Will Women Ever Have the Freedom to Be Ugly?

Once, on a blind date in my twenties, a guy I instantly didn't like realized this and said something hilariously awful by date's end: "You're a bitch, and you're not even pretty enough to be a bitch." It's funny because I totally was pretty enough. No, it's funny because HE LOOKED LIKE AN AARDVARK. Actually, it's awful, because I don't know a single dude who has a story like that, but nearly every woman I know does.

If the entire notion of women as the fairer sex and the "prettier" gender disappeared, thus allowing us to be ugly all the time or some of the time without cultural shaming/pity/donning the cloak of invisibility, what would it be like? Well, in addition to not getting great anecdotes4life, it would probably free up a lot of time, money, and energy.

But let's clear up the jaw-droppingly gorgeous elephant in the room here: Yes, we're a visual people, we are drawn to symmetry and beauty — in objects, in nature, in people — and who wouldn't want to be a baller in the looks department? Sure, there are arguments about extreme beauty getting in the way of all kinds of living, but generally speaking, most people want to be attractive, and want to be with other people who are also attractive. Making ourselves attractive to each other is built into the system, so it'd be dumb not to admit that.

Second, what do I mean by ugly? Like all things subjective, it's arguable to infinity. I think when women are called ugly, they are not actually ugly — they are simply noncompliant. They are not willing to spend the time, money and energy it takes to live up to a cultural beauty standard that says skin tones must be evened out, eyes must be enhanced, cheek bones accented, weight managed, desirability advertised, and so on. (Remember, pretty is a skill set. And there's a terrific post unpacking the contradictions of critiquing the beauty standard here at Feministe for further reading.)

Women are "supposed" to be pretty all the time, whereas men can be a lot of things, and good looking is but one of them. And if he's not good-looking? Well he can just go be interesting, funny or rich.

There's a common quote in feminist literature — men are instrumental, women are ornamental — and it still echoes today. Most women will tell you that day in and out, they feel they must do everything to eradicate problem areas and enhance attributes, whether it's not eating, losing weight, working out, primping, perfuming, disguising, perfecting, and so on, and that's even IF they are interesting, funny or rich, or all three and then some. What's worse, no matter what they are, the quickest go-to insult to take a woman down a notch will involve a physical shortcoming 1,000,000% of the time.

Being pretty is a box we must always be ticking off or striving toward. It never goes away, and it begins at birth. Maybe that's nothing new, but the idea that women should finally be free from these considerations is rather recent. This New York Times piece called "A New Image of Female Authenticity" (full disclosure: I'm quoted in it) sums up this issue succinctly:

Women are allowed to do big things, but must do them fully leaned-in, hands raised, having it all. What remains impregnable to them are those refuges that shelter so many men: ordinariness and muddling through.

It’s worth noting, then, when a war of resistance breaks out and even gains ground. In certain corners of the American cultural ferment today, one detects a new iconography of female realness, grossness, flawedness — of copious thighs and unsexy sexuality. In a hundred ways, women are clamoring for a freedom long cherished by men: the right to be ugly, too.

The piece cites some usual suspects: Lena Dunham's willingness to present her body as sexual without meeting stringent standards for TV nakedness, Tina Fey's shapeshifting appearance that often refuses to put the goods in the best possible light. It mentions Orange is the New Black as a space largely free of the male gaze. It notes Miley Cyrus's twerking as having an "almost ugly sexuality" — something that should get more praise than it does, in my opinion. Sometimes I really think one of the most radical things a woman can do is simply not brush her fucking hair.

Mindy Kaling is quoted as saying, of her current busyness and TV presence, “I’m a minority, chubby woman who has my own television show on a network,” she said. “I don’t know how long this is going to last.”

It's worth noting (again!) that none of these women is ugly, merely noncompliant! But what the outrage and disgust and sense of betrayal from commenters on the Internet toward them suggests is that we have too little interest in looking more closely at why we feel so offended when women refuse to play pretty. It probably has something to do with the fact that men have long felt entitled to, if nothing else, a pretty lady on their arm, and that most of us gals aren't willing to reject this standard ourselves (I'm not saying we should, merely that it's complicated and contradictory). Our reasons are totally understandable by the way — there's a real cost to doing it — but women who go this route do force us to reconsider what we're so insecure about, anyway. It's kinda like, well shit, I can do that too?

But make no mistake: This is a form of progress. This is one aspect of what it means to have autonomy. And yes, the cost of the risk of noncompliance is still potentially very high: it limits earnings, opportunities, and the number of partners to choose from, and as always, more women with power gives us all more options.

But it appears to be catching on, in every piece of writing or advertising that pulls the curtain back and refuses to treat women and their bodies as something to scrub clean of biology and only present as coming up roses. From the charted trends of the rise of the "slacker female" to just the sense of women's bodies and concerns being addressed more frankly and more boldly, the realities of periods, pregnancy, motherhood, or even vagina ownership, seem to be everywhere you look, in the air all around us. And it's really quite beautiful.

Image by Jim Cooke, photo via Getty