Ugly-Pretty Face: Are We Truly Experiencing A Cultural "Ugly Moment?"

Illustration for article titled Ugly-Pretty Face: Are We Truly Experiencing A Cultural "Ugly Moment?"

I remember my grandfather musing that, thanks to dentistry, medicine and relative affluence, people simply weren't "ugly" the way they had been when he was a child in early 20th century Arkansas. (It should be noted that he was known in said hamlet as "Moe Joe the Dog-Faced Boy," a name he carried for the next 80 years.) Well, The Times claims that whereas beauty has dominated the limelight for the past few years, now people are getting interested in the physical Other - classical "ugliness" — its societal perceptions, ramifications, and history. New ordinances protect against look discrimination. New shows claim to celebrate "ugly pretty." But...we've never defined beauty more narrowly! Can we punish this discrimination on the one hand and all tacitly celebrate it on the other?Says writer Sarah Kershaw, "It is an awkward topic, a wretched concept, really, and, of course, a terrible insult when flung in your direction." Studies have found that "lookism" exists in almost all spheres of life. A 1994 study, “Beauty and the Labor Market,” found that "unattractive people" earn between five and ten percent less than those found to be beautiful. San Francisco and Washington have put anti-looks-discrimination looks on their books. But it's not as straightforward as other discrimination issues: for one thing, people don't like to think of themselves as "ugly," found wanting behind some societal velvet rope, and why would anyone? It's an absolute insult, yet wholly subjective. It says, in essence, whatever else you are, it doesn't matter. Then too, what even is "ugliness?" The piece points out that while perceptions of beauty are pretty much cross-cultural — they generally hinge on symmetry and certain perceptions of health — there is no "ugliness" standard and it can be hard to separate such discrimination from racial and ethnic prejudices. It's no secret that more attractive people are perceived as superior and that conventional "beauty" is an asset in almost any industry, but the definition of "ugliness" and its attendant lookism is far more fluid. The only constant? It's bad. "Ugliness is associated with evil and fear, with villains and monsters: the Wicked Witch of the West, Freddy Krueger and Harry Potter’s arch-meanie, Lord Voldemort, with his veiny skull, creepy slits in his nose for nostrils and rotten teeth." Several people in the piece claim we're having a brief "ugliness moment" because cultural phenomena like Ugly Betty and Shrek celebrate "bringing ugly back." But this cute "ugliness" — which basically consists of a cute girl wearing a frumpy outfit — has nothing to do with the true physical differences that have traditionally stood as shorthand for deeper deficiencies. And this superficial acceptance of the other lasts only as long as it takes for the next episode of Extreme Makeover or Style by Jury to begin, allowing the unfortunate subject to get a new face. We might study the idea of "ugliness" in art and society, confront our prejudices, but the truth is we are so insulated from any difference that, ironically, anyone without braces or Accutane strikes us as grotesque. Today, my Grandpa Moe would probably have been put on Extreme Makeover. But when he was a kid, even if people were a lot crueller, there was no pretense of false acceptance — and at the end of the day, he was just another person. Move Over, My Pretty, Ugly Is Here [New York Times]



I love how "ugly" is always glasses, braces and less-than-perfectly straight hair. But take that shit off and all of a sudden you're Ann Hathaway in "The Princess Diaries".