The ugly truth

We all know our culture puts a premium on good looks – does that mean that the ugly are oppressed?

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Merry Company, 1562 (oil on panel) by Jan Matsys. Musee d'Art Thomas Henry, Cherbourg, France. Photo by Bridgeman Art/Getty

Merry Company, 1562 (oil on panel) by Jan Matsys. Musee d'Art Thomas Henry, Cherbourg, France. Photo by Bridgeman Art/Getty

Jonny Thakkar is a lecturer in philosophy and humanities at Princeton University, and a Cone-Haarlow-Cotsen Fellow in the Society of Fellows. He is also one of the founding editors of The Point.

The faces and forms of oppression are many, but nearly all of them flow from injustice, the treatment of people otherwise than they deserve. It’s hard to say what exactly any one person deserves, of course, but in the modern world we tend to think that desert is somehow related to what people can control. The colour of your skin is not up to you, for example, so treating you badly on its basis is oppressive. The treatment in question doesn’t have to be explicit: a society that marginalises homosexuals might not be as oppressive as one that imprisons them, but it is oppressive nonetheless. Sexuality and race are fairly obvious fault lines for oppression, as are class and gender. But if oppression is treating people otherwise than they deserve, there’s another category that tends to slip under our radar, namely the oppression of the ugly.

We don’t choose the configuration of our facial features any more than we choose our skin colour, yet people discriminate based on looks all the time. As the psychologist Comila Shahani-Denning put it, summarising research on the topic in Hofstra Horizons in 2003: ‘Attractiveness biases have been demonstrated in such different areas as teacher judgments of students, voter preferences for political candidates and jury judgments in simulated trials … attractiveness also influences interviewers’ judgments of job applicants.’ From the toddler gazing up at the adult to the adult gazing down at the toddler, we ruthlessly privilege the beautiful. The ugly get screwed.

The ancient Greeks had no problem with this. As the 19th-century Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt remarked: ‘Not only were the Greeks most strongly affected by beauty, but they universally and frankly expressed their conviction of its value.’ At one point in Homer’s Iliad, a rabble-rousing commoner named Thersites challenges Agamemnon’s authority and is quickly clobbered by Odysseus, whose disdain for the upstart is utterly uncompromising: ‘Out of all those who came beneath Ilion there is no worse man than you are.’ What is telling is that Homer’s own description of Thersites basically substitutes ‘ugliest’ for ‘worst’:
This was the ugliest man who came beneath Ilion. He was bandy-legged and went lame of one foot, with shoulders
stooped and drawn together over his chest, and above this
his skull went up to a point with the wool grown sparsely upon it.

The equation of ‘ugliest’ with ‘worst’ isn’t just Homer’s idiosyncrasy. The Greek word for ‘beautiful’, kalos, also means ‘noble’, while the word for ‘ugly’, aischros, means ‘shameful’. To quote Burckhardt again, in ancient Greece, ‘the link between beauty and spiritual nobility was a matter of the firmest belief’.

The Greeks venerated the beautiful explicitly, memorialising good-looking athletes in statue form as quasi-deities, making celebrities out of adolescent pretty boys, and even going so far as to occasionally spare the lives of opposing soldiers on account of their beauty. But a culture where beauty is worshipped is also a culture where the ugly are oppressed. Burckhardt recounts the tale of ‘the Spartan child, later the wife of Demaratus, who because of her ugliness was daily carried to the temple of Helen at Therapne; there the nurse stood before the statue of the most beautiful of women and implored that the ugliness might be taken away’.

Our own culture appears to be no less afraid of ugliness than Greek culture, even if surgical rather than divine intervention is now the order of the day. Parents still want their children to avoid ugliness, and many are willing to lend a helping hand: rare is the gift of rhinoplasty, implants or liposuction, but an investment in some form of cosmetic dentistry, such as braces, is now routine. Wonky teeth mean an ugly smile, and an ugly smile is going to cost you on the many marketplaces of life. Of course, people will say that braces are for health, not looks, but to the child suffering through the process the real reason is perfectly clear – braces are our culture’s version of foot-binding.

The Greeks wouldn’t have been embarrassed to admit the truth about braces. Aristotle just flat out says that you can’t be happy unless your children are happy, and that no one can be truly happy without being good-looking. He didn’t mean that ugly people could never feel happy; he wasn’t talking about subjective or interior feelings (or at least not in the first instance) but about something more objective. Think of it like this: the first point leads to the second. We all want our kids to grow up happy. Which circumstances and qualities would be most choiceworthy for them, supposing you could pick on their behalf? Would you rather they were beautiful or ugly, for instance? Beautiful, obviously. Ergo beauty is one component of the most choiceworthy life, while ugliness is ‘like a stain on happiness’. The logic still holds today, but somehow it’s hard for us to own it.

Why do we care so much about the ‘obesity epidemic’? Obviously, excessive weight is bad for the health and therefore for the public purse, and this is the reason that tends to get passed around. But speaking personally – and I hope this isn’t too revealing of my own turpitude – I find it hard to believe that the movement to unburden the obese is not also driven by disgust. When you run into people of that type, you feel, I think – or I feel, I think – a kind of horror and even a kind of anger at them. It just seems wrong to be like that. It’s hard to be honest about this because it seems so immoral, so let me turn to Twilight of the Idols (1889) by Friedrich Nietzsche, who was notably free of such hang-ups:
In physiological terms everything ugly weakens and saddens man. It reminds him of decay, danger, powerlessness: it actually makes him lose strength. You can measure the effect of ugly things with a dynamometer. Whenever man gets depressed, he senses something ‘ugly’ is nearby. His feeling of power, his will to power, his courage, his pride – all are diminished by ugliness and increased by beauty … Ugly things are understood as signs and symptoms of degenerescence … Any sign of exhaustion, of heaviness, … the whiff, the colour, the form of dissolution … all produce the same reaction, the value judgement ‘ugly’. A hatred springs up here: who is man hating here? But there is no doubt: the decline of his type.

What Nietzsche would probably say, then, is that the reason we’re so concerned about obesity today is that we can’t stand looking at the obese, and the reason we can’t stand looking at the obese is because they’re ugly and therefore give off ‘the whiff, the colour, the form of dissolution, of decomposition’ – of the decline of our group, in other words.

the ugly sap our spirit and our energy, making us depressed about the future of our kind

For Nietzsche, the group in question wasn’t so much the nation as the species. Whereas beautiful people make us inclined to deify the human race, to help our species ‘say yes to itself’ in the form of statues and monuments, the ugly sap our spirit and our energy, making us depressed about the future of our kind. Is that taking it a bit far? Probably. But think of the dystopian scenes in the film WALL·E (2008), where the humans of the future are depicted as bloated porcine slobs, wheelchair-bound, unable to stand up without mechanical assistance, their jawbones reduced to mere hypotheses. Does such a nightmare really play no part in the politics of obesity?

Certainly we would rather that it didn’t. For one thing, it seems a little proto-Nazi. But it’s also just shallow and unkind, and we’re ashamed to be shallow and unkind. To judge a book by its cover is to reveal ourselves as superficial. And to be superficial is to be ugly in some inner way.

Nietzsche associates this transformation of the concept of beauty from outer to inner with a revolution wrought by the weedy nerds of history, the priests and philosophers emblematised by Socrates. Socrates rejected the Greek assumption that physical beauty was necessary for happiness, claiming instead that reason would bring virtue and virtue would bring happiness. He was famously ugly yet he managed to make reason beautiful to the point where handsome young men would fall hopelessly in love with him, lamenting their own spiritual ugliness and begging for his attention like yapping puppies. Nietzsche had a cynical interpretation of all this: ‘with dialectics the rabble comes out on top’. What better way to get revenge against a culture that takes beauty to reflect nobility than to simply redefine beauty as an inner quality possessed only by intellectuals?

The Socratic move does leave intellectuals (or artists, or priests) in a privileged position. In that sense, it’s still a little judgemental for contemporary tastes. We want to take the revolution a step further. We want to deny that anyone is ugly. Either it’s that everyone is beautiful on the inside – we’re all unique snowflakes – or it’s that physical beauty is all relative anyway so who’s to judge? In any case, it’s remarkable just how difficult it is to get anyone to admit that a given person is ugly. People’s looks do reflect their choices after a while – George Orwell said that ‘at 50, everyone has the face he deserves’ – and that does make it hard to abstract physical beauty from everything else. But still.

Does this mean that our culture is less oppressive to the ugly than the Greeks were? The fact that we worry about revealing ourselves as shallow and unkind doesn’t mean that we’re not shallow and unkind. And to cover this up by pretending that ugliness doesn’t exist is just to create a new regime of oppression. In a sense, the situation for the ugly is like the situation for black people in supposedly ‘post-racial’ society: the very category by which oppression is structured is assumed out of existence.

Things might be even worse for the ugly, however, in the sense that ugliness has never even been taken seriously as a category for injustice. It’s true that whatever ills come to the ugly don’t even remotely compare to those that have been caused by racism. But that doesn’t make them fictional. We can think about them in terms of opportunities, the chances one has to realise one’s aspirations in the world. Suppose you want to become an astronaut or an actor or an acrobat. It’s not just up to you: it depends on your talents as well as your desire.

beautiful people might be more likely to fall into adultery, for instance, simply because it stares them in the face so often

One’s chances are reduced if one has fewer gifts, and good looks count as a gift. They’re important for one’s career prospects – beginning, research shows, in school – and it doesn’t take a genius to see that they’re important for one’s relationship prospects as well. The beautiful simply have more options. Option sickness is a problem of its own, of course, and beauty can be a curse in that respect: beautiful people might be more likely to fall into adultery, for instance, simply because it stares them in the face so often. But all in all, most of us would find it hard not to want more chances in life’s various lotteries – and the ugly, on balance, have fewer.

Is this oppression, though, or just bad luck? After all, it’s not as if there are bylaws sending the ugly to the back of the bus. You might regret or even resent the fact that faster runners tend to win the 100 metres or that acrobats tend to be the ones with good balance, but it’s hardly oppressive; in some contexts, to reward the gifted is to treat people as they deserve. Granted, the gift of looks is irrelevant to performance in a job such as web design, and in cases like this it should be illegal to factor in attractiveness when hiring. Such laws would be hard to enforce, of course – and not just because hiring decisions are often opaque. The reality is that there are a number of jobs where looks do help. Not just the obvious ones such as acting, modelling or waiting tables but probably also sales, management and even teaching – as long as customers, staff members or pupils remain responsive to looks, the ugly will have a harder time appealing to them.

What this shows is that the oppression of the ugly largely bypasses the realm of law and conscious decision. It operates instead at the level of mundane interactions, not laws or conscious decisions. What ugly people deserve is only the same respect as everyone else: to have their words listened to, their gestures noticed, their eyes looked into. What they receive, through no fault of their own, is not that.

Then again life isn’t fair, as you may already have heard. Hardly anyone oppresses the ugly on purpose. However unfortunate it might be morally, the Greek attitude just comes naturally to us. We do sometimes discover that a person’s outward beauty – the charm of his smile, for instance – belies an inner hollowness or corruption. But our initial thought is almost always that he seems a pleasant fellow. That we’d like to be in his company, listen to his words, look a little longer. For some beautiful people, of course, especially women, this magnetism can work both ways, pulling in one kind of attention while making another impossible. That’s bad luck too.

The trouble is that we’re evolved creatures with evolved dispositions. To imagine we could ever completely overcome this kind of natural inheritance, to think our lives could ever be exactly as we deserve, or even, for that matter, that we could ever be as we deserve, is a fantasy – a fantasy the Greeks, with their idea of Fate, were happily free of. But then our fantasies, like our faces, are not completely up to us. We just have to make the best of them.

Read more essays on human rights and social psychology

Comments

  • Lester

    Right.

    But, the gist if this argument presupposes a whole lot of positions that are actually just mist in the morning light. For example, the hierarchy of oppression (whichever oppression) is the creation of the ego. Ones own ego either places oneself high up or one accepts the rules of the culture and allows oneself to be "lower" on the pyramid. In other words we all accept the paradigm of the ego and play out our lives from within it and implicitly accept the "rules".

    Our culture is a complex framework of ego-structures created because of fear. This is unquestionable. Obsession with beauty as a means of protecting and enabling oneself is an obvious example. But are we to accept the decrees of this ego-driven kingdom and attempt to forever negotiate with the insatiable ego, or should we turn and face the truth - that the ego itself is the real mist in the morning light? When we dare to let the ego dissipate, then oppression naturally dissapates to.

    • J

      Unfortunately it goes beyond an ego issue. There are cognitive biases behind these trends (halo effect, etc.), and seemingly deeply ingrained ones (as opposed to socially learned) as some studies have identified these biases in babies. That's not to say that because a bias exists that we shouldn't overcome it- just that we need to acknowledge it to move forward

      • Lester

        I completely agree. I just think that a good way to acknowledge the problem is to realise from where it springs. I'm not sure that wecan dismiss the ego so lightly when I see it acting as a filter through which the world in comprehended.

        Interesting about the baby bias, so to speak. It opens a can of worms about human nature and human tendencies to behave in certain ways. My suggestion would be that the (possible) ingrained behaviour of an infant need not in any way direct the eventual capacity of a fully aware conscious adult to learn about ego-directed mentalities and act accordingly.

  • Jack

    As "beautiful" this article is written - I don't know what to make of it. Basically you say: there is beautiful and ugly. You also could have said: there is poor and rich, stupid and intelligent, small and tall, healthy and ill, relaxed and exited....
    Yes, every living creature judges. There is no other way. Sometimes the criteria change. "Beautiful" in former centuries meant another type. Or take the fashion: it has a different "beautiful" color every season. What do you make of "intelligent"? Do they deserve to get a better job, more money, better access to the good things in life? Oh, and by the way: What are the "good"things in life? How do you treat the stupid? What do they deserve? There voice to be heard and followed?
    This article is a perfect example for making "le philosophy pour le philosophy".

    • The Famous Disco Cat

      Grammar police always strikes in the morning! 'La philosophie' ')

      • Greggles

        "... always strike" thank you furry mush!

        • The Famous Disco Cat

          'Strikes' not 'strike' like in 'The Grammar police always rings twice'. C'est l'évidence même. Je suis toujours fier de mieux écrire en anglais que quelqu'un dont c'est la langue première. ;p

          • did you say grammar police?

            Uuuh, police is a collective noun, which means it is syntactically singular (no -s ending) but semantically plural (the police being composed of quite a few policemen), and therefore it requires a plural subject/verb agreement. Je suis toujours fière de mieux écrire en anglais qu'un autre français qui pense pouvoir se la péter malgré sa profonde ignorance des subtilités de la grammaire anglophone. D'ailleurs, il faudrait penser à bosser l'expression en français également parce qu'aux dernières nouvelles on disait "langue maternelle" et pas "première" car il s'agit là - oh, douce ironie - d'un déplorable anglicisme. (Tout nu dans la boue.)

          • The Famous Disco Cat

            Did you really take all this time to reply to this???? Wow i am touched but sorry dude you were not invited to this party! Go find yourself your own thread! ;) xxx

          • TonyTheTiger

            The police are coming.

          • did you say grammar police?

            Et je devrais sans doute ajouter que dans ce cas précis, l'utilisation de "like" pour exprimer une comparaison est malvenue. En effet, le comparatif ne se construit avec "like" que lorsque la comparaison se fait avec une entité matérielle, par exemple: "You're speaking like an idiot." Lorsqu'il y a comparaison avec une situation (une relation prédicative, pour être plus précise, parce qu'après tout lorsque comme toi on s'auto-proclame expert grammairien on ne devrait pas rechigner à faire dans le détail), comme le signale ici la préposition "in", on utilise "as". L'énoncé sous-jacent est bien: "'Strikes' not 'strike' AS [you would say] in 'blahblah.'"

            J'aime bien le concept de l'arroseur arrosé, surtout quand l'arroseur est un vilain pédant dont la prétention est à peu près aussi justifiée que le serait mon accession à la couronne d'Espagne.

  • James Neeley

    George Orwell said that ‘at 50, everyone has the face he deserves’. Beautiful. Except the wealthy can now change that George old boy.

    This is just another thing not spoken about in polite society.

    It would also be interesting to see a visual comparison between, political, civic and academic leaders from the pre-television age and today. We all may well be drawn to beauty, but is it a beauty we choose or just more market driven conformity.

    And I do have the face I deserve, my fathers.

  • Walter Braun

    "The ugly get screwed."

    Perhaps not as often as they would like.

    I wonder whether the idea has ever crossed the author's mind that our sense of beauty is innate and not at the result of cultural/social influences? Even very small children already show a preference for beauty...

    "We want to take the revolution a step further. We want to deny that anyone
    is ugly."

    Really? If we are no longer allowed to form judgements we not only will be able to experience beaut - but we stop (critical) thinking altogether.
    When we see how much vanity drives the world (especially the female half), this rant against beauty makes very little sense ...

    • Joe Joejoe

      murder is also innate....yet we outlaw that.

      • SmilingAhab

        Murder is a rather objectively easy thing to measure - one person stops the consciousness and cellular activity of another - and thus easy to legally define. Beauty is very hard to legally define and harder to enforce a no-discrimination policy over.

    • David Crohn

      How does one support the claim that beauty is not culturally or socially constructed? That's so absurd I can't even address it without going into a huge rant. Do all children find the same things beautiful? If the "sense of beauty" has nothing to do with culture, how do fashions change at all. You have some thinking to do.

      Also, wtf is with the dig at women!?!? If women were more vain than men (which is BS, btw), wouldn't it have something to do with the way men look at them? That's just an ugly statement.

      • acropunk

        Certain markers of beauty are universal. Symmetry, nice teeth, hip to waist ratio, spacing between the eyes. I highly doubt any culture ion earth for instance prefers mates with eyes close together.

        • David Crohn

          Interesting. So your extensive anthropological field work, using a time machine, has led you to this conclusion? I'd also like to read your published work in the field of Nice Teeth Studies, since certain dental standards (straight and white, obv) are and have always been universally available and universally agreed upon.

          But seriously, if I lust for a person with "bad" teeth or eyes that are close together, am I just looking past those things? Or am I aberrant in some way? Given your deep insight into what ALL humans like, I need to understand what kind of bizarre anomaly it was that once made me fall for a woman who never had braces.

          • acropunk

            Yeah, you're looking past those things. Do your own research and formulate your own opinion. If you decide to procreate with a woman who has obvious markers of genetic/epigenetic distress, that is your own decision. I am no eugenicist.

          • David Crohn

            Is this what you say to women to try and get them to sleep with you? Beg them to look past your obvious markers of genetic/epigenetic distress?

          • acropunk

            Usually they try to sleep with me.

        • 013090

          You are correct. Many people view humans as blank slates molded solely by culture, but the evidence is pretty overwhelmingly in favor of the contrary. Just as in the animal kingdom, humans have certain traits they are evolutionarily drawn to. In men, well-defined jaw and cheek bones, broad shoulders; in women, plump and symmetrical breasts (though not necessarily large), and as you mentioned, hip to waist ratio; and for both genders, symmetry in general, nice and non-blemished skin, etc... I could go on, and for each of these there are valid evolutionary reasons.

          Humans are not blank slates to be drawn upon, but fairly well defined portraits that culture can then add to.

        • http://SexWithTimaree.com Timaree

          There are some indices of health that are nearly universal, but, take it from someone who did her dissertation on cultural differences in beauty standards, there's way more diversity over time and culture than you'd expect. But what really sets apart beauty and "other" (aka "ugly) is surprisingly often a matter of wealth. You can buy not only access to orthodontists but also plastic surgeons, tanning salons, dermatologists, professional grade hair and makeup, and luxury clothing and accessories that give an aura of tribal association which we, as creatures that love homophily and as capitalists who are trained to find wealth attractive, will work every time.

          • acropunk

            Which reminds me...I love dark skin...historically a marker of poverty, because it indicates health, resilience to sun and less chance of skin cancer! I agree, much is cultural. However I do believe homozygosity is innately more attractive than heterozygosity. Mixed raced people are usually more beautiful, and culture changes this to favor whiter, paler skin.

    • Sandy Reis

      Women are supposed to look attractive because men demand it.
      Its men who are vain.
      Women dont really look at men's looks.

      • James

        Women aren't the only ones pressured to be attractive though? Walk around the romance novel section and tell me when you find a fat man ravishing a young beauty. And don't forget gay MEN have the lowest satisfaction with their body image.

        • CrankyFranky

          yep - when I thought it was tough attracting a mate in the straight world my gay friend scoffed and said his world was the most competitive - as soon as you were no longer young and hot you were consigned to the shelf immediately

      • SaintMarx

        Evidence for these generalizations?

        • Sandy Reis

          My life experiences. I have been discriminated out of jobs and treated like sh!t by family members for being less attractive. 90% of the men I have met in my life said looks is number one. And no, I dont meet "bad types of men". Thats the way men are-shallow.

          • acropunk

            I was born this way. You can't tell me I am bad for being more attracted to beautiful women any more than you can tell a gay person they are bad for being attracted to the same sex.

          • David Crohn

            You are not bad for being attracted to beautiful women. The reason is you are bad is that you think you know everything about the world. Also, your sexism and arrogance make you bad. Sexism and arrogance are universally ugly traits. And ugly, as we all know, is bad.

          • acropunk

            You must know more about the world than I, or at least think so, to make such cattegorical value judgements as 'sexism and arrogance are universally ugly traits'. Some women are attracted to dominant men, and some couples prefer a clear division of labor between the sexes, yet you disregard their voices.

          • David Crohn

            Wait, how come you get to make categorical value judgements but I don't? In fact, we both are. I would argue though that the statement "arrogance is ugly" is less of a logical leap than "everyone likes nice teeth."

            The difference between my approach and yours is that I am working off of verifiable facts, such as the statement you wrote above: "As a good looking guy, trust me, women like a good looking guy." This, to me, smacks of arrogance--not just the sentiment but the style, the cheerful condescension of the "trust me," surrounded by two insouciant commas, flopping around like a tiny dick in the breeze. I bet I could find a few people who agree.

            The statement "all people like symmetrical faces," however, is absolutely impossible to support with empirical evidence.

            Go be the smarmy sexist d-bag you are, and have fun, because plenty of women prefer that "traditional gender role," because most women, apparently, are too stupid to see the difference between arrogant and dominant. Just stop posting on web sites thinking you are smart or have anything wise to contribute to the world.

            So, I'll leave the pigheadedness that gives men a bad name to you, and I'll stick to claims that can be verified in reality. That's what I call division of labor.

          • acropunk

            Wait so you want to know how big my dick is?

          • David Crohn

            HAHAHAHA!! You, sir, are truly a delight.

          • acropunk

            Thanks. Have an upvote.

      • acropunk

        As a good looking guy, trust me, women like a good looking guy. But they do take other factors into consideration when choosing a mate...like status. Personality.

        One of the inherent differences in gender is that men place more of a premium in physical beauty than women do.

  • james

    ''Beauty is the promise of happiness''. Stendhal

  • Jesh StG

    If you like this to become a balanced article you also have to let the "ugly" speak too! Some good looking people are boring, arrogant or dumb. I sure do not want to be around therm.
    Remember very well in my teens there was a girl in my classes with one of her cheek completely taken over by a wine mark (in other words, one of her cheek was completely bright red). But ... after a few times no one saw the mark anymore, because she was funny, cheerful, and kind.
    One time I asked her how she learned to cope with her face, she replied, "Well, my parents didn't treat me different, so I thought I was just like anyone else - and I am." Point of my story, it's not the way you look, but your own way in coping with it. Am very happy that my(adult) children have taken over this view!

    • lilburn jac

      JESH STG

      You are the only one of the commentators who said or implied you are ugly. Thanks for the courage.

      I am ugly myself. (My name is JAC and I'm an ugly). It was extremely hard to admit my ugliness and harder to accept it as a condition and not a fault.

      It is important to acknowledge the bias in favor of the beautiful so that is can be eliminated (or countered) where it has no place; wherever attractiveness is not a required part of a result. More importantly, the acknowledgement of such bias can help the afflicted; they can recognize its existance (as a condition, not a fault) and develop coping mecanisms.

      What's ugly like? It's getting the sence that when other people first look at you, they see you as inferior, or at least unworthy. It's when you and a better looking friend meet a new person for the first time, the new person will always initially address the better looking friend. At least until you butt in. It's when your comment in a business meeting is ignored, until the same point is made by a more attractive party and is immediatley accepted as important. These are many examples.

      For the beautiful people reading this, that's just the way it is. If you doubt it, ask an ugly. (Good luck finding someone who will admit it. That is, if you can bring yourself to ask: "Can I ask you about being ugly?" As already stated by another commentator, ugliness is not discussed in polite company.)

      • Veronica

        bless you - in the end once we know someone well, we generally realize as grown-ups, that those 'beautiful' people can be dismissed since they mostly love themselves way too much and don't need any more attention. It's that precious person who actually waits back and LISTENS and then considers truth and sense of things that we all learn to appreciate - I know who I prefer - this issue is specially prevalent in the US because we are riddled with Barbie and Ken images every day on TV and ads - I get really fed up with full grown women who have to wear their hair long and in a 'barbie' style and are obviously measuring themselves by that standard - idiots ! Too trivial and mass-production for me. Be yourself and most people will appreciate you for yourself.

        • Sandy Reis

          The problem with Barbie and Ken is that they are white and most people arent white. Minorities get discriminated because they're not white. I have seen hot minority women get treated badly and side stepped for the white girl who looks like a 6.

        • SunnyGirl

          Wow, ok. I'm quite beautiful, with long "Barbie" hair, and I put a fair amount of effort into how I dress.
          I'm also the girl other people in my friend group turn to for advice because I care deeply and honestly about my friends, their lives, and their well being (aka, I wait back, listen, and consider them as individuals and give them my full attention. And guess what? I give ugly people the same courtesy as the prettier ones.)
          Beautiful people don't "mostly love themselves way too much" just like most ugly people are't bitter and angry. I don't support the extra benefits that beautiful people receive, but no one should stereotype another group the way you just have.

      • CrankyFranky

        hey Jac - here's my experience as an average attractive guy - when I wear jeans and t-shirt women walk past me as if I don't exist - when I dress up nice they stare at me with interest.

        So - maybe try dressing up nice - get a nice haircut, shave or stubble as you wish, and get some sharp clothes - and attractive women may assume you're rich and start coming to you

        next - fake it til you make it - walk straight up to the most attractive woman in the room (don't pause or you'll lose confidence) and say hello - often she'll sigh with relief that she's no longer left alone (while all the other guys stand off looking at her with hungry stares) - once you've got a reputation and confidence to be seen with all the good looking girls for fun - things will start to happen. Lots of women go out with ugly guys because they're fun and/or rich - if you're not rich, just be fun - women will appreciate it !

  • SPIBB

    tl;dr. but yeah, ugly people draw the short straw. And so evolutionarily we pursue attractive mates as it connotes genetic superiority and social superiors (rich, powerful) often are able to breed with genetically superior (beautiful) mates. Yes, it's unfair. Less attractive people have to work harder to prove their worth but I don't think that will ever change.

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      working part time off of a laptop. have a peek here C­a­s­h­D­u­t­i­e­s­.­ℂ­o­m

  • Heroh

    Braces are modern foot binding and hellish devices of terrified parents? Fat people make us collectively want to vom? I've never commented on the fantastic Aeon Magazine until now, because I've never come across such a load before. Has the author ever been anywhere or experienced a location where dentistry and braces are uncommon? Some children don't get braces for decadent cosmetic reasons, or because their parents WANT to pay thousands of dollars for treatment to avoid hideous nonconformity, but because their genetics dealt them a terrible hand and their teeth or jaw didn't align, or their mouth was overfull with teeth because of a narrow jaw, and these conditions cause issues with pain, speaking, or eating. The author dismisses the 'health' claims of dentistry because it suits his argument to do so. It doesn't mean he's right.
    And Rubenesque women were (are) coveted and celebrated by cultures becaaauuusee... they 're fools denying their REAL feelings? It's not obesity that turns me off, it's this strange and pretentious view of 'the oppressed' that assumes we're all victims of denial, fear, and loathing.

    • Anti-heroh

      Braces cannot fix the extremes dental abnormalities you have described and therefore can only correct certain, relatively minor teeth mal-alignment. In this sense the author described their use perfectly as a cosmetic, aesthetic tactic. In fact most brace wearers get braces for exactly this reason. Braces do not improve the function of the mouth except in the sense that they minimise tooth wear. I'm also going to assume that you are from america, because cosmetic, orthodontic dentistry is much less popular in the rest of the world. Braces are so common in teenage americans, yet not some much elsewhere. Even in the UK, where dental work can be subsidised by the national health service, braces are seen as an unecessary hassle and cost.

      • ChapLipman

        I have misaligned teeth, and they are constantly stabbing into my tongue. I do want to get them fixed for this reason.

        You are right that conventional orthodontics is much more about looks than function, but there is a whole alternative kind of dentistry that focuses primarily on functional outcomes. It is called "functional orthodontics" and it is VERY MUCH AT ODDS with traditional orthodontics (the vast majority of conventional orthodontists know very little about the FUNCTIONAL aspects of dentition and jaw position, and the extreme risks of dental extractions which can disfigure the face and cause difficulty eating).

  • Sandy Reis

    You do not want to be an ugly woman, rich or poor.

    • James

      I wouldn't mind being Rosie O'Donnell or Donatella Versace. Just throwing it out there.

    • SaintMarx

      Or an ugly man.

      • Sandy Reis

        An ugly man is ok is he has money.

        • acropunk

          Would you rather be an ugly rich woman or a good looking poor man?

          • Sandy Reis

            An ugly rich woman because with money, you cease to be ugly.

          • Jios

            No sorry, that is wrong. Money doesn't increase a woman's attractiveness in the way it does for men. There has been a countless number of studies demonstrating that. If a rich woman is ugly she is still seen as an ugly woman. How many men desire Gina Rinehart? Yet her male equivalent is probably married to a decent looking woman who is much younger than himself.

          • acropunk

            Exactly.

          • Paul Harris

            Ur judgement of urself and ppl r harsh. U just read an article on beauty and u say with money u cease to be ugly. I really do not care who I date. I am 50 years and never married. I have only allowed 1 relationship to go over the 2 years mark. I am also a paraplegic as I fell from a tree at 18 years. I have dated the conventional beauty and the conventional ugly, the obese, the anorexic, etc. These r just words to me. The beauty I see is the beauty I see. It has nothing to with anyone else. My issue is I might be seeing a beauty in use (courtesy, perseverance, etc), however, the individual might not quite fit into the conventional beauty idea, all I ask is for their confidence. I find those who for some reason thing they r ugly, have so many insecurities. These r not based on the said ugliness, but on the expectations of continued bad treatment from others. Some never find out that we send out energies of negativity and it keeps them in the cycle. Breaking that loop requires repalacing negative thoughts with good ones

    • Belisarius85

      No one wants to be ugly. Period.

  • Dan K.

    "braces are our cultures version of footbinding." That's a bit ridiculous. Well-aligned teeth are functionally beneficial, bound-feet are not.

    While I agree that our modern notions of beauty are way far off, and that to some extent we could be more sensitive to the bias against bad looks, the fact that our brains rank beauty highly is arguably an evolved trait. Not to sound rote, but broad shoulders and height are an advantage, as are large hips. Some physical features have a direct advantage, others are evolved signals.

    • Belisarius85

      Yeah, I liked the article, but I almost stopped reading at that point. Only the mechanical process of the two are similar.

  • simon hill

    I would have bet this was written by a male. This article, while obviously tongue-in-cheek is rather flippant in tone. Men just don't get much womens' lives are affected by the emphasis on looks. The author concludes the article with a laissez-faire kind of "well it's all the luck of the draw" and "we can't help that we're shallow as humans" attitude which conveniently turns a blind eye to the glaring double standard that still exists today where women are still valued far often than men for their looks. The author also overlooks the significance of changing conceptions of beauty throughout history which point to the fact that, despite the author's emphasis on the timeless quality of beauty and its juxtaposition to a disparaged ugliness, beauty is political, since beauty in establishing this dichotomy has always functioned to demarcate (very constable) categories such as status, class, gender, race, etc... I don't think beauty is something that is self-evident at all.

    • acropunk

      Men will ALWAYS place a premium on youth in women, as a barometer of mate value. Sorry. We are most certainly hard wired for that. I was born this way. I will always be more physically (but not neccesarily mentally) attracted to younger women than older women.

      If you accept that gays were born attracted to the same sex, you have to accept that I was born attracted to younger women.

      • Belisarius85

        But it's just not fair! And someone ought to do something about it!

      • http://SexWithTimaree.com Timaree

        acro, you're conflating your personal preference with heterosexuality in general. and also ignoring the massive amount of socialization that goes into everyone's preferences. sure, being gay is an innate orientation, but within that, there are trends of being into Bears, years where twinks are more in. that has to do with external social factors, in addition to whatever individual people have always personally liked. it's silly to ignore how much of this is a result of conditioning through repeated exposure.

        • acropunk

          Nope. Men who like women are innately attracted to fertility. When fertility fades, attraction fades. That's not to say that this can be overcome, but in order to encourage men to commit beyond a woman's fertile years, it would help if she demoknstaprated a willingness to commit in her younger years when she can attract a lot of other guys.

          You can't shame men for liking young nubile women any more than you can shame gay men for being attracted to the male body. So stop.

          • http://SexWithTimaree.com Timaree

            First off, I'm not sure where shaming came from in this conversation. This would be another example of a time when you might want to evaluate whether your answer is based on your own experience or offer what science you have to back it up. I'm speaking not from my personal attraction, but as someone who studies this. Evolutionary psychology has its uses, but they're really limited- by both un-falsifiability and the narrowness of our own modern lens examining motives in retrospect. Evo psych leaves huge holes in real sexual behavior- it can't explain exclusive same-sex attractions, for instance. However, we can bring in insights from other sciences- sexuality being largely a learned behavior it makes sense to consider the conditioning involved.

          • acropunk

            Yes, let's consider the conditioning involved in same sex attraction too.

          • http://SexWithTimaree.com Timaree

            agreed. again, most sexuality is learned. we have genetic predispositions, but environmental factors shape the specificities of our desires- this is the nature of fetish, and to a less particular degree, having any kind of "type." Consider socialization around boobs versus butts- if you were an adolescent in the early 80s, you saw a lot more blondes with big tits in media, if you were raised in the late 90s, far more asses and dark hair. one's sexual orientation (whatever it may be) is a holistic thing, shaped by both genes and experience.

          • acropunk

            I definitely go against cultural norm. I like short haired women. I like women with more rather than less facial breadth (a marker of health). I like women with broad shoulders (but not narrow hips...). And I am most certainly NOT a 'boob guy'. Much more into butts. And I don't like the clean shaven look down there. However, I DO like young women. Older women too but not attracted to post-menopausal women at all really.

          • http://SexWithTimaree.com Timaree

            Awesome. Sounds like you know what you want and are not afraid to go for it. It's awesome when a wider variety of types of beauty are celebrated, rather than one template.

          • acropunk

            Yes and I am always willing to make exceptions to a certain extent. My last girlfriend had narrow hips and large breasts, for example. Diversity is grand. Life would indeed be so boring if everyone had the same body type.

          • http://SexWithTimaree.com Timaree

            Procreation is one reason for sex, but clearly not the only one and certainly not the primary conscious motivator in a modern human. It's valuable to take insights from our evolutionary past- we see that romantic monogamy is an arbitrary construct, that sexual mores are often a cultural idiosyncrasy, etc. But we are far removed from the circumstances under which these behaviors and drives originate. We have developed and evolved in many cognitive and behavioral ways, our brains function in different ways than a human's would have thousands of years ago, pre-literacy.

          • acropunk

            Procreatioin, obviously, is the MAIN reason for sex.

          • http://SexWithTimaree.com Timaree

            Really? Ask the next dozen people you see WHY they engaged in the last sexual act they did. Let me know how many were trying to get pregnant.

          • acropunk

            The body and mind can want different things entirely. Sex evolved as a means of procreation first, bonding second.

    • C Wolfe

      Christy, the equivalent for men is height. I'm married to a short man who stands about five two. He's very handsome (our teen daughter says that in the photos of his youth he looks like he ought to be in a boy band), but over the years women turned him down as a boyfriend with comments such as "I'd be embarrassed to walk down the street with you."

      But I agree with what I see as your two main points: that women are more likely than men to be judged disproportionately by appearance, and that the standards of beauty are culturally determined—except for some basic principles of symmetry and proportion that can be cross-culturally tested.

    • ArthorBearing

      It's not a double-standard, which implies it was meant to be one standard but is actually two. It's two standards for two different groups, one for men and one for women. Gender differences are real, equality is a social construct.

      • acropunk

        I think some differences are social constructs too, but gender differences definitely exist.

    • Jazz88

      Rich and powerful men are coveted amongst women in just the same way that attractive women are pursued and valued by men. Just because life is hard for women, doesn't mean we men skate by on the high-minded good graces of the female sex.

      We are all victims and none of us are victims.

    • tatonka

      try being a short ugly guy. trust me... the article is spot on. I know women want a monopoly on victimhood, but short ugly guys spend most of life alone and a few steps from suicide.

      yes society is generally a male dominated patriarchy. but it is NOT distributed equally. tall handsome well built men hold massive advantage. the irony is that women, despite the oppresion the patriarchy supposedly represents, lust after and endlessly reward these "hot guys".

      short ugly guys get dumped on by the alpha male and rejected by all women. they end up a consolation prize for the truly desperate at best.

      I would argue that even the ugliest woman can at LEAST find someone to have sex with them. ask a short ugly guy when the last time he had sex was (and paying does not count)

  • Indiana Pearl

    I had my teeth straightened when I was 12 to 14. I hated the process, but loved the result.

  • Krishna

    Thanks for this thought provoking article. Ugliness is endemic, mind you, in the minds of people. If you are down in the dumps and even the ugliest person helps you out, you will consider her an angel. If there are choices available, you may go for the ones dictated by your conditioning. To transcend the narrow mindedness we harbor, the way forward is to be aware of what our reaction is to the situation in hand. This objectivity will give us clarity in responding to situations in a more rational and decent form.

  • SmilingAhab

    While the specifics of what is considered beautiful and ugly are different between cultures and times, it seems the defining of beauty and the shunning of the ugly, in whatever form they take in a society, is universal without exception. So while the specifics seem to be constructs of society, the fact that we construct them and discriminate based on them is biological.

    I guess then that all fascism is, is the acceptance of all the social implications and logical conclusions of those biological imperatives of ours that seem so perfectly stacked against the golden rule.

    • acropunk

      Some markers of beauty are universal. Nice teeth, space between the eyes, height, etc. Some are most certainly cultural.

      I think if we looked at genetic fitness as a marker of beauty, things would change. For instance waifs would no longer be considered beautiful, starved models.

    • Belisarius85

      With respect, I don't think you know what fascism is really about.

      • SmilingAhab

        I know that every fascist I've heard conversations recorded of had something to say about the strong dominating the weak, often quoting Neitzsche. Maybe I don't know a lot about fascism, but I know a lot of fascists look at weakness as immoral, and since ugliness would be a social weakness, I just put two and two together.

        If you lived through the iterations of European or South American fascism, I would love to be filled in - I will by no means hold on to my ignorance for arguments' sake.

  • SaintMarx

    "We want to take the revolution a step further. We want to deny that anyone
    is ugly."

    What is this revolutionary group for whom you speak? It sounds very....oppressive.

  • http://www.livinginthehereandnow.co.za/ beachcomber

    Rather disappointing from "a lecturer in philosophy and humanities at Princeton University."
    It's common knowledge that birds and other animals prefer to mate with opposites of the best physical proportions (which we define as beauty) as an evolutionary benefit.
    We, as perhaps slightly more complex animals, are no different in this basic respect.

    • CrankyFranky

      you got it - symmetry is associated with genetic health - young females with narrow waist, shapely hips and large breasts are associated with fecundity - older males with big muscles are associated with power and the ability to protect and support child-rearing

      the losers tend to be highest-achieving females who have trouble finding someone to look up to, and poor low education males who may not find a poorer less-educated female to look up to them.

  • SaintMarx

    What's wrong with judging beauty? Beauty is a value, just like intelligence, humor, morality, determination, artistic skill, physical ability, grace, etc.

    The only concern is the "halo effect", the presumption that other qualities vary with beauty, and this is only a problem where it is unjustified.

    As for considering beauty in assessing potential employees, friends, mates, political candidates, etc., it only makes sense. Beauty does not negate other criteria, but it is a factor, and why should it not be?

    Finally, much of one's beauty is in one's control.

    • Sandy Reis

      Its not really in your control. If I had more money, I would look ten times better. I dont, so I look the way I do.

    • Remina

      shut the f up, you have absolutely no idea. "been both ugly and beautiful"? spare me. for you, ugly was a bad shade of hair dye. I hate how dismissive privileged people are, comparing incomparable things with their advantaged existence.

  • http://www.angrymetalguy.com Angry Metal Guy

    "The trouble is that we’re evolved creatures with evolved dispositions. To imagine we could ever completely overcome this kind of natural inheritance [...] is a fantasy."

    What a remarkably lazy and intellectually shallow end to an otherwise interesting discussion of stigma societal stigma in action.

    • Belisarius85

      How is it lazy and intellectually shallow? The author is correct. Would it make you feel better if he took an unrealistic approach and said something along the lines of "We might be genetically programmed to value the beautiful over the ugly, but with the right social and cultural values we can overcome it and create a more just and equitable society!"?
      I'm sure he could have done that, but it's a bit overly idealistic, and what real purpose would it have served? Besides making you feel more optimistic.

      • http://www.angrymetalguy.com Angry Metal Guy

        But we're not genetically programmed to value beauty over ugliness. Beauty standards have changed over time and are culturally dependent. The author completely ignores that beauty standards in ancient Greece aren't the same as they are now, and that beauty standards in China have changed dramatically in the last 30 years _alone_. His rant about obesity, for example, is belied by the fact that corpulence was once considered to be a sign of affluence, while articles written as recently as the 1950s talk about how being skinny is an embarrassment for women. His point is an empirical question and had he bothered to look at the empirical foundation he would find that his hypothesis doesn't hold up.

        Since beauty standards are changing, how is it that there is a genetically predetermined beauty standard? By relying on this ahistorical argument, he legitimizes a naturalized discourse for the discrimination of people, and sells a social darwinistic bill of goods.

        • Belisarius85

          "But we're not genetically programmed to value beauty over ugliness."

          Yes we are. And there are objective, general standards for beauty. Only the 'window dressing' really changes with culture.

          I won't go into the details (Others, esp Acropunk, already do so - ad nauseum - elsewhere in this thread) but the core of beauty is little more than a biological signal of long-term health - clear and 'glowing' skin, long and/or lustrous hair, symmetric features, properly spaced eyes, maybe straight teeth, etc.

          Back to the cultural standards of beauty, yes they exist, but they are merely taken into account along with, or in lieu of, 'natural beauty'. It is probably best to think of it as social beauty, and its little more than a signal of social status. In your example, corpulence wasn't attractive (much less beautiful) in and of itself. It was attractive because it signaled affluence.

          I would wager a great deal of my personal wealth that if you took the 'ideal woman' from almost any culture in the history of the world, then you'd find many of the common features I described above. They might not be attractive, per se, especially if they were subjected to various culture disfigurements attached to social status - foot binding, stretched neck, extreme piercings, etc. - but they will be beautiful in a biological sense.

  • acropunk

    Some markers of beauty are universal. Nice teeth, space between the eyes, height, etc. Some are most certainly cultural. For instance, a 'small' face is desired in Korean culture, but a small face is actually a sign of genetic/epigenetic distress. Smaller faces and reduced facial breadth signify tooth crowding and poor nutrition.

    I think if we looked at genetic fitness as a marker of beauty, things would change. For instance waifs would no longer be considered beautiful, starved models would not signify high value.

    I would never control birth through legislation, a la eugenic practices, but still, personally, I consider genetic fitness beautiful and desirable in a mate, and I will not procreate with a woman I deem genetically unfit.

    How we treat people is often a reflection of how people behave. Short people for instance often have bigger, louder personalities to compensate. After experiencing this in a regular basis, one might start to assume that short people line doesn't know will always act this way, and then treat short people accordingly, for better or worse. Its a tango.

    People with high confidence are typically people who have been treated like they deserve confidence. Good looking people are treated a certain way from day one, and they respond with high confidence.

  • acropunk

    I wonder if the author of this article has ever read 'Harrison Bergeron' by Kurt Vonnegut.

  • LeslieFish

    The author is overlooking the fact that there are and always have been good social positions for people considered "ugly": magician, shaman, priest or artist -- particularly actor or comedian. During the middle ages, deformed folk were actually in great demand as court jesters. Nowadays unlovely folk can do well as movie villains or comedians. Example? Phyllis Diller!

    • William Burns

      Phyllis Diller wasn't actually ugly--she played and made up ugly because a beautiful woman wasn't acceptable as a comedienne in those days.

  • david

    this article recalls Foucault's intellectual meditations on power and sexuality. Yes of course beauty , in the sense of straight bright white teeth, pleasant odours, even features and slimness have, hardened into an international identikit. This outer beauty is an easy route to getting an open door undoubtedly. Education teaches us that many other "beautiful" modes exist. In dress, in manner, in speech and intellect. No small wonder that those who lack identikit beauty develop those other strategies to compensate.

  • Alice

    I agree with some of the other comments. 1) The breadth of how beauty is defined--by an individual, a different culture, a different time--was not explored; 2) Lines like: "Then again life isn’t fair, as you may already have heard. Hardly anyone oppresses the ugly on purpose" make me picture a masochistic young man reclining back in his chair, throwing up an "Oh well!" hand gesture, topped off with a side smirk. Not to say the article didn't have finer points, but the overall tone was so oddly biased for what Aeon usually produces.

  • ali

    The idea that braces and foot binding are even superficially similar betrays an embarrassing lack of historical and cultural understanding. Foot binding was a means of physically deforming women's feet so that they could not use them properly. Braces in the US are overwhelmingly for cosmetic purposes, but they don't cripple kids' mouths, they aren't used based on gender, and they aren't imposed to nearly such an institutionalized degree. Garbage analogy.

  • dopefein

    Does the author mean "desert" or "dessert" in the first paragraph?

  • donbronkema1

    We plug-uglies are oppressed by quiddities of natural selection in a brutal marketplace…woe unto

    --him who, in youth, is not tall, muscular, handsome, charming, graceful or sonorous, but, worse still, has developed invidious compensations
    --him who, pursuant to vigesimals of age & disaffection, loses supra
    --her who is not gorgeous [QTs replicate w/ease]

    Hope is enroute, however, via epigeneering of stemcells, zygotes, blastocysts, embryos & even pre-viable foetae: ensuring retention of oft-unlinked traits & tropisms [pacification, intelligence, openness, empathy].

    Tho insufficient, symmetry is necessary to optimize contentment & social stability--central benisons of an emerging Transhuman Elysium.

  • dwpittelli

    "braces are our culture’s version of foot-binding."

    Not really. Braces also hurt, and braces are also a class marker due to their economic costs, but braces are not designed to cripple us or make us economically useless. Impractical women's heels, despite the fact that one can remove them, are functionally closer to foot-binding.

  • sabretruthtiger

    I'm ugly yet am physically stronger, faster, more intelligent and more talented than the vast majority of men, many of them prettier.

    Superiority thus has nothing to do with looks

  • lennyharris

    The article says that advantages are helpful. Does it say any thing else.

  • I beg to differ.

    I think while there is some truth to this article, it is so overblown. I certainly hope most people don't focus on people's looks this intensely. Good looking people have that advantage in many cultures, but I would also like to think that other qualities count for as much or more than looks, when it comes to looking at the whole person. Seriously. I also think there are more people that agree beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It is a gift to be able to see a person's true beauty. As my mother used to say "God doesn't make junk!" (I know God or deity is a whole other topic.) Anyone this focused on looks is coming from such a base, innate origin, that I would not be interested in such a person for that very reason. What a turn off. And I do have good looks. My preference is a more evolved person that can see past their biologically driven needs. If a person such as this didn't exist or has not evolved to such a place, I wouldn't have one. I am now blessed with that choice. I can ask for more, for myself. Yay!! Of course, I am now in my middle years and have the experiences behind me, to be able to say this. But I am so glad I am at this point. Go me!! And yes, I still look good.

  • Granite Sentry

    "... braces are our culture’s version of foot-binding." Idiocy.

  • leangpot19

    I almost cried when i read this sentence, "What ugly people deserve is only the same respect as everyone else: to have their words listened to, their gestures noticed, their eyes looked into." It's so true...