looking back

Ugly Duckling book illustration swans

If you write a blog on WordPress, they offer you insights into the number of visitors, where they come from and the like. They also send you little messages when you reach certain “achievements” or targets. Today, they have told me that it’s thirteen years since I registered on WordPress.

The odd thing, though, is that if you go back through the archives here, you’ll find that I published my first post – cerditos y patitos – on the 23rd of April, 2007, which is thirteen years and three months ago. Somehow, it seems I managed to write and publish five posts before I actually registered the blog. I suppose I must have cheated and backdated them so that if the first visitors enjoyed what they found they’d have something more to read.

Back in 2007 I was happily writing in both Spanish and English, and I made sure I provided an Acerca de este blog as well as an About page. Even so, I do wonder why on earth I chose a long Spanish text as the very first post. Especially as I had the equivalent text available in (mostly) English.

Since I’ve never included that version here, I might as well do so now. It originally appeared in May 2007 in The New Entertainer – a free English language newspaper distributed along the coast of Almería. I wrote a monthly column there for several years under the headline Capital Letters, weaving Spanish words and phrases naturally into English in the hybrid language style popular among my multi-national friends in Madrid.

Ugly Duckling book illustration baby swan

Cerditos y patitos

“Hay que ser elegante por dentro y por fuera,” said the TV presenter and I sat up and paid attention, thinking a tertulia on the philosophy of inner elegance might prove interesting. But no, the next item on the show was a report on las nuevas tendencias in lingerie.

OK, I admit I might be alone here, but images of male models haciendo deporte in their ropa interior are not exactly my idea of elegancia. It’s true that some of the bikini sets shown – not on the male models – were bastante bonitos, but I’m afraid I don’t think I’d be any more elegant if I dressed in raso y encaje and I know I’d be a heck of a lot less comfy. Silks and satins are too slippery, and lace has a tendency to make me itch. For me, sin comodidad, no hay elegancia que valga.

Of course when dealing with subjects like elegance and beauty, hay gustos para todo. After all, opinions differ even on rather more objective matters such as health. If that weren’t the case, the Gobierno de Asturias probably wouldn’t have felt obliged to take into care un niño con sobrepeso whose family eating habits were apparently putting him at risk. None of the newspaper reports suggests that it was a case of negligencia: they blame it on “una percepción errónea de la familia sobre la obesidad.”

I’d have thought it fairly hard to have a mistaken idea about obesity hoy en día. After all, what with Supersize whoever-it-was, bans on triple-decker burgers, reportajes in the Sunday papers about “Cómo comer” etc., it’s hard to escape the subject. But apparently I’d have been wrong.

Indeed, it’s only a few weeks since a similar story was in the UK news, and, again, it seems the family ideas about los buenos hábitos alimenticios were mistaken. The British mother was indignant when it was suggested that her child’s obesity was due to neglect. Her attitude was, “If I’d neglected him, he’d be skinny, underfed and undernourished.”

According to a recent study in Andalucía, over 99% of Spanish children eat at least cuatro raciones de dulces y golosinas every day and it’s clear that many padres and abuelos still believe un niño gordito es un niño sano.

Then the kids grow up with such complejos about their aspecto físico that they sign up in droves for the opportunity to rehacerse delante de las cámaras of reality shows such as “Cambio Radical”. That, surely can be the only explanation why around 45,000 people applied to participate in the programme.

Ugly Duckling book illustration

When I first saw the ads in the paper – a woman swathed in vendas and surrounded by quotes such as “podré reir” and “mi pareja no me dejará” – I thought it was another public service campaign against la violencia doméstica. Even when I realised my mistake, I was still confused: I’m pretty sure my partner would discourage me from trying to participate, but “my partner won’t let me” seemed an odd slogan for them to have chosen. Of course when you’ve worked out the context, it turns out it really means “he won’t leave me”.

In the interests of research, I watched one of the transformations. The woman in question was quite the opposite of gorda: at 41 kilos la ropa le quedaba grande and apparently el pueblo le había quedado pequeño.

Aged 23, she had never seen the sea nor been to the cinema, and part of the transformation process included cumplir some of these dreams. It seems a cruel trick to take her to Imax, Madrid, as her first movie visit: with its efectos especiales and pantallas gigantes, anything that comes after is bound to be una decepción.

Back in the pueblo she had muchos “amigos” who “hacían burla de su fealdad”. I always thought that friends laugh with you not at you, but maybe that’s a personal thing. Even her family treated her as if her appearance made her una inválida, although she had a novio and came across as having a great deal of carácter, an image which may have been helped by la nariz de emperador romano.

Ugly Duckling book illustration ducks

But of course she wanted a nose job. And she wanted her ears pinned, her boobs lifted, her teeth fixed and her eyes seen to. She got it all done for the precio de ganga of being shown antes and después on the (un)reality show. They took her away from la familia for two months and cut and snipped and bobbed and trimmed and stuffed. They put her in the hands of a personal shopper and took her de compras to buy ropa nueva, then let an estilista loose on her hair and gave her a complete makeup re-style. I agree she came out of it all looking more elegante. Sadly, she also looked like a typical Spanish señora in her mid-thirties, with nothing to distinguish her from thousands more of the same type.

Another of the fallos of the show is that the changes are all superficial. They alter the physical image without looking at the reasons behind the participants’ complexes, and completely ignoring the concept of elegancia interior. Theoretically they take a patito feo and turn it into a cisne. But they don’t teach the false swan to fly; they let it go on waddling round like a pingüino. No one seems to have shown the girl in question how to walk elegantly en tacones, nor how to get into a car llevando minifalda. They didn’t even use mascara a prueba de lágrimas in preparation for the unavoidably tearful re-union with la familia.

More to the point, they don’t seem to realise that en el cuento the ugly duckling turned into a swan without any intervención quirúrgica, just by accepting its own naturaleza.

You had only to watch the adverts during the programme to realise this is just as possible in real life as in the fairy stories. There were the obvious spots selling tratamientos de belleza, but there was also the Dove advert with their modelos reales, though, sadly, not the Dyc gente sin complejos. But perhaps the most telling was the Schweppes ad with Adrien Brody. Now there’s an ugly guy, but would you catch him getting that nose bobbed? I reckon he’s elegante por dentro, whatever underwear he’s got on.

Ugly Duckling book illustration adult swan
A few years ago, I gathered the full set of my New Entertainer columns together, made a few minor tweaks, and published them as a collection. The book Capital Letters is available from Amazon. It provides a personal ex-pat’s view of Spain in the early twenty-first century and, as it says in the Foreword, “as we head towards a parting from our European neighbours and a re-mapping of the world, it is perhaps a perfect time to look back on what can never be again.”

Author: don't confuse the narrator

Exploring the boundary between writer and narrator through first person poetry, prose and opinion

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