The Day I Learned I Was Ugly

Recently I’ve become a enormous fan of the podcast ‘This American Life’. Hosted by radio legend Ira Glass, TAL has been running for some 20 years and specialises in making the mundane profound. Everything from summer camps, to schooling, to stocking vending machines on an aircraft carrier. This stuff is as captivating as any series you’ll binge watch on a lazy afternoon. Recently I listened to one on ‘coming out as fat’. It was about plus size people using the F word for the first time and coming to terms with their bodies. They shared about their struggles with weight loss and the feeling of often being invisible to people. One of the interviewees spoke of how, soon after radical weight loss surgery, she scored a job at the Letterman show in New York. Her job was to walk up and down the line of people waiting to get in and put a mark on their tickets. In 2008 I stood in that line and had my ticket marked and thought nothing of it. It turns out those marks are three classes of audience-member. The top class is the beautiful people and they get to sit in the front three rows. The next class is the average people who sit in the rest of the downstairs section. Finally, there’s the bottom class who sit upstairs out of view of the cameras. They are often elderly or showing signs of a clear disability. Pretty horrific huh?

And here’s the thing. I was in that middle group!

Now I think I’ve always known that I don’t fit the world’s standards of beauty. I can tell the difference between Ryan Gosling and myself. But no one had ever said it so outrightly, so starkly! I’m fun, smiley, charismatic and my wife thinks I’m hot. But listening to that podcast 8 years after my first trip to New York I felt like a veil had been lifted as I suddenly saw a policy of systemic prejudice affect me, making a call about my value and acceptance in society.

I felt that feeling again just last summer in Ethiopia. After meeting a stranger near Meskel Square in Addis Ababa we ended up walking with this new friend all around Merkato Market. We strolled about, had lunch together, and by the end of the day had agreed to go on a five day road trip with him. I emailed two of my friends some details about him, where we’d be staying and what we’d be doing. I told them that if they didn’t hear from me at the end of each day we were probably lying in a bathtub missing a kidney.

What transpired over the next few days was a hoodwink as we realised we were essentially paying for a trip home to see family for our new acquaintance. We had incredible experiences that we never would have otherwise had, but we had a sense that we were continually on the receiving end of some kind of joke that we didn’t possess the language or the cultural intelligence to decipher. That joke looked a lot like us become the purse of our host. We felt angry and confused. Were we misunderstanding the culture around us or were we genuinely being swindled? Conversations were being constantly had about us in another language without any of them directed to us.

As our frustration grew I felt that gentle interruption of God’s spirit challenging me.

I realised that my anger was about powerlessness. As a white, straight, wealthy, westerner I was, for the first time, experiencing a measure of powerlessness. Whether it was true or not i didn’t know, but how I felt was judged, sidelined, overlooked, exploited and manipulated. I felt a spiritual call to lean into this experience of powerlessness and allow it to shape me. To see this as a very rare and precious moment of which there may only be a handful in my life.

Anna and I sat at the airport in Addis Ababa a few days later and wept. We were winded and wounded. I thought of a quote I’ve heard many times recently…

“When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”

And then I thought of refugees and migrants who move to New Zealand who are often voiceless while services have conversations about them in front of them but not to them. I thought of New Zealand’s indigenous Maori who have been made to ‘sit upstairs’ for centuries, only called into the forefront for tokenistic appearances. I thought of the LGBTIQ community of New Zealand, for whom discrimination and powerlessness has been a daily reality. I thought of the developing world who often have no voice at all.

Maybe, for those of us who have had so much go our way in life, it’s a good thing for us to experience the kind of discrimination that brings a true but brief moment of solidarity with those who suffer everyday. Maybe it’s good for us to feel ugly sometimes. Maybe it’s good for us to feel powerless. Now the question is: will we run from this discomfort, or allow it shape us?