Review: Monica Miller’s Being Ugly: Southern Women Writers and Social Rebellion. (2017)
“That’s one homely baby”
“She’s got to whoop that face to get it out of bed in the morning”
“Uglier than sin”
“Their head looks like a cat sucked on it”
“Don’t be ugly to me”
These are a few expressions I heard regularly growing up. Mostly said by the women in my family and my father, ugliness was about the worst character trait one could manifest. We didn’t have money; we had our looks.
My mother looks like a younger, less tampered with version of Her Majesty Dolly Parton. My dad is handsome, and my sister, who doesn’t really favor either of them, has always looked like a version of Jewel or the black-and-white film and theater actress Joan Lorring. I’ve been told I’m pretty before, usually because I look easy or, problematically, Aryan. I have voluminous blonde curls, giant blue eyeballs that led my dad to call me Bette Davis growing up, decent skin, well-emphasized bone structure by the power of cosmetics.
We weren’t an ugly group and we didn’t manifest the traits of our class—poor teeth, hardened skin, or lack of access to skincare and cosmetics. I started wearing fake eyelashes daily at fifteen. I’ve been the disengaged and snooty saleswoman at the makeup store for almost five years. After every orthodontic device available (including one appliance that worked like metal hinges to straighten my overbite), I have straight, cavity-free teeth. My family is pretty good looking in the plainest terms.
We used our collective beauty to hate the rich. “You can’t fix ugly,” we’d say about some of the wealthy women in Nashville. “I got my looks,” we’d remind ourselves when money was tight. Beauty was always tied up in class—if we looked good enough, we could convince ourselves we were middle-class despite being cash poor. Moisturizer, hair dye, and fake eyelashes can cost you as little as $12 total. I know, because my Revlon Number 4 was $3 on sale, eyelashes $1 a pair, and a mineral-oil free moisturizer will cost you roughly $8 if you look in the right places. Beauty can be cheap, contrary to Dolly’s iconic quip, “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap.”
I say all of this not to boast of my family’s looks, but to try to talk about beauty in class terms. After reading Monica Miller’s recent study of ugliness in Southern literature by Southern women writers, I couldn’t help but think about the class components left out of studies of beauty. Poor women, beyond facing significant health obstacles, also face the cruelty of class-induced ugliness. Braces are expensive and sugary foods are cheap, so teeth are too often painfully bad. You can read more about poverty’s effect on teeth here by Sarah Smarsh. Skincare is a luxury and working in the sun and smoking is harsh, so poor skin develops texture and lines prematurely. Hairstyling is through the roof—even at Delma’s Beauty Parlor—so boxed hair dye and grocery store conditioner do their best. Monica Miller’s work is so worthwhile in examining how Southern women use ugliness as a tool of social rebellion, but I do find that she falls short of acknowledging involuntary ugliness and the psychic implication of ugliness on the poor. Dorothy Allison summarizes this feeling of inadequate desperation well. Bone’s mother thinks, “We’re too ugly for photographs” (38) at a family gathering, and Bone, the young girl and protagonist of Bastard Out of Carolina, comes to realize:
“I was part of the trash down in the mud-stained cabins, fighting with the darkies and stealing ungratefully from our betters, stupid, course, born to shame and death” (206)
Ugliness takes a toll on pubescent Bone, who sees a beauty of hardness in the lives of women who struggle to survive. Poor women, then, are often forced into ugliness. Beauty is expensive. Beauty routines take hours.
Monica Miller’s Being Ugly provides a theoretical framework through which we can read Southern writing by Southern women, who often use a device Miller coins “the ugly plot” as a form of social rebellion. These women choose to present as ugly, therefore thwarting the marriage or courtship plot, and rebelling against prescriptive gender expectations in the South.
Miller’s analysis dissects ugliness on multiple levels: she notes the behavioral component, where ugliness in women becomes “a mark of poor moral character” (20), and that ugliness “refuses to be immediately dismissed” (24) by active staring or gazing. Throughout her study, she focuses on writers such as Eudora Welty, Gone with the Wind’s Margaret Mitchell, Flannery O’Connor, Zora Neale Hurston, Lee Smith, and several others. She notes the significant differences in racialized beauty and deconstructs the historical attribution of ugly women to the failed South narrative.
In the first chapter, Miller claims:
“More important, however, are the ways in which ugliness marks a class-based stigma, as women of a lower socioeconomic status have less access—with neither time not money—to the disciplinary regimens which conventional beauty requires” (47).
She returns to this notion briefly, but she almost wholly focuses on ugliness as choice—ugliness as a rebellion. But I can’t help but wonder: would Miller’s deconstruction of Joy/Hulga in Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People,” an analysis of a woman who chooses the ugliest name she can and wears obnoxious sweaters, hold up when analyzing Bone Boatwright, a child who finds herself surrounded by poverty-induced ugliness?
I don’t think so. Miller’s contribution to Southern women’s writing convincingly shows middle-class ugliness as rebellion. I know what she was trying to do by creating a device to view ugliness as a refusal to fit prescriptive and narrow parameters for beauty, and she undoubtedly succeeds in showing these women as they actively rebel through choosing ugliness. Her feminist theoretical framework is undoubtedly useful for revisiting works that employ the ‘ugly plot.’ Still, she doesn’t focus on unwilling or poverty-induced ugliness. Would that be considered rebellion? Would a woman’s dental maladies be considered a feminist act to thwart the patriarchal chokehold of marriage?
Or is ugliness only an act of rebellion if a woman is wealthy enough to not be ugly?
Check out Miller’s Being Ugly from your local college library, or purchase it here from Amazon ($37.95).