Thoughts on a Word: Ugly

Ugly is a fright. Ugly is unpleasant, ugly makes you want to look away, ugly is what we worry we are but know we aren’t. One can have a case of the uglies, make an ugly face, or feel beaten with the ugly stick. You can be an ugly duckling, an Ugly American, or descend from the Plug Uglies. If you are an ugli fruit, you are currently in season. It may be possible to be good, bad, and ugly, but an ugly woman just might not exist. One might work at the Ugly People Agency, or even Coyote Ugly—but only if you’re not, you know, ugly.

Part of what makes ugly such a potent word lies in its etymology. Stemming from old Norse uggligr, meaning “dreadful” or “fearful,” ugly implies the subject is beyond merely unattractive—she is to be feared. Beyond the plain woman, or the woman who is unremarkable, homely, nondescript, or simply not all that pretty, the ugly woman looks a fright. Given the medieval correlation of physical beauty and moral goodness, it’s no surprise that ugly to describe something unpleasant to look at took root simultaneously with its usage as “morally offensive.” The ugly woman frightens us not only because of her malformed features but because of her amorality. (This concept is illustrated by her repeat appearance in fairy tales—most of which were written in languages other than English and therefore outside of my scope here, though ugly surely is the best translation of the words used to describe the various witches and stepmothers that populated the fairy tales of yore.) Anne Boleyn was described as “ill-shaped and ugly” by an English Roman Catholic activist in an effort to discredit her rule of England, the idea being that anything resulting from the reign of a hideous woman wasn’t fit to stand.

Of course, the connection between ugliness and a lack of virtue isn’t necessarily restricted to the medieval days. The exact corollary may have faded; the association remained. An ugly woman might hide, but she’ll be found: “The Persians make an emblem of [the veil], to signify that many times...under very rich Cloths, hide a very Ugly Woman” (Duke of Holstein, 1669). She might be greedy: “Many an ugly woman has ruined her husband, and starved her trades-people, that she might have a larger drop to her necklace...Is the ugly woman less ugly with her diamonds than without them?” (The Wife and Woman’s Reward, 1835). The ugly woman has no talent: “No truly ugly woman ever yet wrote a truly beautiful poem the length of her little finger” (Noctes Ambrosianae, 1827). And just in case any of us missed the message, Sir Edward Sullivan—the original men’s rights activist—reminds us in his 1894 treatise Woman, the Predominant Partner, that “A woman is not necessarily virtuous because she’s ugly, or necessary reverse because she’s pretty,” though he does concede that “Of course beauty attracts temptation, and ugliness repels it.”

This repelling of temptation presents the flipside of the ugly-as-ambiguously evil trope: Ugliness, under the right circumstances, can be a virtue. “Ugliness is the guardian of women,” reads a Hebrew adage, a compliment to the Spanish saying “The ugliest is the best housewife.” (And even if she’s not the best housewife, never mind that; The Overland Monthly reminded us in 1911 that “A good deal may be forgiven to an ugly woman.”)

But nobody loves an ugly woman like a fellow with the blues: R&B, blues, bop, and soul all have tributes to the ugly woman, praising her as a more competent and trustworthy woman than the pretty darling who’ll run all over town. The most famous example is Jimmy Soul’s 1963 “If You Wanna Be Happy,” but he hardly invented the concept; the song itself was borrowed from calypso musician Roaring Lion’s 1934 ditty “Ugly Woman,” the refrain of which is “So from a logical point of view / Always love a woman uglier than you.” Don Covay tells us to “Get me an ugly woman / Nobody want but me / Get me an ugly woman / Ugly woman twice as sweet.” Indeed, perhaps it was her community’s treatment of the ugly woman that made “the ugliest woman in show business”—as Ma Rainey was referred to—simply respond “Bless you, darling,” when a vaudeville performer called “an ugly woman or a pretty monkey.”

The bluesmen might have been shocked to find that their beloved ugly women didn’t actually exist. “There never was, and it may be safely predicted that there never will be, on earth any such creature as an ugly woman,” wrote Irish journalist Charles J. Dunphie in 1876. “Nobody ever heard of such a phenomenon. To be a woman is to be beautiful.” When we see beauty as being intrinsic to womanhood, an ugly woman is indeed impossible: She “may more properly be called a Third Sex, than a Part of the Fair one” (Philip Stanhope, 1777). A 1904 edition of The Smart Set magazine: “If there were such a thing as an ugly woman—which I don’t believe at all...we’d let them frisk around a bit; but seeing that this is a man’s world, we’ve made it absolutely necessary for a pretty woman to behave herself.” Sammy Davis Jr. may have around when his contemporaries were wailing their “Ugly Woman Blues,” but he himself remained unconvinced of their existence: “Ain’t no such thing,” he said in an Ebony interview in 1980. “A woman may be ugly in our minds, but physically every woman is beautiful to me. And I’m a womanizer, man.”

Luckily, if an ugly woman does exist, it's not that hard for her to change: “There are no ugly women, only lazy ones,” makeup magnate Helena Rubinstein famously quipped. The vaguely protofeminist Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Associations of Zion agreed, concluding an 1889 argument against the restrictiveness of corsets with “An ugly woman is a blot in the face of creation, but no woman need be ugly if she will exercise properly, live intelligently, and dress correctly.” It was a nice turnbout from the sentiment of an earlier era—that ugly women shouldn’t even try. From Atlantic Monthly, 1859: “By flying in the face of fashion, a woman attracts attention to her person, which can be done with impunity only by the beautiful; but do you not see that an ugly woman, by conforming to fashion, obtains no advantage over other women, ugly or beautiful, who also conform to it?”

The word ugly has come up most often in my discussions with women as something they’re not. “I know I’m not ugly,” say some of us before going on to list our flaws, as though frightening small children is the worry we must work the hardest to banish from our psyche. There’s a sting about ugly that makes it difficult to even utter the word about a person: It’s a disqualifier, listing what we or others are not, instead of a description we’re eager to use. “There seems to be a taint of political incorrectness to using the words ‘ugly’ and ‘woman’ together, akin to using a racial or sexual slur,” writes Charlotte M. Wright in her 2006 book Plain and Ugly Janes: The Rise of the Ugly Woman in Contemporary American Fiction. That political incorrectness gave birth to the pool of “yo mama so ugly” jokes that are a staple of the dozens. Indeed, when Jet magazine printed a 1973 roundup of ugly jokes from standup comics—who make their trade in subverting political correctness—all but one used ugly women, not ugly men, as their target. The lone standout who used a man as her target? Moms Mabley, the only comedienne featured in the piece.

As long as ugly is one of the worst things you can say about a woman, we’re hesitant to use it on one another, even when the goal is to cut one another down. If it is used, it’s delivered with deliberate provocation—take celebrity gossip site The Superficial, which uses “Because you’re ugly” as its tagline. The inappropriate power of ugly hasn’t gone unnoticed by blogger Tatiana of Parisian Feline, who writes, “There is power in all things, including ugliness. Many people are terrified of being ugly, but if there’s power in exactly who you are, that includes being ugly too.” In questioning the hesitancy we have to use the word, she implies that we imbue both beauty and ugliness with more power than either might deserve. “Being ugly, and being willing to call myself that, is always tricky business. When you’re conditioned to believe that ugliness is bad and prettiness is good, well, most people will do anything to show you how ‘good’ you really are.” Indeed, ABC network was counting on that impulse when they debuted Ugly Betty in 2006. Betty is written as a smart, likable, sympathetic character: We’re meant to see her "goodness" and root for those who try to convince her that she's not ugly—and we ourselves aren't meant to really see her as ugly. (Surely a task made easier by casting the non-ugly America Ferrera in the titular role, though the character is coded as ugly through the glasses, the braces, and the Guadalajara poncho.)

Like most of the women I’ve talked with, I don’t think of myself as ugly—but that's hardly an act of affirmation, as ugliness isn’t what most of us fear. Ugly is a strong word, closer both in etymology and usage to grotesque than to ho-hum. That power just might make it preferable in certain ways to what we’re more likely to fear: not that we’re ugly, but that we’re not pretty enough. That preference is only theoretical, of course; I’m not about to wish for the face of a gargoyle merely to save myself the woes of my ruddy skin and sagging jawline. But I’m going to pay attention, albeit briefly, to Jean-Paul Sarte: “A truly ugly woman is arresting, discordant in the midst of dull, run-of-the-mill human faces.” For a moment that passage seems to offer solace to the ugly woman—yet even here, she can’t win. Indeed, he’s only paving the way for our modern equivalent of equating appearance with morality: “There is no doubt at all,” Sartre writes, “that she is unhappy.”