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


The ugly truth

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

by Jonny Thakkar + BIO

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

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.