MAYA'S JULY COLUMN: THE CONSTRUCT OF "UGLY"
"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." That’s what we’re told when we’re young to soothe the schoolyard burn of being called “ugly” for the first time. And it’s comforting – it’s the reassurance that the world is much bigger than the person telling you that you’re ugly. Everyone has been called ugly, whether in jest or in complete seriousness, and parents around the world apply truisms like aforementioned and “sticks and stones may break my bones, but your words cannot hurt me” to the wounds as a last-ditch effort in preserving their children's self-confidence. They know they don’t believe it, because as adults, they possess a greater nuance toward what it means to dually see yourself and be seen. They hope we will believe them when we’re called ugly because of that blind, youthful optimism of one day arriving at what we want to call “understanding.”
And if we’re lucky, we buy it until the distinction between ugly and unattractive becomes real to us. Beauty’s place in the “eye of the beholder” doesn’t mean you’re not ugly – it means you’re not attractive to the person chastising you. What do they matter, anyway? That notion itself is already a feat to conquer, even though it is completely subjective. Ugly is none of these things. Ugly is universal – ugly is objective, and ugly is institutional.
This isn’t to say that the taunts for being ugly were right, but rather to point out how they are codified. Within being unattractive, there is a wiggle room of the person thinking you’re unattractive to them. Within being ugly, a larger system is called upon – not only are you unattractive to the person hurling the insult, but you are unattractive to them because you meet the known criteria of “ugly.” There is shame in meeting this criteria, in a sense that implies, “How could you look at your features and not be able to categorize them as ugly?” – you and your appearance belongs to a canon of unattractive that not only one person subscribes to, but the whole world. Because of this, ugliness is situated as a magnifying glass to the complex relationships between beauty and race, sex, class and ability, where any otherness or marginalization signifies “ugly.”
The zeitgeist as it expands today seeks to present a façade that this isn’t true by telling us we are all “beautiful” as a means to will away the bigotry implicit in “ugly.” As a model who is has been often asked about their “journey to self-love” on sets, I always find myself incredibly frustrated by how shocked everyone is that I was called ugly during my youth. “No, you’re a special type of beautiful.” I am attractive, but I am not beautiful because I am already ugly. The idea that we can so easily redefine beauty frustrates me because, while the intentionality is there, what lies beneath the surface is an ignorance of how synonymous ugly is with disenfranchised as beauty is with privilege. There is also the assumption that if we try to include those who have been historically considered ugly for bigoted reasons into the sphere of beauty, then the problem is solved. It won’t, dear Couturesquies.
What I have just outlined, dear Couturesquies, is where I feel fetishization comes from. I believe that in these burgeoning conversations that justly critique beauty, we get so caught up in the performance of inclusion that we forget that this is not a war that can be won by just retraining the troops. Maybe, the war itself is the problem. Beauty as an institution is wrong. This isn’t a hypersensitive snowflake-y rant to depose beauty as a whole, but rather to call to attention the fact that we can’t undo institutions, and the idea that we can is both naïve and patronizing to those who are being newly accepted. Maybe I don’t want to be beautiful, maybe there are larger things on my mind. While representation is a real issue, it plays out as fetishization every day further victimizing those it supposedly seeks to protect. Much like when we were young, “understanding” is not a destination you can arrive at, but rather a goal that prompts progression, but never compete ascension.