Saturday, February 25, 2012


"He's very sexy-ugly."
--Kissing Jessica Stein

Lately I've been thinking about "ugly" and "beautiful". (More like, I spent one day thinking about it intensely--Jan 10th, according to the original post date-- then couldn't finish the post, so kept on thinking by default.) First there was this piece by Mia Mingus, which has been circulating on Tumblr. Some excerpts:

We all run from the ugly. And the farther we run from it, the more we stigmatize it and the more power we give beauty. Our communities are obsessed with being beautiful and gorgeous and hot. What would it mean if we were ugly?...What if we let go of being beautiful, stopped chasing “pretty,” stopped sucking in and shrinking and spending enormous amounts of money and time on things that don’t make us magnificent?...There is magnificence in our ugliness. There is power in it, far greater than beauty can ever wield...I would rather you be magnificent, than beautiful, any day of the week. I would rather you be ugly—magnificently ugly.

Then I read these posts by Definatalie (who is also an excellent artist!) Her concept of "ugly femme" is pretty badass to me, and it looks like some other folks are starting to run with it. It seems like embracing ugliness could be freeing, but I hesitate to label myself as such. For so long, I thought that my lack of conventional attractiveness was somehow causing my lack of sexual interest. And beauty is often moralized--ugly people tend to be those whom we dislike. Ugly tends to imply repulsion, and I don't think it pains anyone to look upon me. However, I appreciate the transgressive power of saying "I am ugly". Like "queer", it seems like "ugly" is a political label. Just like queer speaks to the pain that heteronormativity has caused, ugly speaks to the suffering created by rigid beauty ideals. It's another attempt to reclaim a phrase that has been used against us.

I am a person who mostly gets called "cute". I like wearing unusual clothes, so comments about my appearance are, 99% of the time, about my clothes and/or hair, rather than my overall beauty or lack thereof. Sometimes when I look at old paintings, I see a woman who kind of looks like me. But I don't see that woman in movies, on TV, or in magazines. Sometimes I think I'm beautiful, and some individuals might think so, but the societal juggernaut doesn't. We're told that "everyone is beautiful in their own way" and yet we're also told that in order to be beautiful we need to be thinner, more feminine, less hairy, have a different skin color, etc. Basically, the messages out there about beauty are confusing. Maybe I would have been considered a great beauty in 1812, or in some other culture, but that seems neither here nor there.

And when I do get called "beautiful", it's never in a context where I can appreciate it. It never matches up with my own concept of what's beautiful about my appearance or myself more generally. When I was around 12, I found myself alone in a room with the older son of some acquaintance of my parents'. He was a stranger to me, and I didn't have anything to say to him. But suddenly, he piped up with a comment about how beautiful I was. He could probably see the discomfort on my face, and guessed that I "probably wasn't interested in boys yet" (heterosexism starts early). Feeling vaguely afraid for my safety, I excused myself and went to hide elsewhere in the house. His statement may have been true to him, but it sounded so false to me. Whatever kind of beauty he was foisting on me in that moment, I didn't want it.


Carolyn said...

The thing about "ugly" is that it's in the eye of the beholder, as they say. I'm not sure how it could ever be a political label, but this might all be going over my head. It might be slightly possible to define "fat," but there will always be people more and less attractive than any one person, so it's not really possible to claim it as an objective term. If you wanted to claim "ugly" there would immediately be 100 people less attractive than you claiming you don't really have the lived experience. It's also true that it's intertwined with personality. But to me that means that its much more common to describe someone as ugly because of their personality. People find different physical qualities attractive so there is no way to discuss objective beauty. My experience is that the prevailing wisdom is the opposite of what you said, model-types are assumed to be jerks because we stereotype them as having never had to develop a personality. But maybe that is a stereotype that the could be tackled in this movement?

Ily said...

@Carolyn, thanks for the comment! I don't think it's going over your head. This is one of those topics where I'm not entirely sure where I stand. I agree with you that ugliness and beauty are subjective, but there are still social standards of beauty. These social standards could be totally different from someone's personal standards, though. Like for instance, the social standard is that women need to be thin; the fact that a lot of people are attracted to fat women doesn't change that (oddly enough). I think part of what makes the social standards so perverse is that they ARE so different from our personal ideas (a lot of the time). I think there can be great beauty in ugliness. For instance, I think abandoned buildings can be very beautiful. Does that also mean they're not ugly at all? I don't know.

Sara K. said...

I also sometimes like looking at abandoned old buildings.
When I mention that I am from San Francisco, many people comment "oh, what a beautiful city". Whereas the city where I live now is usually described as "ugly". And quite frankly, I find that refreshing. Either a) I do not pay attention to how the city looks, which means I can pay attention to something else or b) when something is so ugly that I take notice - I take notice. I am engaged. Actually, I think that's why some abandoned buildings are so good to look at. They are engaging to look at,

Jessica said...

Have you heard of the term "jolie laide"?

I'm doing a "search" on your blog and don't see it mentioned, so forgive me if you've already touched on it.

Anyway, that might bring some interest to you.

Jolie laide translates to "pretty-ugly," as in both pretty and ugly at the same time.

Off-kilter features, body shapes, etc., but still attractive, pretty to look at.

I find the concept interesting, especially since it is not really mentioned in USA culture.

Anyway, might add something to your discussion/thoughts on being attractive, conventionally pretty, etc.

Ally said...

This is something I struggle with a lot. I have a physical disability. I don't want to be called beautiful or pretty, because it always sounds like it has an asterik, "oh, but you're so beautiful! you're so pretty*" *you can't even tell/people don't even notice, etc. When you have doctors trying to cut you open from an early age and TELLING you, and your parents, that no, this won't do anything medically, but it will make her LOOK closer to normal, you have a real problem with being told how pretty you are, or how pretty you COULD be, if you'd 'let yourself' (usually by wearing makeup or certain types of clothes)

Then of course, there's the fact that I'm both asexual and a woman. Too many people tend to be of the opinion that if a woman looks good, she did it on purpose, and you're right to say it just doesn't feel safe to have someone see you that way when you're not expecting it. So there is a part of me that does not want to look pretty, because I don't want to be accused of looking for attention I don't want or can't handle.

Yet I still look in the mirror and wish my nose was smaller, my teeth were straighter, and my stomache was flatter. I hate my freckles, and even though I like dimples on other people, mine just make my face look chubby. I don't feel attraction to very many people, but those I do are usually outside the so called 'beauty standard' anyway. Yet I can't help but hold myself to different standards. And I constantly wonder why that is.

Mostly, I try to ignore the way I look as much as I can. My mom is one of those women who believe that if you look better, you will feel better about yourself, and I believe the opposite. I think if you get in the habit of "looking good" it becomes a kind of need, where on the days you don't get that validation, you wonder what you've done wrong. So sometimes, I dress up, for fun, because I already feel good. And sometimes I wear clothes that will make people stop and stare, either in the good or in the "what the hell is she wearing" way. But mostly, I try to ignore my own appearance.

Anonymous said...

Wow...what you said about the boy who called you beautiful but was 'foisting it upon you'...that makes a lot of sense.

I've always thought I was attractive to myself. But I feel "foisted upon" alot when people give me compliments that seem false. Not that they don't believe I'm beautiful...but that they're not really seeing me...they're only seeing my sexual attractiveness.

People have called me drop dead gorgeous, sexy, smoking hot. Yet it all quite disturbs me...because what they're seeing must be an illusion...because what I see is a plain girl with nice features. Nothing more or less. I don't consider myself ugly at all....but the more people stare and comment on how beautiful I am...the uglier I feel.

I'm unsure why...anyone know what I mean? I'm so confused.

Ily said...

@Anon, I do know what you mean! At least, I think I do. It seems like you explain it pretty clearly. It's like, yeah, people are complimenting you, but they're also sexualizing you.