The right to be ugly

If you haven’t yet read this wonderful piece from Masterchef winner Julie Goodwin in response to mean-spirited tabloid critiques of her body, go read it now. I’ll wait.

With her defence of ‘broader people’, Julie Goodwin has set herself apart from other media personalities who are all too often keen to self-flagellate about their failure to attain physical perfection. This is delightfully sensible and refreshing; I hope the huge support she seems to have received is reflective of a tiny shift in consciousness about both body image and health.

Even so, I heartily wish that there was no imperative for women to do the magazine-covershoot-swimsuit-reveal in the first place. When can a woman get a break from being judged on whether she looks fuckable in her bathers? How is her body shape even relevant to what Goodwin does, and who she is? But we are still in thrall of the suffering ween, apparently (sigh), as well as the stand-in scrutiny provided by other women.

This profoundly-felt obligation to be pretty, this imperative to commit time and money and energy towards some ever-shifting and always unattainable (because not even models look like models) beauty ideal — it isn’t going away. I’m already noticing its toxic effects on Bean, and that’s heartbreaking.

Unfortunately, what passes for commentary on body image issues in popular media generally takes for granted the scrutiny of women’s appearance as right and proper, if inconvenient. I used to indulge in a little Oprah from time to time, and I sometimes liked it, too. If there was one thing that Oprah was good at it was the promotion of public displays of emotional vulnerability. But every time Oprah was about to well up, she’d make some crack about ‘the ugly cry’. When the cameras are rolling, one can’t be ugly. No matter how ‘real’ and raw the moment is supposed to be, we can’t have any screwed-up-face-mascara-running ugliness, at least not without self-deprecation thrown up as a shield. Emotions are good, seemed to be the message, but women can never, ever, let up on themselves when it comes to appearance.

It’s okay to have confronting feelings so long as you stay cute, folks.

I’ve been thinking about the ugly cry a lot lately; it’s a pernicious example of how women’s behaviour is constrained by the imperative to ‘look good’, as well as by ingrained notions of feminine conduct. Grooming protocols and fashion policing, it seems to me, are closely related to decorum and manners and, well, come along with a whole lot of sexist (and racist, ableist, classist) baggage. They also rely upon a false dichotomy between beauty and ugliness and fail to allow space for interrogating the very notion that appearance matters.

A lot of fat activism centres around fat visibility; the message that fat people exist and have the right to take up space is pivotal. More than that, the notion that a fat body can be beautiful and desirable is at the core of some body positive work. And these things are important. But there is, I think, a deeper cultural problem here that can’t be solved just by widening (literally, even!) the definition of beauty.

Sometimes, frequently, I have no interest in attaining any standard of beauty. It’s not churlishness: yeah, I don’t meet any aesthetic ideal and I’ve been derided often over the years for exhibiting various forms of ugliness. And sometimes that has hurt. But my interest in exploring the potential for the reclamation of ugly is not merely personal.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t feel that I had some kind of obligation to be, if not pretty, then passable. Palatable. And if not that, then invisible.

In taking a kinder, more accepting disposition towards my physical self, I am finding that I feel rather invested in my right to be ugly. And I am far less critical of others. Letting go of any judgement about ugliness means it can start to look kinda beautiful, too.

That’s why I’ve enjoyed Definatalie’s explorations of Ugly Cute.

Sometimes, refusing to hide (or hide from) my ugly might be about finding a safe space in invisibility, or it might be about nothing more than pleasing my own damn self by privileging comfort over appearance or prioritising self-expression over fashion. Or sometimes, it’s political. It’s here I am, don’t erase me. Here I am, don’t judge me. Interrogating one’s own choices with regard to personal presentation is a little exhausting and it can be excruciatingly boring, too. But I think it’s important work for feminists — for anyone — to undertake from time to time.

None of us has an obligation to be conventionally attractive. We all have the right to let go of, if only briefly, the imperative to strive.

Letting yourself be enough, just as you are; now that is a beautiful thing.


Filed under Body Image/Fat Acceptance, Feminism

13 responses to “The right to be ugly

  1. Natalie

    Oh my god, your words… They have been picked out of my head and organised so eloquently.

    I will definitely link to this in my next musing on ugly!!!

  2. Patsy Nevins

    I went to check out Ms. Goodwin’s article, but stopped cold when she blithely agreed that ‘of course obesity is unhealthy, so is anorexia.’ There is NO “OF COURSE” about it & ‘obesity’ is NOT the other side of anorexia, the result of unhealthy behaviors & mental illness, etc. Ms. Goodwin is apparently one of those somewhat plump people who believe it is okay to be as big as they are, but ‘really fat’ is OF COURSE ‘unhealthy’, so I will reserve my enthusiasm for her stand. I have been involved in the fat rights wars for 32 years now, & I am far beyond the ‘as fat as I am is okay but really fat is bad’ point of view, though I went through it early in my journey, I have to admit.

    As for your other point, we do not owe the world beauty, slenderness, fuckability, or any other damned thing. As a 62-year-old disabled fat woman, I could care less what anyone thinks about how I look. I think people who do not fit the image of classic beauty are usually MORE interesting & attractive, actually, & I care more about what is inside than in the package anyway.

  3. Really interesting perspective. I had a baby 3 months ago, and I can’t tell you how many people encouraged me to go to the gym, get my hair done, go to the spa, etc. all under the guise of “just trying to help [me] feel better” about how I was looking. Really, I just wanted to say, “I just gave birth and I am nursing pretty much around the clock. Keeping myself attractive for anyone’s sake is not on my radar.”

    (I came across your blog in a search for feminist musings; lovely find)

  4. When I was taking my first wobbly steps into body acceptance, I came across this dress a day post which blew my mind. I have often repeated this bit myself: ‘You Don’t Have to Be Pretty. You don’t owe prettiness to anyone. Not to your boyfriend/spouse/partner, not to your co-workers, especially not to random men on the street. You don’t owe it to your mother, you don’t owe it to your children, you don’t owe it to civilization in general. Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked “female”.’

    Some days I happen to think I am quite pretty/attractive/beautiful/whatever, in lots of different ways. Some days I am not, and who gives a fuck? As much as I love the fashion part of fat acceptance – that fat people can also be fashionable and sexy and all those things – I have to remind myself that it’s also ok to look like absolute shite. I don’t want to fall into another good fatty/bad fatty dichotomy. Am I a bad fatty if I DO sit on the couch eating KFC in my pjs? Over the last year I’ve stopped shaving my legs, waxing my moustache, I’ve shaved my hair off and I never did do makeup. The days when I don’t give a fuck are increasing, and you know what? It feels pretty good.

    I liked the swimsuit photo. I saw it in my supermarket without knowing who any of the people are, and it made me smile. I like that she’s just standing there, like a normal person in their bathers. Maybe like she’s about to have a dip in a second, rather than posing uncomfortably to be looked at. I’d prefer it if photos of women in swimsuits weren’t natural progressions of fame. But given that we’re not there (yet? Please let that be a ‘yet’) I thought this was a pretty good version of it.

  5. My personal ugliness is my hirsuteness. At age 7 I was repulsed by the dark hair on my legs and dry shaved it. To this day I spend huge amounts of time removing facial and body hair. Accordingly I rather love this concept of global self-acceptance and have a surge of hope – could it happen?

    Wonderful to see you writing again Elizabeth and thank you for the heads up to Definatalie’s Ugly Cute series.

  6. I think it turned out to a fantastic thing that Julie won that first season of MasterChef.

  7. Yeah, you said it so well.

  8. Brilliant, thought provoking post

    As I’ve got older I’ve gained the confidence to comply less with the diktats of what my body should look like – what worries me though is all those years when I was young, hopefull and should have been able to be comfortable in my skin. Why can’t we have yet gained a society where young girls feel that they are perfect irrespective of size, hair, form? It saddens me that my daughters will have to deal with this

  9. I’d mail you privately but can’t find a contact link other than this one so I hope you don’t object to the following:

    I just LOVED your article – I feel exactly the same way. Love my body and all its defects, and believe me, it has quite a lot, not the least of which is psoriasis :)

    You have probably heard of the International Size Acceptance Association (ISAA), based in the USA. I’ve been the New Zealand representative since 1998 and we are hoping to increase awareness of the ISAA and gain new members (it’s completely free to join) in Australia.
    Please consider joining us and being an advocate for fairness, respect and a good sense approach to health and fitness at any size. We offer support and help in many areas, please look at our website and get in touch if you’d like to be part of the team.
    Kind regards
    Lynda Finn

  10. Sharon

    Yes! Thank you for writing this.

    The ugly cry thing — ugh, that brings up some bad memories. It’s bad enough when you are stuck in a depression and crying hysterically because you are convinced you are awful and no one will ever love you, but I remember my distress unreasonably multiplying itself because I was intensely aware of how /ugly/ I looked as I cried. Which is, if not the most foolish thing ever, pretty dang foolish. I would guess (though I do not know) that often the burden of feeling obligated to be pretty worsens already existing depression and anxiety. . . because that type of intense personal grooming takes a lot of energy and focus, which often needs to be used somewhere else in times of crisis. :/ I also think that the obligation to prettify feeds into the obligation to hide illness, mental health issues, and other struggles . . . because it’s not pretty to be vulnerable and hurting.


    • Oh yes, I certainly think you’re right. Many years ago I was Matron of Honor at a wedding and I took a great deal of time and trouble with my appearance. Everyone (except the groom but he was a total creep anyway) said how gorgeous I looked and I felt gorgeous too. BUT, when I watched the video of the event, I was so shocked (much more severe than that but there isn’t a word) by myself that I could not speak for two days. Not a word, to anyone. Devastated. It was about then I decided to research why people can’t lose weight in spite of doing all the right things. Why the weight goes back on even when you continue to diet. Ten years later I wrote a book about it.
      When I look at the photos from that wedding now, I look really lovely. It’s all in the mind you see, we’ve just got to learn that often the most fat-prejudiced person is ourselves. With such a huge amount of fat-hatred around, we at least, should learn to see ourselves as the lovely people we really are. But, like anorexics, our view of ourselves is skewed. Fight it :)

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  12. Pingback: in which I write letters: tattoos aren’t body vandalism | the feminist librarian

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