Pretties with Ugly Thoughts

Studying Critical Approaches to Modern Beauty Politics in Scott Westerfeld`s "Uglies"-Trilogy

Seminar Paper, 2013
31 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. Beauty in the city
2.1. Why Tally wants to be pretty
2.1.1. Social stability and equality through uniform prettiness
2.1.2. Survival of the prettiest: Social Darwinist ideas
2.2. Beauty politics - The operation

3. Natural Beauty - Tally and the Smokies

4. More than pretty - Being special

5. Be yourself! - The role of the body for adolescent independence
5.1. Pretty happy - The promise of being beautiful
5.2. Ugly adolescence - The teenager as inferior

6. Conclusion

7. Works Cited

1. Introduction

What is the author`s message? Not only occurs this question in institutionalized settings like literature lessons which often put strong emphasis on the literary potential of “moral education” (Waller 10). Also in the situation of private reading, readers ask themselves about what to take from the book they have just read. Scott Westerfeld`s trilogy Uglies - Pretties - Specials tells us about the 15-year-old girl Tally who lives in a society whose citizens (have to) undergo an operation in order to be made pretty as soon as they get 16 years old. The books could easily be taken for prominently criticizing callomania, i.e. the excessive love of and craving for beauty and the respective extreme efforts people make to appear beautiful and thus correspond to a certain ideal.1 It is widely acknowledged that Western countries have developed into societies whose citizens spend remarkable amounts of time and money in the “improvement” or “maintenance” of their fitness and body appearance. Winfried Menninghaus comments on the central role of beauty in our modern lives as follows:

Ästhetischen Weisen der Selbstdarstellung und Weltauslegung wächst … ein großer Teil jener Sinnstiftungspotentiale zu, die in der Moderne aus Religion und metaphysischen Legitimationen abfließen. Zumindest in weiten Teilen der westlichen Kultur haben religiöse Glaubensinhalte und große Erzählungen aller Art die Kraft verloren individuelle Lebensentwürfe zu prägen und ihre Deutung von der Geburt bis zum Tod und darüber hinaus zu leiten. … Die transkulturelle Praktiken, den eigenen Körper und alle damit in Beziehung stehenden Dinge ornamental zu stilisieren, erhalten dadurch zusätzliches Gewicht: nunmehr müssen sie auch das Vakuum füllen , das die Entwertung herkömmlicher Autoritätspositionen und Beglaubigungsinstanzen - Religion, Tradition, Familie - hinterlassen hat. (259-260)

Nancy Etcoff speaks in her book Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty about worshipping beauty as “… letztes und bestes Glaubenssystem der modernen westlichen Welt”

(9). The strive for beauty has taken extreme forms and is seen as an indicator of an ill society (Etcoff 11). Menninghaus accordingly states: “Die spezifischen Formen, welche die Selbsterschaffung des eigenen Körpers heute annimmt, entgleisen … in einer wachsenden Zahl von Fällen in eine klinische Pathologie” (275). Since the 1980s, an increasing number of so-called body image disorders is reported. More and more and even younger people, and not only girls and women, suffer from a systematic depreciation of their bodies as they compare them to ideal and imaginative body images (Menninghaus 250-251). It therefore seems a first and logical approach to see Westerfeld`s books as a major criticism of today`s (Western) societies and media which make people perceive their bodies as negative and inferior. As they are considered to be dystopian fictions, we anticipate Westerfeld`s novels to carry a warning reference to the reader`s present society, depicting the danger we could run into: namely giving up our autonomy as a human being and, for the sake of becoming pretty, being turned into citizens who can be easily controlled by our major concern to appear beautiful. In this sense, Westerfeld`s books offer a most sinister view on how far we could get if we are advancing technologies like aesthetic surgery and genetic engineering without reconsidering how, why and to what extent we use them.2

We assume this critical warning to be embodied in the protagonist Tally who tries to succeed in disengaging from the ideology indoctrinated by her city: Everyone under 16 is labelled “ugly” and there are fixed parameters for ugliness and prettiness. This paper wants to “track” the critical approaches we find in the novels and examine whether the narrations really live up to the criticism apparently promised. It will look at the concepts of beauty the protagonist Tally is confronted with and refer to current scientific and popular discourses about these respective concepts. Finally, a connection shall be drawn between the issues raised in the novels and the genre chosen to work on them. Why are “beauty” and “body” relevant topics to be treated in Young Adult fiction? And how does the genre Young Adult literature change the portrayal and reception of the issues? Questions like these shall be dealt with in order to review the books` message in the context of their intended readership.

2. Beauty in the city

2.1. Why Tally wants to be pretty

2.1.1. Social stability and equality through uniform prettiness

The society we find depicted in the three novels by Westerfeld is organized according to a strict social stratification alongside age and stages of prettiness (littlies, uglies, new-pretties, middle-pretties, late-pretties/ crumblies). All “uglies”, i.e. all teenagers under 16, live their lives waiting for one thing: becoming pretty. Being pretty determines one`s existence in the city and there are concrete answers to the question why that may be so.

First and foremost, there is the political argument of equality resulting in social stability. These two essential political objectives serve to legitimize the operation which turns all 16-year-olds pretty. Being taught that people in the past had to suffer from unfair treatment according to their looks, Tally believes that she now lives in a society which is much more equal and thus fair:

“Right, and things were so great back then when everyone was ugly. Or did you miss that day in school?” “Yeah, yeah, I know,” Shay recited. “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. Blah, blah, blah.” ... “So what if people look more alike now? It`s the only way to make people equal.” (Uglies 44-45)

And indeed can the aesthetic informational content of first impressions have far-reaching implications for human interpersonal behaviour: “cute” babies getting more attention, good- looking teenagers having more friends and attractive people getting preferred jobs are examples of that mechanism (Menninghaus 236). The way one looks necessarily has an impact on one`s life as many decisions are made in the interaction with other people. Aesthetic evaluations and judgments are an essential medium of orientation (Menninghaus 66). But this principle does not apply to Tally`s world because after the operation there is nothing such as a competition about careers, jobs or partners. The citizens older than 16 seem to live in a state of happy indifference, spending their time having parties and gradually growing up until they reach the government-prescribed phases of middle- and late-prettiness. We do not learn how Tally`s society really works, i.e. for example how the government supplies the above-mentioned lifestyle for all citizens or what middle- and late-pretties spend their days on. But we do learn that the adolescents older than 16 do not even have the chance to compete for certain options and to shape their individual future lives. On the contrary, their lives are strictly planned and they are transferred to another stage of growing up through the operation. So Tally`s remarks in the conversation with Shay show that the argument of creating equality through the operation is reflected on in a single-sided matter and that other questions on that issue, which could lead to interrogating the society they live in, are not negotiated with the adolescents.

2.1.2. Survival of the prettiest: Social Darwinist ideas

A second argumentative complex unfolds in the following paragraph from Uglies:

At school, they explained how it affected you. It didn`t matter if you knew about evolution or not - it worked anyway. On everyone. There was a certain kind of beauty, a prettiness that everyone could see. Big eyes and full lips like a kid`s; smooth, clear skin; symmetrical features; and a thousand other little clues. Somewhere in the backs of their minds, people were always looking for these markers. No one could help seeing them, no matter how they were brought up. A million years of evolution had made it part of the human brain. 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. I want this pretty person … . It was biology they said at school. (Uglies 16-17)

In these words, certain convictions about the nature of beauty are expressed. They all root in Social Darwinism, an ideology trying to apply Darwin`s biological concepts about evolution on human beings in order to explain sociological and political phenomena.

The ideas expressed in Tally`s thoughts refer to the principle of sexual selection found by evolutionary theorists among animals, i.e. making an aesthetic choice and preferring the partner with particular attractive sexual ornaments (Menninghaus 9). The whole concept of sexual selection is based on the assumption that evolution has every being programmed to reproduce as often as possible. This mechanism leads to the analogy that what is beautiful must be somehow good, too, since the preferred sexual ornaments bring about “relative advantages” for both courting and courted (Menninghaus 70).3 Despite numerous attempts in this field, Menninghaus points out that Social Darwinist ideas are often highly problematic as the human pattern of partner choice cannot be applied to Darwin`s model concept without contradictions (107-116). However, archaic preferences are believed to still be active, even if they are not the motor of evolution any longer (Menninghaus 128). This belief is manifested in three theses expressed in the above cited paragraph and also widely discussed among researchers: the so-called “Kindchenschema”, the skin as an important indicator of health and the symmetry hypothesis.

Departing from the animal world, the period of beginning sexual maturity of female animals means the promise of the most success for reproduction. Accordingly, male animals will prefer female creatures of this age or phase. Transferring this model to human beings, the facial features of the “Kindchenschema” indicate youthfulness, high fertility, successful reproduction (Menninghaus 163) and thus lead to preferring the woman with these very features to others. But Menninghaus also points out that the fascination of aesthetic attractiveness cannot be reduced to criteria of sexual selection like age and fertility potential (167). He states that measurements have found variables for attractiveness and “facial babyishness” not correlating in a linear mode (167).4 So, features of facial babyishness can certainly be one aspect of facial prettiness but it is by far not the only guarantor for the partner choice among humans especially as we live in an age of trying as much as possible to prevent reproduction.

Clear skin is considered to be one characteristic of attractiveness that represents immune competence (Menninghaus 155). From an evolutionary point of view, clear skin indicates a strong organism that has overcome obstacles like attacks of parasites in the course of its development and promises the ability to resist new attacks reliably.5 Consequently, clear skin as an indicator of developmental stability and the promise of successful and “high- quality” reproduction, results in a positive perception that then can be interpreted as beauty. As skin is our biggest visible organ, it is often said to function as a “mirror of the soul” and in this respect, clear, smooth skin figures as physical as well as mental balance and health (Menninghaus 157). But it is quite unrealistic to expect adolescents and adults to have clear skin like a child`s. Skin impurities in puberty, a phase Tally has to go through, result from hormone production which is also an essential part of growing up. To wish for the clear and smooth skin like a child`s signals the willingness to submit to the incapacitation caused by the operation. Re-making the skin with the operation means denying the phase of adolescence often mirrored in one`s skin.

Thirdly, Tally believes in the symmetry hypothesis. Evolutionary theorists claim that men prefer women with symmetrical features and have several arguments at hand to support that claim (Menninghaus 156). Again health is the most essential aspect: Virus diseases deform face and body and therefore symmetric features account for a stable immune system (Deuflhard 24). Interestingly, Deuflhard points out that on the one hand, symmetry is one of the most highly ranked characteristics when it comes to describing beauty.6 But on the other hand, symmetrical faces get forgotten more easily. That is why in order to be “visible” and “memorable”, a minimum of asymmetry is needed (24). The symmetry Tally refers to is an artificial symmetry that can only be shaped by the operation making the two halves of one`s face perfectly identical.7 We can infer that the operation does not only make all people in the city symmetrical and thus pretty. By eliminating each trace of asymmetry, the operation also reduces the visibility and memorability of the faces.

What we learn from the above mentioned is that Tally`s city obviously indoctrinates their adolescent citizens with Social Darwinism as explanatory basis for the “natural” logic of a fixed concept of beauty. This can only be made real through the operation. Shay, Tally`s best friend in uglyville, is the one to question the belief in a biological rule for beauty asking Tally: “ You don`t believe all that crap, do you - that there`s only one way to look, and everyone`s programmed to agree on it? ” (Uglies 81). She also works as a corrective to the city`s indoctrination telling Tally:

“You`re not ugly.” “Oh, come on, Shay.” “No, I mean it.” She reached out and touched Tally`s real nose. “Your profile is great.” … “I`m serious, Tally … your nose isn`t ugly. I like your eyes, too.” “My eyes? Now you`re totally crazy. They`re way too close together.” “Who says?” “Biology says.” (Uglies 80-81)

The following quote from Uglies illustrates that the figure of David is also used to oppose these social Darwinist ideas, to expose the aspect of socially defined categories and to offer a rather humanist notion of beauty:8

“Listen, Tally. That`s not what`s important to me. What`s inside you matters a lot more.” “But first you see my face. You react to symmetry, skin tone, the shape of my eyes. And you decide what`s inside of me, based on all your reactions. You´re programmed to!” “I`m not programmed. I dind`t grow up in a city.” “It`s not just culture, it`s evolution!” … “What you do, the way you think, makes you beautiful” (Uglies 278-279).

In both cases, we see Tally clinging to the city`s ideas of beauty being purely biologically “programmed” whereas Shay and David take the idea of Social Darwinism for brainwashing done by the city to its citizens.

2.2. Beauty politics - The operation

The operation for Tally and most of her friends and fellow “ugly” citizens means the great caesura of their lives. It enables them to leave the ugly phase and enter a new life as a pretty. Looking at the history of aesthetic surgery, cosmetic operations have always served to correct and “improve” the human body as opposed to reconstructive surgery restoring essential body functions (Gilman 8). The intentions of correction and improvement imply that there are certain reliable standard measures and proportions an operation can reshape and mould the body/ face after.9 However, “der Hauptgrund für jede Schönheitsoperation sollte jedoch in jedem Land gleich sein: sich in seinem eigenen Körper wohl zu fühlen.“10 This statement, published on the website of Medical One, one of the major German cosmetic clinic groups, provides an interesting perspective on the operation carried out mandatorily in Tally`s city: Uglies do not have the chance to develop a feeling for their own “ugly” body independent of the city-promoted perception of prettiness. They do not have the choice to like certain parts of their bodies and to dislike others. Accordingly, they cannot commission the surgeon to work on their bodies as they themselves wish.11 They are labelled as uglies, even the part of the city they live in is called uglyville and they know exactly what makes them ugly: “ What, with my thin lips and eyes too close together? ... And my frizzy hair and squashed-down nose? ”, Tally answers when David calls her “beautiful” (Uglies 276), naming all the facial deficiencies the society has taught her to have.

The operation described in Uglies is thus in its nature very different from cosmetic operations offered in our present societies. Gilman explains that “happiness, the central goal of aesthetic surgery, is defined in terms of the autonomy of the individual to transform him- or herself” (18). The process of having a cosmetic operation is thus meant to be an active one where the client`s wish to transform him- or herself becomes true. The Enlightenment ideology that all individuals could re-make themselves in the pursuit of happiness is thus the basis of the modern culture of aesthetic surgery (Gilman 17). “But if claiming the right to change one`s body is a claim of autonomy, relying on a surgeon to execute the change is a surrender of autonomy. This tension marks the history of aesthetic surgery from its inception and continues to define it today” (Gilman 25-26). Despite this tension, Gilman explains that huge advances in local anaesthesia allow aesthetic surgery to be experienced as a procedure actively chosen by the patient (17). In light of these remarks, we can definitely not consider the operation depicted in Uglies an example of Enlightenment self-remaking. The operational re-making is compulsory for every adolescent citizen. The 16-year-olds of Tally`s city are thus not re-making themselves but are being re-made and transformed into what a committee has decided is a pretty.12


1 “Heutige Zeitgenossen scheinen dem Versprechen der Schönheit enthusiastischer erlegen zu sein als je ein idealistischer Ästhetiker. Aufwendungen für Schönheitsvermehrung haben ungeahnte Höhen erreicht. Sie werden in dem Bewusstsein getätigt, dass sie sich lohnen, und zehren damit vom Versprechenscharakter der Schönheit. Die kulturelle Entfesselung von Schönheitskonsum und Schönheitsarbeit ist eine bestimmende Signatur der Gegenwart” (Menninghaus 10).

2 Cf. The Times commenting on Pretties: “The longing for fairy-tale beauty has never looked so sinister” (Pretties backcover).

3 For the relation between physical appearance and the attribution of personality traits cf. the study by Dion, Berscheid and Walster.

4 Interestingly, there are different connotations correlating differently with the “Kindchenschema”: There is a positive correlation with emotional warmth, honesty, weakness and the readiness to submissiveness, and a negative correlation with cognitive potential and behavioural strength (Menninghaus 167).

5 Hamilton, William D. and Marlene Zuk. “Heritable true fitness and bright birds: A role for parasites?” Science 218 (1982): 384-387. Print. Qut. Menninghaus 153-154.

6 Menninghaus takes a critical look at many studies in the field of empirical psychology which intend to identify highly general patterns of aesthetic judgement. Statistic mean scores rarely lay bare how much individual judgements of test objects vary. Of course there is a particularly high consensus in cases of extremely attractive and extremely unattractive persons. Testing with a more “realistic” corpus of test objects (faces/ bodies), the statistic reliability is reduced. Moreover, surveys usually work on the basis of a onetime confrontation with photographs of unknown persons. Accordingly high is the effect of the first impressions whereas other aspects like emotional warmth, sympathy or intimacy, which also carry important meaning in judging other people`s appearances, are neglected (254).

7 “Ugly faces were always asymmetrical; neither half looked exactly like the other. So the first thing the morpho software did was take each side of your face and double it, …, creating two examples of perfect symmetry” (Uglies 42).

8 He tells Tally that what is inside matters a lot more and thus employs the humanist dualism of body and mind with the mind being superior to the body (Flanagan 44).

9 And indeed there is an approach to beauty as a matter of mathematics represented through a “science of beauty” (Deuflhard 6). But after conducting a study with the intention to define concrete proportion rules, Deuflhard points out that the idea of explicit “beautiful” measures is hard to prove right as we may find faces beautiful although they do not correspond with the “rules” and vice versa.

10 Web. <13.04.2013;12:56>

11 Cf. how Tally is altered after turned into a Special. The wardens in Diego tell her about features she had not even known of: “ Tally, your body has been constructed around a reinforced ceramic skeleton. Your fingernails and teeth have been weaponized, your muscles and reflex centers significantly augmented. … There are also certain structures in your higher cortex, apparently artificial, which seemed designed to change your behavior. Tally, Do you ever suffer from sudden flashes of anger or euphoria, countersocial impulses, or feelings of superiority? ” (Specials 253).

12 The committee`s absolute power over the bodies of their citizens is also manifested when every body modification after the operation must be authorized. Every kind of self-remaking is monitored and the city controls that the adolescents do not deviate too far from the standard parameters (Scott and Dragoo 7).

Excerpt out of 31 pages


Pretties with Ugly Thoughts
Studying Critical Approaches to Modern Beauty Politics in Scott Westerfeld`s "Uglies"-Trilogy
Humboldt-University of Berlin  (Institut für Anglistik)
Figurations of Survival in Dystopian (Young Adult) Fiction
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pretties, ugly, thoughts, studying, critical, approaches, modern, beauty, politics, scott, westerfeld`s, uglies
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Thérèse Remus (Author), 2013, Pretties with Ugly Thoughts, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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