It would be close to impossible to tally all the magazine articles, scholarly treatises and philosophical works, reality shows and Internet sites, college courses, lectures and books devoted to the subject of beauty.
But what about ugliness?
It is an awkward topic, a wretched concept, really, and, of course, a terrible insult when flung in your direction.
When a woman once told Winston Churchill he was drunk, he is said to have replied: “And you, madam, are ugly. But I shall be sober tomorrow, whereas you will still be ugly.”
Ugliness is associated with evil and fear, with villains and monsters: the Wicked Witch of the West, Freddy Krueger and Harry Potter’s arch-meanie, Lord Voldemort, with his veiny skull, creepy slits in his nose for nostrils and rotten teeth.
There are the gentle souls, too, plagued through no fault of their own by their disturbing appearance: Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, the Elephant Man and Shrek, who is ugly and green but in a cute way.
Ugliness has recently emerged as a serious subject of study and academic interest unto itself, in some small part because of the success of television’s “Ugly Betty,” which ABC promoted with a “Be Ugly” campaign stressing self-esteem for girls and young women. Sociologists, writers, lawyers and economists have begun to examine ugliness, suggesting that the subject has been marginalized in history and that discrimination against the unattractive, while difficult to document or prevent, is a quiet but widespread injustice.
Researchers who have tried to measure appearance discrimination, or “uglyism” and “looksism,” and the impact of what they call the “beauty premium” and the “plainness penalty” on income, say that the time has come for ugly to peek out from beauty’s shadow.
“It hasn’t been politically correct to talk about uglyism,” said Anthony Synnott, a professor of sociology at Concordia University in Montreal, who is publishing a paper next month on ugliness. “But there’s no reason for us to think that beautiful people are actually good and ugly people evil, yet we do.”
One pioneering study, “Beauty and the Labor Market,”; published in the American Economic Review in 1994, estimated that unattractive men and women earn five to 10 percent less than those considered attractive or beautiful, and that less attractive women marry men with less money.
Another study, in 2005, determined that the discrimination was consistent across occupations, so that even a computer programmer buried behind a desk could suffer from the plainness penalty.
“People who are physically attractive might develop better communication skills because the tendency is that from an early age they get more attention from all their caregivers, including their own mothers onward,” said Tanya Rosenblat, an associate professor of economics at Iowa State University, and an author of the 2005 study, “Why Beauty Matters,” published in the American Economic Review. The study tested how volunteers, in the role of employers, rated the ability of “employees” to complete computer mazes. The volunteers predicted that the more attractive employees could complete more of the mazes.
The study authors concluded that because attractiveness has no bearing on the ability to complete computer mazes unlike a job in which beauty may be an occupational asset like retail sales discrimination based on looks occurs across occupations.
Few laws prohibit employment discrimination based on lack of attractiveness, although some plaintiffs have pursued cases under broader statutes: a Vermont chambermaid who was missing her front teeth and was fired won a case against her employer when in 1992 the State Supreme Court upheld her suit, ruling that she was protected by the state’s Fair Employment Practices Act.
Some cities, including Washington, San Francisco and Santa Cruz, California, have passed ordinances banning discrimination based on looks. But legal action on behalf of the unattractive can be complicated.
“One pitfall is the distinction between people’s identities as members of a race or a religious group or gender versus as a member of a group of ugly people,” said Sherry Colb, a law professor at Cornell. “Because of successful identity politics, people have come to identify profoundly with other kinds of groups ‘I am a Jew,’ or ‘a French person.’ But it’s not likely with ‘I am an ugly person and let’s have a meeting of all ugly people.’ Most people in general would want to disclaim membership. It’s like declaring yourself a member of the clueless.”
Defining ugliness is difficult. Beyond a predictable visceral response to cartoon ogres or Halloween witches, is there any agreement on what makes someone or something ugly? Warts and scars? Hook noses and beady eyes? Social scientists investigating beauty have found that people across age groups, races and cultures tend to agree on what constitutes facial attraction; but there is no corresponding body of study that measures homeliness. Synnott of Concordia University, who has written and taught courses on beauty for more than a decade, was recently contacted by an online journal to contribute another article on the topic. But he suggested instead that he write about the neglected topic of ugliness.
In his article, “Ugliness, Visibility and the Invisible Prejudice,” to appear next month in the first issue Glimpses Journal, Synnott notes that judgments about appearance imply values about good and evil the “halo-horns effect.” These conclusions are “false, unfair, dangerous and silly; yet it is perpetuated by our language, literature, media, many philosophers and our simple binary perspectives,” Synnott writes in his paper. Many colloquialisms, like “beauty is only skin deep,” suggest that there is collective acknowledgment that the fixation on physical beauty is superficial,” Synnott writes.
By contrast, the phrase “ugliness is only skin deep,” is rarely heard, Synnott said, adding that the booming cosmetic surgery industry underscores the plainness prejudice.
“Beautiful people are considered to be more intelligent, sexier, more trustworthy and they have more partners,” Synnott said. “And this implies that ugly people are assumed to be less trustworthy and less intelligent.”
Last year, the Italian novelist and critic Umberto Eco published “On Ugliness,” a 450-page book largely devoted to ugliness in art.
“In every century, philosophers and artists have supplied definitions of beauty, and thanks to their works it is possible to reconstruct a history of aesthetic ideas over time,” the author writes in his introduction. “But this did not happen with ugliness. Most of the time it was defined as the opposite of beauty but almost no one ever devoted a treatise of any length to ugliness, which was relegated to passing mentions in marginal works.”
In “On Ugliness,” Eco addresses the fascination in painting, sculpture, poetry and literature with the grotesque and disgusting, chronicling formulations of ugliness from Plato to punk rock. His subjects include witches and monsters, as well as “the Avant-Garde and the triumph of ugliness,” in which he points out that the general public was once scandalized by the deformed images of women in Picasso’s paintings and other art works, but eventually they gained universal acceptance.
“What will be appreciated tomorrow as great art could seem distasteful today,” Eco writes.
The popularity of “Ugly Betty,” which made its debut in 2006, has spawned a wide conversation about whether the show portends a greater tolerance in society for the unattractive. ABC’s “Be Ugly” campaign last year, urged women and girls to “Be real, be smart, be passionate, be true to yourself and be ugly.”
More recently, the producers of “Shrek the Musical,” which is coming to Broadway, adopted another up-with-homely tagline, “Bringing Ugly Back.”
Researching the phenomenon of “Ugly Betty,” Madeleine Shufeldt Esch, an adjunct assistant professor in communications at Tulane, contributed a paper, “Ugly Is the New Beautiful,” to a meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Media.
“The show’s willingness to challenge conventional notions of beauty has been championed by audiences and television critics,” Esch wrote. “It has been pegged as part of a larger shift away from the unreal perfection of stick-thin and airbrushed models and the fashion fetishism of the ‘Sex and the City’ set.”
“Anytime that there are images that show diversity of acceptable appearances, that’s a positive thing,” Esch said. “Even if Betty isn’t what we could call ugly, by any objective standard.”
Indeed, the show’s star, America Ferrara, is universally considered attractive. She makes a Cinderella transformation from a frizzy-haired character with braces and too-tight clothing into a conventional Hollywood beauty whenever she appears on a red carpet or magazine cover.
For this reason, some critics have labeled the “Be Ugly” campaign as a marketing ploy, and they argue that the show has done little to increase acceptance of the homely. On the contrary, American society continues to move aggressively in the opposite direction, critics say, placing an ever-higher importance on beauty.
Synnott, among others, attributed the growth of the $13 billion cosmetic-surgery industry, in part, to a deep and widely held fear of ugliness. The distaste is reinforced by the increasing possibility of altering the appearance of one’s face and body through medicine, hygiene and nutrition. A ceaseless stream of mass media imagery extols physical perfection, they say.
Synnott, Esch and others said that despite growing attention to discrimination based on appearances, the majority of messages in society continue to shout, in essence, “Don’t be ugly.”
“I think there was a brief ugly moment,” Esch said. “But it may have been a passing fancy.”