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The beauty of ugliness

The body positivity movement wants to call everyone beautiful. But what if instead of gazing into the mirror we smashed it?

Photos by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images, Evan Agostini/Invision/AP/Getty Images, Maura Intemann/Globe Staff Photo Illustration

In a just world, does everyone get to be beautiful? For some years now, a cultural movement has been gaining steam to combat “lookism,” or bias against ugly people. One marker of the movement’s progress is that the sensitivity firm sanitizing Roald Dahl’s books culled references to ugliness from its inclusivity-driven reprint. Meanwhile, today’s Gen Z icons casually assert that ugliness doesn’t exist, which is frankly hard to square with a culture hellbent on avoiding it. When Madonna showed up at the Grammys with the uncanny epidermis of the Gerber Baby — it was the face that launched a thousand think pieces on misogyny and ageism — no one seemed ready to admit that the Material Girl’s zeal to hold onto beauty might itself be symptomatic of a cultural malady.

The underlying concerns about the treatment of unattractive people are real. Studies show they get less attention as infants and as adults receive harsher sentencing if convicted of a crime, while their attractive peers are more likely to be interviewed for jobs, advance more rapidly in their professions through frequent promotions, and command higher salaries. Romantic partners are harder to come by for unattractive people, and that’s particularly true as modern apps like Tinder act as turbocharged hot-or-not sorters.

Galvanized by these concerns, the body positivity movement came forward with an equity-driven stroke of utopian engineering: All iterations of bodies, in all their diversity, should be identified as beautiful, squeezing the sponge of social justice to send the pollution of ugliness down the drain.

What I find fascinating about this radical leveling of beauty is that it takes not a shred of interest in the awesome power of ugliness.

Look, for example, to George Eliot, the iconic Victorian-era novelist, whose legendary ugliness — Henry James once raved in a letter that she was a “horse-faced blue-stocking,” “magnificently ugly, deliciously hideous” — liberated her from a life of mediocrity and tedium. Because she had the remarkable stroke of fortune to be deemed unsuitable for the marriage market, Eliot got what few women in her era were permitted: an education and unfettered access to a library, enabling her to explore languages (she became fluent in eight); meet artisans, musicians, and intellectuals; immerse herself in scientific debates; and eventually transform herself into arguably the most learned woman in all of England.

George Eliot, the pen name of Mary Ann Evans.Getty Images/Getty

Her novels, in turn, upend the normal hierarchy that has ugliness at its base and beauty at its apex. Beauty, for so many of her characters, is a curse that lets egoism fester. In “Adam Bede,” for example, Hetty Sorrel’s vanity leads her into seduction and infanticide, and in “Romola,” Tito uses his masculine beauty to manipulate people like marionettes. For Eliot, beauty has a soporific, ego-fortifying, and narrowing effect. What she encourages instead is sympathetic imagination toward, for example, Dutch paintings of women scraping carrots, with their swollen arthritic joints and scabrous, wrinkled faces. Characters marked by strange or disfigured features — like the Zionist Mordecai of “Daniel Deronda” — have a visionary power that defies the prejudices of conventional wisdom. In fact, Mordecai’s haggard and alien appearance is outwardly visible testimony of his refusal to capitulate to the antisemitic conventions of English society.

We tend to think of the Victorians as hostage to stultifying codes of middle-class propriety, but Eliot’s bold life and prose posed a far more radical challenge to lookism than seems available or even imaginable today.

None of this stymied the Victorian equivalent of Mean Girls with axes to grind and egos to protect. When Eliot (who was born Mary Ann Evans and adopted the masculine nom de plume when she turned to novels) scandalously entered a domestic partnership with a married man, George Henry Lewes, she bound her fate to someone routinely derided as “the ugliest man in England.” When she later married John Cross, a man 20 years her junior, the gossip mongers pounced again. On their honeymoon in Venice, her young husband, reeling from a depressive episode, leapt from their second-floor balcony in an attempt to end his life. Baseless rumors circulated that he’d recoiled at the prospect of sexual congress with his desiccated hag of a wife — and that he’d begged gondoliers to let him drown as he was being fished out of the canal.

After Eliot’s death, one last saga of masculine vanity played itself out. Herbert Spencer, the naturalist best remembered for coining the phrase “survival of the fittest,” wrote a pleading series of letters to Cross, who was then penning a cloying, worshipful biography of his late wife. Spencer and Eliot had developed a close personal bond as young adults, but now Spencer wanted Cross to make painstakingly clear that though Eliot had developed an amorous attachment, Cross had felt no reciprocating stir of longing toward a woman so grotesque.

Why dredge up these slights? Only because doing so holds up a mirror to the cult of beauty. What it reveals is a toxic brew of envy, malice, and sheer pettiness. Eliot slipped loose of the bondage of beauty and devoted her life to writing novels of such stylistic intricacy and psychological complexity that they rank among the greatest in the English language. That’s an accomplishment worth far more than high cheekbones.

The 20th century tested the value of beauty in unprecedented ways. Adolf Hitler leveraged the athletic and geometrical beauty of the 1936 Olympics to spread the myth of Aryan racial superiority, backed by idealized sculptures of Olympians and dazzling spectacles of coordinated movement. All the while, artists, determined to dismantle fictions of triumph and progress, repudiated beauty. German Expressionists embraced ugliness to indict social ills. Cubists like Picasso used abstraction to highlight fragmented perspectives. The Dada movement, Surrealism, and other avant-garde movements proved that ugliness can expose the lies that beauty camouflages.

Now, many decades later, there’s a narrow sense in which achieving beauty has never been easier. Even the guttersnipes among us can get spruced up with LED teeth-whitening technology, hair grooming products, and a battery of cleansers, toners, serums, and moisturizers. Those flush with cash might explore volumizing lip fillers, Botox injections (for the glamorous look of facial paralysis), dermaplaning (to shear away acne scars), or, like the singer Liam Payne, the face-sculpting trend of buccal fat removal. If even these interventions don’t buff out every irregularity, Instagram has filters and adjustments on standby to erase the cankers and punch up the glam. What’s promised via algorithm is an infinite variety of images unleashed by personal empowerment. What actually comes down the assembly line is a numbing monotony of curated bodies.

This brings us to the crux of the problem. Encouraging people to become dependent on affirmations of personal beauty creates an anxiety-addled and fragile egoism. And when people are isolated and insecure, they become easy prey for peddlers of beauty products, who promise that buying stuff — Dove soap or Victoria’s Secret lingerie — will at last enable them to transcend ugliness. The result is a multibillion-dollar cosmetic juggernaut rolling onward with truly bizarre and horrific outcomes, like the woman who succumbed to organ damage earlier this year from a botched liposuction procedure, or the woman who died from a collapsed lung after the same surgery, or the rolling churn of deaths associated with plastic surgery tourism. It’s pure confusion to call this state of affairs empowering, much less the realization of social justice.

In her 2022 memoir “Easy Beauty,” a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Chloé Cooper Jones, whose congenital condition sacral agenesis affects her posture, stature, and stride, testifies to enduring the shocked gaze of strangers. It’s a hostile stare that condemns unruly bodies for having the temerity to enter public spaces, then just as quickly dissolves offending bodies into invisibility. Jones’s story is about boldly breaching public spaces, but it is just as much an exploration of her own complicity in reinforcing standards of physical desirability.

In a world oversaturated with promises of beautification, rebranding every look as beautiful supercharges the overhyped, tunnel-visioned mania for pretty. Going all-in on the cult of beauty makes us fanatics of a false idol. Ugliness, it turns out, isn’t the end of the world. In fact, it may be the most liberating way to exist in it.

Tom Joudrey is a Pennsylvania-based writer who covers politics and culture. Follow him on Twitter @TomJoudrey.