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First Person: Gonzalo Otálora
As told to Jude Webber
Published: February 9 2008 00:31 | Last updated: February 9 2008 00:31
I was the ugly one at school – the kid with the Coke-bottle glasses, the spots, the braces. I got picked on all the time. I was treated not just as ugly, but as an idiot. Instead of learning maths, I learned to despise myself.
My parents – I got the worst of both of them in the looks department – didn’t really know how I was being treated at school. They couldn’t understand why my grades kept going down and why I was a troublemaker. They sent me to all sorts of psychologists. I thought of killing myself – I could imagine myself at home, with the knife in my hand.
Going out with girls was torture – I had to make hundreds of phone calls just to get a date and the goal was to try not to get dumped on the street corner as soon as they saw me. By then, I’d worked out that at school the best reaction was to be funny about it so that I wouldn’t get teased. I became quite a character.
But I was suffering from “aesthetic anorexia”. I ignored my dentist and got rid of my braces and spent a fortune on glasses with lenses that didn’t look too thick. I had laser surgery on my eyes – I didn’t care that it was earlier than recommended. I had hair implants. I was thinking about other surgical procedures like another implant and liposuction.
I tried all kinds of diets, I spent hours at the gym. I was a total slave to the mirror – it was utter aesthetic desperation. I was trying to turn into a prince from a sad, ugly frog, but I still felt sad and ugly.
I decided to write a book about my experiences of being visually unappealing in Argentina, a country with the most beautiful women in the world. I called it Ugly. It was great therapy. There aren’t any other books about what it’s like to be ugly and not turn into a swan. I think an ugly duckling has to be happy to be ugly.
I realised ideal beauty is a racket. It doesn’t exist. Most people can’t spend the four or five hours a day in the gym that you need to have a perfect body, and starving yourself in a country where food is plentiful is a kind of ostentation. It’s perverse.
I even said that there should be a tax on beautiful people to subsidise us ugly ones. The government ignored me, of course, but this month I’m meeting people from the education ministry to talk about devising some anti-bullying material to use in classrooms. Because of my book, teenagers confide things to me that they can’t tell anyone else, so I want to use this and do something positive to help build ugly kids’ self-esteem.
In my case, I transplanted all the insecurities I’d had at school into the world of work and I wasted 10 years. I’m trying to get over it. I’m 31 now. I went from being a loser with women to being a Don Juan while I was writing the book – I became an expert at picking up women in the street, but they were all one-night stands.
I’ve still only had one girlfriend in my life. Women used to give me the brush-off. Now they know me as “the ugly one”. But lots of women are afraid of going out with me because they think I’m writing another book and they’ll be in it. But things can’t change until people do, and we can all stop relying on the mirror – especially the girls.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008