Ugliness is a topic largely neglected by aestheticians. This neglect no doubt has many roots. Here I’d like to explore just one, namely our uneasiness with saying that people are ugly. We speak readily enough about the moral failings of our fellows, e.g., the duplicity of political leaders or the psychological shortcomings of neighbors, relatives and co-workers. Why then does calling someone ugly make us so uneasy?
We shun mention of the ugly, it seems to me, for a number of reasons. First, we naturally enough do not want to think of ourselves as ugly – especially not in the present tense. The thought that others might find us ugly is unsettling and embarrassing, particularly in a culture such as ours, where, rightly or wrongly, success, esteem and love rest so heavily upon physical appearance. So, too we generally try to avoid attributing ugliness to others. Calling the ugly ‘ugly’ – recognizing someone as ugly – is thought to be undemocratic and cruel. Undemocratic because even with a pluralistic conception of beauty, some people are going to lose. It’s bad luck, but a fact. Recognizing the ugly is cruel because, whether the judgment is mistaken (as in the case of Pecola’s self-hatred in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye) or correct (as with Frankenstein’s monster), calling someone ugly may do as much or more damage as calling them a liar or a cheat. Unlike lying or cheating, ugliness seems to have few excuses, a situation worsened, ironically, by the readily availability of the cosmetic fix and the raising of the bar of “standard” good looks. Hence many of us are rightly reluctant to apply the predicate ‘ugly’ to human beings.
The discomfort I am describing is intensified by a long intellectual tradition associating beauty with goodness and ugliness with evil. While a extensive line of physically attractive villains from Vronsky to Rhett Butler attests to the falseness of this connection, an equally entrenched narrative...