“Selfies”: A Modern Tale of Ugly Ducklings

Remember the story of the ‘Ugly Duckling’?

The story tells of a mother duck whose eggs hatched to reveal several lovely ducklings and one chick who was different from all the others. It was bigger, its plumage a duller color than the beautiful golden fuzz of the other little ducklings.

All the animals in the barnyard ridiculed him, naming him Ugly Duckling.  Sad and lonely, the ugly duckling went off to find his place somewhere, but simply did not fit in anywhere.

Finally, after much misery and loneliness the ugly duckling matures into a beautiful swan, piecing together why he was always so different.  The story is beloved around the world as a tale about positive personal transformation.

In the story, the ugly duckling sees his reflection in the water after the ice had thawed at the end of a long and harsh winter, and realizes that he has been transformed into a beautiful swan.  He is then embraced by the other beautiful swans.

In contrast, so many of the young women I meet these days have become beautiful swans but are still locked in an ugly duckling view of themselves.  As such, they are sad and lonely, not finding the right flock to embrace or be embraced by.

These young women turn to me as their psychologist, professor or friend. They are often unusually talented young women who have done extremely well academically and have many interests. Additionally, they are physically beautiful, but they tell me that no one seems to notice that.

They also tell me that, after years of not fitting in, they have learned how to use their sexuality to get some attention, but that this does not change their feelings of loneliness and alienation.

These young women are often sensitive and caring individuals, who are genuinely interested in bettering this world.  But instead of finding that their idealism and enthusiasm resonates with their peers, they feel misunderstood and unappreciated.  They live in fear of being ridiculed for being so earnest and un-cool.

These young women were told throughout their earlier years that when they grew up, things would get easier.  Recognizing their talents, parents and mentors promised them that when they got to college it would be better, that they would find like-minded friends and would have an easier time fitting in.

They waited patiently for their high school years to pass, looking forward to a college transition that would bring them to a place where their unique interests would be appreciated.

Though their exit from high school has transformed them into swans, sadly the flock that was supposed to embrace them is nowhere in sight.  And so, they are forced to revert to their old, unhealthy behaviors, hiding their differences and pretending to be a little more like everyone else just to make their way through.  Still lonely and unhappy, they begin doubting that a happy ending to their story is even feasible.

It is a sad state, indeed.

Twenty years ago, I wrote my doctoral dissertation about gifted and talented children.  I found that boys and girls of high intellectual abilities were equally interested in many things until around age 12, when a sharp drop was seen in the number of interests that talented and gifted girls continued to cultivate. The typical interests of girls became fewer and more gender-typed, while boys continued to manifest a wider range of interests.

The contracting interests seemed to reflect the impact, conscious or not, of some insidious cultural messages about how to be a girl.  That was twenty years ago. So, why is it that the beautiful swans I see today in NYC are still finding it difficult to recognize their own value and be recognized for their uniqueness?

Western culture has become progressively more accepting of women’s rights, and women have gained visibility and legitimacy in important roles in professional, social and political arenas.  Additionally, society has become more sensitive to many types of diversity and inclusion, including ethnic, religious, sexual orientations and sexual gender identity, and other visible and invisible facets of self-definition.

Yet, Western culture has also become progressively focused on externalized ideals embodied by popular superstars. Extraordinary salaries are commanded by icons of TV, movies and sports, and equally extraordinary interest is focused on their clothing, accessories, social lives, and sexual escapades.

Thus, while young women are now permitted, in fact, expected to be as motivated and successful as young men, the social pressures exerted by idealized images of extroverted, sexualized success, are amplified by social media and are more “in your face” than ever before.

Private individual are now crafting their own online “public relations campaigns” daily, in ways that used to be reserved for public figures and “stars” on the pages of second-rate magazines.  This public façade, created with carefully chosen and carefully enhanced photos, might tell a “staged” story of the excitement and popularity in everyone else’s lives. Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms infiltrate one’s personal life and, unlike the yellow magazines, which one could choose not to purchase, cannot be easily avoided.

Ubiquitous efforts at glorifying the virtual and the actual social lives of young people create a disadvantage for those with a hidden kind of diversity, the disadvantage that some young women face when they do not fit the mold. When they are too shy to flirt, too earnest for small talk, or find partying and drinking alcohol boring, these girls, no matter how physically attractive they might be, are seen as outsiders. And they feel it.

With all the attention appropriately paid to diversity of various groups, we seem to still need to increase the appreciation and sensitivity to individual differences.  We need to make it easier for young people, especially young women, to find their place among their peers.  We must find ways to increase the social capital for introverts so they may feel valued for their talents by the culture around them.

Young women who are challenged by the focus on extroversion need encouragement within the sub-culture of their own peers in order to be able to recognize their own beauty and find their place in a flock that truly welcomes birds of all feathers.  Otherwise, so many of our young women will forever believe that they are ugly ducklings, making their way through the world, sad and alone.

About the Author
Dr. Irit Felsen, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and trauma specialist, and an adjunct professor at Yeshiva University's Ferkauf School of Psychology.