I do not wish to be beautiful. I’ve learned a lot and lost nothing of lasting importance by going through life far from beautiful. I am complaining about nothing. I wouldn’t be thinking about ugliness at all if it hadn’t come to the social media forefront recently with the Twitter hashtag #uglyfeminist.
The hashtag is as troll-ridden as it sounds. It’s not a springboard for enlightening discussion (something the Internet is not known for anyways) but a brawl. On one side of it are misogynists who think it’s clever to reduce millennia of struggle for safe and equitable conditions for half of humanity to a joke where women they do not find sexually attractive are simply frustrated at being unworthy of the social favour men mete out. On the other side are women posting pictures of themselves showcasing their conventionally attractive looks to—I don’t know—prove #notallfeminists are ugly. Some feminists actually do fulfill their social obligation to look the way men want them to, and shame on men for not fulfilling their side of the social contract, I guess.
Now, I won’t tear down my Twitter sisters any further for living their struggle in the ways they see best. I continue to believe that tossing out wedges for women to drive between each other—like the #uglyfeminist hashtag—is an old device men use to make peace for themselves by keeping women preoccupied attacking each other. I won’t do it. But I will share a few things I’ve learned about why ugliness matters.
Ugly is the opposite of beautiful – the opposing end of a crude, arbitrary, culturally constructed spectrum of physical attractiveness. As long as the lights are on, the appearance of beautiful humans affects the people around them. Beauties are able to change other people’s behaviours, beliefs, and sway their emotions just by looking the way they look. Don’t argue. If this wasn’t true, the multi-billion dollar advertising industry would not exist in the form we all know. Most of the time, being beautiful makes the daily hassle of social life easier. It’s a form of privilege and power.
On the opposite pole of the spectrum, we ugly folks have our own kind of power over people. Like beautiful people, we affect other’s behaviours, beliefs, and emotions simply by showing up and looking the way we do. The effects are different in nature but not in potency. But where the beautiful can inspire warmth and affection they may not deserve, we can inspire disgust and derision we don’t deserve.
I’ve experienced disgust and derision based on my looks. Most of it happened in junior high school when both my looks and the people around me were at their worst. I’ll spare us the details but on a rainy day in 1987 I was voted ugliest girl in school by a group of loud, rude boys who didn’t know me at all.
They were personally offended that a girl would let herself be so unattractive to them. My looks were transgressive. They flouted the social code that promises boys they’re important and social life ought to be constructed to keep them happy, comfortable, and gratified. As part of that social code, girls are expected to look the way boys want us to.
By being ugly, it was as if I didn’t know how important boys were—or worse—that I knew and I didn’t care. The boys knew in a tacit, latent way they probably didn’t fully realize they understood, that I needed to be punished for my transgressive ugliness. If looking bad all on its own wasn’t aversive enough for me (it was) they would provide the aversion themselves by humiliating me in public. And that’s what they did.
Girls responded to my ugliness differently. At nearly every all-girl-party I went to—especially ones with older, big sisterly girls—I would be given the gift of a makeover. Someone would stick my head in the sink and set about changing my life, just like in the movies. In the late 1980s this meant curling irons, hairspray, and loads of eye makeup. It was sweet and noble and futile. When the big makeover reveal moments fell flat (unlike my high, sprayed bangs) I felt an especial hate for my ugliness, for its imperviousness to makeovers—its rejection of my friends’ love and goodwill.
Sensing my parents’ reaction to my “awkward phase” was bittersweet too. “Awkward” is a term grownups apply to gently describe the unbalanced strangeness in the form and features of children they remember as silky, sparkly babies. Adults say “awkward” like an apology, with longing and grief. Longing and grief spring from love. There’s heartbreak in the word “awkward.”
I wish I could say I was ugly as part of some precocious feminist stunt—that it was about rebellion and wilful disobedience to oppressive social norms. That wasn’t it at all. I was ugly because I needed my braces off. I needed my body to relinquish the emergency weight it added to get me through the growth spurt that never came. I needed my hair to grow out of the awful cut my well-meaning mother chose for me. I needed to start buying my own clothes. I needed the 90s to start so everyone else would wash off their eyeshadow, let the aerosol out of their bangs, and join me in low maintenance grooming regimens. I needed mean-boys to grow up. Eventually, all of that happened.
Is being ugly what made me a feminist? It must have been one of thousands of factors. Did it make me the frustrated, bitter, unwanted man-hating caricature of the #uglyfeminist hashtag? Clearly, it didn’t. Most of the people who mean the most to me are men—my husband, my five sons, my father, brothers, cousins, brothers-in-law, friends, mentors, colleagues. I don’t spend much time baking them cookies or ironing their shirts but I do love them in my own way.
And it goes like this: a few years ago, I caught one of my teenaged sons sharing an unflattering photo, a candid shot, of a 13-year-old girl we know, the daughter of a family friend. He and a male friend who had never met this girl were laughing, mocking, and posting the photo in a fairly obscure region of a social media website. The odds of the girl ever seeing it herself were low. That didn’t matter.
“Honey, don’t,” I said to my son. “That girl is me.”
This is the gift I, an ugly feminist, try to give to men instead of beauty. It’s truth, which, as sweet, silly Keats says, is beauty after all.