The Role of Ugliness and the Need to Address the Topic Head On

A couple of weeks back I posted my point of view on the recent film, Beauty and the Beast. Honestly, I didn’t think many would read it too closely, let alone comment on it.

Well, I was wrong.  And I’m thrilled!

What’s even better is the conflicting point of view that I sparked. Certainly not everyone agreed with my argument, and that was fine by me.  The sheer number of views and comments reinforces the opening point I made in that post: the movie and the subject of beauty, which is clearly part of the story, generate a lot of interest.  My question was why?

Many of the commentators on my post explained that the story line around inner beauty touches us all and the fact that the Belle character is even more nuanced elevates the story even more.  I buy that.  But I was more interested in why the subject of beauty in fairly tales still resonates.  Period.  A few years back I wrote a post about the animated movie, Brave, and how I appreciated that fact that she was not regarded as beautiful or ugly, but rather stubborn, athletic, loving, etc.  In other words, beauty didn’t enter the equation.

I concluded that the subject of beauty has a key role.  It isn’t something to ignore, but a topic we should raise and discuss.

And this means we should also encourage the topic of ugliness.  This is the other side of beauty.  Can someone look or be ugly?  I notice that I dissuade my children from describing things or other people as ugly. But in doing so am I am I shutting them down entirely.  Is that right?  Shouldn’t we invite the discourse?  Doesn’t Beauty and the Beast do just that?

Here’s a reason to talk about it.  I recently read a fascinating article by Mindy Weisberger of LiveScience, Beauty and the Beast: Why We are Fascinated By Human-Animal Mates?  As you can tell from the title, the story delves into the role of half-human half-animal characters in fairy tales.  Interestingly the half-animal characters are mostly male.  I won’t summarize the whole article but share one reason.  In the times of fairy tales, young girls, say around 14 years old, would often be betrothed to much older men.  To these girls, older men were obviously bigger, harrier, more muscular, perhaps even animal-like in their eyes. To assuage their fear of their future husbands, stories would often depict the princes as part animal.  And as we all know, everything turns out all right and we live happily ever after.  What an interesting explanation to share with our children!  And you can imagine the profound discussion that this explanation would lead to around women’s rights, equality, strong partnerships with romantic partners, and the list goes.  But without the freedom to pursue the topic of beauty and ugliness, we may never get to broach those issues.

We are innately interested and appreciate beautiful things and beautiful people.  And in an effort to shield girls and boys from placing too much emphasis on beauty, of course we shouldn’t elevate it to the only, or the primary source of conversation.  As an aside, there’s a book that just came out this week by Renee Engeln about our attention on beauty as a form of sickness, aptly named, Beauty Sick, How the Cultural Obsession with beauty and Appearance Hurts Girls and Women.  The analysis shows the ramifications of too much thought around beauty.  Obviously I don’t endorse that.  But I also believe that we shouldn’t ignore the subject all together or even downplay it.  Let’s embrace beauty, the uniqueness of it, and the bad and the good that come with it.

From Camels to Geopolitics: Why, Even in 2016, We Care About Pageants & What They Say About Us

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Over the past week I noticed a number of stories about beauty contests in my feed.  That’s not unusual.  What WAS weird was the type of stories.  Of course there were a few about the Steve Harvey guffaw at the Miss Universe contest, but there was another about a terrorist threatening to kidnap the recently anointed Miss Iraq and, even more bizarrely, one about a beauty contest for camels!

What gives?  Why are there so many beauty pageants out there.  And more interestingly, why do we care so much that people write stories about them, adapt them for their cultures (and local animals) and even want to kill people associated with them??  It’s 2016 already!  Haven’t we evolved past the old fashioned notion that people’s beauty should be judged?

Some of you reading this may be saying to yourselves: “frankly, I don’t care about pageants, move on.”  I can understand that.  But understanding why some of us care about something seemingly insignificant can open our eyes into what makes us ALL tick.

I could write a whole masters thesis on the pros or cons of beauty contests.  But I won’t.  And I’m not making any judgements here.  I just want to understand why people all over the world create and support such spectacles.  And I’m not the only one who is scratching her head here.  There have been scholarly works (The Why’s of Beauty Contests), books (Beauty Queens and the Global Stage) and a PBS series (Origins of the Beauty Pageant) developed around answering this question.

None of these sources have fully answered the question for me but in reading them all, I think I see some explanation.

Let’s begin by recognizing that beauty matters.  Whether we like it or not, every culture admires, creates and rewards beautiful objects and people.  Of course every culture has a different interpretation of what is beautiful, but in the end, each and every nation has written poems, novels and songs about someone or other’s beauty.

Ok, but why do we have to judge it?  Why should beauty become something we compete over?  To be fair, the human species competes over, well, almost everything.  That’s why we have the Olympics, national sports, Emmy awards, you name it.  Hey, we even compete with ourselves thanks to Fitbit.   Because beauty is one of those things that we care about, it too has become a source of competition.

But then why can’t beauty pageants just remain another harmless form of entertainment?  Why do they matter so much to people?  Based on my research (albeit somewhat limited) I learned that beauty pageants, especially outside of the Western World, are loaded with political, cultural, and social significance.  On the one hand, there is a strong antipathy toward them, as they are a blatant and, for some, immoral import from the West.  (These contests actually started in ancient Greece but took shape in the U.S. thanks to Phineas T. Barnum (yes, as in the circus :))  On the other hand, most cultures take this construct and reshape it to match their cultural values, i.e., judge beauty but their own standards.  In a way, the pageants become a source of cultural pride.  Even in the U.S., some early pageants were a form of rebellion.  I wrote a post last year (The Racial Dimension of Plus Sized Women) about the history of African-American’s elaborate dress code for Sunday church services.  Dressing up hearkens back to the slave era and how Sunday was the one day a week when slaves could dress with dignity and beauty.  Slaves would parade down the streets to show off their beauty and claim ownership of their humanity.

Beauty pageants are clearly fraught with conflicting ideals and a mix of emotions.  That is exactly why they matter to people.  These contests are a response to our innate and global love for beauty.  But they also tap into the debasement that we fear comes along with admiring people for their beauty alone.  They are examples of Western infiltration but a means to rebel against it at the same time.  They tap into our love for competition and our fear of losing.  Whether we support these contests or not, at least we have a better understanding of why so many of us care about them.  And maybe we just have a slightly better understanding of us all.