Against Beauty

What does being ugly mean? Everyone I’ve ever had the pleasure of conversing with, genuinely believes that they are ugly. Some actually believe what they say, and some very understandably resort to humblebrags — owing to a bizarre idea that one can be beautiful but cannot acknowledge it.

The word ugly is believed to have Norse roots, it means to be dreaded or feared. Which leads the word to become synonymous with a monster, a deformed freak, handicapped and so on. The traditional clichéd tales of rags-to-riches since the medieval period, and what it means to be ugly has seen many evolutions. Aristotle believed that women were ‘deformed’ men. From the 18th-century century parodies/caricatures of human bodies, 19th-century freak shows to 20th-century ironic kitsch art; ugliness has long been seen as a direct challenge to aesthetics, but I for one feel that it’s quite complicated to define what it means to be beautiful and in turn, ‘valued.’

In ancient Greece, external features were seen as a direct reflection of what lies inside. The quasi-science of physiognomy indoctrinated the notion that beautiful and ugly features were directly proportional to a man’s moral goodness and evil. Fairy tales often relied on transforming the beast into a beauty. Still, the negative connotations and burden of something beyond one’s control, i.e., the result of one’s genes, carries across centuries.

In the western world, while defining what it means to be ugly, the word is used in direct contrast with beauty. Still, in different cultures, ugly doesn’t necessarily evoke an adverse reaction as opposed to its western counterparts. For example, the concept of wabi-sabi from Japan values impermanence and imperfection, something that might be conceived as unappealing in another cultures. Usually, in theory, or on paper, we see beauty and ugly as two binaries, as the ultimate black and white. We try to apply that to real-life experiences as well. Yet, in reality, they function as two concepts steadily falling into each other’s space, orbiting around each other’s grey area, all the while being surrounded by many other binaries.

I believe because of the increased accessibility to politics, social media and people being more educated than ever (regardless of attending educational institutions or not) mainstream culture has seemed to embrace ‘ugliness’ as the lines between the binaries keep getting hazy. While some entertainment downright fetishises ugliness, but books such as Robert Hoge’s memoir and movies like Shrek are a sincere effort in encouraging people to look beyond the physical endowment of a person.

Despite it becoming increasingly difficult to label something as ugly, when we do find something unpleasant, we unwittingly say something very personal about ourselves — we pronounce what we deeply fear. We’ve all been attracted or have had someone ‘grow on’ you, that you once thought was unattractive or even ugly. And now you can’t see them as anything but attractive, but for better or worse, chances are that many others don’t. Hold that thought.

In a somewhat related fashion, The Elephant Man (1980) by Dir. David Lynch is a devastatingly poignant movie about a man called John Merrick who suffers from neurofibromatosis. Merrick has a shockingly jarring appearance, which initially feels unattractive, but as we get know him, he turns out to be a kind, honest, considerate, charming man who is difficult to forget. His appearance isn’t something that’ll immediately put your eyes at ease. Still, his presence and existence — once you get to know him is magnetic and undeniable, it signals a familiar pleasure that he’s indeed beautiful despite the circumstances.

Plato’s physical description of Socrates, the portrait in The Picture of Dorian Grey, the agreeableness of Vronsky in Anna Karenina which is ultimately obscured by his conceitedness, or the Creature of Frankenstein — when writers or artists successfully spin a stereotype around, they end up commenting something about the very frivolous nature of morality — something that we otherwise are prone to or even predisposed to miss.

People who weren’t quite ‘easy on the eyes’ or were considered physically ugly can eventually come to be seen as beautiful. We can have a per contra situation here as well: Physically attractive can come to be experienced as revolting. These shifts in perception are, of course, linked with experience and with prolonged contact with a person as we slowly acquaint ourselves with someone’s personality. It’s a common phenomenon, writers and artists often capitalise on it, it suggests that beauty isn’t skin deep.

It’s absolutely right to believe that beauty is directly related to morality, albeit the definition of beauty are ever-changing and doesn’t always have to suggest something visual. Moral virtues — empathy, kindness, fairness, etc. — are beautiful and appealing character traits, and their contraries — antithesis, if you will — are ugly.

Looking back, Greeks wouldn’t have been so shy to admit that you can’t be happy unless your offsprings are happy, and that genuine happiness can’t be felt unless you’re good-looking. Now, here they didn’t imply that ugly people are incapable of enjoying pleasure, they aren’t dissecting subjective or interior experiences, it’s more of an examination of the objective. The aforementioned two points are connected to each other, we all want our children to be happy, right? Now, if you had been given a chance to select some qualities for your child, what would you wish for them? Would you want them to be beautiful or ugly? Beautiful, no doy. Noël Carroll suggests immorality or physical ugliness is like a black stain on happiness. The logic still holds today but — understandably so — it’s just hard for us to own it.

Let’s take the issue of the ‘obesity epidemic’ and why do we care so much about it. It’s evident to us that putting on too much weight might take a toll on one’s health. Therefore we might run the risk of insurance being too costly in the future, and that’s the most common reason people give when the issue comes up in a conversation. But as a person who hasn’t been on the skinny side as an adult — and I hope this isn’t too revealing of my own turpitude towards my body — I find it really hard to believe that the movement to a ‘healthier’ lifestyle isn’t driven by some kind of disgust towards the obese. I sometimes feel a weird sort of horror and even some sort of anger towards the obese, it could just very well be my internalised disgust and all the shame that comes from having an eating disorder that I’m projecting but where does that sort of repulsion stem from in the first place? From the infamous European standards of beauty, of course.

If I could ask Nietzsche’s opinion on the matter, he’d probably say because of the fact that beauty and its ideals mean so much to human life, we can’t stand obese because they’re ugly. Therefore they smell and look like an incarnation of dissolution and decomposition of human life.

‘With dialectics the rabble comes out on top’

Nietzsche himself wasn’t really a looker either, in fact, he is known to be ‘ugly’, yet the way he talked and reasoned was so beautiful that several handsome young men have been known to have fallen hopelessly in love with him, crying over the fact that they could never match his beautiful spirit. They often trailed behind him like lost puppies. What a better way to get revenge against a culture that equates physical attractiveness to nobility and turn it around to simply redefine beauty as something intrinsic only possessed by intellectuals?

We desperately want to deny that anyone could be ugly. We want to believe that what is inside counts and that everyone is uniquely beautiful from the inside, physical beauty is subjective, so who’s to judge real beauty anyway. In any case, it’s really something to think about how hard it is to get a person to admit that a given person might be ugly.

The fact that we are hesitant to reveal ourselves as shallow and unkind doesn’t mean that we are not. It just feels even more insidious and manipulative that way. To cover-up, the fact that ugliness doesn’t even exist is a different kind of oppression altogether.

You can’t just assume a structure of oppression out of existence. Then again life isn’t really fair, is it? As compared to other forms of abuse, hardly anyone oppresses ‘ugly’ on purpose. The Greek reaction comes quite naturally to use, self-awareness can’t stop it no matter how morally unfortunate that can be. Take, for instance, a lot of people don’t live up to their first impressions, and we know that. Still, that thought does contradict our hollowness and corruption, if someone has kind eyes our initial view will almost always be ‘well, they seem kind of pleasant and warm’, even before knowing the person we have fleshed out a personality for them and are ready to spend time with them.

We are troubled animals with evolved temperaments. To think that we could ever wholly find ourselves free from certain biases stemmed from a natural inheritance, or we could ever have our lives exactly as we deserve or could look and be as we think we are entitled will always remain a dream that’s ever reaching but never really there, it’s a fantasy that ancient Greeks were free of, they believed in fate, and we believe in change. It’s a double-edged sword, really. That being said, we aren’t entirely in control of what we dream of either.

Take the case of one of my favourite movie of all time, Satoshi Kon’s ‘Perfect Blue’. A 1997 anime masterpiece about a second-tier pop idol’s decent and corruption into the debauched waters of the acting industry after she decides to ‘graduate’ herself from a singer to an actor. Mima Kirigoe, the protagonist, was a part of an idol group called ‘cham’ which songs have never seen the light of the top 100 despite the massive swarm of male ‘otaku’ fans it seems to have. Mima after realising that the age of idols is coming to an end, she decides to diversify her talents by trying her hand in acting. This shedding of innocence looks like a snake shedding off their skin, ‘dappi’ as one fan describes it.

This is not something new, we have seen many singers eventually turn their talents to the big screen, what’s jarring is the reaction that some have. Me-Mania, who takes her departure more poorly than others, his obsession with her assumed innocence is clearly felt as he watches her last performance through his cupped palm as if to store and keep her there forever. Back at her empty apartment Mima finds disturbing fax with the word ‘traitor’ written over and over again, this obsession with beauty and innocence is a start of a profoundly abstruse descent into madness, that questions identity into the empty symbol of an idol.

Kon, even in the ’90s, could sense the problem with idol worship. And the obsession has only grown since with the help of the internet. Not much has changed if you look at how One Direction fans — or directioners as they call themselves — reacted to Zayn Malik leaving the band in 2015. I was myself a part of it. The behaviour of Directioners eerily mirrors the opening scene of Perfect Blue: I remember scouring for information on the internet for hours, swapping theories with other fans and scrutinising career choices. I reckon a lot of such pop idols have stalkers, some even have fansites dedicated to them where paparazzi-like images of band members are shamelessly broadcasted. The concept of Mima’s room, operated by one stalker, has bloomed into a web of obsession with an artist’s stage personality that stretches across’ Stan’ accounts as we know it today.

While no matter how invasive fans are, no one can indeed have access to pop-idols like Zayn Malik’s private lives and cannot know how much unwavering attention has affected their mental states. The world of Perfect Blue exists right in the middle of where young artists are manipulated into impossible idealised images of beauty and perfection that spread among fans like wildfire. As I mentioned earlier, to appreciate beauty, everything is our natural disposition no matter how hard we try to hide it.

All of us who use social media religiously can experience a little glimpse of what it means to be Mina. We meticulously curate our lives and moments into a perfect story with a happy ending, we want people to assume that we lead beautiful lives. Mima’s world has become our own, we all live in Mima’s room with our hollow obsession with beauty slipping into a realm of anxiety, desperately trying to prove ourselves and our followers something unattainable.

Perfect Blue only scratches the surface of a saturated life that craves white innocence and beauty and searches for it in a place where it can’t be found, the internet. People want to believe that perfection exists, otherwise, what’s the point? Fandoms slip into a dark place where they try to blur the line between carefully crafted personas and real people and combust when an idol tries to deviate.

We are all Mima riding the train, looking out the window and seeing a reflection of her popstar persona.

Photo by Jakob Owens

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