Ugliness

Amanda Smith: In this edition of The Body Sphere the subject is ugliness.

Robert Hoge: I think too often adults try and suggest that differences in appearance don't matter by pretending they don't exist, and kids know that's a lie. And when someone comes along and says, 'Oh hey look, I'm pretty ugly,' there's a really high level of curiosity from kids: why have you got funny legs, why have you got a squished nose on your face? You know, essentially it's just curiosity. It's just kids wanting to know why the world around them is the way it is.

Amanda Smith: That's Robert Hoge, who's just put out a version for children of his memoir called Ugly. Robert was born with a very large tumour on his face that distorted his features, and with malformed legs that were later amputated. In his own estimation he was not a pretty kid. And he joins us later in The Body Sphere, with more about how he now talks to young people about being ugly and how they talk to him.

On RN, Amanda Smith with you.

The word 'ugly' is medieval in origin, it's from Old Norse and it means to be feared, or dreaded. In Samuel Johnson's 1755 dictionary, his definition of ugliness and his definition of deformity are interchangeable: ugliness is defined as deformity and deformity as ugliness, along with additional meanings of moral depravity and crookedness.

And it's to the middle of the 18th century that we start, with Gretchen Henderson in the USA. She's the author of a cultural history of ugliness. Gretchen, the first thing I want you to tell us about are Ugly Clubs.

Gretchen Henderson: Oh there's a long and very colourful history of ugly clubs. My introduction to them was through an Ugly Face Club in Liverpool, England, which existed from 1743 to '54. And there's little documentation but it was a facetious society. The members had to proclaim themselves to have ugly faces to be part of this club. And what was interesting about the Ugly Face Club was the members' directory, because their features were described in animal terms, bearing the features of, say, a shark or a pig or an eagle or a badger or a tortoise. But also incorporated in those descriptions were racial slurs, something like 'Jewish sallow phiz' as in physiognomy, or 'Hottentot complexion' or 'Negro teeth' or 'Japanese-y grin'. And this is overlapping a period also when Liverpool is Britain's main slaving port, so there are a lot of interesting lines of social and aesthetic exclusion and inclusion that are being crossed in this period.

Amanda Smith: You mentioned that it's a facetious club. What was the purpose of it and who were the members?

Gretchen Henderson: It really, like a lot of clubs at the time, it was for merrymaking. They would meet at a pub, they would sing songs. It was a fraternal organisation, so it really…

Amanda Smith: So it was all men…

Gretchen Henderson: It was all men, absolutely. And my interest in it is how it fits into other things that were happening in the 18th century at the time. For instance, William Hay, a member of parliament, published an essay at the same time, in 1754, called 'Deformity: an Essay'. And it really was a kind of mix of memoir and cultural criticism about his experience being hunch-backed and bearing the scars of smallpox, and how he really was able to see, as both an insider and an outsider what kinds of maltreatment were happening for deformed individuals on a number of levels.

He declared that he ‘never was nor ever will be a member of an ugly club’. And he begged them not to meet anymore because he said it doubled the ridicule. So he saw this dangerous line that was being walked, even as it's opening up this space for saying that something is, say, equally deformed might also be equally justified.

Amanda Smith: Do any ugly clubs continue?

Gretchen Henderson: Well, they actually did migrate to America. There were in the 19th century. In various archives at universities there is evidence that these exist. And then they kind of petered out. Interestingly they petered out around the time of the Civil War, when people actually had very debilitating deformities. So this also shows more evidence of this being truly facetious and not necessarily a community organisation that rallied around human rights, per se.

Amanda Smith: Is it though in any way about reclaiming the term, or owning the term, 'ugly'?

Gretchen Henderson: Very much so. And from the late 19th century there is a town, Piobbico, Italy, that has a festival of the ugly every year…

Amanda Smith: Yes, festa dei brutti.

Gretchen Henderson: Yes, exactly…that continues to this day, and there have been resurgences in Liverpool and Hamburg, Germany. And I think that also shows this larger trend to appropriate the term 'ugly', to really bring its meaning to bear on a variety of different thing; pushing it away from the beauty binary, and complicating what it means and what the consequences of it have been on society.

Amanda Smith: Well, historically a terrible problem for anyone who is considered ugly is the moral attribution that it has. Beauty has been equated with goodness, and ugliness with bad. Where does this correlation of appearance with morality come from?

Gretchen Henderson: It really goes back to antiquity. If you look at a lot of the different terms in Greek like kakos, which has the connotation of ugly but also evil; or aiskros which can refer to people with different physical handicaps but also bears a connotation of ugly and disgrace.

So once you start looking at how these terms are coupled, you see how it starts to operate in society. We have obviously the ancient ideas of the Golden Mean, or symmetry and proportion, and these carry over into studies of neuro-aesthetics in science, and seeing how in evolution, in good mate-selection for instance, that attraction comes through symmetry and proportion.

And over the centuries the story of ugliness in some ways follows a sine curve. It's not some progressive upward stroke. And so even when we get back to the 18th century, practices like physiognomy, a revival of interest in that, we have someone like Lavater, who says that in proportion as man is morally good, he is handsome, and ugly in proportion as he is morally bad. So it's something that has really haunted history, these moral implications of ugliness.

Amanda Smith: Who was Lavater?

Gretchen Henderson: He was a physiognomist. So he really kind of looked at that ancient pseudoscience of reading the human body. A lot of these different readings of the physicality of the body then ended up working into how people would be able to look at a person and tell they were a criminal, for instance, or, even later, different theories of eugenics. So it's a complicated history that ends up being applied in various ways.

Amanda Smith: And more from Gretchen Henderson, the author of Ugliness: A Cultural History, later here in The Body Sphere with me, Amanda Smith.

Robert Hoge [reading]: Humans are like social Lego. We connect together with families, we build lives with friends. On our own, we're just one piece. When we come together in groups we make amazing things. Our admission ticket into these groups is not our thoughts or our feelings. Our faces are our tickets. Our faces let us look out and know others and let them know us.

Amanda Smith: That's Robert Hoge, whose memoir, called Ugly, came out in 2013. He's now written his story in a version for young readers: Ugly: A Beaut Story About One Very Ugly Kid. Robert, what's the purpose for you in doing a version of the book for young people?

Robert Hoge: I think there's a really interesting conversation to have with kids about appearance and about difference, and also about disability. After the adult version came out I've had a lot of opportunity to talk to school kids, and I actually prefer talking to kids about this stuff than talking to adults.

Amanda Smith: Why is that?

Robert Hoge: Well, they're so honest and open about it. It's one of the defining characteristics of their lives, it's a central theme of their lives. And I think too often adults try and suggest that differences in appearance don't matter by pretending they don't exist. And kids know that's a lie.

Amanda Smith: Well, there's a nice way that you've chosen to get kids to understand what you looked like as a baby. This is where you get them to imagine modelling your face in clay.

Robert Hoge: Yeah, well the analogy I use…and it's right at the start of the book so I give kids an idea of what I looked like when I was born, saying, 'Get a lump of clay, get a bowling-ball-size lump of clay, put it in front of you, and pretend your teacher has given you an assignment to craft a newborn baby's face, to sculpt it out of the clay. You get the shape of the head right and then you start putting on some details, a couple of ears, a nose, some eyes, lips, some eyebrows, maybe a bit of hair and a chin.'

And so I take kids through what that process might be like, and then say, 'Imagine at the end of that you've done a perfect sculpture, and the newborn baby's face, the entire head that you've done, looks awesome. You're going to get an A+ for this assignment. Then someone who hates your guts comes along with a fistful of clay and whacks it into the middle of that sculpture, into the middle of the face. That's what I looked like when I was born. I had a massive tumour that ran from my forehead down to where the tip of my nose should have been, and that pushed my eyes to the side of my head like a fish.'

So it just gives kids I think a really visceral sense of what I looked like when I was born.

Amanda Smith: There's some very tough stuff in your story, Robert, and I'm especially thinking of how your mother completely rejected you when you were born because of your facial disfigurement and also malformed legs. Did you consider whether to tell that part of the story or not in this kids' edition?

Robert Hoge: I thought a lot about that, and I tell that story in a lot more detail in the adult edition. But I wanted to tell that story to kids for a few reasons. It's an essential part of my story. And I wanted to try and kind of normalise and have a broader acceptance of people actually having feelings about stuff.

When I was born in the early 1970s there were no prenatal scans. My mother had four…I hesitate to call them 'normal' children before me. She had four perfectly healthy children before me. So she had every right to expect that perfect newborn baby when I arrived, and she didn't get that. And I think it's perfectly reasonable, and I think it would be kind of disturbing if a new mum didn't have some feelings of hurt and distress and anger and confusion, and indeed potentially rejection, when a kid like me turned up.

The reason I was pretty happy to include it in the children's version of the book is there's a happy ending to that part. So, you know, my mum eventually decided to take me home and love me wonderfully. I just want to tell kids, when things happen, you're going to have feelings about them. We shouldn't pretend that if you have feelings that are negative that you're bad or you're wrong or evil, because negative feelings happen for a whole range of reasons.

Amanda Smith: What does having those sorts of conversations with children allow for them in relation to their own life experience?

Robert Hoge: One of the things I try and talk about is, accept that there's a really broad range and definition of 'normal'. Kids who are 12 or 13 or 14, they will think about every single thing that they believe is 'wrong' with them. So if they've got one ear that's slightly bigger than the other, if they've got some pimples, they are quite big things in their lives. I don't think we should dismiss them automatically and say that stuff doesn't matter. It matters to those kids. Outside of that broad range of 'normal', however, there are some kids who look very, very aesthetically different. And I, for my life, I've chosen to call that 'ugly', and it's not my job to call other people ugly, but certainly I think my variation from the aesthetic norm fits the definition of ugly.

And so what I want to say to them is that these are some of the challenges I faced when I was growing up. These are some of the ways I've dealt with it. But this wasn't the only thing that defined me. And the way you look, it's okay to be a bit worried about the way you look, it's okay to be proud of the way you look, if you are; that's not a problem either. The thing to think about when thinking about appearance is that's not the only thing that has to define you, and it shouldn't be the only thing you use to define others.

I think they really respond to that well, because I think they often hear from adults, you know, there's the constant messages that, 'Oh, you're beautiful, you're pretty,' that suggest to all kids that they meet this particular aesthetic standard of beauty. But then that's not reinforced. It's not reinforced in movies, in television, in music. And I think kids just breathe a bit of a sigh of relief when we say to them, 'Look, if you don't feel perfectly wonderful about how you look all the time, that's okay, and it's actually pretty normal.'

[Reading] After a year of being exposed to other kids, I knew most of them didn't have squashed noses or dents in the sides of their heads where their eyes used to be. Other kids had legs. You could tickle their feet. I started to realise that all the kids I regularly saw in hospital had something different about them. There was the kid in a wheelchair, there was the kid with the strange lump on his neck. But I also started to see them at school too. There was a kid with a hare lip. There was the one with flaming red hair and pale white skin. There was the girl who was already taller than all of the boys in the class. There was this one really skinny kid…and all the fat ones. Each one had something different about them. I just had different differences.

Amanda Smith: This is Robert Hoge, the author of Ugly, with a reading from the new children's edition of his memoir. Robert, do children make the same sorts of assumptions as adults, such as equating appearance with ability? You know, the assumptions that people made about you when you were a kid because of your misshapen face as to your intelligence and capabilities?

Robert Hoge: I don't think they necessarily define things in a negative way. When I take questions from kids I'll get asked, 'Did you get married?' 'How did you get a job?' And I don't think there's necessarily an underlying assumption that, you know, how could I ever possibly get married, or how could someone with artificial legs or who looked like me get a job, I think they just want to know how, and connect the dots.

Amanda Smith: Well, in the acknowledgements to the young readers edition of your book you thank about half a dozen kids who you say 'helped make this book that little bit uglier'. What does that mean?

Robert Hoge: Well, if you're going to write a kids' book you should actually get some input from kids. So I sent it out to probably about half a dozen kids aged nine to 16. And it was actually just about getting some feedback.

Amanda Smith: How did they help you, though, to make the book a little bit uglier? That's what I don't understand.

Robert Hoge: I think I'm just playing on the title there. What I was really concerned about when I was writing a book for kids, because I think it's a different sort of equation when you're saying to adults, 'I'm writing a book about me and it's called Ugly and I consider myself ugly,' versus doing that with kids. Because I don't want to have a conversation about me suggesting other people, and especially other kids, are ugly. And the book is not an instruction manual for other people with disability or facial deformities, and it's not an instruction manual for how parents of kids with disability or difference should be running their lives either. So it's actually just saying, 'Look, the essence of this book is my journey with my appearance.'

Amanda Smith: Robert Hoge is the author of Ugly, in its two versions: the first for adults and now for children. Robert, a great pleasure to speak with you, thank you.

Robert Hoge: Thank you, Amanda.

Amanda Smith: And you can get details for Robert's book, Ugly: A Beaut Story About One Very Ugly Kid, on The Body Sphere website.

Music: What’s the ugliest part of your body?

If, as that song written by Frank Zappa suggests is true, effectively that ugliness is about perception, does that mean there is nothing absolute about the term?

Gretchen Henderson, the author of Ugliness: A Cultural History:

Gretchen Henderson: No, no, and in fact over the course of this study this was something that really shows itself to not be absolute, and I'm thinking of, say, in ancient Egypt where deformity was viewed more beneficently. In the Amarna period representations of Amenhotep IV or Nefertiti, they bear ugly features. And by ugly, this of course is a slippery term right there, so what I'm referring to are, say, thin necks, or prominent stomachs or elongated jaws, full lips, to express new concepts of kingship and queenship, even a divine marker. So again, this is where I refer back to ugliness following more of a sine curve. It's not that one thing follows and then we've inherited that and then progressed to a next level, there are these different cultural interpretations of what those markers seem to be. The same body can be read very differently in different periods of time.

Amanda Smith: Well elsewhere in the world, there's also the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi. Can you explain that?

Gretchen Henderson: It's really an appreciation for qualities like the withered, the weathered, the coarse, the impermanent, the aged. So it's a very different expression. You would almost wrap the word 'beauty' around wabi-sabi rather than 'ugliness'. But if you took away that term and you actually presented those qualities, many people, especially in a more western based culture would apply ugliness to those terms.

I think so much of the ugly story, the more that I chased it down, it was really about our own relationship with what we fear or dread, and human mortality. So we want a sense of immortality, or youthfulness. The wabi-sabi is appreciating much more of what the reality of the human condition is.

Amanda Smith: Yes, in terms like 'withered' or 'weathered', time is implicit in that.

Gretchen Henderson: Yes.

Amanda Smith: So now we started off, Gretchen, talking about ugly clubs, and I want to finish with talking about Uglydolls. First of all, for anyone not familiar with the Uglydoll phenomenon, tell us about them.

Gretchen Henderson: Sure. They're these plush looking dolls…

Amanda Smith: They're little stuffed toys, aren't they?

Gretchen Henderson: They're little stuffed toys. And I would say that they're kind of raceless, genderless, classless. They almost look like little monsters, and they're very cuddly, and they come with names and little descriptions, and there's a whole line of books now. They have their own 'Uglyverse'.

Amanda Smith: As in universe, the 'Uglyverse'.

Gretchen Henderson: As in universe, the ugly guide to the Uglyverse. You now see airports that are filled with stalls of these Uglydolls. So they're very popular. And I think this goes back to the fact that this is a moment of appropriation for the ugly. One of their mottos is 'Ugly is the New Beautiful'. But you see even television shows like Ugly Betty or Ugly Americans. All of these different appropriations that are really trying to push against what the inherited meaning is. And I think that plays into also something that's happening with the Uglydoll phenomenon is how do we allow people to view one another with much more compassion.

Amanda Smith: Are Uglydolls, though, really about this sort of accepting and loving difference, or is it…part of me wonders if it's actually another form of fetishising the abnormal or the deformed, in the way that 19th century freak shows did.

Gretchen Henderson: I think that is part of it, because none of it quite overlaps with our reality for those leaps to be made. I actually have tried to interview some children on why they're attracted to Uglydolls, and I haven't quite gotten an articulation of what it is. There's something comforting about the Uglydolls. I don't know if it's more of a pet, and this kind of diminutive I think is actually a very good analogy to the freak show, because someone like Julia Pastrana, who was billed as the ugliest woman in the world…

Amanda Smith: This is in the 19th century?

Gretchen Henderson: This is in the 19th century, the freak show circuit really took off in that period. So there is a fetishisation of the ugly. And there's also a rhetoric of the sensitive monster. There is pity, it often accompanies the ugly. And the pity may be part of this as far as fetishising the Uglydolls, wanting to take care of something that also seems a little bit helpless. So you're right, it's definitely walking both a comforting but also a dangerous line.

Amanda Smith: Gretchen Henderson is the author of Ugliness: A Cultural History, and details for it are on The Body Sphere website. Gretchen is a lecturer in English at Georgetown University in Washington DC, speaking to us from Washington.

I'm Amanda Smith, and this is the final edition of the current season of The Body Sphere. I'll be back with you for the summer season of the program, in December here on RN. Meantime, Monocle, the international business, culture and design program, returns to the airwaves at this time from next week.

I'll miss you but I'll be back.

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