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The Ownership of Ugliness


The other day I overheard a group of people referring to a person, in order to identify her so that conversation may proceed, as 'that ugly girl'. I was a little shocked by that identifier, and long after I had moved away from the group, the description lingered in my mind. Can we describe a person as 'the ugly one'? Can we even describe someone, in third person, as 'the beautiful one'? (Its different if I were to call her that in first person). Say, Aishwariya Rai, movie actor, former Miss World, is it okay to identify her just by that one-liner? I'm sure it would hugely undermine her other qualities, the foremost among which is that she's a human being. But I think its absurd to label someone purely as 'the ugly one', which after all, is my judgment on her/him, and that judgment (or ugliness) resides in me. Which got me thinking...

What do crows think of us, or camels, for that matter any other species of animals? I wonder if they are disgusted to look at us, these hairless, two-legged creatures with a tuft of 'fur' on the top of their head. The way they walk, how they can barely run, definitely can't fly (unless carried inside some metallic contraption), how they are quickly fatigued if they can't get their daily drink. How they wear these bizarrely patterned 'second skins' on their (hairless) bodies, which they have to shed every day - I'm sure even snakes laugh their heads off, and cockroaches too (who also molt),  when they see us frequently changing clothes! When ducklings effortlessly take to water, as if they were swimming since conception, they probably look with pity at little human beings floundering in pools, trying to learn to swim. And the greatest ugliness about humans, which I'm sure all animals agree with, is how they destroy each other with their over-arching greed and vanity.

Which brings me back to the original query, can we identify someone only as 'the ugly one'? Isn't ugliness, like beauty, a subjective interpretation? What does it say about me, if all I see in someone is 'ugliness'? In fact, what is ugliness? Something that interferes with my sense of harmony? Well, when I overheard that conversation, it felt disharmonious to my sense of peace - should I dub the speaker, and all those who agreed with him, as ugly?

Recently there was an article of news, about a university art course in the US which required final year students to strip (and probably be a model) for fellow students. Now, it certainly takes a lot of courage to strip in public, even if its in a closed group, because we seem to carry this magnified awareness of our bodily 'imperfections'. Since we strongly identify with our body, it also makes us insecure, and we paint it in all kinds of colors - our nails, hair, skin, lips... (another reason for animals to laugh at us!), adorn it with chunks of metal or stone, cover it in fashionable clothing. Its entirely a subjective thing, and we are constantly seeking approval from fellow humans, by this behavior. This is to fortify, protect our fragile ego that seems to be hopelessly tied to our 'body-image'.

Hence, for someone to overcome all that, and lay oneself bare for public scrutiny and objectification is a big thing. Some of those who do that, the ramp/advertising models and such, are actually proud to show off their physique, , and they work hard to look their best, toned self. It is their looks, that establishes in public mind, the identifiers of what constitutes beauty, and what doesn't. And the media continually drive this home with their prejudicial slant. Yet, not all of us are endowed with that kind of physique, whether we try hard enough or not.

On the other hand, and here I'm referring to the artist's model, just like in that university course situation, or in any fine art class requiring figurative reference, models bare themselves irrespective of their bodily reservations. And that, to my mind, is a truly appreciable thing. To be able to disregard that subjective self-bias, against how she/he looks, not to conceal what may be considered our 'ugly' bits, and lay oneself open for artistic appreciation - is a huge step out of that mental prison. Its easier to 'hide' behind makeup and clothing, and play to the gallery's superficial concept of beauty - and receive an 'ego-boost. But hardly so to expose one's vulnerable, naked core and be willingly subjected to  public judgment.

Now, someone had commented that having to get naked for the course gives them an excuse to tone up their bodies. If that really happens, its well and good. We can all get fitter than we are at present. Fitness is the best 'make-up' they say, and it shows in the radiance and purity of one's bearing. But art models come in all shapes and sizes, and they do so in the conviction, or reassurance, that figurative artists have altogether different parameters of 'beauty'. That ugliness is not a word that exists in the figure-artist's lingo.

Which is also why I was shocked to hear someone being described purely as 'the ugly girl'. Artists revel in the magical construction of the human body, and the variations that happen due to age, race, physical state adds to their joy. Visual artists are most intimately attuned to their world, and the human body (for some of them) serves as portal of communication with that 'Great Beyond'. By intimately knowing the physical, they attempt to transcend it, and which is why every wrinkle, every puckering, every blotch could be like an object of worship for them. One only needs to look at high resolution images of Rembrandt's portraits to understand what I'm saying... if those aren't objects of deep devotion, the word loses all its meaning.

Hence, for artists, beauty is in the reality of perception, and ugliness is anything that tends to obscure it - through bias or make-up! (not that I've anything against the cosmetic or fashion industry :P I'm really hinting at artificiality, the other word for non-truth). I'd gladly disown the 'judgment of ugliness', and leave it to those who would rather not know the truth. 


Kolkata, May '15

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