By Amy Clark
tw: rape mention, misogyny, racism body policing,
Call me Medusa,
for my monstrosity is not mine to bear
but yours to fear.
When I first started writing this article, it was going to be about the rape of Medusa and the analogy between her punishment and the treatment of rape victims in modern society. A god raped Medusa and she was punished for it with ugliness and exile from society. When women are raped today they are blamed, ostracised and ‘othered’ in an eerily similar manner. Because when the perpetrators of a crime are untouchable – whether because they are gods or simply because of their dominance in society – it is the victim of their crime who ends up being blamed for it.
But this is going to be about ugliness: about ugliness as a punishment and a weapon against women, about the power that people calling (or making) you ugly have over you and about the power that you can have over them in return.
If you’ve ever seen Mean Girls you might remember the scene where the Plastics stand in front of a mirror and say in turns what’s wrong with their bodies. They insult their nailbeds, their hairlines, their pores. Then, in a voiceover, Cady says, “I used to think there was just fat and skinny. But apparently there’s lots of things that can be wrong on your body.”
And she’s right.
Ugliness is being fat and being too skinny, yes, but it’s also having skin that isn’t white, having short hair, having outspoken opinions, saying no to a guy, wearing baggy clothes, wearing tight clothes, showing too much or too little skin, having a big nose, having a small mouth, being a feminist, being too educated, not being educated enough, eating too much food, biting your nails, not shaving all of your body hair, fucking too many people … Ugliness is everything about us that isn’t ‘right’, which means it’s every part of us that doesn’t live up to an idealised and impossible standard of what it is to be a woman or a person.
Calling women ugly is a fear tactic in itself and ugliness has been used as a weapon against us for so long. When we live in fear of being ugly we live in fear of being ‘outside’ of society and we try and try and try to do everything we can to fit into the restrictive lines of what ‘normal’ is. If a characteristic of yours is something societally viewed as ugly – and everyone has many – then you are consistently being told that you are not right and that who and what you are is not okay.
In the same way, calling someone ugly or calling some characteristic ugly is a gross way of perpetuating so many different forms of discrimination in society. When women bleach their skin, it is because darker skin is considered uglier. Women shave or bleach their body hair because hairiness is an ugly quality for a woman to have. Queer and masculine women are ugly because their presentation does not fit with the stereotypical concepts of femininity and what it is to be a woman. Ugliness and what is ugly is not a subjective opinion, it is a response to age-old and pervasive discrimination, oppression and elitism.
But where does Medusa fit into this?
DuBois has said that ‘The myth of Medusa, is a myth of fear of women, fear of […] their self-sufficiency, their buried power’. DuBois is not talking about Medusa when she was ‘beautiful’, when her existence fell within the norms. All of Medusa’s ‘power’ comes when she is made ugly and exiled from the rest of the world. And the power isn’t because she was ugly, but because she was unapologetic about her own monstrosity. Her ugliness wasn’t something she could change or cover up – she was unequivocally and irrevocably ‘other’ – it was something that terrified and (literally) petrified the rest of society.
Whilst it’s hard to talk about ‘buried power’ without sounding like a pretentious self-help guru, what I and many others have found is that we have to stop apologising for ourselves and the parts of us that are ‘ugly’. We accept ourselves as ‘other’ because the ‘normal’ that we’re supposed to fold ourselves to fit is just a load of impossible restrictions that have nothing to do with subjective beauty and everything to do with damaging and systematic discrimination.
As much as I wish it was true, practising radical self-love and refusing to apologise for whatever is monstrous about you doesn’t give you the power to turn people to stone when you glare at them. Deciding that you won’t accept the body policing that society tries to impose on you wont suddenly mean that you love yourself, because ‘ugliness’ is too ingrained for us to magic it away.
There’s the cliché that as long as you’re confident, people will think that you’re beautiful. This is bullshit. Confident women get insulted and called ugly all the time. But when you tell people that you don’t give a fuck – when you show off your unshaven armpits in pride, when you say your opinions loudly and don’t shut up when people disagree with you, when you wear the hotpants and don’t apologise for it or try to cover up – at least people are fucking terrified.