on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

daring to be ugly

I was quite vain when I was younger due to a low self-esteem which led to a high level of insecurity. That insecurity made me feel ugly and that I was never enough, so I felt like I had to work harder just to meet the minimal standards required to exist.

One of the ways it manifested was of course the way I looked and dressed. I made the effort to get trendy clothes (or what I thought was trendy), spent long hours at the hair salon to get my hair coloured and cut – I have had a ton of white hair ever since I was 15 – for a very short phase I even grew my hair long in an attempt to look more feminine and attempted to wear some makeup.

But as I grew into my 30s the desire to be in my own skin became stronger. I had a breakdown in 2015 which cultivated a fuck you attitude to the society that had made me into a person who didn’t even know who she was. That attitude helped me along my journey of not wanting to keep up with appearances, and also due to the reality of not having an income anymore I stopped colouring my hair and acquiring new clothes. I wore the same tees, shorts and sandals everywhere I went, and let my hair grey out. 

In parallel as a young designer I pursued pixel perfection, like most other designers. I salivated at the work shown at dribbble and felt envious/jealous that I could never seem to reach that level of perfection. I was mostly designing websites as an independent designer, so I frequently had to present mockups to get the client to sign off on it. It took me a while to learn that presenting wireframes with adequate detail instead would save me time in the process — the client could get a glimpse into how the website would look before I spend all that time rendering the actual design. Back then (in the 2000s) there were no design systems and we were barely starting to use grid systems for websites.

It is not easy to get used to working on wireframes if one is used to only producing a high level of aesthetic. I had to suppress the designer’s urge to perfect the details instead of leaving the elements abstracted enough. But that was the first time I learnt that deliberate ugliness and the courage to leave it ugly can be useful tools. There was even a wireframing tool that gained popularity because it inherently encouraged speed with its library of deliberately cartoonish design patterns. This allowed the designer and client to work quickly on the architecture of the project instead of fussing over the visual details. The deliberate ugliness allowed the client to go into the mindset that this is not the real thing yet, else they may be inclined to jump on things that were not ready for that stage in that process. This sped up the decision making considerably. (yes back then it was the wild wild west and we were all whinging along, many classically trained designers had no idea how to translate their print design skills onto websites. I was not classically trained, so in some ways I had an advantage in not being burdened with the weight of a formal design education.)

In a later stage of my career I worked at a startup as a product designer. I quickly realised I was good at prototyping because I was able to ignore the urge to make pixel perfect prototypes and focus on getting the interactions right instead through quick iterative rounds. This allowed for wider experimentation at a stage where we prefer a variety of ideas instead of going too narrow too soon.

Some people made beautiful work that would wow everyone at a presentation, but the feature would eventually fail because the focus was on the wow factor rather than what would easing the user experience or increase engagement.

Unfortunately first impressions do matter especially politically at a company. So here’s the thing. This is not a story with a happy ending. Till today most people still cares about the wow more. It is prevalent not only in design work but permeates everything in society, including how we present ourselves to people. We put more effort into the way we look rather than working on our inner selves – the actual essence that underlies our interactions.

To be real means to be rough, to have imperfections. But this society doesn’t reward that, so we seem to be infinitely stuck with superficiality and fakeness. Plenty of times we have to participate in this pool of superficiality in order to participate in this society and stay relevant. To be deliberately ugly is to go against this unspoken custom.

And I don’t mean ugliness with its negative connotation, like it is bad to be ugly. There is a sort of beauty in things that are raw, rough, imperfect, messy. I simply use the word ugly because these things are perceived to be ugly, as they are not refined, polished or neat.

Maybe to people who are used to seeing made up faces I am considered ugly to them. My face is plain without make up to accentuate or hide my features, my brows are growing wildly, my hair is unstyled, my clothes are unironed, I don’t wear covered shoes 99% of the time. In some places it is considered rude to just simply be myself because I refuse to wear things that are not functional.

But consider this: isn’t it weird to place so much emphasis on the way we look when practically it has no influence on the persons we are, such as our capabilities, honesty, integrity, sense of responsibility, etc?

Lately I am starting to learn how to draw. Because of societal conditioning I cannot help but feel self-conscious and uncomfortable about my drawings, because they are ugly. But I was able to put aside those unpleasant feelings – a skill I’ve built up over the years as I grew in my previous work and as a person – and continue the practice. Eventually I was able to enjoy the practice, and I started to appreciate the ugliness of my drawings: the roughness, the wrong perspective, the inability to stay true to its original form, the wrong exaggerations.

ugly drawing of a pistachio cake
photo of the actual pistachio cake

Yet they are my drawings, my art. They can only be created by the partnership of my brain, eyes and hands. They are the outcome of my inability to make a 1:1 representation of the original subject, but even that inability is an unique filter that inaccurately transforms a perception into something two-dimensional, drawn and coloured by my intuitive choices. That inaccurate impression becomes its own art. It has its own strange beauty to me. The fact that it was birthed out of me amuses and warms me. I am a work-in-progress and sometimes the way I fumble as a human being is amusing so likewise the way my art fumbles is also amusing.

ugly drawing of a pizza

Life can feel extremely heavy and to be able to be amused is a form of aliveness.

I save a lot of time, energy and money because I no longer give a shit about my appearance. For a very long while I refused to give up my monthly haircut at the salon but the pandemic struck and my partner has been cutting my hair for 3 years now. These days I don’t even check the mirror after she’s done. I don’t like to throw out what I already have, or my entire wardrobe would be the same black v-neck tee and the same pair of shorts. We wear the same pair of sandals until they wear out. I’m at the point where I don’t feel self-conscious at all.

I think it is very liberating to live this way. I don’t have to spend all that time shopping for clothes, or trying out clothes in front of the mirror until I am convinced I have attained the perfect look. I think it is great if some people enjoy it, but I like that I take five minutes to get ready, and the time I did not spend on clothes I can spend it on books instead. It used to be such a chore making an appointment for a haircut, then going to the salon and hoping it is not hours before it is my turn.

I have to admit that it is a form of privilege to be able to disregard how I look. But one can have a ton of privilege and yet perpetuate the oppressive superficiality this world works on. This world can be a more liveable and creative if we can spend less time and energy judging external appearances, and all those imprisoning layers we have created to keep up those appearances.

Because I no longer aspire to make pretty things, I am able to experiment with different things and be satisfied with the fact that I made them, not spend inordinate amount of time obsessing whether they are good enough or not. The wide experimentation makes me learn faster as I am able to draw experience from the crazy quantity of things I try, and lessons from different domains are accumulative towards each other. I already spend a lot of emotional energy worrying about many other things, and I want some areas of my life where I can feel free.

This attitude permeates a lot of things I do: like the brutalist aesthetic of this website, my writing, my cooking, my creative pursuits. That it is important to focus on what is actually meaningful to me and that I don’t become my own creative block because I gatekeep myself from things I can or cannot do. What is the worst that can happen? Someone may have bad impression of me and my work because we don’t look pretty. But that’s what they all are – impressions. Someone’s thought or opinion. Why are they important to us? They are not the ones living our lives. Yes we still have to care about our bosses having a good impression of us – the real world sucks. But there are areas of our lives where we can try to free ourselves from this oppressive superficiality. You can make ugly art – no one has to know. Or better yet, work to find a work environment where we can spend more time on the actual work instead of maintaining those appearances. It isn’t easy, but not outright impossible.

People can have all the impressions they want of me. But I am the one who gets to feel liberated, and enjoy the process of making, of continually learning a multitude of new things, because I am mostly not afraid of being ugly.

3 thoughts on “daring to be ugly”

  1. moffan says:

    Well written, I agree with much of this. Both as someone who was very obsessed with how they looked from as early as the single digits, and as someone who has picked up learning to draw over the last few years, as well.

    To me, there is (at least with art, I don’t fuss over how I look at all these days) a fine line between seeking a certain level of pleasing-ness while still retaining a raw creativity that’s willing to leave mistakes as they are. If you go too into the former, you quickly fall into an anxiety causing, obsessive neuroticism that I see plague a lot of even extremely technically skilled artists. I like art that is relaxed and free. I believe when an artist isn’t exerting neurotic levels of control over their art, it’s more inviting to the imagination of the one viewing it. Maybe this will sound pretentious, but I think art is a communication between the artist and viewer, and when either side is overbearing, it’s not as enjoyable.

    I often find I learn more from my practice drawings when, knowing I’ve made a line or section of the drawing not quite how I wanted it, I leave it as it is and then see how I can build off/around it, rather than trying to get it “just right”.

  2. Alex says:

    Thank you for writing, and more important, sharing it publicly.

  3. Eliness says:

    I saved this article to go back to it as much as needed. Thank you so much for sharing your experiments and articulating your thoughts and learnings so well. This is definitely food for thought for me, since the most freeing and teaching artistic endeavours I ever made were the ones where I wasn’t so focused about having to share their outcomes…
    On a side note, this article made me think of your food drawings 🙂

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