thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Don’t Lose Yourself: Scott Westerfeld’s “Uglies”

In Uncategorized on August 17, 2011 at 11:44 am

Sarah Todd

[Spoiler warning: some plot reveals ahead]

I’m not usually one for conspiracy theories, mostly because I think people aren’t that good at being organized or keeping secrets. If UFOs were really cruising over to our atmosphere, I feel like at least one modern-day Deep Throat would start an anonymous blog or text friends some pictures or whatever. And then there’d be some other poor sap who’d forget to update a security code or give the alien a snack that disagreed with his/her/its digestive system, and before you knew it, Anderson Cooper would be hiding in a tree somewhere, getting the scoop.

But there is at least one conspiracy theory I definitely do believe in. I think the beauty myth is a giant scam designed to trick people into worrying so much about the way they look that they don’t have time to focus on the stuff that really counts. (Also, I sort of believe in time warps, but that’s another story.)

Scott Westerfeld’s sci-fi YA novel Uglies, the first of a trilogy, takes the beauty conspiracy theory to its logical extreme. In a society several hundred years in the future, everyone undergoes plastic surgery when they turn sixteen. Before you have surgery, no matter how you look, you’re automatically an “ugly.” Kids nickname each other for the features judged most egregiously flawed: “Fattie, Pig-Eyes, Boney, Zits, Freak.” The novel’s fifteen-year-old heroine, Tally, is called “Squint” for her narrow eyes. She’s fully internalized her culture’s standard of beauty, and describes herself in terms of her deviation from that standard: she has a “wide nose and thin lips, too-high forehead and tangled mass of frizzy hair.” She thinks she’s ugly, but she’s not too worried about it, because she knows that in a few months she’ll get the surgery and be as beautiful as everybody else.

Post-surgery “pretties” have the requisite “big eyes and full lips like a kid’s; smooth, clear skin; symmetrical features.” Slight variations in eye and hair color make pretties distinguishable from one another, but everyone basically looks the same after surgery, which is the whole point.  Schools teach young uglies that back in the so-called Rust Era, “Everyone judged everyone else based on their appearance. People who were taller got better jobs, and people even voted for some politicians just because they weren’t quite as ugly as everybody else [. . .] People killed one another over stuff like having different skin color.” The noble goal of achieving equality has resulted in a brave new world in the elite Pretty Committee decides what’s attractive, and everyone falls in line.

Uglies does a great job of showing the tools society uses to reinforce the ideology of beauty: there’s the historical motivation mentioned above, the social pressure to conform, and conveniently slanted scientific evidence. Schools teach young uglies that it’s only natural to think people with certain features are more beautiful: it’s evolution.

“The big eyes and lips said: I’m young and vulnerable. I can’t hurt you, and you want to protect me. And the rest said: I’m healthy, I won’t make you sick. And no matter how you felt about a pretty, there was a part of you that thought: If we had kids, they’d be healthy too…
It was biology, they said at school.”

Biology shores up societal standards of beauty: attractiveness isn’t variable, it’s scientific! And of course science has never been manipulated in the name of oppression.

But Uglies does more than just explore the ways societies persuade people to hate themselves and worship ideals–it turns the conventional idea of beauty on its head. After Tally joins up with a group of resistors, we learn that the surgeries change you inside as well as out. When you get shiny, smooth hair and dazzling white teeth, you lose your mind: a small lesion in your brain effectively lobotimizes you, taking away your anxiety and fear and sadness and passion and daring. There’s a reason pretties seem shallow and confident and self-involved, absorbed in parties and clothes and cliques: they’re gorgeous zombies.

With this revelation, the reassurances of Tally’s parents–middle pretties, dignified with smatterings of grey hair and the occasional line–that she will leave her awkward adolsecence behind suddenly seem sinister. “That’s part of being an ugly,” they tell her, “everything’s exciting and intense and important, but you have to grow out of it.” But becoming a beautiful grown-up means, quite literally, losing yourself.

Convincing people to hate themselves and each other because of the way they look is one way that cultural authorities consolidate power: they affirm their own superiority while persuading the masses to hold themselves down. If people are distracted by trying to live up to an impossible ideal, they’re less likely to have the energy to found a nonprofit or write a novel or find a cure for a disease or start a revolution.

“Maybe the reason war and all that other stuff went away is that there are no more controversies, no disagreements, no people demanding change,” Tally reflects. “Just masses of smiling pretties, and a few people left to run things.” Self-loathing is exhausting, particularly in perpetuity, and it breeds complacency with the system that governs our perceptions. If we believe the things our culture tells us about beauty, we’re easily controlled.

The novel’s plot is set in motion by Tally’s fear that she won’t be able to have the surgery and that she’ll stay ugly forever. By its close, Tally is fully persuaded that she wants to keep her own face and brain, imperfections be damned–which means that beauty has become the threat, and ugliness, which isn’t ugliness at all, the prize.

Uglies has a definite message for today’s image-conscious tweens and teens (and adults), but it’s rarely heavy-handed in arguing for the importance of distinctive traits and the real beauty of knobby knees and freckles and scars. A big part of Tally’s conversion has to do with meeting people who tell her they like her close-together eyes, and falling for a guy whose big nose she wouldn’t want to change. She realizes there’s an alternative view of beauty: people look beautiful just by looking like themselves.

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  1. I heard about two things recently relevant to this:

    1) there’s a guy who thinks that ugliness can be quantified, that people are discriminated against because of it, and that they should be able to sue for damages like any other disability

    2) there’s a doctor in Brazil who apparently believes that being beautiful is a civil rights issue, and plastic surgery should be made available to everyone.

    They’re both interesting reactions to the same phenomenon, I think.

  2. Sarah, this looks so interesting! I can’t wait to check it out. Also, you are a delight to read, as always.

  3. Ehren – Both so interesting! I saw the Brazilian plastic surgery article in the NYTimes; do you remember where you heard about the first item?
    Bethany – Thanks amiga! I can’t wait to discuss with you.

  4. Now I really really want to read this book!! So interesting … Also, made me think of The Hunger Games and the complacency of the Capitol a little bit.

  5. So I just got my copy from the library yesterday… and I stayed up late to finish it. And then request the next books from the library (which are now on hold and I will probably stay up late tomorrow reading…). The book wasn’t the most well written or complex or deeply symbolic, but I was thinking the whole time and if that isn’t a reason for it to be a good book, I don’t know what is.
    I especially found interesting the idea that they blame previous wars, strife, conflict on people being different in appearance. Body dysmorphia and eating disorders, racism, job promotions, everything. And really, what would our world be like if everyone was a 10? The hypothesis is null in Uglies, because of the lobotomy factor, but how much does appearance – and our judgement based thereon – really affect these larger issues?

    Also, did anyone else snort and laugh in glee and indignance that when looking at old magazines, the overly muscled are athletes, the undernourished are models, the uglies (by ugly standards) are politicians, and the overweight are comedians?

  6. […] I find a comparison to Tally Youngblood from Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series (reviewed by our own Sarah T.) series a closer comparison—a dystopic future in which everyone is surgically […]

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