maybe it was because my friend was right, looks weren’t my thing. He was right. I believed him because he was my friend. Why would he lie? I believed that he knew what other people didn’t because he got close enough to see the ugly that I had tucked away so well I didn’t even know it was there. I really believed him, then.

Zaza Hlalethwa

Zaza Hlalethwa

Zaza Hlalethwa is a junior arts and culture writer at the Mail & Guardian. In 2018 she was the recipient of a Sikuvile commendation for feature writing. In 2019 she received the Gauteng region Vodacom Journalist of the Year award for feature and lifestyle writing. Her interests in the arts stem from a need to demystify the elitist and complex-looking art world while her pop culture analyses look to facilitate critical thinking and challenge perpetuated social norms by using popular, everyday references, multilingualism and prose. Read more from Zaza Hlalethwa

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