In the eye of the beholder?

Beyond the aesthetic consequences of ugliness

What is the first image that pops into your head when you hear the word “ugly?” Maybe you imagine deformed faces, or grotesque monsters, or even out-dated fashion. Though it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what “ugly” is, ugliness is usually defined as being the opposite of beauty. And that brings up a very important question: would we know one without the other?

In this day and age, beauty and the longing for “perfection” has become prevalent to the point of obsession, polluting the division between ugliness and beauty in the process. Plastic surgery is presently the fastest growing medical specialty, not surprising in a popular culture preoccupied with perfecting one’s self image.

With the inordinate amount of reality shows that revolve around losing weight or having reconstructive surgery – see The Biggest Loser or The Swan – it is impossible to ignore society’s infatuation with beauty. So where does “ugly” fit amidst this obsession?

On Ugliness, an anthology of “ugly” art, edited by Umberto Eco, philosopher, literary critic, and author, was published last November. “Most of the time [ugliness is] defined as the opposite of beauty but almost no one ever devoted a treatise of any length to ugliness [itself],” Eco writes. The book explores the history of art and various artists’ fascinations with the grotesque.

From Satan, witches, and monsters, to the avant-gardist rejection of classical beauty, the range of subjects examined in On Ugliness reflects our society’s changing attitudes toward the ugly over the ages. As Eco points out, “What will be appreciated tomorrow as great art could seem distasteful today.” Picasso is a perfect example of society’s changing preferences. He is now considered one of the most influential artists in history, and yet he faced difficulty throughout his own time in achieving the acceptance of his art.

Throughout history, ugliness has been associated with evil. “Almost all the synonyms for ugly contain a reaction of disgust, if not of violent repulsion, horror, or fear,” writes Eco. Conversely, beauty is inherently associated with the pleasant – synonymous with “attractiveness” and “splendour.” Thus, while an attractive person is said to be “good-looking” or “angelic,” an unattractive person can be said to be “ugly as sin.”

Dr. Anthony Synnott, a Sociology professor at Concordia University, recently wrote an article entitled “Ugliness: Visibility and the Invisible Prejudice,” in which he makes the claim that ugliness and evilness are intertwined. In the article, published in the most recent edition of Glimpse Journal, Synnott notes that evil people are represented as ugly symbolically even if they actually aren’t. Though demonized, some of the most evil people in recent history, such as Hitler or Stalin, actually resemble average looking citizens when looked at from a removed stance.

Synnott believes that this association between ugly and evil is deeply ingrained in our society and visible in literature and film. In an interview with The Daily, he explained that the first books we read – fairy tales – inevitably portray the villain as disfigured or disgusting, instilling this connection very early in life. Due to the early set up of associations between ugly and evil, Synnott noted the impossibility of ridding ourselves of this connection on a broad, societal level.

“It’s a cultural norm, hardwired into our society,” he said.

Yet, opinions of what constitutes ugliness vary from culture to culture. Synnott illustrated this with a story: during his travels to Africa a few years ago with a black colleague, they encountered a woman with her child. The child had never seen a white person before and it promptly burst into hysterical screams, which did not subside until Synnott removed himself. When Synnott inquired about why the child had screamed so violently, his colleague explained that it was because in the child’s culture the devil is portrayed as white and therefore the child had associated Synnott with the devil, who had come to take him away. Whereas our culture links the colours red and black with the sinister, white, the colour of bones, is representative of such forces in certain African cultures.

Ugliness does more than scare a child; in our society, ugly people are discriminated against in all aspects of life. Synnott cited a study on personal appearance which found that “less attractive” people are seen as correspondingly “less sensitive, kind, interesting, strong, poised, modest, sociable, outgoing, and exciting,” as well as less “sexually responsive” than more attractive people.

More concretely, those deemed “ugly” are also at a loss in the workplace. A 1994 study, “Beauty and the Labor Market,” found that there was a “plainness penalty” of five to ten per cent in salaries, or, more simply, “plain-looking” people earn less than average looking people, who in turn earn less than good-looking people. Whether this is conscious or not is debatable, but it illustrates the depth of our social stigma against ugliness.

So, what does this mean for the future of the “ugly?”

“Emphasis on beauty is increasing, therefore, it will be tough for people who don’t take care of their bodies or are not particularly sexual [to avoid discrimination],” Synnott said.

“Uglyism,” a phrase coined by Synnott in his article, is used to describe the “negative prejudice and discrimination against ugly people,” which may emerge in the future as a legitimate inequality in society. Maybe in the near future people will begin to file lawsuits about discrimination based on “uglyism” rather than on the basis of sexism or racism, which prevail today.