Appearances Matter

On Monday, November 9, 2015, The New York Times ran an op-ed piece by Julia Baird called “Being Dishonest About Ugliness.”  Ms. Baird was writing in response to Australian author Robert Hoge’s publication of a children’s book addressing ugliness.  According to Hoge, who was born with a tumor on his face, he is “the ugliest person you’ve never met.”  His book, Ugly, is meant to address ugliness with children and to teach them that while appearances matter, looks aren’t everything.  For his part, Hoge, who was initially rejected by his parents at birth, went on to become an important political adviser in Queensland. 

Ugly by Robert Hoge

Not surprisingly, Baird’s op-ed article elicited many comments.  An opinion piece about appearance in general and ugliness in particular is bound to generate comments.  There are those who observe that being considered attractive has been an advantage for them throughout life.  There are others (usually women) who insist that being attractive has led colleagues to consider them less intelligent than average.  Then there are those such as “Colin S.” from New York City who describes himself as “someone who is ugly,” and advises others like him to “accept it.” 

Several of the article's commenters expressed their disgust over Baird’s superficiality.  For some folks any discussion of looks is always superficial. Still others articulated gratitude for Baird’s willingness even to talk about the difference being “ugly” or “attractive” can make in a person’s life.  One of the most insightful commenters noted beauty’s subjective nature.  I quote in full “blackmamba” from Illinois:

Imagine the bountiful benefit of being born beautifully African yellow, brown and black in the land of black African enslavement, Jim Crow discrimination and mass incarceration. The European American white definition of physical beauty denies, defines and confines black African Americans as innately uniquely physically ugly. And some black folks are misled into accepting this alien vision. They try to look white and seek out white partners. Imagine if in addition to being black they were born "ugly" by nature in the scheme of what is beautiful or by physical deformities.

Within hours of the op-ed piece’s posting, blackmamba was one of the few commenters to make an observation about beauty/ugliness’ subjectivity.  I understand blackmamba’s point to be that being considered “ugly” in the United States does not preclude one from being “beautiful” in another context.  Cultural context—which includes historical moment in time—makes all the difference.  Yet we insist on the truthiness of objective beauty.  Notes “Navigator” from Brooklyn:  “Unless you have severe astigmatism, there is beauty and there is homely, obvious as the wart on your nose.” 

Baird’s piece and the comments it elicits remind us that appearances matter.  blackmamba sagely observes that appearances matter and that appearance’s context makes all the difference. 

Rachel Dolezal as a child
Rachel Dolezal as a child in an undated photo unearthed by ABC news


Rachel Dolezal in 2015
Rachel Dolezal earlier this year on the Today show


In reading the responses to “Ugliness,” there is a sense that certain physical attributes are malleable while others are not and so the issue becomes a matter of accepting what cannot be changed.  Yet thanks to the beauty industry’s best efforts, hair, for example, is one physical aspect that can be dramatically altered.  Consider the strange case of Rachel Dolezal who became one of this past summer’s most contentious figures in the news.  Dolezal was an NAACP official and a college instructor who for years presented herself as Black.  This summer her biological parents “outed” her as Caucasian.  Dolezal has since been accused of minstrelsy and cultural appropriation, which she vehemently denies.  In a move that calls to mind Brazilian nationalist rhetoric of the Getúlio Vargas era, she aligns herself with Black culture and then elides culture with race.  Dolezal affects Blackness in part through hair transformations that take her from limp, straight, and blonde to full, thick, and curly.  Assuming extensions and wigs aid her hair morphing, Dolezal’s different do’s demonstrate the relative changeability of one’s hair if not the flexibility of how race is perceived in America. 

Other ways our appearance is made malleable include changing one’s body shape and size.  Significant interventions usually require more effort, however, than goes into donning a wig but we are reminded nonetheless of the relative plasticity of appearance.  Nothing is truly permanent when tattoos, for example, can be removed, re-tattooed, or concealed. 

Ganguro girls
Ganguro girls in Japan

Spray tanned ganguro girls and Rachel Dolezal notwithstanding; extreme skin color alterations are not typically within our cultural tool kit for effecting dramatic appearance changes.  Clothing, on the other hand, is one of the most flexible, potent means for significantly altering appearance and the way others perceive us.  And somehow the conspicuous changeability of clothing means that it is often regarded differently than is the presumed fixed quality of, say, “ugliness.”  We have work clothes, clothes for staying home sick in bed, fancy occasion attire, ugly clothes, beautiful clothes, and costumes reserved for unique events such as Halloween.  Yet as blackmamba observes, context is everything and at times different competing clothing contexts intersect to form a cartoon fuse leading to an explosive powder keg that is anything but funny.  This past fall that fuse led directly to Halloween. 

Over the past year, the Black Lives Matter movement has called attention to the ways racism gets manifested in the US.  Activists march in the streets and appear at political events encouraging leaders to take action or at least to engage in a dialogue about brutality towards Blacks in America.  And African Americans are not the only group growing impatient with leaders who would turn a blind eye to social injustices.   Much less visible than the Black Lives Matter movement are those such as transgender Latina activist, Jennicet Gutiérrez, who call attention to the mistreatment and detention of Latin Americans seeking asylum in the US.  To that mix of asylum seekers treated with suspicion we can now include Syrian refugees.  While Muslim refugees are currently being singled out, Muslims in general are experiencing a backlash in this country.  For Muslims and especially Muslim women in religiously signifying clothing, there can be no denying that appearances matter.  Consider, for example, the case of three Muslim-American students killed in Chapel Hill, North Carolina on February 10, 2015, shortly after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris.  Two of the three people shot execution style were women wearing hijabs.

Killed Muslim students
The three Muslim students killed in North Carolina earlier this year (photo from the Al Jazeera news website)

It was in this climate of racial, ethnic, and religious tensions that college and university officials this fall urged their students to think twice when choosing Halloween costumes.  At Yale students were told to avoid wearing “culturally unaware and insensitive” costumes.  Earlier in October at UCLA, the fraternity Sigma Phi Epsilon and the sorority Alpha Phi co-hosted a “Kanye Western” party prompting some attendees to smudge their faces with charcoal and pad out their butts.  Partygoers insisted they were merely visually interpreting Kanye West’s hit song, “Gold Digger.”  Lest one think such “culturally unaware” costuming is limited to those in their callow youth, University of Louisville president, James Ramsey, wrangled his wife and university staff members to dress up as “Mexicans.”  Costumed people grin for the camera and the images ricochet on social media with the context getting re-constituted each time.

Kanye Western partygoers
Padded partygoers (from the New York Daily News)


Golddiggers of 2015
Golddiggers of 2015 attend a "Kanye Western" themed party (from the New York Daily News)


University of Louisville "Mexicans"
University of Louisville "Mexicans" pose for the camera.  Note that all of the women are cross-dressed and, apart from the president, all the men are cross-dressed as "señoritas" (photo from Fox News)


In the days leading up to Halloween, one Yale faculty member and student residence administrator expressed concern over the violation of personal rights that results from telling students what constitutes an appropriate costume.  The Yale staffer in question, Erika Christakis, sent an email to students in her residence hall saying:

Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious … a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?  Adding further: American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition.

Yale students have since attacked Ms. Christakis for her lack of sensitivity and the issue has become one of free speech vs. the further marginalization of students who already feel disrespected and oppressed by white hegemony.  Yet there is a nuance here that neither side of the debate acknowledges: social business beyond youthful ignorance or plain hateful spite gets negotiated in the context of Halloween.[i]  Something powerful happens socially when we wear a costume, whether it is social commentary, cultural appropriation or something else altogether.


Check back next week when I address the carnivalesque in Halloween, the potency of costumes, and the kinds of social business costumes aim to negotiate.



[i] With all due respect to New Orleans, Halloween not Mardi Gras, is this country’s carnival by virtue of its being practiced on a more universal level.


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