Ugliness, More than Skin Deep

“It is a fact universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a fortune must be in want of a wife.” So begins Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and this tongue-in-cheek maxim could perhaps be qualified by more recent research to state: “a single man in posession of a fortune must be in want of a beautiful wife.” As a New York Times article points out today, the more beautiful a woman is, the wealthier her husband tends to be.

Indeed, who wouldn’t want a beautiful wife? Beauty is more than just beauty. Because beauty, historically and today, is associated with virtue and intelligence. Thus, beautiful people are even payed more. The NYT article discusses ‘ugliness’ as a quality coming up more in public discussion, everywhere from the popular TV show “Ugly Betty” to Umberto Eco’s art history tome On Ugliness, which I’ve recommended in another post on ugliness. It ends by discussing a new awareness of ugliness as a quality discriminated against, similar to race or gender. Certainly a fair point.

More interesting though, is how ugliness has been systematically ignored throughout history and why, if at all, we should remove the stigma. Beauty has been discussed ad nauseum, while ugliness, as Eco points out, has simply been considered the opposite. Ugliness, in its grotesque mutations and fascinating sinfulness has all the appeal of Milton’s Satan, who remains far more compelling than his God. Beauty, like perfection, is boring. Absolute symmetry only means you need to see half the face before you know everything that you need to know. If one considers ugliness or beauty something more than superficial, then I think one has to acknowledge that it as a very powerful force. Look at the variations of ugliness below:

In defense of this misunderstood phenomena, I’ve pointed out the ugliness is more interesting and more complex than beauty. In addition, aside from the fact it is uneradicable and necessary to a conception of beauty, ugliness should have a stigma. Beauty and ugliness go behyond the skin deep. They express qualities beyond symmetry and proportion, and to limit them to simplistic ideas of Barbie dolls and Ugly Betty’s is to limit our cutural heritage. Why is uglyness such a loaded term? What is it we fear? Death. Sickness. Deviation from the norm. Evil.

Tomorrow expectations of beauty will be reversed. It’s Halloween, when people embrace the ugly and scary and creepy. However, it’s more fair to say that the scary, creepy, and horrible are in themselves ugly. With costumes of monsters and witches, people embrace their deepest culture fears. (Obviously, this article is not going out to all those skanky barmaids and Playboy bunnies. Yawn.)

Halloween is a celebration of all that ugliness signifies, and even if we as a culture only give it one night before shedding our talismanic ugly skins and returning to our beautified selves, it is an important expression of all the variety and power of ugliness.

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