4 Septembris 2002

Ugly is as ugly does

Andrea and Burningbird are feeling sorry for me at the moment. Poor Dorothea, who must not love herself or allow herself to be loved because she calls herself ugly. (If I’m mischaracterizing the argument here, let me know; but I don’t think I am.)

I’m genuinely shocked that neither of them, wise and insightful people that they are, realized how this perpetuates the tyranny of attractiveness, the immense public yardstick we must all be measured by. By assuming that I cannot like myself unless I believe myself to be physically attractive (to someone, at least; Andrea brings up my husband, and Bb talks about self-acceptance), they allow physical attractiveness a hegemony over self-worth.

Me, I want physical attractiveness completely off the table, and have all along. I did muddy the waters, I admit, by my unvarnished physical description of myself. What I hoped to do thereby, though, was point people at other dimensions of character, other possible descriptors. Hey, guys, the lost watch is over here in the dark, kindly stop looking under the streetlight half a block away.

I partly succeeded. Andrea handed me several graceful compliments on my writing, for which I thank her. I accept valuation of my writing, and of me based on my writing. That’s a dimension I choose to be valued by.

Yet I partly failed. What both Andrea and Bb seem to have missed, or deliberately passed over, is that I didn’t get beat with the ugly stick until relatively recently. I have been perceived by the world at large as pretty. Even, yes, sexy. I wasn’t really any happier about the physical-attractiveness standard then. (Truly. I remember an entry in my eighth-grade journal, nominally about having to go out and buy a supply of larger-size bras, in which I fervently wished that my breasts could be magically wished onto someone who would actually value them.)

I mean, I don’t even like it when my non-physical characteristics are reduced to bodily or sexual attractiveness. I didn’t let Mike off the hook when he claimed that my mind was somehow sexy, did I now? What I hear from Andrea and Bb’s well-intentioned (and appreciated) efforts to get me to admit I might be attractive amounts to “Everybody has to be pretty. If you aren’t pretty some way or other, you’re nothing.” Which is exactly, exactly, the message I objected to when it came from Mike Golby.

Other people (e.g. Halley) can fight the good fight to expand the definition of attractiveness. I’m all for that; my own parameters for physical attractiveness are so unlike the culture at large’s that I’d like the definitions changed just so I can see more people on TV and in movies that I actually want to look at.

(Not to mention listen to. Pretty has such a stranglehold on American TV that it boasts pitifully few listenable voices. Does anybody remember the character Peggy Ruth-Anne, played by Peg Phillips, from Northern Exposure? Homely as a mule, but oh, that voice! I used to keep the tail of my eye on the TV even when I wasn’t really following the show, so that if Peggy Ruth-Anne showed up I would know to start listening.)

Fundamentally, though, redefining pretty is not my fight. I want to be ugly and not have it matter. I want my sexual attractiveness to remain a private affair between myself and my sex partner, rather than being speculated upon by every person who so much as passes me on the street or wants to toss my blog a quick compliment. I want “bonita” and “fea” alike paired with “estar,” not “ser,” and even when the pairing is “estar bonita” I want the reaction to be fleeting and tacit, not character-defining and public.

I want to be like Mary Renault’s Simonides in The Praise Singer, who says:

Nowadays, friends and fellow poets will talk of my ugliness as easily as of my clothes. Mostly it is done as a kind of courtesy, meaning that I can afford it; and I take it so. Sometimes malice creeps in, but envy does not hurt a man like scorn.

That’s what I want. Permission to be plain, even in my own eyes. That, to me, is the self-acceptance that Burningbird wants to instill in me over coffee. (Hot chocolate okay, Bb? I’ve never been a coffee drinker, but I make a mean pot of Castilian hot chocolate.) Insisting that I’m pretty isn’t acceptance; it’s denial.

Now, this isn’t to say that I care for Themistocles and his ilk. (Plutarch says that Themistocles once twitted Simonides over a poem critical of Corinth, since Simonides dared to be a prominent citizen despite his ugliness. How dare an ugly man criticize a great and beautiful city?) Yet Themistocles’s insult is just as scotched if Simonides along with everyone around him doesn’t care about his ugliness, if Simonides can hold up his talent and say “This is enough,” as it is if Simonides or his helpful compatriots redefine away his ugliness.

“As easily as of my clothes.” Yes, that’s it (pace the importance of clothing in this luxury-mad culture). My physical attractiveness, or lack thereof, should be no more important, and receive no more comment, than my choice of socks. Yet it does receive comment because it is important—to Andrea, to Mike, to Bb, to Halley, to my college GM, to the bozos who exuded a sense of physical and sexual threat because they liked the way I looked in a broomstick skirt (and that, Andrea, is what was scary enough to stir my husband into threatening back, and to relegate that outfit to the closet), to everyone.

That is the cage. That is what being grunched is about. Being grunched isn’t being judged physically with disapproval. It’s being judged physically at all, particularly when such judgment is grotesquely out of place and unnecessary. That is the cage, and I want out of it. I am unutterably sick and tired of being grunched.

Go back and read what I’ve written this past week, please, and see if that isn’t what jumps out at you. It jumps out at me, but then I wrote it and I understand myself. Clearly, I haven’t been getting the message across to others as well as I’d like. I hope this entry into the discussion does a bit better.