“’Ugly is attractive, ugly is exciting. Maybe because it is newer,’ says Miuccia Prada. SHOWstudio explores fashion’s fascination with deliberate awkwardness and vulgarity. Just as Umberto Eco asked in his celebrated work ‘On Ugliness’ SHOWstudio will question if, when manipulated by the right designer or when backed up by a luxury label, repulsiveness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.” –SHOWstudio
The other day I happened upon a new SHOWstudio project that dissected our current fascination with “ugly.” After reading through the various essays, I phoned my friend to get a clearer perspective on the subject. The discussion, which I’ve posted below, is our input on the matter.
AH: So, what the hell is “ugly”?
MW: Haha, well that’s a loaded question. Honestly, I keep trying to locate it between beauty and horror…I think it’s more related to beauty.
AH: It’s generally considered the opposite of beauty, but I think it can only exist along with beauty. It’s the anti. I think that the “ugly” that we’re talking about manifests out of deliberation, which in itself doesn’t make it “real ugly.”
MW: Okay, so it’s aspired-to ugliness or even achieved ugliness.
AH: Right. It’s a manipulated ugly; it’s supposed to offer an illusion of ugly, but that illusion can only be created through the same executions and applications that’s used to achieve beauty.
AH: But the simple term “ugly” is vague and unspecific. It undermines a broad and complex concept.
MW: It can go a lot of ways. I was reading the other day how beauty works the same way, so the word usage is fair game.
AH: The two terms have overstretched to the point that neither of them hold much of a real definition anymore.
AH: So, what is ugly to you then?
MW: I keep thinking that beauty is typically believed to be some kind of transcendence, whereas ugly is typically very culturally confined.
AH: Interesting—I definitely agree with the transcendence aspect, but I think both are culturally confined.
MW: Ugly has the potential to be more specific than beauty. The two are definitely tied and controlled by culture, but I don’t think we as a whole always think of beauty that way. I think people tend to see beauty as a way to transcend our cultures and otherwise human conditions. It’s an ideal that every culture and individual holds and generally tries to pursue.
AH: If ugly has more potential to be specific, that says so much about the ideals of beauty and ugliness. I think people often have an easier time deciphering and declaring what they find is ugly. When it comes to beauty, though, people aren’t as willing, open, or quick to claim beauty.
MW: Do you mean in terms of personally or in objects?
MW: Hmmm…ugliness is a more potent expression of culture. It’s got like a gravity to it that prevents it from being extracted.
AH: Which came first, ugliness or beauty? I believe ugly came first and beauty followed.
MW: Really? How do you figure?
AH: Ugly is natural. Don’t get me wrong, natural beauty exists in many different forms. The ugly, however, is in a lot of ways out of our control. It’s like ugly is the blank canvas that we’re all given, and any sort of design or artwork that we put on it is our attempt to make it prettier, more beautiful. Our modern day interpretation of beauty is not natural. Which one is more real?
MW: Ugliness is more real. Beauty is contrived. I personally have to put a substantial amount of energy and effort to achieve beauty. The ugly, well, that’s what’s already there; it’s the thing that I’m trying to hide under concealer and mascara.
AH: I understand, I’m in the same boat. Whenever I try to hide it I always feel more conspicuous though.
MW: Me too. It’s kind of funny to see how the two correlate. The more effort I put forth in hiding the ugly, the uglier I feel. I think it’s an issue with disguise—it’s disingenuous. So what do you think is the purest, simplest form or manifestation of ugly?
AH: The purest form of ugly is the one that doesn’t require effort to create. For example, physical deformities pop up to mind when thinking about what is considered ugly. Deformities, though ugly and sometimes even horrifying, are somehow intensely appealing.
MW: If it’s appealing, can it be ugly?
AH: I think so, but this also falls under a complicated matter of perspective. As an individual, I am always intrigued with the morbid, the disturbing, the totally weird and uncomfortable, so my answer isn’t totally objective. I do believe that there is a universal intrigue in the weird and ugly even if it solely manifests from the anti-boring shock value.
MW: Where does the concept “kitsch” lie in all of this? Kitsch seems kind of like the irony of the beauty/ugly dichotomy. Its got the appearance of ugliness, but the safety of manipulation/construction/beauty. It’s kind of a sham….or maybe a cop-out.
AH: Kitschy is totally based upon irony. It’s a way to acknowledge and interpret the bad and ugly, but under the light heartedness and security of a joke. Maybe people like kitsch because it’s a non-serious way to incorporate ugly.
MW: So, it’s like an aesthetic house of cards…
AH: Yes—it’s cool looking, fun to look at, sparks question and wonder, but remains incredibly fragile.
I just noticed that we’re referring to them as “real ugly” and “ugly.” Theoretically, ugly should always just be ugly, yet here we are deciphering between real and fake ugly.
MW: The ugly we’re focusing on is contrived. It’s very similar to beauty—it’s beauty with a different message, maybe even a different agenda.
AH: If the two are so similar, why do people choose “ugly” then?
MW: To threaten or provoke?
AH: There’s a wide range of answers, but I think it’s generally concentrated on rebellion against conventionality. Maybe it’s to provoke others, or threaten ideas, or secure oneself. In terms of the masses, however, it seems to be more so blind conformity than true rebellion. This whole concept is so rich and dichotomous that it’s difficult to think about it in so many different perspectives. In the bigger picture, true natural ugliness isn’t accepted. What is accepted are the lighter motifs associated with ugly. Think unkempt hair, smudged make up, progressive clothing: these are the accepted ugly. The real ugly, like unshaven legs, sweat, deformities, are still taboos and for the most part, rejected. So where’s the line drawn? It seems like the only ugly that is accepted is the type of ugly that’s able to sustain or heighten sexuality.
MW: I just noticed something. Do you think ugly is only measured in feminine terms? I just realized that I keep thinking of ugly women, but not ugly men.
AH: Damn. I was also thinking mostly in terms of women. That is so shitty.
MW: See, I rarely think of men as ugly. I know how that may sound, and I’m not saying it with any sexist affiliation. I’m just saying that even if they’re highly unattractive, I don’t get that negative feeling that comes with ugly. For some reason, they just seem right, attractive or not.
AH: Hm…what about women?
MW: I think it’s because more often I see women aiming and missing beauty, while the majority of men I see and know don’t engage in those types of efforts. The women I see and know that aren’t trying I never find ugly. I don’t judge on what is truly natural, those traits and aspects that were/are out of our hands. Judgment is used for the things we do, the things we have affects on.
AH: So what you find ugly lies within the effort of hiding the ugly? Where’s the line for you then? What’s an acceptable amount of effort in the pursuit of beauty or the balance of the two?
MW: This stuff is complicated and twisty.
AH: Is that level of beauty only achieved when every crack of “ugly” is successfully concealed?
MW: Haha! Maybe…I think it lies with the illusion of it being real and natural instead of looking like it was contrived.
AH: Aha! The much-coveted effortless look. In my eyes the two concepts can be split up into a total of four categories. There’s natural beauty, contrived beauty, natural ugly, and contrived ugly. We like/accept/want natural beauty and contrived ugly. We reject natural ugly and contrived beauty. The fashion industry is the realm where it can all be contrived.
MW: Does contrived ugly gain favor then? Is it because natural beauty can’t exist there?
AH: Well, this entire discussion is based upon the cultural and social connotations of beauty and its antithesis. So no matter what, “natural” isn’t a concept that truly exists in this matter. But overall, conventional beauty has become boring. People are no longer stimulated, it’s just reiteration at this point. Ugly, however, is still newer territory with more perspective and opportunities to convey. There are fewer accepted ideas of beauty than there are of ugly ideas. Many things can be ugly, fewer things are considered beautiful. But if both require effort and intent, why would I choose ugly over beauty? I guess ugliness at least provides individuality, and maybe even independence and control. But that’s getting to close to the arduous concept of feminism.
MW: Would you rather stare at a picture of Jennifer Lawrence, Divine in Pink Flamingo, or of a guy with his legs blown off by a landmine?
AH: Easy. It goes Divine, injured man, and last Jennifer Lawrence. Divine because her entire character—though unconventional and disruptive—is built upon intention, purpose, choice. The injured man next because the visual of his condition still remains within the bounds of ugly, but it’s not my first go-to because his ugliness wasn’t a choice. He didn’t choose the deformity, it resulted from accident and chance. Jennifer Lawrence is at the end of the list because it’s the least interesting. Her beauty, no matter how immaculate, is boring and homogeneous.
AH: Ugly has become an aesthetic norm. These days it’s aimed at seamlessly fusing and juxtaposing what’s alluring and attractive with what’s disturbing and repulsive.
AH: Even though design and art has moved towards the direction of the ugly, absurd, and vulgar, the movement is still totally askew from the actual realities of the concepts. What they’re calling ugly isn’t actually ugly at all.
It’s like we’ve gotten use to this immaculate standard of beauty that we not only created but still adhere to, and when we finally do see something really ugly it becomes shocking because we’ve been jaded from it for so long.
MW: Maybe we’re hyper-sensitive to it.
AH: Ugliness reminds us of our own deceptions, mortality, and imperfections.
MW: Real ugliness is horror—the abject, brutal, material humanity.
AH: Analogy time! Ugliness:reality as beauty:fantasy
So when does it get too ugly?
MW: I think it can either hit the plane where it becomes widely accepted enough to be considered beautiful again, or when it goes below the line and becomes too real and horrifying.
AH: Well, the only type of ugly that’s portrayed on the large scale is the type of ugly that is injected with beauty. Maybe the truest ugly is the type of ugly that rejects any type of beauty, the one that’s unable to sustain the beauty we try to infuse it with.
MW: presentation of alternatives, not always a social stance.
AH: Natural ugly is usually just shock. Contrived ugly is shock and desire. Between natural beauty and contrived ugly, which one is held at a higher esteem?
MW: Natural beauty—it’s the unreachable goal.
AH: If we’re talking about what’s trending, then yes, “ugly” is more in the now, while conventional beauty is so last season. But I also believe that people feel more comfortable with this new perception of ugly beauty because to some extent it allows for the presence, and even the illusions of imperfections. “Natural beauty” on the other hand is so pristine and immaculate that it’s rarely, if ever, obtained. And even obtained, it’s a whole other story to maintain it.
This discussion was between me and Meagan Waldrip, a writer and fashion enthusiast.