Years ago I had an idea for a book that would be entitled Ugly Hot Girls, and would be all about the art of being ugly, the social construction of ugliness and its very specific and fraught relationship with gender (femininity in particular). Ugliness is transient, like prettiness. But unlike beauty, in our culture ugliness is taboo, it is associated with maliciousness and it is highly reviled. Therefore it has fantastic revolutionary and subversive power, and therefore it is interesting to me.
Hegemonic Standards of US Beauty (heretofore referred to as "HSUB") are determined by a number of criteria that for one reason or another are near – if not completely – impossible to attain. And more importantly, the criteria are thoroughly, inescapably and inevitably impossible to maintain. Among the criteria are things like physical ability, light skin, youth, robust health, thinness. Paradoxically, a number of social expectations placed upon women put them at risk of losing their coveted spot in the HSUB pecking order. For example, pregnancy and motherhood. We’ve all received the message that pregnancy is an integral part of feminine performance, but we’ve also all heard that having stretch marks and a distended belly is a big feminine faux pas. And motherhood? It often leads to The Baby Weight (you must religiously obsess over and lose within 7 days through some magical diet of nuts and roots) and extended periods without “appropriate” amounts of beauty rest. P.S. My grandma says her children gave her all her wrinkles. But I suppose pregnancy and motherhood can lead to bigger boobs, which are part of the HSUB but in conjunction with The Baby Weight and the lack of beauty sleep makes you some kind of desperate predatory cat, if I’m not mistaken?
Just the other night I had dinner with a new friend who’s an artist. She’s performing in a show called “Poor, Ugly and Alone.” I was super excited about the idea of this show (which is kind of top secret). We started to talk about what it means to be ugly, and how we are expected to compensate once the dreaded ugly card has been dealt. She talked about growing up in a Filipino home where her small nose was coveted, and she was encouraged not to play sports or spend too much time outside lest she get dark (because that meant she’d be ugly). I grew up in a Mexican home where I was similarly encouraged not to get dark and to try not to get fat (because that meant I’d be ugly). My nose was only ever the point of criticism once in 7th grade. Dana Chan said I had an enormous nose. Before that day I had never even thought of my nose as a site of imperfection, but have never forgotten what she said. The relationship we've been taught to have with beauty - to pursue it by any means necessary - and ugliness - to avoid it by any means necessary - is harmful. And we can opt out of it.
I repeat: we can opt out of it. I know. I’m always telling you to do crazy shit, but you know that’s why we’re friends.
A fantastic way to think about any social expectation is to begin by asking yourself the “Where?”; “When?”; “Why?” and “Who?”
1. Where did this expectation come from historically?
2. When did I personally learn about this expectation?
3. Why do I hold this expectation?
4. Whom does this expectation benefit?
Here are my answers to this quiz:
1. The expectations of beauty I learned came from a racist, ableist, classist sociohistorical project of female subjugation.
2. I’ve learned about beauty ideals from very early childhood and they are affirmed daily through conversations with others, magazines, ads, television, the internet, and those horrendous OkCupid reports.
3. Because apparently feeling bad is awesome.
4. Certainly not me. Not the women I know. Not even the seeming beneficiaries of HSUB really benefit from the suffocating weight of its incessant expectations.
For a very long time I thought that this obsession was about being beautiful for men, but then I realized that it’s so much more than that. It’s about preserving the ego by any means necessary until you ultimately self-destruct. Yes, presenting ourselves for masculine/male consumption is certainly part of it, but the amazing men I know are happy spending time with a person with whom they can share thoughts and laughter. And the ones who aren’t are deep in their own self-loathing and self-consciousness. They seek to acquire and consume beautiful women because it makes them feel accomplished. Beauty - the way most of us have learned it - is truly and integrally a nihilist pursuit. True beauty – and the art of ugliness – are about working what ya got, about making fun of silly things, about self-love that leaves room for other people’s imperfection, about the repudiation of shit that little assholes in 7th grade told you (because it was their own nose they hated, and someone taught them to hate it).
It’s exhausting living and breathing in a system so clearly not meant to benefit me. We lose dollars, friendships, and time when we live in constant vigilance of the omnipresent HSUB. The battle for beauty is a losing one. Each and every one of us will experience fatness, illness, age. We’ve all got a ticket on the ugly train.
Well, I say All Aboard.
Virgie Tovar, MA is one of the nation's leading experts and lecturers on fat discrimination and body image. She is the founder of Babecamp (a 4 week online course focused on helping people break up with diet culture) and the editor of Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion (Seal Press, 2012). She writes about the intersections of size, identity, sexuality and politics. See more updates on Facebook.