In this essay for #BodyPositivityInColor, Vanessa Rochelle Lewis explores the concept of “ugly” and how it depends on white supremacist, colonialist, cisheteronormative, misogynistic, and ableist constructs of what defines beauty. She explores these ideas through history and how it exists and thrives within our current society.
This essay contains mentions of sexual assault and chattel slavery.
By Vanessa Rochelle Lewis
When I was a teenager, I had a math instructor named Mr. Smith. Mr. Smith was a quirky fellow with a voice that crackled like Pop Rocks and wandering eyes that would never actually settle on any of our faces during a 50 minute class session. If my skin is the deep burnt umber color of freshly watered and smoothly aerated garden soil, his would be the red clay of river rocks, the iron rich kind that eases digestion, shelters bunnies, and feeds blackberry bush roots.
We both spoke English with a rhythm that would make Steve Urkel proud, wore our bodies chubby and covered with nerd accessories, we felt the need to constantly push our glasses up the bridges of our noses, and believed that education was critical to Black liberation and societal progress. Though he was an Algebra teacher, Mr. Smith loved literature and performance arts, and I was a poet and performer before I was anything else – including daughter, child, girl, or hater of all things mathematically calculable. We didn’t exactly have a bond, but he appreciated me as an artist and I tolerated him as an instructor.
One day, after I performed a new poem for the student body talent show, Mr. Smith approached me with an appreciative, celebratory smile on his face and said, “Wow Vanessa, you may not look like Beyoncé, but you sure can write a moving poem.”
I stared at him. I couldn’t fathom how to respond to an affirmation about my talent that began with a negative qualification about my appearance, especially from an adult man, especially when I knew that my ability to write a poem had absolutely nothing to do with whether or not I looked like a famous pop star and sex icon.
“Oh,” I said simply, walking away to process my emotions. I was disgusted. I knew I was offended by his implication, that I was talented even if I wasn’t beautiful. But there was something else that my fifteen-year-old brain just couldn’t yet articulate, even though the beginnings of it were swishing around my cerebral cavity, jumping from neuron to neuron, shaking its little Black feminist fist in resistance.
I knew there was something sexually inappropriate and predatory about his comment, even though it was clear he wasn’t hitting on me or even attracted to me – but it took me a few years to figure it out. Today, I understand, and as an adult woman, I’m absolutely horrified that Mr. Smith had access to me and other children.
By telling me that I did not look like her while affirming my ability to write a compelling poem, he was making it clear that I did not fit into society’s understanding of beauty, and therefore I also did not fit into his.
Let me explain. While she is phenomenally talented and stories of her work ethic are heralded near and far, Beyoncé’s success also illustrates the esteem, access, and revelry we place at the feet of people who appeal to certain concepts of beauty. Across culture, gender, class, and border, she is held up as a universal and unquestionable representation of beauty and sex appeal.
By telling me that I did not look like her while affirming my ability to write a compelling poem, he was making it clear that I did not fit into society’s understanding of beauty, and therefore I also did not fit into his. And by doing such, he non-consensually lassoed me into that universe, completely destroying the innocence, trust, and safety in our relationship as a child and adult, student and teacher, and what should have been protected and protector.
No longer was I a teenage girl, proud of my poem. I was now a teenage girl conscious of the fact that my math teacher did not find me attractive and did not think the world would find me attractive either. His comment forced me to begin contemplating what it would mean for me, as a future adult Black woman and artist, to be perceived as undesirable, unattractive, and ugly in a world that is not only obsessed with looks, but that also equates appearance with values/characteristics and disenfranchises people who don’t adequately address or correct their “ugliness”.
To be clear, I don’t fault the world for being obsessed with beauty and desirability. Beautiful things motivate and inspire us. I’d rather be moved by beauty than by hate, fear, greed or scarcity, and other common social and individual motivators. But there are a few things about the ways we engage with beauty that absolutely terrify me.
Concepts Like “Beautiful”, “Desirable”, “Unattractive”, and “Ugly” Are Treated as Universal and Objective Truths
Whether it be from the still-famous creations of history’s wealthy and privileged novelists, poets, and visual artists or from the contemporary entertainment and beauty industries that comb our hopes and insecurities for every dollar it can mine, we have all been brainwashed into thinking that there is one narrow, widely-accepted concept of beauty and that we are all in agreement of what it is and what is not. Consequently, very similar tropes of that specific configuration of human features are regurgitated, over and over again, in almost every piece of art, media, or commerce around us, reinforcing that image and standard in our shared consciousness.
Similarly, ugliness and unattractiveness are considered equally as universal. When comedians, musicians, and writers name someone ugly, we all have a general idea of what they mean, and when they get specific with their descriptions, the qualities are nearly always the same – imperfect teeth, “nappy” hair, non-distinct eyelids, darker skin with indigenous features, wide/long noses and lips, large bodies, visible physical disabilities, hairiness, visible illnesses.
We aren’t taught to have autonomous or even fluid relationships with what we find beautiful or what we desire. The same media and entertainment sources that make critical light of people’s appearances similarly critique and humorously chastise people who are attracted to folks who have characteristics that are depicted as ugly or undesirable. They are portrayed as desperate, weird, or as having some other problem to address. There are so many songs, television shows, and movies that not only rely on the played out joke of a man getting drunk and going home with an “ugly,” fat, or trans woman, but that portrays the man as unsuspecting, as someone who was bamboozled by the person he took home.
These tropes limit our creative imagination, our individuality, and our ability to pursue authentic and fulfilling relationships. They teach us that we need to modify our appearances and strive to look a certain way in order to receive love, adoration, or even empathy. We treat this minuscule and cramped concept of beauty as if it were something that is critical to achieve, and that those who intentionally opt out are doing something wrong, something that needs to be addressed and corrected, and as a result, are not deserving of equity, access, connection, inclusion, and sometimes even respect.
The Concepts of “Beautiful” and “Ugly” Have White Supremacist Histories.
The majority of yesterday’s writers and artists that we were taught about in school were white and European. The U.S. Academic Complex was created by European-American colonizers and they base educational systems on their perspective of history, philosophy, government, art, and literature. However, American scholarship, like European and Christian scholarship, was also developed as a tool to legitimize Manifest Destiny, war, and other forms of colonialism and imperialism. It intellectualized myths and stereotypes about Indigenous, African, and Asian peoples that painted us as dangerous, primitive, irrational villains while excluding us, our art, our literature, and our histories from learning spaces – unless we were present as labor, sex, barbarians, or slaves.
Outside of academic spaces, cartoons were splayed all over news papers, text books, and other literary media that caricatured, exaggerated, ridiculed, and poked fun at our ethnicity-specific physical features. In constructing race and creating the dehumanization of racialized, non-white people, scientists wrote articles analyzing why our facial features and body proportions were unattractive, why our brains were “underdeveloped” and caused us to be less capable of reasoning and logic, and how we were solely motivated by limited, barbaric and primordial urges for sex, food and pleasure. White students were taught that it was their job to suppress our culture, esteem, and efficacy by forcing us to assimilate into the substandard social roles they delegated for us, educating us in their religion and languages, and training us to forgo the sophistication of our ancestors and take on the crumbs of theirs. Those same students went on to design the United States of America as we know it.
The majority of our current politicians, media moguls, casting agents, writers, editors, fashion designers, and others who control and influence human visibility were socialized and educated by these same Eurocentric values – including influencers and content creators who are people of color. This is why the majority of POC you see in media who have more complex and relatable characters tend to have lighter skin, longer hair, slimmer bodies, and facial features that are amenable to European standards of beauty. It’s also why the majority of characters you see who are larger-bodied and/or darker-skinned with non-straight hair tend to play very limited, similar and stereotypical roles.
Much of our modern media, science, politics, and art that teach us how to perceive ourselves, express ourselves, and move within our flesh still carry the genocidal, slave-holding, anti-Indigenous, and xenophobic values that permitted and enabled the U.S. to grow into the flesh and earth consuming monster it is today.
“Beautiful” and “Ugly” Are Fueled by Capitalist, Misogynist, Heteronormative Patriarchal Values
The standard of what is perceived as beautiful and as ugly in this culture (and many others as well) are primarily defined by people who are white, wealthy, male, and powerful — and they are sustained by almost everyone else, even people who strive to opt out of heteronormative dynamics. There is a purpose to this.
We as humans like to categorize each other. We use those categories to help place each other in social hierarchies, understand each other, and determine how to engage with each other without doing the work of building individual relationships with people. Ugly is a dynamic category that is inclusive of many things. As is beautiful.
Physical strength, productivity, innovation, intellect, leadership skills, and other traits that lead to capitalistic gain and influence is what has historically defined a man’s societal worth.
But ugly as a category systematically and systemically targets, harms, defines, and excludes women, feminine/femme folks, and other marginalized genders in a way that will never impact men because it wasn’t designed to. Based on the eurocentric histories that I was taught, while men who were perceived as handsome definitely experienced privilege, looks isn’t what defined a man’s societal worth. Physical strength, productivity, innovation, intellect, leadership skills, and other traits that lead to capitalistic gain and influence is what has historically defined a man’s societal worth.
Such a valuable man would then be able to publicly demonstrate his value through the commodities he purchased or the properties he was offered: titles, land, clothing, animals, wives, slaves — all things that would lead to more power, wealth, and influence. In this sense, women (at least white and affluent ones) were tokens, trophies, and commerce. They were the discardable, replaceable, interchangeable and objectified belongings of men and extensions of male plumage and identity. These women, like all women, were possessions could be chastised, raped, and sometimes even murdered by their male possessors with the permission of the courts.
The appearance of these women was what determined their value, and they were the capital of the families that sired them until they became the capital of the men who married them. As a result, their appearance was also their source of power, their opportunity towards the potentiality of ease and access, and by all means, a privilege. Women are still trained to do everything possible to be considered beautiful so that they can have access, so that they can be chosen, and so they can escape the destiny of those who are considered ugly.
Elite women who were not perceived as beautiful enough to be chosen became servants to their parents, the families their sisters married into, or the church.
And when you are a woman, being ugly is the absolute pits. Elite women who were not perceived as beautiful enough to be chosen became servants to their parents, the families their sisters married into, or the church. If they were lucky, they got to become an artist or a scholar. And women who weren’t wealthy or who weren’t “beautiful” enough to be noticed by privileged men were seen as laborers, mothers, caretakers, and nothing more. Instead of being perceived as representations of wealth, they were tools for people with more power than them to acquire even more wealth. These women died earlier than their wealthy counterparts. They lead sicker and more exhausted lives. There were no other options.
While things have shifted, they also remain the same in so many ways. Women in our culture are no longer chosen in the same way as they were in the past and have many increased socio-economic and familial/romantic routes, but we are still socialized in a heteronormative manner, to think of men as a prize, to understand our value through our desirability, and to conflate beauty with resource and access.
Beauty is Access, Lack of Beauty is Systemic Disenfranchisement, and We Culturally Conflate Appearance with Character
Having beauty privilege does not just aid romantic and intimate connection or familial partnership, it facilitates socio-economic movement and ease all together. In the process of categorizing people based on appearance, we create social hierarchies out of those categories. Those who best fit our cultural standards and expectations of beauty, like Beyoncé , are celebrated, affirmed, and held in regard solely by that feat. Their appearance is treated like an accomplishment and a success that others cannot achieve, and is regarded, in so many ways, as something for the rest of us to study, look up to, revere, and aspire towards. They become #goals, people who folks either want to be with or want to be like.
Because they are the standard that others either want to consume or achieve in this culture, they get rewarded for their success by way of access, power, trust, and influence. Others take social cues from them with the hope of gaining a privilege similar to theirs, the esteem of being accepted or loved by them, and the opportunity to be treated with the same respect and reverence we think these people deserve. There are spaces in the world that exist solely for people who fit certain standards of beauty — the Playboy mansion, the red carpet, music videos, yacht parties, VIP areas of clubs and parties. These spaces are wealthy. They have delicious foods. They give away luxurious gifts. They are lush. They are spaces that the majority of us will only ever witness while watching “prettier” people on television or reading about them in the media.
We collectively believe that looking a certain way reveals truths about self-esteem, hard work, professionalism, health, self-love, kindness, confidence, and capability.
Have you ever heard a film or literary character tell another character something along the lines of, “You’re so beautiful, you’ll never have to work hard a day in your life”? That idea insinuates something other than just ease, it implies a unique sort of trust that we have in people who fit certain standards of beauty. If someone is beautiful, we assume they have it all. And if we assume they have it all, we have no reason to believe that they would harm us, manipulate us, steal from us, or cause other malice in our lives. Because of this, we give them certain leeways.
People who fit traditional standards of beauty fare better in court, school, and earning income at the expense of those who don’t fit into traditional standards of beauty — as privilege works. To be clear, concepts like beauty and the privilege we allot those folks would not exist if we did not name and categorize others as ugly. And in the process of rewarding beauty, we punish those who are not. We collectively believe that looking a certain way reveals truths about self-esteem, hard work, professionalism, health, self-love, kindness, confidence, and capability.
People go to great lengths to pursue their own beauty and prove that they are not only worthy of being chosen for love and partnership, but also to be perceived as capable, trustworthy, employable, and talented. Growing up, my father would frequently warn me, “Vanessa, baby girl, you are so smart, but you have to lose some weight, press your hair, and do something with your appearance. Regardless of how qualified you maybe, no man is going to want to look at you all day when he can choose someone a little less talented, but much more attractive.”
While he was perpetuating toxic masculinity by establishing it as the norm instead of something to be addressed and defeated, he was also introducing me to the fact that my appearance would impact my access, would economically disenfranchise me, and would limit my options in multiple arenas. In some ways, he was correct. I have met men who refuse to make eye contact with me. However, though my father may not have realized that beauty is subjective and should have nothing to do with access to resources, I have been blessed to meet many people and employers who thought differently.
Beauty Standards Invisiblize People’s Wholeness and Humanity and Narrates Our Life Decisions
People who fit into these standards — especially people who are raised as or assumed to be girls — are taught to create identity, career, and art around their appearance. It becomes the qualification of their social existence and their body and face is turned into profession and commerce instead of being treated as a simple formation of their flesh and blood. People who look a certain way are taught to invest in their looks, center their looks, and use their looks as social capital. And while looks can absolutely aide their other creative, professional, or personal endeavors, they are not encouraged to pursue autonomy or pleasure/creativity separate from their appearance. They may even be pressured to limit themselves to beauty and desirability-based endeavors, and nothing else.
While beauty is privilege and access in this culture, it can be bloody and dangerous. It kills people. Some people’s obsession with beauty or beauty privilege leads to their deaths, like those who die from complications due to plastic surgery. Others are murdered because people want to possess them, punish them for their beauty, or lash out when rejected. When your face is political and represents so much of society’s ugly, you’re not given the opportunity to be your own person, explore your own desires and passions, have boundaries, or say “No” without extreme consequence. This experience applies to all people, especially women, but is unique in the way that it is experienced by those within hierarchical measures of beauty.
Those of us who don’t fit into traditional standards of beauty are taught to find our worth in other ways. While we may not have the same limited opportunities as our ancestors or people in more economically oppressed and gender discriminant parts of the world (including places in the US), our social value is still connected to productivity. We are encouraged to pursue skill development, to become good and obedient laborers and nurturers, to explore the prowess of our intellect if our childhood instructors don’t make intellectual assessments of us based on our looks, as they sometimes do. Rather than being taught initiative, choice, and self-worth, we are taught to aspire to be like others, to dream about being chosen, and to make great sacrifices to get there. And we are taught that it’s the worst thing in the world to be ugly.
Vanessa Rochelle Lewis is a queerdo-weirdo fat Black femme artist, facilitator, healer, conjurer, and worshipper of juicy and free people; a Faerie Goddess Mermaid Gangsta for the Revolution; the former Senior Editor for Black Girl Dangerous and Everyday Feminism; a community arts organizer; and the Founder/Head Mistress of the brand new PleasureNess Literary Academy (Art & Spirit Medicine for Joy, Liberation, & Change). The PleasureNess Lit Academy’s website is still in development, but please visit it anyway and sign up for the mailing list — magical treats await you.
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