Several male office-workers in Ireland were humiliated this month when an email detailing the top 10 female, ahem, "talents" in their workplace circulated far beyond their expectations and ended up in the newspapers and on gossip blogs. The week before, Tom Clifford, 36, and Janine Walker, 31, got engaged after meeting on theuglybugball.com, a dating site specifically for ugly people.
The rights and wrongs and rules of attraction are hard to codify, but the impulse to rank the women working in one's office and the fact that this website even exists both stem from the same synaptic reflex to judge by appearance. What follows here is no moral invective against that – it's a basic reaction that's impossible to ignore: we're all hard-wired to sift, sort, pigeon-hole and put aside according to what first greets us, namely the physiognomy and physicality of a person. Both Clifford and Walker describe themselves as "great personalities", but in a world so obsessed with appearance – more so now than ever, one might argue, in this age of photoshopping, cosmetic surgery, glossy mags and the internet's infinite capacity to obfuscate – personality just isn't enough.
Yet reaction to their story, which ran in a British tabloid, goes some way to disprove that. "This couple is not ugly," reads one online comment, "they just look ordinary." "These young things would be pretty handsome if they'd just run a comb through their hair and lose a few pounds," says another. And it's true: there is nothing definitively ugly or shockingly other about either Tom Clifford or Janine Walker. They don't have the preternatural sheen or gloss of a Hollyoaks star or footballer's wife, but who does? It begs the question: how far have we realigned our notions of ugly? Is ugly now just normal – that is, simply not beautiful?
"Ugliness in scientific terms appears to be firmly associated with facial asymmetry," says Dr Chris Solomon of the University of Kent, author of the "Defining Beauty" report which was released earlier this month. "There is a common consensus as to what constitutes beauty and this consists of certain feature proportions and properties of the face that can be measured."
One person who best fits Dr Solomon's definition is – surprise, surprise – Cheryl Cole, whose lean, oval face, visible cheekbones, thin nose and full lips tally with those of the classically beautiful face. Actors Jessica Biel and Penelope Cruz are others that fit the bill. Male celebrities often cited as an icon of beauty, in terms of mathematical proportion and symmetry, include David Beckham, the model David Gandy and Jude Law.
There is no doubt that we as a race have become less "ugly" on the whole. Decent nutrition, sanitation and modern medicine have all paved the way for improvements in health that go beyond the merely aesthetic, but which have nevertheless changed our appearance rather dramatically – and usually for the better. In the 17th century, the average woman was just 5ft tall and men were 5ft 6in. Nowadays, the average height for women is 5ft 4in, and men clock in at 5ft 9in.
Height is, of course, not much of a factor in determining beauty or ugliness, but it's a conspicuous example of the physical changes we have undergone as a species since our psyches were first programmed to sort the gorgeous from the grotesque. And it seems, like teenagers with growth spurts, that our hearts and heads are only just catching up with our height.
Despite the thousands of hours devoted by wise men and great minds to the codification and definition of beauty as a concept, notions of ugliness have been outlined only ever in antithesis, never really considered in isolation. So while a history of beauty – from ancient tribal art, via classical statues to early modern portraiture and little girls swooning over Zac Efron – can show us the evolution and development of tastes, aesthetics and sexual proclivity, a history of ugliness shows the inner workings of the collective consciousness.
It demonstrates the widening of cultural horizons and the onset of a sort of globalisation – gruesome medieval renderings of mythical monsters, for example, became far less hideous as adventurers began to bring reports and evidence of real exotic creatures back from their travels. Perceptions of ugliness tend to be based around the unknown and speak volumes about contemporary anxieties. They can also highlight sociopolitical leanings – as shown by the many 19th- and 20th-century anti-Semitic cartoons that present monstrously caricatured Jews. A study of ugliness shows the progression of cultural attitudes far more clearly than merely observing the changes in what we deem attractive. Ideas of ugliness alter much more fluidly than classic notions of beauty.
"Although people do share a common consensus on beauty, this doesn't translate directly into attraction," Dr Solomon continues. "A less perfect or beautiful face can often be considered more attractive than an 'unattainable' ideal beauty. For example, 'beauty is in the eye of the beholder' is probably better expressed as 'attraction is in the eye of the beholder'."
In his Philosophical Dictionary of 1764, Voltaire wrote, "Ask a toad what beauty is... He will tell you that it consists of his mate, with her two fine round eyes protruding from her small head, her broad flat throat, her yellow belly and brown back." On the home page of theuglybugball reads the encouraging homily: "Half of daters aren't pretty so instead of fishing in a small pool of prettiness and getting nowhere, dive into an ocean of uglies and have more choice." While there's a certain amount of rather unpleasant eugenicism contained in this statement, it is emblematic at least of the current cultural standing of ugliness: we're happy to acknowledge that there are more of us mortals than there are Cheryl Coles.
This has always been the case, of course – had Grazia existed at the same time as Helen of Troy, there might have been more paparazzi and fewer battles. But definitions of normal have also changed, by sheer dint of growing tolerances, ebbing prejudices, education and the birth of liberalism. However brutal it may seem to say it, those recognised as "ugly" during medieval times and the Renaissance peopled events such as freak shows and circuses.
Nowadays, they are more humanely treated, certainly not singled out for their physical differences; there is an understanding of the psychological pressures that both beauty and ugliness bring with them. In a society characterised mainly by hostility and widespread misanthropy, ours is, surprisingly enough, a good example of progressively more tolerant outlooks as far as appearance is concerned.
Pity, then, poor Tannakin Skinker, a 17th-century German woman born with such alarming facial deformities that her parents kept her existence a secret. But as word spread of what is described by contemporary sources as her "hog's snout", her family attempted to use the hype to marry Tannakin off. One would-be suitor suggested that with her head covered, she was just like any other woman. The modern scale of good looks works from an entirely different fulcrum than it did in the days of Tannakin Skinker. Before teeth whitening (indeed, before toothpaste) or fake tan and hair dye, the bar was less high for being considered a beauty. Therefore, you had to go some way to be deemed downright ugly. Nowadays, though, we're surrounded by visions of celebrity grace and elegance and we're a bit more highly evolved, so as to make being disfigured, for the most part, a thing of the past.
And, while we remain in general quite some way off the beauty ideals held up for us by magazines and ad campaigns, we also recognise them to be unachievable without a personal trainer, a private chef and hundreds of hours of leisure time. But we have the option to try to impersonate them: cosmetic surgery is no longer the preserve of the rich and famous – you can take out a loan to cover it as you might once have done for a car or a cooker. Likewise, the beauty industry is a multibillion-pound affair thanks to our optimism as far as lotions and potions are concerned.
"I never, ever want to change someone's appearance," the cosmetic surgeon Roberto Viel says, "I want to improve what they have. People come in with their own expectations of ugly and beautiful, and they want to find a way to measure up to that." To some extent, the power to be either beautiful or ugly now falls to the individual rather than to the gaze of others, according to how much they bother or, indeed, how much they even care. We've taken our looks into our own hands, so to speak.
It seems odd that the conclusion to draw from being bombarded with images day in, day out, of glamorous, flawless and photoshopped men and women is that we're not so bad ourselves. "We can certainly make the best of our assets in a way that I suspect would have been more difficult 100 years ago," Dr Solomon says, "so ugliness probably exists less now." But the knee-jerk reaction to perfection and excessive adornment has always been a pendulum swing in the opposite direction, hence the emergence of Bauhaus architecture and the cult of jolie laide in the early 20th century. Sometimes, we like our surroundings and ourselves to look somewhat stark, severe and gritty – realistic, in other words.
"The retouched look is old hat," says Mark Cox, head booker at UGLY models, an agency that specialises in "characterful" specimens – such as Del Keane, the toothless face of the Levi's campaign. "There are new trends all the time and clients are looking to book more 'real people' for advertising."
Having opened in 1969, UGLY is one of the longest-running modelling agencies in Britain, showing the enduring power of the outré even in an industry aimed squarely at promoting beauty. "Our models are extreme, not mainstream," Cox continues. "But our models also have to be happy with their looks and comfortable with themselves. And most of them never dreamt they could get paid for the way they look."
Whether you believe this to be empowering or simply another incarnation of the 19th-century freak show, one thing is clear: there has never been a better time to be "ugly", whether you interpret that as merely average-looking or having the sort of face that makes children cry.