On good looks, ugliness, image, and what we teach our kids…

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From the cover of Ugly
From the cover of Robert Hoge’s children’s book Ugly
Did you see the New York Times article about Being Dishonest About Ugliness? Here’s an awesome excerpt:

The Australian author Robert Hoge, who describes himself as “the ugliest person you’ve never met,” thinks we get it all wrong when we tell children looks don’t matter: “They know perfectly well they do.”

A former speechwriter, he has written a book for children, based on his own life story, called “Ugly.” He finds children are relieved when a grown person talks to them candidly about living with flawed features in a world of facial inequality. It’s important they know that it’s just one thing in life, one characteristic among others.

That appearance, in other words, means something but it doesn’t mean everything.

Mr. Hoge was born with a tumor on his face, and deformed legs.

So how is a child to grapple with the savage social hierarchy of “lookism” that usually begins in the playground, if adults are so clumsy about it? The advantage of beauty has been long established in social science; we know now that it’s not just employers, teachers, lovers and voters who favor the aesthetically gifted, but parents, too.

We talk about body shape, size and weight, but rarely about distorted features. And we talk about plainness, but not faces that would make a surgeon’s fingers itch.

Even in children’s literature, we imply ugliness is either transient or deserved. Hans Christian Andersen wrestled with rejection from his peers as a child, most probably because of his large nose, effeminate ways, beautiful singing voice and love of theater; “The Ugly Duckling” is widely assumed to be the story of his own life. But the moral of that story was that a swan would emerge from the body of an outcast, and that you could not repress the nobility of a swan in a crowd of common ducks.

What if you just stay a duck?

Then we got this email from Offbeat Homie Kari:

I have NO professional connection whatsoever with this story, but I read it and thought it seemed like something I’d see on Offbeat Home. It’s a fascinating article about how we talk about looks, “ugliness,” and image, and what we teach our kids. I thought it would be a great topic for Offbeat Home’s typical audience, where I’ve seen so many great discussions about image and weight and celebrating those of us who are perhaps less conventionally beautiful.

You’re right Kari! Everyone, go read this article, then come back and let’s have one of those classic Offbeat Empire discussions on good looks, ugliness, and what we’re really teaching our kids.

How do you frame, or re-frame looks for yourself and your kids?

Comments on On good looks, ugliness, image, and what we teach our kids…

  1. My daughter is gorgeous, and she is very particular about how she looks, which has been more challenging for me than I would have expected (she’s 16.) I am a no-makeup, no-shaved-underarms, wear what’s comfy child of the 60s and 70s. For years I avoided commenting on her looks because everyone else does – now I try to appreciate the choices she makes and the effort she puts in, and also make sure she feels valued for her intelligence and sense of humor and awesome dance skills. I have never heard her comment on someone’s ugliness, although she does sometimes speak disparagingly of other people’s clothing choices….interesting question.

    • Your comment about appreciating her choices/her effort reminds me of all those memes where an MRA guy is like “oh I like women who have a natural look” and then it’s a before/after picture of a woman with no makeup and a woman who has “natural” makeup on. We have this hugely problematic idea of what “natural” beauty is, thanks to Photoshop, airbrushing, and “let’s ONLY use foundation, mascara, and lip balm” and call that “natural”.

  2. Thanks for sharing – I can’t wait to go read the whole thing!
    This ties into one of my micro-crusades – I find it damaging and tedious (at times) when we’re constantly washed with the “All women are beautiful.” “Everyone is beautiful.” recitations. I think that it does restrict focus to physical appearances, and tends to take the spotlight away from other, less randomly/serendipitously-obtained virtues. I’m more interested in whether you are fun than if you’re “pretty,” especially since ugly kids tend to need to develop awesome personalities to compensate for their looks.

  3. She lost me at: “Faces that would make a surgeon’s fingers itch”

    I am however interested in the guy’s book. As a mother with a child who has a facial difference, hearing it from the source would be interesting.

    I can tell you though that one of the greatest fears of mother’s with children who have had reconstructive surgery is the inevitable bullying that will occur. It takes a very strong child, one who is confident and secure, to put up with the judgement of his/her peers.

  4. I am a white, cisgender woman who is “conventionally pretty” (albeit some people find my four nose piercings and forearm tattoo to make me less attractive). There’s obviously a lot of privilege that goes along with that. However, I’m also disabled and I receive SSDI from the government. I can’t seek gainful employment because it gives me panic attacks and it’s kind of hard to work when you’re dissolving into tears and planning out how you’re going to off yourself. I got told that I was pretty so often growing up (and shamed whenever my queerness inspired me to make fashion choices that did not fit into the heteronormative “prettiness” narrative, such as shaving my head or wearing men’s clothes to prom) that it really did a number on the way I see myself as valuable. i.e., I often feel like the only thing I offer to this world is the fact that I am pretty, since my disability and inability to work makes me completely useless and unable to contribute to society in other ways. It’s something that also gets driven home if you’re disabled or have a mental health concern… we’re told to make sure we shower and wash our hair and faces, dress well, and if we’re women, wear makeup, because that way people can’t tell we’re disabled or struggling. We’re told to do that because it’s what neurotypical people do, so we should obviously strive to be perceived as neurotypical, even when we’re not. I’m actually genuinely afraid of something happening to me that would make me NOT pretty, because if I wasn’t, and if I was still collecting SSDI and not contributing to our capitalist society by paying taxes… I wouldn’t be able to cope with myself. I may not be able to give my family things to brag about when it comes to employment or academic accomplishments, but damnit, I can at least still look good at a family reunion (and that’s about all I can do). Again, this all comes from a place of privilege and I have no idea what it’s like to be in a position where society considers you ugly and you have to cope with society’s shit about it. But, similar to the fact that sexism also has (lesser) negative effects on cisgender straight men, society’s “beauty is important” and “everyone is beautiful (because, like we said, beauty is important)” and “looks don’t matter (but really they do)” narratives are toxic across the board.

    • Wow. I’m sad that you had that trip laid on you, and wonder how much that pressure contributed to you suffering mental illness. I want to say right here, Aurora, that your honesty and willingness to examine this is beautiful.

  5. I really like this. Yes, we know that how we present ourselves matters, but it’s not just clothes and cleanliness that attracts or opens doors. It took me far too long to realize, on my own, that being more symmetrical, smooth, and overall attractive causes people to treat you better. And part of that realization came when I discovered that I tend to be more forgiving towards and welcoming to more attractive people. Blah! It was a disappointing discovery, let me tell you. But the fact that I now realize it and am aware of how physical beauty can affect social interaction has helped me understand what is truly more important, without trying to simply ignore the facts. And it was so nice for me to realize that people do become more attractive to me when I know them and like them better; it’s like that one episode of Doctor Who with Amy talking to her future self about Rory…

    • I’ve noticed that, too. You may look at someone initially and think “they’re… not that attractive” (or think “wow, they’re gorgeous!”) and then you get to know them and, sure enough, their personality and kindness/lack thereof greatly impacts your perception of their facial features and overall “attractiveness”.

  6. “Perhaps it’s the long association of physical ugliness with immorality that we need to unpack. The Oxford Dictionary includes in its definition of ugly in English “morally repugnant.” In Greek, the word “kalos” means both beauty and noble, while “aischros” means shameful as well as ugly. Ugly characters in kids’ books are generally horrible and their physical flaws are signs of other shortcomings. Villains have bad teeth, liars have long noses, zombies have thick skulls. The miserly are bony, the greedy, fat.”

    This reminds me of that new TV show, Lucifer (haven’t seen it, but I know the premise). I remember my mom telling me when I was little (she was old-school, pre-Vatican II Catholic) that it’s misinformation that Satan is ugly. It’s common to show him as deformed after the fall in Medieval artwork; she said that she was always taught that he was very attractive and charming (kind of like the ideal that Hitler was working toward with his obsession over the “Aryan” race). He used this to his advantage. Just some… food for thought.

  7. I think this is a great topic for discussion. I dislike attempts to show people or kids that we should be treated the same because we are the same. Clearly we are all different in all ways. But we all deserve to be treated with respect anyway.
    When I see cute kids or people I try not to say things like “you look gorgeous!” But instead something like “you are radiating awesomeness today”. It is hard to make an effort not to praise people on looks as a way to be nice. Even telling someone they have good style could be a bit bias as those without the money to shop for style may be a bit left out. But. We can be creative. If your friend or child tells you of something they’re doing, you can tell them you think they’re a great student, or an appreciated sibling, or a valued citizen for putting the dog poop bag in the bin. I once made a friend a photo album with images of her and her life and captions telling her what ways she was excellent. I had to think about every aspect that made her her. But it gets easier over time.
    All the lazy tropes of villains as ugly or disabled or foreign or psychopathic… are lazy tropes. And being aware of them and pointing them out to kids is another way to help them understand that altho hollywood might think a facial scar makes them evil, you certainly don’t.
    I personally don’t like ever using the word ugly. Or bad, to describe a person. But rather bad to describe a behaviour. Ugly I just don’t use! If I see a thing like a building or an outfit I’m not aesthetically into, I don’t comment on it. Or I try to examine and describe it critically but not equate it with its value. And I guess I just never ever say a person is ugly. I mean, it’s just pointless. I’m not perfect and for sure if someone is rude to me I might have some mean and even cruel thoughts in my head. But they stay in my head.
    I’d be curious to hear what educators have to say about this topic.

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