Beauty ideals and cosmetic surgery in Scott Westerfeld's novel "Uglies"

Term Paper, 2018

23 Pages, Grade: 1,5



Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. The author

3. Summary of the plot

4. The main characters
4.1 Tally
4.2 Peris
4.3 Shay
4.4 David
4.5 Dr. Cable
4.6 Az and Maddy

5. Beauty ideals over time
5.1 Prehistory
5.2 Antiquity
5.3 The middle ages
5.4 The renaissance
5.5 The baroque period
5.6 Classicism and romanticism
5.7 The 20th century

6. The beauty ideal of today

7. The beauty ideal in “Uglies” and parallels to our recent society

8. Cosmetic surgery and modern beauty trends as a part of our society

9. Cosmetic surgery in “Uglies” and criticism of our recent society

10. Elements of dystopian fiction in the book
10.1 The story takes place in the future
10.2 The young age of a female protagonist
10.3 Uniformity
10.4 Mind control and monitoring
10.5 The inside and the outside world
10.6 Resistance and awakening

11. Conclusion

12. Bibliography and appendix


Television, social platforms and advertisments are full of them: successful, rich and irresistibly attractive people. Their pretty faces, their beguiling smiles and glamourous appearances have a great influence on our idea of being beautiful. In our recent society beauty is a privilege, which leads to success, money and an unbridled lovelife. We strive for being equal to them. We envy them for their beauty, their fame and their lifestyle. At the same time it is obvious, that this world of glamour and flawlessness is moreoften a world of sham and pretence. High prices are paid for a beautyful face or a slim figure. Being under pressure to fit into a certain beauty ideal, the people in our society are victims of a beauty mania, which demands a lot. Not only a ridiculous high consumption of cosmetics and beauty products, but also more drastic measures like cosmetic surgeries or symptomes like anorexia and bulimia can be seen as a sign for that. But let us imagine a world without this beauty competition. A world, in which everyone is equally pretty due to a compulsory cosmetic surgery as a teenager. Scott Westerfeld creates such a scenery in his young dystopian fiction novel “Uglies” and takes a critical approach to a society, which is only based on being pretty. On the basis of this book, I want to have a closer look on our modern beauty ideals and how they influence our recent society. Or rather how our society influences beauty ideals. What problems arise with this beauty mania? What does Westerfeld criticises in his novel? I also want to pay attention on the beauty ideals in a historical context and how they changed over time.

2. The author

Scott Westerfeld was born in Dallas, Texas, on the 5th of May in 1963. He grew up in Texas, California and Conneticut with his parents and two older sisters. His father worked as a computer programmer and therefore the family had to move several times. In 2001 he married the Australian writer Justine Larbalestier, but they do not have any children. Since his marriage, he alternately lives in New York City and Sydney. 1985 he made his graduation in philosophy at Vassar College in the state of New York and also made a graduation work at the New York University in 1987. Until now he wrote eighteen novels. Five of them are for adults and the other ones for young adults. His most popular books are the ones of the series “Uglies”. This series consists of a trilogy, which contains the novels “Uglies”, “Pretties” and “Specials”. Furthermore there is a forth additional sequel called “Extras”. Other famous series are the Midnight Trilogy or the Leviathan series, which is his latest work. He sometimes also earns his money with ghostwriting. Beside his profession as an author, he writes music for modern dancers (cf. Scott Westerfeld Homepage).

3. Summary of the plot

Tally Youngblood is a fifteen year old teenager who lives in a town called “Uglyville”. There she waits to become a “pretty”. The story takes place in the future and depicts a dystopian world, which consists of a society, that is based on beauty and flawlessness. Becoming a pretty means to undergo a cosmetic surgery, which turns every citizen from his original and “ugly” shape into a person with a breathtaking beautiful face and a flawless appearance. It also means leaving home and moving to “New Pretty Town”, where all the pretty people live happily together and having parties all night. Tally Youngblood just can not wait to turn sixteen, which means finally turning into a pretty. She already lost all her older friends to New Pretty Town, especially Peris, her best friend. One day she decides to visit Peris in New Pretty Town, since they do not talk to each other any more. Leaving Uglyville as an ugly citizen is strictly forbidden and Tally hates herself for being still ugly between all those party people and bottles of champagne. Meeting Peris turns out to be a total disappointment. Peris seems to be ashamed for her in her filthy expedition clothes and doesn’t really care about her visit. He seems to be a whole new person since living among the pretties and seeing him being pretty feels like losing all the memories she once shared with him. On her way back to Uglyville she meets a girl, who is ugly, too. Her name is Shay and it turns out that she also likes to spy on her former friends. It also turns out, that their birthdays are the same, which means, that they will get pretty at the same day. But soon, Tally realises that Shay has a critical opinion about the ceremony of getting pretty. Shay teaches Tally how to ride a hoverboard, which is the common vehicle in this futuristic world. Together they explore the surrounding countryside and visit the old “Rusty Ruins”, which were built up by the “Rusties”. Those Rusties lived a few decades ago and represent our current society. Tally suddenly realises that everything in their pretty society was somehow fake compared to the natural living of the Rusties, but she still believes that she can only live happily among the pretties and that living close to nature is wrong. Shay wants to introduce someone called David to Tally. They wait for him a couple of times outside of Uglyville, but David does not appear, which makes Tally doubting his existence. Shay finally tells Tally her secret about a hidden town called “the Smoke” somewhere far outside Uglyville and New Pretty Town, which is the home of David. The Smoke can be seen as a hideaway for people who all share this critical opinion about becoming pretty. Everyone is still an ugly there and they live closely to nature, which stands in contrast to the lifestyle in New Pretty Town. Finally the day of their operation comes. While Tally gets picked up by the hospital hovercar to get the operation, Shay is already on her flight to the Smoke. Tally promised her to not talking about David or the Smoke and Shay leaves her a cryptic note, which gives her information about how to reach the Smoke in case she changes her mind and wants to flee, too. When she finally arrives at the hospital, the doctors tell her, that there is a problem with her operation. They immediately bring her to “Special Circumstances”, the police force of New Pretty Town. There she is already expected by Dr. Cable, who is the head of this institution. It turns out that Dr. Cable and the whole institution of Special Circumstances somehow know about the missing of Shay and about the existence of the Smoke, which is a big thorn in the flesh for them. Now Tally gets interrogated by Dr. Cable. She also gets blamed for Shay’s disappearance, because she used to teach tricks to her, which made her able to flee. But Tally resists to betray her friend, what finally leads the “vengeful and inhuman” (Westerfeld, 2005, 106) Dr. Cable to an act of extortion: “Until you do help us, to the very best of your ability, you will never be pretty.” (ibid.). Finally it is Peris, who convinces her to break her vow to Shay. Special Circumstances is especially interested in the cryptic note, which Tally got from Shay. They do not understand what Shay wrote, so they want Tally to follow the instructions on the note and make her way to the Smoke as a spy. For that, Dr. Cable gives her a necklace with a little heart pendant, which contains a hidden finder. Once she’ll reach the Smoke, she has to activate the finder to lead Special Circumstances to the Smoke. Tally can not see another choice than doing what is demanded. She starts her journey to the Smoke as an infiltrator. She manages to decode Shay’s notes and faces out many challenges. One day she gets surprised by a huge fire, which is spreaded by helicopters. It turns out, that special rangers spread the fire to eradicate a certain genetically altered flower. Although those rangers are pretties, they help Tally to finally reach the Smoke. There she meets Shay again and gets to know David and the other inhabitants of the hideaway. Bit by bit she learns about the new lifestyle here, which is closely related to nature and the “old world” of the Rusties. “Life was much more intense than in the city.” (Ibid., 219). She gradually settles in her new surrounding, which means sharing lunch, working hard and cutting down trees for furniture. The “Smokies” quickly admire Tally, but she can not enjoy their admiration, because of her secret mission as a spy for Special Circumstances. She hesitates to activate the heart pendant, because that would mean the end of the Smoke, the true home of her friends and so many other people. David’s admiration for Tally grews stronger and stronger until they finally enter a relationship. As David trusts Tally completely, he introduces her to his parents Az and Maddy, who keep a dark secret. David convinces her parents, that Tally deserves to learn about the secret. Az and Maddy were cosmetic surgeons in their former life, who worked for “The Pretty Committee” and turned hundreds of teenagers from ugly to pretty. During several investigations they found out, that the operation does not only lead to a pretty face, but that it changes something in the brain of the patients; that it changes the way you think. Only people, whose professions require them to react quickly, like firefighters, doctors or anyone who worked for Special Circumstances, do not show those brain lesions. This means, that the pretty society consists of “masses of smiling pretties, and a few people left to run the things.” (ibid., 254). As Special Circumstances found out about the investigation, Az and Maddy decided to flee and built up a community of “people who were free of pretty thinking.” (ibid., 256), which is today known as the Smoke. Now Tally is completely convinced about the bad influence of this pretty society and therefore throws the little heart pendant into the fire in belief that it must be broken now. Unfortunately the pendant got activated through that action and Special Circumstances invade the Smoke a few hours later. They take most of the inhabitants as prisoners and destroy the whole camp with their vehicles. Shay is furious with rage when she found out that Tally was responsible for the betrayal. Both become prisoners of Special Circumstances, but Tally manages a hazardous flight and gets picked up by David, who is still by her side. Together they make the plan to free David’s parents and Shay and all the others, who are still in the hands of Dr. Cable, who wants to turn them into pretties. But Tally and David come too late. Shay was a pretty already and therefore lost all her suspicion towards the pretty society. She describes the operation as a “kind of a relief” (ibid., 365) and tells her friends about a big party she just celebrated. She also reacts rather indifferently towards Tally’s betrayal. David and Tally manage to free Maddy, but Az was dead. Alltogether they flee to the Rusty Ruins and try to build up a “New Smoke” together with new recruits. Maddy even searches for a cure for Shay’s brain damage due to the operation, but Shay’s brain wash makes her refusing any help. Now Maddy urgently needs another pretty as a “willing subject” (ibid., 395) to test her cure. Tally still feels horribly guilty because of her betrayal to her friends and the Smoke. In the end, she sacrifices herself. She wants to turn pretty and get the brain lesions in order to test Maddy’s cure. Together with Shay, she travels to New Pretty Town. The story ends with the words: “I’m Tally Youngblood. […] Make me pretty.” (ibid., 406).

4. The main characters

4.1 Tally

Tally Youngblood is the main protagonist of the book. She is fifteen years old and lives in a dorm in Uglyville, where she waits for her operation. Her former best friend was Peris. During the story she becomes friends with Shay and David. With David she even has a relationship. Tally changes her attitude towards the government and the whole thing about becoming pretty during the progress of the story line. She might have made some serious mistakes, like working as a spy for Special Circumstances and betray her friends and the Smoke, but in the end she settles her debts and sacrifices herself to find a cure against the brain washing. This is an evidence for an incredibly brave and determined personality.

4.2 Peris

Peris is - or rather was - Tally’s best friend. They know each other since childhood and used to play many tricks together. With his turn into a pretty, he loses interest in Tally and all the things they used to do together. His only concern as a pretty is celebrating parties in his new home Garbo Mansion in New Pretty Town.

4.3 Shay

Shay is a fifteen year old ugly with a rebellish character. She has connections to the Smoke and a very critical view upon society and becoming pretty. She becomes Tally’s best friend and is an important influencer of her attitude. She also introduces Tally to the Smoke an all the people who live there. She is deeply hurt, when she found out that Tally was an infiltrator and responsible for the betrayal of the Smoke. After the invasion by Special Circumstances, she gets captured and turned into a pretty, which changes her critical attitude towards the government and the pretties completely.

4.4 David

David is a convinced opponent of the government. He grew up in the Smoke with his parents Az and Maddy. He is Shay’s boyfriend. Occasionally he travels close to the suburbs of Uglyville to find new recruits for the Smoke. Later, when Shay introduces Tally to him, he falls in love with her. Together with Tally he rescues Shay and Maddy after they got caught by Special Circumstances during the invasion of the Smoke.

4.5 Dr. Cable

Dr. Cable is the head of the government’s police force called Special Circumstances. Her job is to persecute runaways and resistance fighters to maintain the power of the government and its system. She is described as a “cruel pretty” (Westerfeld, 2005, 101) with a voice like “metal slowly marking glass” (ibid.). She utilizes Tally as an infiltrator to find and destroy the Smoke.

4.6 Az and Maddy

Az and Maddy are the parents of David. In their former life they were surgeons, who worked for the government. They turned many uglies into pretties until they discovered misterious brain lesions caused by the operation and they started to investigate against the government. After they found out, that the operation causes a change of the thinking, they were a serious threat for the government and therefore had to flee. Together they built up the Smoke. Special Circumstances burn down their house during the invasion an accidentally kill Az during an experimental brain surgery.

5. Beauty ideals over time

To get a better understanding for our recent beauty ideal, it is important to have a look into the history of beauty. The beauty ideals were not always the same. They changed a lot during the different epoches of history.

5.1 Prehistory

As one of the earliest and most famous images of a woman’s body in human history can be seen the Venus of Willendorf, which is a little prehistoric, almost 30.000 years old stone figurine. It represents a woman with voluptuous breasts, plumpy hips and a large bottom. Her body should not be seen as a representation of obesity though; historians rather assume that the figurine depicts a fertility goddess and was used as a talisman to guarantee reproduction, which was the main purpose of life in those days. Being obese was a sign for fertility and health and meant a good chance of reproduction. Therefore this kind of bodyshape was considered beautiful and attractive (cf. Coleman, 1998).

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

fig. 1: The Venus of Willendorf

5.2 Antiquity

This image already changed in the antiquity, which started about 800 years BC and ended 600 years AD. Platon and many other philosophers saw beauty in geometrical forms and perfect balance. With the help of mathematical formula they created models of the optimal body proportions. Those body ideals can be seen in the ancient marble statues, which mostly represent young and graceful women with a slim waistline and a sensuous facial expression and young men with athletic bodies and powerful gestures. The statues are often depicted nakedly to show the splendour of their athletic bodies. Fasting, bathing and sporty activities on a regular basis were considered indispensable for an appealing body. Only the strongest and bestshaped men could survive in the arenas as gladiators and warriors. Some people even wrapped up their babies tightly in wool and linen, because they wanted to shape their body from the beginning on (cf. Reinhart, 2011).

5.3 The middle ages

The middle ages were strongly influenced by religious aspects. The society of the 6th to the 15th century can be described as pious, superstitious and cruel. A cruel catholic church, poverty, poor hygiene, horrific torture and the raging Black Death shaped the character of this time. It is not surprising, that the people craved for something pure and soft in all this misery. Images of biblical women, especially the Blessed Virgin Mary, were an epitome of innocence and purity. Their pale white skin, slim body, long blonde hair and their youthfulness can be seen as indicators for the beauty ideal of this time. In contrast to our recent idea of beauty, a high forehead was also very popular in the middle ages. Women even depilated their forehead with toxic mercury or snail slime (cf. Reinhart, 2011).

5.4 The renaissance

With the break-in of the renaissance in the 15th and 16th century, women gained more self-confidence and learned how to display their feminine charms. Inspired by the classic antiquity, the splendour and sheer beauty of the human body celebrated a comeback. The people now enjoyed the earthly pleasures instead of paying homage to biblical figures. Whereas in the middle ages, a made-up face was seen as devilish, the women now used cosmetics to emphasize their eyes and eyebrows. Here it was a major aim to widen the eyes to look childlike and to signal youth and health. Also small breasts were a sign for youthfulness and therefore seen as beautiful. Looking old was never a part of attractivity (cf. Hauner / Reichart, 2004). Lips, cheeks and fingernails ought to be red. A pale skin and blonde hair were still part of the beauty ideal of this time. Especially the women in South Europe, who had rather dark hair, tried to bleach their hair with a mixture made out of saffron and citric acid. They also covered their faces with veils to avoid a suntan (cf. Reinhart, 2011).

5.5 The baroque period

The renaissance epoche got superseded by the baroque period in the end of the 16th century. The baroque period was a time of pomp and exhilaration. In whole Europe castles and palaces were places of celebration and vanity. Pleasure and prosperity were paramount; moral and religious aspects lost their value. Therefore the beauty ideal changed drastically. Naturalness and a slim body were no longer a sign for youth and splendour, but for the poverty of the working class. The new beauty ideal consisted of bulging curves, pinkish flesh and a double chin. A round belly was an evidence for richness and a high position in society (cf. Reinhart, 2011). Oilpaintings like the one below from the baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens can be seen as an evidence for that. Powder, rouge and make up were essential at the court and always put on in thick layers. Even skin rash and ulcers were simply covered with make up (cf. Hauner / Reichart, 2004). Women even put on make up when they went to sleep. Their pompous appearance got furthermore stressed by wearing opulent and ornamented clothings (cf. Reinhart, 2011).


Excerpt out of 23 pages


Beauty ideals and cosmetic surgery in Scott Westerfeld's novel "Uglies"
Karlsruhe University of Education
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Young Adult Dystopian Fiction, Scott Westerfeld, Uglies, Adult Fiction, Dystopian Fiction, cosmetic surgery, plastic surgery, beauty ideals, criticism of our society, social media, history of beauty, beauty, surgery, novel
Quote paper
Anonymous, 2018, Beauty ideals and cosmetic surgery in Scott Westerfeld's novel "Uglies", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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