Because I am the most tedious person in the history of dad's-girlfriends, the other day I found myself yelling at a 12-year-old girl, "'UGLY' IS A CONSTRUCT." (Past good-time hits have included, "ALL BODIES ARE GOOD BODIES," "NEUTRALITY HELPS THE OPPRESSOR," "NO, THE PRETTY LITTLE LIARS MAIN CAST ISN'T
ALL MOSTLY WHITE 'BECAUSE NO BLACK PEOPLE TRIED OUT,'" and "[an entire rush hour commute on the school-to-prison pipeline].") She rolled her eyes at me magnificently—in top pre-teen form—but upgraded the boy she'd been grousing about from "ugly" to "just not as cute as everyone thinks." I took it as a win. Nailed it.
I don't want to be annoying social-justice stepmom (kidding—of course I do), it's just that no single realization has improved my life as tangibly and profoundly as the arbitrariness of "ugly." And I want her to know about it. I want her to remember it when she thinks about her own body and her own worth, and when she evaluates the people around her in media and in life. I hope that when she meets someone new, she'll seek out what's beautiful about them, what they're good at, where they shine; not shun them for the things that make them different, not see nonconformity as a character flaw. I hope she remembers that "ugly" is only what we make it, based on whose voices bombard us, whose opinions we're taught to value.
But how do you convince a pretty girl that being pretty isn't the most important thing? How do you divest media-steeped children of the media-driven lie that "good"-looking people are good and "bad"-looking people are bad? That some human beings are worth more and some human beings are nothing?
Well, the media could help out, for starters. Writing semi-cheekily in the Guardian this week, Liz Boulter called for an "equal ugliness campaign" among news presenters:
I think of it as the Brian Taylor benchmark. The BBC Scotland political editor is an accomplished journalist, and very engaging when reporting to camera, but he'd probably be the first to admit he's not exactly god's gift. Now try to imagine him as a woman. Or rather try to imagine an overweight grey-haired woman in her late 50s – and with an impressive double chin – as a BBC reporter or newsreader. Impossible isn't it?
…Men of all ages can still be on the BBC when they're fat or less than gorgeous in some other way. Nick Robinson's glasses and bald head didn't stop him winning the political editor job, but if you're female you seem to need the looks of an Emily Maitlis or Fiona Bruce – as well as talent – to be successful.
… I'm calling for an equal ugliness campaign – in the hope that one day a female foreign correspondent with all the physical allure of (BBC North America editor) Mark Mardell will be seen handing over to an anchor who could be (BBC Art's Editor) Will Gompertz's twin sister. We'll be a lot further down the road to equality when that can happen – without anyone thinking it worth commenting on.
The showbizification of TV news—applying a beauty pageant ethos to what is essentially a hard, functional vocation—is truly bizarre. And sure, you can say, "Well, television is a visual medium," but if conventional attractiveness is really the engine driving this conversation, then why is there a Larry King? When is it time to put Bill O'Reilly out to pasture? Why did I spend my childhood getting yelled at by this adonis? If the stringent standards of your "visual medium" somehow only apply to women, then I'd posit that "visual" isn't the key word here at all. The key word is "women." This is a sexist argument, not an aesthetic one.
Strangely enough, when it comes to male news personalities, viewers appear to be more than capable of setting aside their groin-feelings and evaluating journalists on their work alone. It's only the women, of course, who are required to be everything—excellent and brilliant and assertive and sweet and not-too-angry and not-too-compliant and hot. Nicki Minaj's rant on this subject is my forever-favorite:
If I were sexually attracted to women and I just wanted to know what was going on in the world so that I could form nuanced opinions and make informed decisions at the polls and run away from volcanos in a timely manner, I'd be like HEY. STOP TRYING TO MAKE ME WANT TO FUCK MY NEWS. Do you know what "news" is? We've got some real shit to deal with in the world right now, and I can't think of anything less relevant than the messenger's bangability score.
And anyway, when did sexual attraction become the sole metric for physical beauty? Is a sunset "ugly" just because you don't want to fuck it? What about a waterfall? A horse? Ireland? A song?
Our standards of conventional attractiveness—of what people "like" to look at—are malleable and in constant flux. No one is "ugly." "People" are not a monolith. When we spend more time looking at a more diverse range of bodies and faces, our scope of "attractiveness" expands.