Am I Ugly? by Michelle Elman

10th Mar 2019

Puberty is a difficult time to navigate as it is: there are plenty of books about the struggles of coming to terms with a changing body, raging hormones and shifting societal expectations alongside the pressures of academic achievement and planning for the future.

But for Michelle Elman, these years were made even harder by a childhood marred by illness and the aftermath fifteen serious surgeries wrought on her body.

Am I Ugly? is an engaging and warmly-written memoir by body confidence coach and body positivity activist Michelle Elman. The bulk of the book focuses on her childhood and teenage years, tracing the brutal effects of hydrocephalus on her body and mind.

Adept at bringing the reader into her teenage mindset, Michelle Elman chronicles the frustrating and occasionally cruel reactions of those around her, both to her illness and, latterly, the resultant scarring on her body.

She isn’t afraid to write herself truthfully, resisting the urge to rose-tint her past self. Instead, she explores her own reactions even when they were borne out of anger or a desire for revenge – and whether these emotions did more to hurt Michelle herself than they did the people they were aimed towards.

From the blurb, I had assumed that Am I Ugly? would have more of a focus on self-help and advice-giving, perhaps an assumption based on the author’s strong presence online as a body positivity activist and the success of her TEDx talk.

However, it’s more of a straightforward memoir than that, with only the last few chapters dealing with Elman’s discovery of a hypnotherapeutic technique named ‘havening’ and its subsequent positive effects on her life and self-worth.

There is, however, a list of further resources at the back of the book which includes both body positive social media accounts and books, a nice addition.

More broadly, though, what Am I Ugly? provides is a sense of hope and a reassurance that things that may seem insurmountable can in fact be beaten.

Throughout the book, Michelle Elman charts her journey towards forgiveness: both towards the people who had treated her badly throughout her illness and subsequent recovery, and also towards herself.

The healing process of her body is underpinned by the healing of her emotional scarring, a similar process of small steps. She advocates for a gentleness towards our bodies which never veers into the cultish or patronising language sometimes used by those in the wider self-love movement.

Her personality shines through her writing: funny, sometimes cynical and sometimes frustrating – but it’s a frustration that is easy to identify with, giving the reader a glimpse into the helpless rage Michelle Elman has struggled with through the worst periods of her life.

Some of the strongest passages of the book deal with the concept of who ‘deserves’ to survive a life-threatening illness and why, the random cruelty of the universe, and the guilt a survivor feels when those around them may not have been so lucky.

These are weighty topics, and yet Am I Ugly? was never a struggle to read. It kept me engrossed from start to finish and left me with a renewed appreciation for my body, flaws and all.

Am I Ugly by Michelle Elman is out now