How can we learn to better accept our appearance? How can one stop struggling with being judged by their beauty? In the new book “Ugly as Sin: The Truth About How We Look and Finding Freedom From Self-Hatred,” author Toni Raiten-D’Antonio explores the “ugly problem” that plagues today’s image-conscious world. An excerpt:
Sounded in a deep, basso profundo voice that draws out every syllable and echoes off the vaulted walls, the Italian word silenzio sounds like a mournful but insistent command. After a few beats it is followed by the English translation, sung in a different voice but with a similar cadence.
The pleading duet comes from the security guards at the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City whenever the murmuring of the tourists gets too loud. The place is a spiritual sanctuary, after all, and their commands, which sound like the mournful bellows of a foghorn, do remind the people in the crowd that they should regard this place with some reverence.
The sad foreboding in the voices of the guards feels appropriate as I sit on one of the benches that line the chapel walls and gaze at Michelangelo’s astounding depictions of the essential Christian stories. My eyes move from Adam and Eve’s “fall,” which shows them transformed from luminous beauty into jaundiced and hunched figures, to the images of Hell at the base of the Last Judgment fresco painted on the wall behind the altar. In this enormous painting, the souls Christ brings near to his place at the center glow with beauty, while those denied his grace fall into darkness. The further a figure is placed from the Lord, the uglier she appears. The lowest of the low appear skeletal, rotting, and deformed. Some have horns on their heads and claws instead of hands and feet.
As I study the faces and bodies of the condemned in Michelangelo’s stunning work, the phrase ugly as sin enters my mind. It is followed by a flood of cultural associations — imagine a rapid-fire slide show of words and images — that depend on the cultural assumptions that beauty equals goodness and ugliness is evil. Included are:
Stained by sin
Cleansing the soul
Beauty is truth
Truth is beauty
The ugly truth
He looks like an angel
A thing of beauty is a joy to behold
Ugly as the devil
You look like hell
Suffer for beauty
Hide a multitude of sins
Devil’s food cake(!)
These one dozen sayings came to mind in less than a minute’s time. With just a little reflection anyone could come up with many more. In the ugly-equals-evil category, you could add the sins of gluttony, sloth, indulgence, weakness (moral and physical), and impurity. The beauty-is-virtue list could be expanded to include, among others, patience, self-denial (of food, sex, and other physical desires), cleanliness, and grace in all its forms.Western society makes these associations — ugly as sin/beauty equals goodness — because for centuries our culture has dwelled on the clash of goodness symbolized by beauty and evil represented by ugliness. Inherited from ancient ancestors, these concepts were adapted by early Christians who argued that pagan gods were ugly, which proved their illegitimacy. Protestants praised “the beauty of holiness” in the Book of Common Prayer and continued to depict sinners as ugly, especially as they suffered in hell. In Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting The Fall of the Rebel Angels, the sinners are grotesque while the virtuous are beautiful. The same is true in the The Last Judgment by Rogier van der Weyden, in which a beautiful young Michael the Archangel uses scales to weigh souls. The heavier ones, who no doubt practiced gluttony, sloth, and greed, are sinners consigned to hell, while the lighter souls ascend to heaven.
Early Christians also attached supposed sexual sins — adultery, sex outside of marriage, homosexuality, and others — to ugliness in a way that assumes that unattractive people must be also be “deviant.” On the opposite side of the coin, all that was good about people, animals, and even places was associated with beauty. For women, the greatest virtue was often attached not to strong and sturdy figures but to delicate, vulnerable, even ethereal figures who despite their fragile weakness maintain their chastity.
If you consider that historically organized religion was (at least in part) an agent of social control, it’s easier to understand the power of the ugly-as-sin paradigm. Believers looked to religious leaders as authorities, and these leaders used their power to establish norms that kept the peace and at least limited the excesses of human nature. Seen this way, it was a good thing that delicate women were sometimes accorded high moral standing. This status probably protected them from exploitation. However, on the other side of the equation, the ugly became vulnerable to socially-sanctioned rejection and abuse. In this way, religion actually amplified and justified whatever biological impulse may lead us to reject people who seem sick, deformed, or even foreign. If ugliness was sinful, we could feel justified in judging, punishing, enslaving, or killing those who seemed repulsive or, perhaps, just a little different from us.
The belief that ugliness was sinful crossed the Atlantic with the explorers who encountered and killed native people, and with the pilgrims who established societies in the new world. In sixteenth-and seventeenth-century America, which was settled mainly by Protestant immigrants from Great Britain and Northern Europe, the concepts of God’s blessing and condemnation were part of everyday life. Many of these first Americans believed that health, wealth, and even beauty flowed to those chosen by God, while poverty, illness, and ugliness signaled disfavor. In an echo of the Buddhist concept of karma, you got what your soul deserved. This thinking set the notion of personal responsibility firmly into American culture, alongside the assumption that the blessings of life somehow proved a person to be morally superior.
Fortunately, Western culture has sometimes allowed exceptions to the rules about beauty, ugliness, and virtue. One Christian saint, Margaret of Castello, was a hunchback midget who, according to her legend, was raised behind walls by parents who were ashamed of her appearance. Eventually she became a nun and spent her life serving others. When she died, townspeople demanded that she be buried inside their church. Their priest, who resisted, relented when a crippled girl was healed during Margaret’s funeral. She has, ever since, been regarded as the patron of the deformed and disfigured.
Other exceptions to the rule about ugliness and sin are seen in folktales and stories about unattractive characters who turn out to be good souls. The two best known examples of this type of character are the Beast in Beauty and the Beast, and Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Both are clearly good and not sinful figures, but sadly, neither is allowed to be fulfilled and happy while ugly. Quasimodo dies without ever realizing love. The Beast is permitted to find and enjoy love, but only after he’s transformed by beautiful Belle’s tears into a handsome prince. A more modern version of the ugly-but-good story can be seen in Cyrano de Bergerac, but even with his extraordinary wit and bravery, he wins Roxanne’s love only in the moment of his death.
As romantic prods inviting us to consider the experience of the ugly person and the possibility that our prejudices are wrong, Cyrano and the other tales taught empathy and compassion. But the difficulty of ugliness was hardly resolved by these stories, and even if you can see the point Cyrano argues against the “ugly-as-sin” paradigm, you won’t find much support for this position, even in supposedly advanced and modern societies. Some may say that beauty is only “skin deep” and that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but the world we inhabit is filled with proof that the “cover” matters immensely and that our fear of ugliness is far more powerful than our idealistic dream of giving everyone equal consideration.
Culture, as expressed in story, continues to give us one character after another who finds happiness on the basis of her beauty and not much else. From Holly Golightly to Erin Brockovich, it’s hard to find a woman in the movies who would be compelling without her exceptional beauty. And of course today, the influence of cultural messages on how we think, feel, and act may be greater than ever.
With the rise of urban communities, technology, and industry, the influence of man-made culture on our sense of what it means to be human has increased dramatically. This culture includes not just the arts, philosophy, and religion but also institutions such as science and medicine, which have sometimes been deployed to support the notion that the outside of a person indicates what resides on the inside. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries this practice was codified in two bizarre but powerful “medical” disciplines called physiognomy and phrenology. Physicians who used these practices claimed to be able to determine a person’s character from the appearance of the face and body (physiognomy) or the shape and contours of the skull (phrenology).
In the twenty-first century, many of us find it difficult to believe that such pseudoscience, which clearly echoed the values of ugly-as-sin religion, was ever taken seriously by intelligent people. But in fact, the idea that physical differences signaled moral deviance was taught at respected colleges and embraced even by intellectual elites who would have claimed to be skeptics when it came to religion. Phrenologists practiced well into the twentieth century and even employed a machine called the “automatic electric phrenometer” to help them identify the supposed misshapen heads of individuals of bad or weak character in a precise and presumably scientific way.
The most disturbing outgrowth of the thinking that produced phrenology and physiognomy came with the rise of eugenics, a social movement that gained real power at the start of the twentieth century. Eugenicists, as they were called, believed they could identify supposedly undesirable men, women, and children by evaluating them physically and mentally. Those deemed unfit, who were far more likely to have darker skin and Mediterranean features, would be discouraged from having children, while those who were judged superior would be encouraged to have large families. Contests were held to find the “fittest families,” and eugenic displays were common at state fairs. Invariably these paragons of “positive eugenics” were tall, slim, fair-skinned people of Northern European origins.
By 1920, American eugenicists had focused on improving the national gene pool by preventing ugly and otherwise undesirable young people from ever starting families. Nearly every state in the union adopted a program for identifying these supposedly sub-par children and placing them in institutions where they would be prevented from reproducing. Sadly, tens of thousands of people were surgically sterilized in these places to prevent them from contributing to the nation’s gene pool. Thousands more were incarcerated for life.
Eugenics spread from America to Europe where it found receptive ears among the followers of Adolph Hitler. Experts from the United States were given awards by Nazis, who then took their way of thinking to its terrible extreme, beginning first with the institutionalization of the disabled and ending with the Holocaust. (Among the twisted justifications the Nazis used for killing more than six million Jews was that they were ugly and posed a danger to the supposedly more beautiful Aryan race.) The eugenics movement was finally discredited and disappeared after the war when the Nazi horror was revealed. In the postwar period, science showed little appetite for sorting and categorizing human beings, and in many countries, most notably the United States, political movements arose to challenge discrimination based on race, nationality, religion, gender, age, sexual orientation, and disability.
For a time, civil rights campaigns encouraged the hope that all forms of bigotry — even the oppression of people who were called ugly — might be confronted and relegated to the past. With slogans like Black is beautiful and forceful arguments for equality, activists made most forms of prejudice shameful. Critics would sneer at what they called “political correctness,” saying the social sanction against certain derogatory attitudes and speech went too far. But in general, those who demanded respect for differences had a profoundly positive effect as opportunities increased for women as well as for people of different races, ethnic groups, and nationalities.
On the edges of the civil rights movement, a few voices were raised on behalf of people who experienced discrimination based on their appearance, especially those who weigh more than average. Known as the Fat Acceptance Movement, this informal campaign was kicked off with a rally in New York’s Central Park in the summer of 1967. But these efforts were not very successful. Instead, as American society struggled toward dramatic reductions in bigotry overall, inequality based on appearance seemed to increase. The main drivers for this development were the ever more powerful mass media, in all its forms, and the businesses and industries associated with it.
Beginning with print in the nineteenth century and television, which swept the culture in the 1950s and 1960s, visual mass media grew in influence every year as it brought business and industry astounding new tools for selling goods. Present in every household, and in almost every room in every household, television allowed advertisers to promote a vast array of goods using, for the most part, images of beautiful people. A constantly escalating competition for attention required continual improvements in the pitches made to the public. In the race to get attention, advertisers, publishers, and producers turned to more startling images with each new program or campaign.
The end results of the media age have been a beauty ideal more impossible and out of reach than ever before and more discrimination based on looks. (Every month seems to bring a new thing to be worried about and therefore a new reason to fear that we might be seen as ugly.) Confronted with standards for beauty that even supermodels cannot reach without the aid of high technology, just about everyone is left to feel deficient. The fear of ugliness spreads, and so does our desperate desire to avoid it.
The pain and anxiety created by impossible beauty ideals is bad for us but very good for various multibillion-dollar-per-year businesses that have arisen to aid those people — mostly women — who choose to fight the fear of ugly by trying to become beautiful. A significant part of the economy, including businesses that barely existed a few generations ago, depend on this anti-ugly activity for their cash flow. Cosmetics companies, plastic surgeons, media firms, and the vast industries devoted to diet, exercise, and fashion all feed on our real and reasonable fear that we will be treated like a modern Medusa.
Excerpted from “Ugly as Sin: The Truth About How We Look and Finding Freedom From Self-Hatred” by Toni Raiten-D’Antonio Copyright © 2010. Excerpted by permission of HCI Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.