I am not attractive to others. Would life be better if I made more effort?

Looking stylish is a smokescreen, says Annalisa Barbieri, where and why did you learn to be quiet and invisible?

Illustration of hat and figure in clouds
‘Being physically attractive and sexually attractive aren’t necessarily the same thing.’ Illustration: Lo Cole/The Guardian
‘Being physically attractive and sexually attractive aren’t necessarily the same thing.’ Illustration: Lo Cole/The Guardian
Annalisa Barbieri

Last modified on Fri 13 Nov 2020 16.08 EST

I am a 63-year-old woman who, about 10 years ago, realised I am not seen as physically attractive by others. I have had a few partners in my life, though I didn’t settle with any of them. Recently, I concluded that I would be unlikely to make another close relationship and have focused on making a good life for myself.

I have since looked back over my life and re-evaluated many seemingly small experiences that affected me badly, such as a singing course on which one girl received a huge amount of attention from the leader. Late in the course, he was shocked to find that I have a good singing voice. As a not-attractive woman, it is harder to be heard. I wonder how different my life might have been if I had been better looking.

I don’t believe I am unattractive, but I am almost invisible (this isn’t to do with age: I always have been). I am quiet and there are many reasons for this, but all of these microreactions since early childhood might have been a factor: people are less likely to look at, and engage with, less attractive people.

I have always quite liked the way I look. I see myself as youngish, energetic and fairly stylish. However, I worry that I actually appear frumpy to others. It is difficult to talk to friends about this – either they are embarrassed, or very positive and emphasise my qualities. One worry is whether I should be trying harder with hair and makeup.

You took the unusual step of highlighting the bits in your original letter you thought “salient” and I felt you were trying to lead my attention where you wanted it to go. I know you do a job (which you’ve asked me not to name) that means you help others, and I wondered if you’ve got really good at redirecting the attention away from you.

What happened 10 years ago? Why are you writing now? While I don’t doubt for a moment that conventionally attractive people may have an easier life, it’s not the whole picture; they also have a certain amount of prejudice aimed at them. And I’m sure you know – I certainly do – people who aren’t conventionally attractive but whose personality is so magnetic that’s all anyone ends up seeing. And then there’s being attractive and being sexual. You didn’t make this distinction and I wondered if you equate being physically attractive with being sexually attractive. They aren’t necessarily the same thing.

I contacted Prof Alessandra Lemma, a psychologist and psychoanalyst (bpc.org.uk) who highlighted this difference: “You can have someone who is stunningly beautiful and yet who is not at all [sexually] attractive because something about their sexuality is not fully integrated.” This could be for a variety of reasons too complicated to go into here, but might stem from the narrative around sex and sexuality they experienced growing up, or be the result of formative experiences.

You mention feeling invisible and that this wasn’t a new thing. We felt this was really important. Lemma explained that “our experience of our bodies and ourselves is shaped very early on”. She wondered what happened to you growing up: “You may have internalised something that maybe you can’t even put into words [yet] about your body, about how you inhabit the space you’re in. We internalise people’s reactions and that has nothing to do with objective beauty, more to do with how we feel as a person and whether we feel we deserve attention. It’s the difference between looking attractive and feeling attractive.” Lemma suggested looking “more at the invisibility you talk of rather than how you look physically”.

I agree. I think the talk of hair or makeup or looking stylish is a smokescreen to what is really going on here, which is where and why you learned to be quiet and invisible. This is something I think therapy can help with (you mentioned you might try it) because, as you say, friends aren’t really the people to explore this with.

It’s great you are focusing on a good life without a partner, but there’s no reason that this should be off the agenda for you. But first: you. You do have a voice; you’ve used it here and we’ve listened. I think you’ve started something really important.

• Every week Annalisa Barbieri addresses a family-related problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Annalisa on a family matter, please send your problem to [email protected]. Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions: see gu.com/letters-terms.

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