Heaven knows we're beautiful now

We're taller, healthier and more attractive than ever. But are we also more boring? Harriet Walker looks beneath the surface of the new beauty

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.

Life and Style
A nearly completed RoboThespian robot inside the Engineered Arts workshop is tested in Penryn, England. The Cornish company, operating from an industrial unit near Falmouth, is the world's only maker of commercially available life sized humanoid robots
techSuper-intelligent robots could decide destroying the human race is the kindest thing to do
News
The current recommendation from Britain's Chief Medical Officer, is that people refrain from drinking on at least two days a week
food + drinkTheory is that hangovers are caused by methanol poisoning
Life and Style
techConcept would see planes coated in layer of micro-sensors and able to sense wear and tear
News
Patrick Stewart in the classiest ice bucket to date
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
newsComedian Lee Hurst started trend with first tweet using the hashtag
News
scienceExcitement from alien hunters at 'evidence' of extraterrestrial life
News
newsRyan Crighton goes in search of the capo dei capi
Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
Extras
indybest

Arts and Entertainment
Actors front row from left, Jared Leto, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Ellen DeGeneres, Bradley Cooper, Peter Nyongío Jr., and, second row, from left, Channing Tatum, Julia Roberts, Kevin Spacey, Brad Pitt, Lupita Nyongío and Angelina Jolie as they pose for a
film
Sport
sport
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Software Developer (Java /C# Programmer)- London

    £30000 - £45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A global investment management fi...

    Senior Network Engineer-(CCIE, CCNP, Cisco, London)

    £65000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Engineer-(CCIE, CC...

    Senior Network Analyst - (CCIE, Cisco, CISSP)

    £70000 - £80000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Analyst - (CCIE, C...

    Senior Network Engineer-(Design, Implementation, CCIE)

    £60000 - £80000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Engineer-(Design, ...

    Day In a Page

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition