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The Ugly
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Mary Devereaux

Ugliness is a topic largely neglected by aestheticians. This neglect no doubt has many roots. Here I’d like to explore just one, namely our uneasiness with saying that people are ugly. We speak readily enough about the moral failings of our fellows, e.g., the duplicity of political leaders or the psychological shortcomings of neighbors, relatives and co-workers. Why then does calling someone ugly make us so uneasy?

We shun mention of the ugly, it seems to me, for a number of reasons. First, we naturally enough do not want to think of ourselves as ugly – especially not in the present tense. The thought that others might find us ugly is unsettling and embarrassing, particularly in a culture such as ours, where, rightly or wrongly, success, esteem and love rest so heavily upon physical appearance. So, too we generally try to avoid attributing ugliness to others. Calling the ugly ‘ugly’ – recognizing someone as ugly – is thought to be undemocratic and cruel. Undemocratic because even with a pluralistic conception of beauty, some people are going to lose. It’s bad luck, but a fact. Recognizing the ugly is cruel because, whether the judgment is mistaken (as in the case of Pecola’s self-hatred in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye) or correct (as with Frankenstein’s monster), calling someone ugly may do as much or more damage as calling them a liar or a cheat. Unlike lying or cheating, ugliness seems to have few excuses, a situation worsened, ironically, by the readily availability of the cosmetic fix and the raising of the bar of “standard” good looks. Hence many of us are rightly reluctant to apply the predicate ‘ugly’ to human beings.

The discomfort I am describing is intensified by a long intellectual tradition associating beauty with goodness and ugliness with evil. While a extensive line of physically attractive villains from Vronsky to Rhett Butler attests to the falseness of this connection, an equally entrenched narrative tradition insists upon its truth, using ugliness as a mark of bad character if not downright wickedness (e.g., the ugly stepmothers and stepsisters of Grimm’s fairytales). Alternatively, ugliness and the social ostracism it (unfairly) provokes may turn the good man bad, as the tale of Frankenstein’s creature and a range of others illustrate. The point is that one way or another, an ugly face is frequently associated with a form of moral badness.

Medical and scientific traditions take a different slant, linking ugliness with physical rather than moral flaws, specifically with forms of ill-health. Thus the ugly comes to be taken as a reminder of our own aging, vulnerability to illness, disability, and death.

Lastly, there’s the connection between beauty and happiness (or success). Aristotle’s answer to the question of whether an ugly man can be truly happy was “No,” although for reasons too complicated to pursue here. We needn’t agree of course. (Literature holds out the promise that Beauty will fall in love with the Beast – although notice, in story after story, the ‘Beast’ turns out to be a handsome prince in disguise). Recent empirical investigations of the strong correlation between felicitous looks and success in the workplace or marriage market auger even less well for the uncomely.

Now in all three of these accounts, ugliness is identified with a form of badness, but the negativity in question is extrinsic. In the first case, the real object of our negative judgment is not ugliness itself but the bad moral character with which it is (wrongly) associated. In the second case, the real object of our negative judgment is again not ugliness itself, but its purported relationship with poor health and human vulnerability. So, too, in the third case where the real object of our negative judgment is the ill-fortune presumed to follow from poor looks.

In each of these instances we have good reason to be suspicious of the judgments in question because of the unsavory political and social agendas with which they are associated. The more closely we look, the more evident the inappropriateness or unfairness of the negative value attached to ugliness and the more obvious the reasons why it is not discussed. The topic is largely avoided.

But should it be? Is the role of the ugly fully accounted for by reference to fashion and prejudice? Or is there something bad about ugliness itself? Once we separate the ugly from its connection with views about morality, health and happiness, does any of its badness remain? Or is it the aim of an analysis of the ugly that no one turns out to be ugly? Is the idea to embrace a kind of eliminitivism about the ugly? The eliminativist analysis of the ugly parallels eliminitivism about race. On this account, no one turns out to be ugly because there is no such thing as ugliness (only, for example, veiled misogyny, racism, ageism and intolerance of difference) just as we’re to suppose, there is no such thing as a genuine, i.e., intersubjectively valid, standard of beauty. Clearly there is a tension between not wanting to embrace the eliminativist position – one that denies the proposition that we do find some people ugly – and not wanting to endorse the proposition that some people are just ugly.

Perhaps judgments of the ugly would cause less trouble if we could avoid predicating ugliness of people. But a culture enthralled with the possibilities of cosmetic transformation makes it difficult to avoid the conclusion not that a few of us are ugly, but that most of us are. And while we may accept that we should not say that people are ugly, it is another thing altogether to insist that we should not find them so.

In short, what I am raising in these remarks is possibility that the idea of the ugly – and in particular aesthetic judgments of the ugly – bears further investigation. With this proposal, I suspect, no one will disagree. Moving in this direction builds directly on the revival of interest in the concept of beauty and work at the intersection of aesthetics with race studies, disabilities studies, feminist theory and the history of cosmetic surgery.

More controversial perhaps is the idea that the ugly bears examination in its own right. What I have been pointing to is that there seem to be (some) judgments of ugliness, period. What I have in mind here is a category of judgment that attributes intrinsic ugliness to its object, characteristics that are visibly unpleasant in their own right, independent of assumptions about bad health, bad character or ill-fortune. What leads me to this claim is this. Many feminists and other cultural critics assume that certain features or looks (small breasts, a wrinkled brow, the so-called Jewish nose) are falsely presented as ugly. The idea is that such negative judgments are or may be mistaken. If this is right, then in order to tell that such judgments are wrong, we have to have some idea of what it would be to make a correct judgment of ugliness. We need, in other words, some standard by which to separate intrinsic from extrinsic attributions of ugliness and for this we need a philosophical analysis of the ugly. We need in other words to answer the question of how ugliness in its own right is to be understood. And that, of course, is a question for aesthetics.

Undertaking such an analysis may of course open aestheticians to certain political or social objections. Many of the same reasons that make talk of ugliness objectionable on racialist or gendered grounds may lead aestheticians to want to deny any possibility of intrinsic ugliness. This reluctance, particularly where human beings are concerned, is natural and proper. But it should, I suggest, be tempered by a willingness to acknowledge that social anxieties about personal misfortune, unfairness and the intractability of our attraction to beauty constitute a meaningful component of life as well as art. Perhaps it is time for the ugly to garner some of the attention routinely bestowed on its more comely cousin, beauty.

2005 © Mary Devereaux

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