This is not an article about the beauty of the universe or the beauty of arts. This may not even be an article about beauty at all. It is about ugliness. Sorry for the disappointing title, it is more catchy that way, believe me. And it will be long. I will use these words as binary exclusive and objective traits : beautiful people – meaning physically attractive, as defined by the standards of our culture – and ugly people – as not fitting these standards. The standards are typically harmonious facial and body features, and they exclude most ethnical features*, disabilities and malformations, disproportionate hights and corpulences to name a few.
Beauty is worshipped
Since the beginning of civilization, our society has prized beauty, and beautiful people accordingly, while ugliness was always despised. Thereby ugly main characters in movies are always portrayed by beautiful actors and actresses because we don’t even dare to hire an ugly person to do that. Beauty sells, ugliness doesn’t.
However, it does not only happen at the capitalist system’s level, beauty is also worshipped among all of us in our everyday lives. The ultimate proof is that being beautiful is simply considered an asset, next to being smart, funny or generous. There are three reasons why I always struggle accepting or giving this “compliment”. First, it is not an achievement, nor a choice. It is a genetic lottery win, just like my color of skin, the size of my breasts or the nature of my hair, and I did absolutely nothing to deserve this compliment. Some people can access beauty standards by choice, for example by wearing make up or going through makeovers or surgical procedures. However, these are not “really” beautiful, they are considered shallow beauty. It’s the natural beauty that matters, the one you have no control over. The least effort you put into your beauty, the more worthy it is. So why would someone be proud of something they didn’t do ?
Second, it is stating a fact that the person already has a strong opinion on. If they feel beautiful, you will make them happy for the day ; if they feel ugly, they will (inevitably) think you are lying to be nice and be expected to thank you for it. Very few people actually don’t know how they look compared to the beauty standards. Ugly people will hear this compliment only twice in their life if they are lucky – by their mother and by their potential partner. But some of them will never hear it, even as children, while beautiful people will be complimented regularly and take it for granted for everyone. Which is certainly not a reason to tell ugly people how “beautiful” they are.
Last but definitely not least, using beauty as a compliment already assumes that ugliness is the bad counterpart, the less worthy one.
Beauty is privilege
Now that it’s established that it is considered better to be beautiful and worse to be ugly, I’d like to introduce the forbidden topic : how beauty is a privilege and how ugly people are indeed oppressed. Oppression is the unjust mistreatment of a social group by a dominant group, for instance based on gender, race, sexual orientation or species. Ugly people are not oppressed on the systemic level as there are no laws preventing them from doing anything, but it is very much the case at the level of human interactions.
Children start being discriminated because of their looks from a young age, through insults and harassment, and children don’t know political correctness. Teachers also discriminate pupils : a cute child with problems will not be treated the same way as an ugly child.
As adults, people are more likely to stay and listen to you if you are nice to look at. Good-looking people and ugly people are not allowed to flirt the same way, the latter coming out as disgusting. The close connection with romantic relationships is obvious, but more importantly, ugly people do not have the same opportunities for careers as beautiful people. They are subjected to discrimination during job interviews not only in jobs closely related to appearance (modeling, acting …), but practically in all of them. Also, the impact of a politician’s looks is certainly not negligible in elections. To extend the principle of beauty privilege to other species, cute animals are protected, while ugly ones are hated and objectified.
The ugly movement does not exist
Lookism describes the prejudice based on one’s appearance, but no one is enlisted in a movement fighting this discrimination and promoting equality between beautiful and ugly people. I can see at least three reasons why it is difficult to mobilize the group of ugly people.
First of all, beauty is a social construct and the boundaries between what is ugly and what is beautiful are usually blurred by both groups. In the beginning of this article, I had to define these terms to avoid any misinterpretations and dishonest opinions : what is “inside” isn’t beauty, but this word is often used metaphorically to lessen the importance of lookism and enhance personality traits. In addition, using the word “beauty” to express a different and positive concept actually emphasizes the importance of litteral physical beauty itself. So is it important to be beautiful or not?
The difference between ugliness and beauty is also often denied by formulas like “beauty doesn’t matter” or “beauty is subjective”, which makes the experiences of discrimination I described above not important or even non-existent. Oppression denial is a common strategy used by dominant groups, for example in anti-racist or feminist movements. Nowadays non-racist people tend to apply their beliefs in real life, but it is much less the case for people believing in equality between ugly and beautiful people, as it is very common to comment on other people’s appearance and judge them.
Furthermore, ugly people form a silent group, and their oppression is thereby silent as well. Even if many people think so, it is hard to admit someone else is ugly, and no one wants to publicly identify with the ugly group either, because it is not considered positive whatsoever in our society – while being black, or a woman, is. Therefore it is very hard to speak out and share experiences, as well as to publish scientific studies on the topic.
Finally, for all the reasons I explained, the injustice is never taken seriously. Obese people are the only category of people who have started to stand out for themselves recently. There is even a word for the oppression in French, “la grossophobie“, describing the feeling of disgust some people have when looking at people with large corpulence.
Perspectives for the movement
Because of the non-existence of the ugly movement, the importance of beauty will not completely disappear any time soon. However, every person has the possibility to raise awareness and treat everyone equally. Listen to what people have to say instead of denying how they feel. Start complimenting people for what they do, not how they were born, especially women. The issue is more problematic for them on many levels, and beauty standards are also very gendered, so that the biases are even worse when a person doesn’t fit the gender they were assigned at birth. If you do have complexes about your appearance, question whether they are pertinent or not to you, and share your stories with others. Your actions do have an impact on people around you.
*Examples of ethnical features are the color of the skin, the shape of the nose (black people) and of the eyes (Asian people), the type of hair … They are not part of our beauty standards.