Conversation with the Comments

Laurie and Debbie say:

Lots of people seem to have important things to say about the whole discussion of ugliness, prettiness, and beauty. We want to start with April‘s “I’m frustrated that so much of the fat movement is dedicated to making a larger appearance acceptable rather than just making appearance not matter.”

Neither of us is the least bit sure that it is possible, let alone desirable, to reach a state where appearance doesn’t matter. We’re primates, we’re visual animals, we have aesthetic senses. We respond to sunsets, and rhinoceroses, and coastal rocks, … and other people. It’s hard to imagine how we could let go of appearance mattering.

We don’t, however, need to equate that with any kind of either simplistic or thoroughly culturally ingrained definition of “beauty.” As Laurie pointed out when we were talking, “beauty” is a word with an incredibly strong charge. (“Ugly” has at least as strong a charge.) Because the word “beauty” has been used so long to beat people (mostly women) up, to undercut self-esteem, to sell products, and to create anxiety, “everyone is beautiful” can sound patronizing, demanding, or otherwise unwelcome. Never forget that we live in a culture where everything is commodified and co-opted, slogans like “everyone is beautiful,” which begin as the best kind of social change rallying cry, can rapidly turn into commercial tags for life-endangering weight-loss drugs.

Leaving weight aside, we categorically reject the kind of “beauty” that depends on whether or not we have those moles excised, or what we put on our skin at night. The definition of beauty, or aesthetic pleasure, or satisfying looks that we’re striving for would be unplugged from how much time and money we spend on our appearance, and (even more important) unplugged from what the patriarchy thinks it would be good for us to look like this decade.

As much as we may giggle at the cartoon Lynne quotes:

The two [witches] were having brunch and cackling delightedly, ‘My dear, you’re positively glowing with ugliness–you must tell me some of your ‘ugly’ secrets!’

what it’s doing is turning a useful reversal mirror onto the concept of beauty, rather than truly dismantling it.

Stef is on a great track when she says:

Insofar as I want to ‘get to be ugly’, … I want it precisely because of its etymology via ugga “to fear”. I’m also interested in the “likely to cause inconvenience or discomfort” aspect. … Such ugliness is to me entirely compatible with what I think of as the deep kind of beauty, the kind that comes from experience and competence and struggling and such.

Beauty vs. ugliness is one of the great oversimplifying dichotomies of our culture. The same way the nightly news treats every major issue of our time as if it had two, and exactly two, sides, we have “ugliness” chunked as “”the opposite of beauty.” In fact, a person can be both ugly and beautiful (the French have this in their standard vocabulary: a jolie laide is a “beautiful homely woman”). A person can be neither. Or one, or the other. Or shift back and forth.

Beauty is, in some part, in the eye of the beholder. So is ugliness. Both are also in some significant part in the person being beheld. When Dorothea says “I have no trouble with the ‘aesthetically pleasing’ definition for beauty, prettiness, whatever word you care to use. I’m just not aesthetically pleasing,” we wonder if that’s a consensus shared by everyone who knows Dorothea, because aesthetic pleasure varies so much from person to person. One woman’s rhinoceros is another woman’s teddy bear.

Other than the “beauty is the opposite of ugliness” dichotomy, another big noxious piece is the one that says “beauty is determined by the dominant culture, as reflected in majority opinion.” Henry James looking at George Eliot (thank you, Lynne!) or Patsy’s first boyfriend describing her as “the homeliest woman he had ever seen” are falling prey to the assumption that other voices can define beauty, or ugliness for them.

To the extent that we can put “beauty” and “ugliness” on different tracks, rather than making them two sides of the same coin, and to the extent that we can let ourselves make our own, ever-shifting, extremely personal criteria for what we find beautiful and what we find ugly, we can broaden and deepen our appreciation of both.

<br /> <a href="" rel="tag nofollow">body image</a><br /> feminism<br /> beauty<br /> ugly<br /> fat<br /> stereotypes<br /> women<br /> <a href="" rel="tag nofollow">Body Impolitic</a><br />

2 thoughts on “Conversation with the Comments

  1. I ran across a quote in an article that I’ve since discarded (my friend gives me stacks of New Yorkers and I try to go through them as quickly as possible so I don’t end up keeping them forever), from what I think was a remembrance of SF socialite Pat Montandon–a woman who used her looks as a tool. The quote is, “Beauty is money from God.” One aspect of what we call human beauty is a sort of harmonious regularity of features and an unnatural focus point–the impossibly tiny lotus shoes on Chinese women with bound feet, or the completely unnatural breast-enhanced lean female figure that is now the impossible ideal. I’m just guessing that it’s the unnatural focus point that makes you look and look again, might be what the jolie laide (pretty ugly) Frenchwomen are cultivating. The geisha heroine in Memoirs of a Geisha has it pointed out to her early on that she has unusual gray eyes that set her apart, and her mentors capitalize on that. Just a guess, because I’m not visual enough to be sure this is correct–just an intuition. I was very inspired by a co-worker who was a big woman, with very little money to spend, who wore little if any makeup, and her hair in a perpetual gray crew cut–in no way was she a conventional beauty. But she had a brilliant eye for putting together found items into stylish outfits–e.g., she wore a couple of sets of earrings all at once–no one of which ever matched, and she always looked fantastic.

  2. I love this post, I have to say. One comment on the boyfriend who thought I was “homely”; we met once about two years after we had dated, & he commented on how pretty I was looking. The only changes which had occurred in that time was that I had somehow, through the generosity of an aunt & a friend of my mother’s, acquired some “cute” clothes, &, oh, yes, I had gone through one of my periodic “I am not thin enough” periods, & lost about 20 pounds. I guess beauty is indeed in the eyes of the beholder, & a lot of it does have to do with how we present ourselves. Even today, I get more positive attention, more smiles, more comments, more second & third looks from men, when my hair is permed & curly, as it is now, when I decide to put on a bit of lipstick (I am not much of a makeup person), & when I am wearing snug stretch jeans with a stretch cotton shirt tucked in. Of course, in order to be fair to those who meet me & react in various ways, I also get a lot of positive feedback when I am positive, upbeat, feeling more confident, & greeting people with a smile. It’s all the same woman, different presentations.

    And I agree that we need to broaden the criteria & appreciate how every one of us is unique, special, irreplaceable, & how, whether or not we meet someone’s definition of “beauty”, we look the way we are supposed to look & fill a niche in the world which cannot be filled by anyone else. We need to celebrate diversity in every sense & to own our own & be proud of who we are rather than being envious of what someone else has that we do not.

Join the Conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.