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Some Thoughts on Ugliness

Am I not more willing to listen to my attractive friends? Surely it is an impulse common to all of us — leaves orienting to face the sun.

March 27, 2020

Alex Foley
Medusa // Peter Paul Rubens

am looking at one of those dreadful nightclub photographs, the ones that serve a dual purpose — firstly to promote the club by encouraging the people in the photos to tag themselves and share the images on their timeline — and secondly to validate us patrons, souvenirs to confirm we are alive, proof we are having fun.

A panicked, vain thought flashes through my mind: I am the ugly friend.

My friend Cyril, standing at the opposite end of the row from me in the photo, is incredibly hot. The kind of hot that makes you self-consciously pinch at your stomach rolls, or suppress a groan as he stretches and his t-shirt lifts up to reveal his midriff. The kind of hot that makes you want to dismiss him as one of those vacuous, dead-behind-the-eyes Love Island types, or perhaps as an entitled wanker.

Unfortunately, he is incredibly kind and warm in addition to being midway through a PhD in engineering at the University of Oxford. He also happens to be well off; his parents are both chic and unbearably attractive in their own right.

Cyril is a walking refutation of the lie we tell ourselves that no person has it all, that our deficits are compensated for in other aspects of our being, and broadly things even out. For a long time, I was able to comfort myself by imagining him with a micropenis, but after a pole dancing class in which he stripped down to his underpants, I have had to abandon this wishful thinking.

Next to me in the photo is Cyril’s girlfriend, equally sleek, beautiful, smart, and affable. Recently she proved herself to be one of just a handful of people able to pull off a bob. Between the two of them is one of Cyril’s lab-mates, a Navy guy with pecs I can imagine he is able to bounce independently.

To be sure, I don’t think of myself as unattractive. I lack the discipline to get my fairly well-developed muscles to show through the puppy fat, and my face at certain angles is too large and fleshy, but if I’m being completely honest I would probably rate myself a solid 7 by conventional beauty standards, 7.5 on a good day. In the company of the modelesque, however, it’s hard not to feel insecure.

But beyond this momentary body-consciousness, the photo has confirmed something about myself I have been contemplating for some time now: that I surround myself — perhaps more consciously than I would care to admit — with beautiful people, that I give primacy to the high of cheekbone and full of lip. Did I not frequently find my attention wandering in the Oriel graduate body bar when some acned Big Bang type had trapped me in a conversation, searching for an excuse to make my way over to Christian, with his perfect caramel skin, or Srishti and her big doe-eyes?

Am I not more sympathetic, more willing to listen to my attractive friends when they need a shoulder to cry on?

Does this make me a terrible person? Am I really that shallow, or simply having a rare moment of honest self-reflection, admitting to an unattractive but universal drive to surround oneself with the young and beautiful, so that some of the beauty might, even for a moment, reflect back on oneself? Surely it is an impulse common to all of us — leaves orienting to face the sun.

In recent weeks I have been asking my closer friends the same uncomfortable question: Do you have ugly friends? I posed it to my friends Emily (thin and effortlessly stylish; romantic smudges of lipstick on the endless stream of fag butts she produces) and Sammi (chin like a knife; boyishly handsome; hair always falling into his face) in the pub recently for my birthday. Sheepishly, Emily looked to the floor. “We were actually just discussing this recently.”

Jacobo (thick curly locks; perfectly sculpted glutes) via Instagram DM: “I’m literally trying to think and I may not have any friends who are aesthetically unpleasant.” John (boy next door, wholesome good looks; horse-hung) has by for the most diplomatic answer. “I don’t have any friends I think of as ugly. I dunno if that’s the same thing.”

While there are tomes dedicated to the subject of beauty and aesthetics, ugliness has been largely ignored. I suppose the general attitude towards ugliness has been, we all know it when we see it. However, the fact that the unattractive suffer a significant disadvantage in life — beyond finding a partner — is well established in the literature. Attractive people receive more lenient treatment from judges and juries in criminal proceedings, are given more ‘freebies’, and are, on average, more intelligent.

This so-called ‘beauty premium,’ seeps into almost every aspect of life.

One study, by Dr. Andrew Harrell of the University of Alberta concluded that even the quality of care we receive as children is impacted by our looks. He monitored the behavior of parents with two- to five-year-old children in 14 different grocery stores and after (somewhat creepily) grading the children on a 1 to 10 scale of attractiveness, took note of whether their parents buckled them into their shopping trolleys and how often the children were allowed to wander off.

Mothers of the most attractive children buckled them in 13.3% of the time compared to 4% of the time for mothers of the ugliest children. Fathers buckled attractive children in 12.5% of the time but failed to buckle a single one of the homely children in.

Ugly children were also allowed by their parents to wander off further and for longer periods.

These formative experiences also inform later success in life. In a paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research titled Ugly Criminals, Naci Mocan and Erdal Tekin investigated the effects of attractiveness on the propensity for criminal activities in young adults. They found that even when socio-economic factors were controlled for, attractive individuals were significantly less likely to commit crimes (although attractiveness did not reduce the likeliness to commit theft or burglary in women), while unattractive people were far more likely to commit a host of crimes.

Unattractive women were 3% more likely to sell drugs and 1.5% more likely to commit a robbery. As the authors note, other studies have shown that unattractive women have lower labour force participation rates, and their spouses usually have less education. Further, the authors found that being beautiful or ugly in high school had a “separate, independent effect on crime.” They attributed this second relationship between beauty and crime to be a function of poor experiences in school and the reduced ability to form human capital.

However, the story is complicated and gradated in a way that not all experiments have captured. A number of studies, including a large sample study by Satoshi Kanazawa at the London School of Economics and Mary Still of the University of Massachusetts Boston, show that attractive people earn more than unattractive individuals. Many studies, though, do not control for intelligence, and when Kanazawa and Still did so, the apparent earning difference disappeared.

Of course, if beautiful people are in fact more intelligent on average, this may not be a meaningful control.

More interestingly, when they began looking into the data in more detail than the broad categories of “attractive” and “unattractive,” they found something surprising: the bottom three percentile, or the ugliest among us, actually out-earned the moderately unattractive and average looking.

On a somewhat personally distressing note (I am ostensibly a molecular biologist by trade), a 2017 paper by Ana Gheorghiu and colleagues found a similar ugliness premium when it came to science communication. Although participants were more attentive to the more attractive scientists discussing their results, they perceived these results as lower quality than those presented by uglier scientists.

The uglier scientists fit into a schema of a “good scientist,” i.e. likely to be less sociable and more committed to their work.

A picture emerges. A chicken and egg type of deal, or a self-fulfilling prophecy. Take your pick. We are biased towards beautiful people, we think they are more interesting, more talented, more intelligent, more personable. From a young age, due to a psychological phenomenon termed the ‘Halo Effect,’ the aesthetically pleasing are lavished with praise, afforded extra opportunities, given extra chances, and in turn, they become more interesting, talented, intelligent, and personable.

In David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Joelle van Dyne — the star of the titular film, which sends any who views it into a state of deep catatonia, desiring only to watch the film repeatedly until they waste away — is a member of an organization dubbed the Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed, or U.H.I.D.

The organization is presented as a support group analogous to Alcoholics Anonymous, a support group for the ugly and grotesquely deformed. Many of the members, van Dyne included, don veils that obscure their “hideous” features, allowing them to continue engaging in daily life without the embarrassment of being seen.

As van Dyne explains, the veil is part of U.H.I.D.’s first step of their program: “accepting one’s powerlessness over the need to hide.” Rather than feigning acceptance of one’s appearance and trying to ignore the repulsion one’s visage causes in the general public, U.H.I.D. encourages its members to take pride in their shame and desire to conceal their faces.

In one section, van Dyne — as part of her late-night radio show she produces under the pseudonym Madame Psychosis — reads aloud from some of U.H.I.D.’s literature, in a hilarious bit that gives the full breadth of the deformities they encourage people to seek their help for.

“Those with saddle-noses. Those with atrophic limbs. And yes chemists and pure-math majors also those with atrophic necks. Scleredema adultorum. Them that seep, the serodermatotic. Come one come all, this circular says.”

U.H.I.D has no threshold for what constitutes a deformity she assures:

“The tri-nostrilled. The invaginate of mouth and eye. Those with those dark loose bags under their eyes that hang halfway down their faces. Those with Cushing’s disease. Those who look like they have Down Syndrome even though they don’t have Down Syndrome. You decide. You be the judge. It says You are welcome regardless of severity. Severity is in the eye of the sufferer, it says. Pain is pain. Crow’s feet. Birthmark. Rhinoplasty that didn’t take. Mole. Overbite. A bad-hair year.”

The joke works because we all know that crow’s feet and unflattering bags under the eyes are in no way comparable to the raft of severe congenital disorders Wallace enumerates. However, for many, ugliness is a polar characteristic, on a single axis with and at the opposite end of beauty. In this view, severe disfigurement or congenital abnormalities represent extreme examples of ugliness, further towards the end of the pole, with run of the mill homeliness further towards the center.

I would contend, however, that ugliness, signifies the absence of beauty, rather than its opposite.

If beauty is a collection of qualities that send the senses into rapture, ugliness represents qualities that are repulsive in their mundanity. If beauty is valued because of its rarity, ugliness is not then ugly because it is on the other end of the bell curve, but because of its commonness.

The disfigured and deformed repel us not because they are ugly, but because they are monstrous to us, they signal to us perversions of nature. But they attract us in equal measure. Think of the Lovecraftian adventurers driven mad by the unspeakably grotesque beings they find in the Antarctic or in sleepy New England towns, but unable to look away. Think of depictions of Satan, bestial and hideous, but equally seductive and alluring.

While monstrosity unsettles in its uncanniness, the twisted reflection of humanity in an unrecognizable form, ugliness disturbs us because of its proximity to us; we recoil from the pockmarked because we have all suffered from a breakout. The boss-eyed make us uncomfortable because we have all, in our years of studying our own reflections, detected some asymmetry or another in our features.

Nietzsche recognized the root of this discomfit and expressed in typical proto-eugenicist terms.

“In physiological terms, everything ugly weakens and saddens man. It reminds him of decay, danger, powerlessness: it actually makes him lose strength… Ugly things are understood as signs and symptoms of degenerescence… A hatred springs up here: who is man hating here? But there is no doubt: the decline of his type.”

Nietzsche was speaking to the decline of the species, the triumph of what he considered our base traits over the promise of mankind. Nietzsche’s disdain for what he perceived as “weakness” is obviously an uncomfortable subject given the political events that would unfold in the following half-century in the name of rooting out weakness in the species.

On the level of the individual, though, the above quote makes considerable sense. Why do ugly things affect us so? Because they remind us of our own decline, our own bodies’ inevitable decay and failure. Warts and birthmarks remind us of the specter of our own skin tags and liver spots.

Signaling theory is a body of theoretical work within the field of evolutionary biology. It seeks to understand the question of why organisms with conflicting interests, such as in sexual selection, should provide honest signals of their fitness. Fitness in evolutionary biology is not necessarily synonymous with physical fitness but refers to the ability of an organism to survive and reproduce its genetic material.

If mate selection operates by the signaling sex advertising certain traits — for example, large antlers, or dazzling feather displays — what prevents less fit individuals from cheating and providing dishonest signals? Or, from the opposite perspective, how is the selecting sex able to discern signals that provide an honest indication of the fitness of the signaler?

The extreme scenario is easy to understand. If dishonest signals pervaded a species, the fitness of the species would diminish considerably, and the species would be subject to extinction. Animals, of course, are not acting with the welfare of their species in mind (a fact all too apparent in human society), but the “selfish” drive to pass on their own genetic material.

The Dawkinsian model, in fitting with his broader notion of the selfish gene, provides a depiction of signaling in which there was an “arms race” between the signaler and the receiver to improve their ability to deceive with their signals or discern honest and dishonest signals, respectively. There is, therefore, a concurrent evolutionary pressure for the receiver of the signal to root out dishonest signals.

The other theory as to how honesty is maintained in signaling involves the notion of ‘costly’ signaling. This theory posits that signalers engage in behaviors or have phenotypes that exert a cost on the organism in terms of fitness, and only the fittest individuals are able to compensate for that cost. The oft-used example is that of the male peacock and its large, colorful plumage displays. These cumbersome and conspicuous feathers subject their owners to an increased risk of predation, ensuring that the unfit are unable to “pay the cost” of having the biggest displays.

But for the majority of us who do not live in hunter/gatherer societies, do the qualities we have evolved to be innately wired to find attractive serve a purpose in modern life, or are they simply hangovers from the Pleistocene? Where our ancestors evolved in a period of violence and scarcity, we spend most of our days sitting down, staring at screens, typing, watching, nodding off, eating.

Do rippling muscles really give one a leg up in today’s world?

Wouldn’t the best metric for a prospective mate’s ability to ensure your progeny make it to the reproductive age be wealth? As we know, wealth has no genetic basis, and its distribution is based largely on luck. What, then, is the point of being attracted to biceps able to fend off a sabretooth in a world where the best indicators of a mate’s fitness are economic, not genetic?

I am lying on a beach in southwest Florida, reading a copy of Play it as it Lays. I have my corduroy shorts hiked up around my briefs so that I will only get one tan line. My mother is in a beach chair beside me in a one-piece and a sunhat, squinting at a Lisa Jackson novel. I am here with my parents ostensibly as a celebration of the fact that I have handed in my PhD thesis a few weeks ago, but the truth is I am still reeling from a breakup nearly a year on (upward slanting, almond eyes; smooth, hairless biceps the color of properly brewed tea; a six-pack that persists despite subsisting on a diet of Snickers and peanuts) and have come here to heal and rest.

Taking out my headphones and turning around, I see the men from yesterday have once again erected their red canopy just behind us without my noticing; the cooler of beers has been opened and dad rock is playing. The men are squat in that North American way, necks thickened by steak and beer and jalapeño poppers.

The one in the Trump 2020 t-shirt is sitting under the canopy smiling vacantly. The other two are knee-high in the water, facing the shore, one with his sunhat pushed back onto the crown of his head like a kippah. They are smiling directly at me and I realize, in the way one realizes these things when one is gender non-conforming, that they want to fuck me. And to kill me. Fuck me to kill me, to obliterate me so there is no longer any evidence of their ever having wanted to fuck me.

What is to be done?

The liberal will tell you the problem is with our hearts. Everybody is beautiful, Dove tells us. It’s the soul that needs surgery, Beyonce says.

Liberalism is essentially a beautification project. Traditional liberalism, despite its commitment to civil rights, is still a capitalist ideology, rooted in individualism and imperialism. It has no answers for those societal blemishes which remain ugly despite liberalism’s attempts at concealment. Be it hostile architecture to displace the homeless, or free trade agreements to export poverty, liberalism’s solutions are to move the societal ugliness from view rather than to address the cause.

It makes sense, then, that liberalism’s response to physical ugliness is to either deny its existence or to blame the ugly for not feeling beautiful.

The socialist will tell you the solution is economic. I remember an article from some time back, I believe in Jacobin, which outlined how the ultra-rich can afford skincare treatments unobtainable for the rest of us proles, and don’t suffer the hardships or encounter the pollutants that take a toll on the visage. While certainly true to an extent, this line of argument rings hollow. It’s a copout, a means of circumventing the tricky fact that beauty is an inequality for which there can be no redistribution. All things being equal, all things will never be equal.

The social justice warrior will tell you the solution is cultural. Attraction is dictated by the racist, misogynist political climate we find ourselves in. This too is largely rooted in fact. Anyone who has spent 5 minutes on a gay dating app has encountered the “preference gay,” so named because of their tired excuse for their sexual racism: “It’s just a preference.” So prevalent are these gays, that their motto has become a bit of a running joke, a shorthand: no fats, no femmes, no Asians.

Art history makes it abundantly clear, being fat does not preclude one from being beautiful. And while the preference gays are all too pleased to announce they don’t find Asian men attractive, the notion that Asian men are less attractive in the aggregate is objectively untrue. It becomes clear then, that there is what I call “attractiveness” is subject to fickle changes in the beauty ideals of the cultural hegemony, and there is a recalcitrant beauty that endures changes in fashion.

In exploring my own non-binary identity and expressing my femininity outwardly, I have made myself considerably less attractive to a large proportion of gay men, among them my ex, who, in a particularly bruising exchange, yelled at me down the phone that I wasn’t taking his attraction to me into consideration. And yet, beyond my hair changing color and my dress sense morphing slowly into some sort of modern Annie Hall, little had changed in my appearance. I am no less beautiful — if anything, I think my newfound style is more fetching, more suitable for my features. Another group of men tend to agree: chasers and men in sun-hats who leer from the ocean.

And yet, despite all of these examples of our (vile) culture skewing what people consider beautiful, the Tumblrati tend to overstate its impact in their social constructivist view. This is not to downplay sexual racism, which is clearly just prejudice, and colors many sexual experiences for people of color. But several studies have shown that there is a core set of beauty standards shared across cultures, globally. As lovely as it is to think we could find every single person we meet beautiful if we purified our minds of cultural biases, the fact is a good deal of attraction is hard-wired.

The conservative will tell you that there is no solution needed.
Although much of the GOP and Tory leadership looking like they’re mid face-melt having looked upon the opened Ark of the Covenant, there is a deep connection between conservatism and beauty. Consider the interchangeable, leggy blondes that populated Roger Ailes’ Fox News. Consider Hope Hicks, whose beauty clearly signals some virtue to her boss, Donald Trump, who reportedly trusts and confides in her more than any other members of his staff despite her being a complete political novice, and who has recently reinstated her as an aide.

The link between conservatism and aesthetics has been known for some time. In 1990, Christian Crandall and Monica Biernat published data from over 1,000 undergraduate students that showed a correlation between conservative, authoritarian, and racist views and anti-fat sentiment. This relationship was independent of the fatness of the interview subject. Several more recent studies have shown that those with conservative viewpoints tend to be more attractive themselves. The authors of one such study posit that this is due to the income disparity between attractive and ugly people I outlined above.

However, I would imagine it also has something to do with the halo effect and having a significantly easier time navigating life.

It is difficult to empathize with someone’s struggles when one has had comparatively fewer struggles oneself.

I think back to another fight with my ex in which he accused me, having spent the past four years radicalizing him and teaching him communist theory, of being, at heart, a conservative. I asked him how he could say that when he had always been considerably further towards the center than I. He shrugged and said something about how you just are underneath it all. I wonder now if this is what he meant.

A headline from the Smithsonian Magazine, quite possibly my favorite headline of all time: No One Wants to Admit They’re Ugly, Which Makes It Hard to Fight Beauty Bias. The subhead: Nobody wants to join the ugly lobby, but that might be what we need to battle “lookism”. Maybe Wallace was right, maybe the ugly should unionize.

I am naked, sat at a patio table on an enclosed balcony overlooking the same Florida beach. A storm shutter has been drawn shut, obscuring the view of the sunbathers below, but I can hear the steady hiss of the surf. The sexagenarian sitting beside me is pouring me a post-coital cup of tea, possibly the worst cup I’ve ever tasted, but his attempt at a sweet nod to my adopted country.

Despite my confessed habit of surrounding myself with beautiful friends, when it comes to sex I am far more egalitarian. For every young stud I have been with, there is a sagging older man I have at least allowed to wank me off. I was bedding zaddies before zaddies were a thing. Why I should be less concerned with appearances in sexual rather than platonic relationships is still largely opaque to me.

I suppose there is the draw of the financial security and the maturity that comes with older men; money is a great equalizer. There is something of Georges Batailles’ theory of eroticism, death, and disgust and the transgression of the taboo. But mainly, I like the way older men, past their prime, are so keen to please me. I suppose that what I am really getting off on is the faint smack of desperation.

He sits back after adding some milk, his tits pointing down at the rolls of skin on his stomach. He nods towards the used towel, discarded on the floor of the patio, and licks his lips with a pointed tongue. I think, Is this praxis?

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