‘There are no ugly women’ proclaim these examples, in large, bold lettering – except that of course the intended message is exactly the opposite of the empowering claim it seems to be making. By referencing such language, these images are mocking the very notion of women’s empowerment, before moving on to proclaim their own message of women’s worth.
Ugliness, we learn here, is the marker of lazy or poor women. This connection between unattractiveness and the identity of the woman who is poor or perceived to be ‘lazy’, serves to doubly discipline the viewer. Not only would a woman wish to avoid being ugly, but also to escape the associated and problematic connotations. This upholds a very old notion that ugliness is a marker of some other personal quality – the practice of physiognomy, now discredited, claimed to make definitive links between a certain cranial shape and facial features with criminal tendancies or mental illnesses. Photographs of criminals were taken and analysed for the ‘characteristic’ signs of deviance – signs which could then be read in the faces of others.
Maintaining this idea, that appearance indicates the personality or subjectivity of the person, serves specific social purposes. The connection between poverty and ugliness serves to maintain the hierarchy of entitlement, which separates the poor and devalued from the wealthy and superior. By connecting the perceived worth of a person with their economic status, the perception of meritocracy is unchallenged. Furthermore, the connection between ‘ugly women’ and the lack of a rich husband perpetuates the sense of dependency of women on men for their social standing, and for even their own personal, physical, worth.
The connection between ugliness and laziness serves to discipline the (female) viewer in a different way – here, to avoid being perceived as ugly, she must embrace the work ethic, not in terms of her career, but in terms of the styling and appearance of her body. To be perceived as ugly is not an accident of birth, circumstance, or merely the result of not being to someone’s taste – it is the fault of the individual, and a result of their lack of having done ‘enough’ to mitigate it.
This double-blow, associating ugliness with either poverty or laziness, demonstrates the degree to which images of women are used to coerce viewers, and encourage complicity with an organising principle that naturalises certain qualities as ‘better’ than others, whilst simultaneously perpetuating and legitimating a system of social stratification.