On Being “Beautiful Ugly”

Guest Author: Joie de Vivre

Joie de Vivre is a the co-producer of Peepshow in San Francisco and a burlesque performer. She regularly performs with the Hubba Hubba review and other troupes. I have been a huge admirer of hers for some time. She graciously agreed to be a guest blogger about being beautiful ugly.

You can find Joie at on Facebook.

Not everyone gets to be beautiful, and I’m one of them. That isn’t self-hatred, it’s statistics — a few of us are beautiful, a few of us are ugly, and the rest of us are some degree of what society deems average looking.

This is the part where I *don’t* say: but that’s OK. Because I’m not yet OK with it. But I’m working toward it, and the French concept of “jolie laide” is giving me hope about being beautiful on my own terms (more about jolie laide a in bit).

Now I hear you protest, but, but, everyone is beautiful just the way they are.1 Lots of body positivity movements use that sort of language, when what they really mean everyone can, and should be, worthy, desired, valued. It’s a reflection of how 50 shades of fucked up our culture is that even these sorts of messages, by women, for other women, get ensnared in the beauty myth.

No, what I’m talking about is “beauty” in its narrower, more traditional sense of the word: “A combination of qualities, such as shape, colour, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight. One that is beautiful, especially a beautiful woman.” Or as Soul Coughing’s “Screenwriters Blues” described aspiring Hollywood starlets: “Aesthetically pleasing, In other words: Fly.”2

(While we’re thinking of Hollywood, can we stop pretending that beautiful people *aren’t* beautiful? “Ugly Betty” was probably the frumpiest that network TV has ever allowed a woman to be. But underneath the braces, the hideous glasses, the garish clothes, America Ferrera was, and is, a gorgeous woman. It’s beautiful pretending to be ugly — a kind evil, anti-jolie laide)

Nor am I talking about the sort of “oh, I’m so ugly” bonding that all too many women engage in, nor the sort of body anxieties all too many women fall prey too. I’m no saint here. With the right wig, the right make-up, the right camera angle, the right lighting, I can feel beautiful. But I generally detest casual photos of myself. Especially when I’m in photos with other women. I invariably feel like a hulking Princess Fiona — only without the the benefit of a tiara and green skin.

Like all too many other women, I’ve stood in front of the mirror are cataloged what society sees as my flaws: – Statistically, my height and size are at the far, far end of the chart. My hands and feet are all too big — trust me, trying to find size 13 shoes is a constant reminder of how off the chart I am.3 – I wasn’t blessed by the androgyny fairy – I’ve got the bulky body type that runs in my family all the way back to the babushkas built to survive long Russian winters. – I’m not an hour-glass, I’m V-shaped. While estrogen is now giving me a booty, it won’t ever give me hips to balance out my broad child-bearing shoulders, I’ve got an apple belly just like my mother. (Any plus-size fashion designer wanna give some love to us apples?) – I’ve got an average-looking face with a Karl Malden-nose (thanks Mom! <sigh>). I’ve got a gap-tooth grin and my open-lip smile often looks odd. – While estrogen is starting to give me breasts, I’m still a member of the itty bitty titty committee.

I’m unbeautiful. Not ugly. But unbeautiful.

In short, like a lot of trans women, by many objective measures I’m not terribly close to the cisnormative, heteronormative “feminine ideal” for women in our culture. Very few of us look like Janet Mock, Carmen Carrera, or Laverne Cox. When Cox says, no matter how well-intentionally that “I am not beautiful despite my big hands, my big feet, my wide shoulders, my height, my deep voice and all the things that make me beautifully and noticeably trans. I am beautiful because of those things.”4 it rings a bit hollow, well because it’s easy for her to say, she’s Laverne Cox.5

Another big factor is that, ironically, is that the burlesque world probably has made my body dysphoria worse than it might have been otherwise — since I’m seeing (and comparing myself) to lots of sparkly nearly-naked women. Who I’d argue, on the whole, are probably more attractive, with “better” bodies, than the general population.

While burlesque does talk a lot of about being a body positive space (which it is to a greater or lesser degree depending on the area), it definitely does help boost one’s confidence if you’re closer to cisnormative, heteronormative standard of what’s considered beautiful. So there is a bit of self-sorting that goes on, as far as who even attempts it. Even many (self-described) fat performers often have very pretty faces. Not in the sense of “oh, she’s got a pretty face” as a euphemism for “fat,” rather faces that fit the mold of what’s conventionally considered “beautiful.

(And just an aside, mad props to those who *aren’t* the stereotypical burlesque performer – a skinny young (white) woman with a pretty face and big boobs – and who still get up on stage and own it. Especially if you’re got a face that’s not “pretty” and/or a body that’s “unconventional.” That takes a fuckton amount of courage.)

A final factor is that I transitioned into being a woman “of a certain age,” th