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A Cultural History

Ugly as sin, the ugly duckling—or maybe you fell out of the ugly tree? Let’s face it, we’ve all used the word “ugly” to describe someone we’ve seen—hopefully just in our private thoughts—but have we ever considered how slippery the term can be, indicating anything from the slightly unsightly to the downright revolting? What really lurks behind this most favored insult? In this actually beautiful book, Gretchen E. Henderson casts an unfazed gaze at ugliness, tracing its long-standing grasp on our cultural imagination and highlighting all the peculiar ways it has attracted us to its repulsion.

Henderson explores the ways we have perceived ugliness throughout history, from ancient Roman feasts to medieval grotesque gargoyles, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to the Nazi Exhibition of Degenerate Art. Covering literature, art, music, and even the cutest possible incarnation of the term—Uglydolls—she reveals how ugliness has long posed a challenge to aesthetics and taste. She moves beyond the traditional philosophic argument that simply places ugliness in opposition to beauty in order to dismantle just what we mean when we say “ugly.” Following ugly things wherever they have trod, she traverses continents and centuries to delineate the changing map of ugliness and the profound effects it has had on the public imagination, littering her path with one fascinating tidbit after another.

Lovingly illustrated with the foulest images from art, history, and culture, Ugliness offers an oddly refreshing perspective, going past the surface to ask what “ugly” truly is, even as its meaning continues to shift.

240 pages | 60 halftones | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2015

History: General History

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“In her wide-ranging and frequently illuminating study, Ugliness: A Cultural History, published this month, Gretchen Henderson traces the connections—some obvious, but many not at all—between aesthetic norms and cultural anxieties, from antiquity to the present day. Henderson’s totemic character is Polyphemus, the half-divine Cyclops whose appearance in Homer’s Odyssey is one of the poem’s most harrowing episodes. Set apart by his ‘non-Greek race, enormous size, congenital disorder and demigod status’ (or, to put it more broadly, by his difference, hybridity, and hypervisibility), the monster exemplifies the lasting tendency to equate appearance with less tangible values. . . . Henderson artfully links the Polyphemus myth to the ‘hierarchy of species’ found in Aristotle’s ‘Generation of Animals.’ Aristotle’s ‘downhill slope’ is topped by men, followed by women, then devolves into ‘hybrid offspring’ like satyrs and fauns. This motion, from powerful to exoticized, illustrates the trick—later employed at the height of phrenological and eugenic crazes—of forcing the worth, and, ultimately, the humanity, of certain individuals to correspond with often arbitrary aesthetic categories. . . . Beauty does more than simply seduce: it masks and perfumes, freezes moral categories in place. Ugliness—with all its seams unconcealed—is sometimes the closest thing to the truth.”

Vinson Cunningham | New Yorker

“A fascinating meditation on a slippery subject.”


“Henderson approaches her topic through an impressive number of examples, spanning disciplines, mediums, usages, geographies, and chronologies, and including works of fine and popular art, architecture, mythology, cultural moments, historical facts, and human individuals and groups. The book offers an anecdotal survey of what people have termed ‘ugly’ in various contexts. . . . The author manages to take the discussion of ugliness into its own territory, beyond a mere opposition to beauty. This book provides an engaging and accessible cultural history that is informative and entices the reader to see things in a different perspective.”

History Today

“Ugliness: A Cultural History is a provocative book because, while exploring our relationship to that which we brand as ugly (or beautiful), Gretchen Henderson forces us to reflect on our tastes and fears, our social conventions, and our everyday notions of justice. Such a call to attention is always very useful; in our prejudiced age it has become essential.”

Literary Review

“Henderson’s cultural history of ugliness skates, at an entertainingly high speed, across large swathes of territory, cultural, historical, and biological, always fascinating...[T]he existence and resistance of the ugly is a reminder—urgent and intense and necessary—that the world does not exist for us alone.”

Times Literary Supplement

“We tend to use the word confidently, as though ugliness has a self-evident and unchanging meaning. In fact, Henderson writes, the “shape-shifting” term has a long, strange, and “unruly history.” Breaking her lively study into sections—“ugly ones,” “ugly groups,” “ugly senses”—she touches on an impressive assortment of cultural eras in order to form a rather, well, unbecoming picture of human fears, anxieties and prejudices . . . through this well-illustrated study, she makes a terrific case for how we’ve regulated the borders of acceptability and mistreated whatever crosses the line.”


“In this brief but expansive cultural history, Henderson removes ugliness from its binary relationship with beauty, probing how the term functions as a signifier of cultural boundaries and sites of transformation. . . .  Henderson's multidisciplinary approach to the topic makes the book a valuable resource for scholars throughout the arts and humanities. This would also be a useful text for freshman seminars because the writing style fosters discussion and critical thinking. Overall, the book is a highly recommended addition to academic and art libraries.”


“Engaging ugliness beyond the realm of art and aesthetics and into the realm of sound, sight, and embodiment, Ugliness: A Cultural History makes a valuable contribution to the contemporary study of ugliness and its myriad functions in Western culture. Henderson traces how ugliness moves ‘beyond “ugly” anomalous individuals and resistant ugly groups to break down borders through “ugly” senses that place all human beings into an equal camp.” . . . Henderson’s work ultimately demonstrates that ugliness is far more than an aesthetic category. Instead, ugliness operates relationally between people, things, spaces, bodies and modes of being, and that it continually negotiates different meanings and challenges its own stasis. It is ugliness, as much as beauty, that makes us human.”


“Full-blown examination of deformity through history—the medieval gargoyles, monsters, human-animal hybrids in so-called ‘freak shows’ and the like."

Toronto Star

"If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then so is ugliness. For proof, look no further than the concept’s own history, most recently traced by Henderson. Although there are some objectively repugnant moments—until the late twentieth century, cities including Chicago and Omaha had 'ugly laws' that made it illegal for people with disabilities to appear in public—any transgressions that once seemed ugly now look like progress. Among them: the seventeenth-century Chinese painting Ten Thousand Ugly Inkblots, which resembles lauded work from Jackson Pollock, and the music once described as 'grunts and squeaks' also known as jazz. 'Rather than mere binaries,' Henderson writes, 'ugliness and beauty seem to function more like binary stars. They orbit and attract each other, and we can admire both.'"

Lily Rothman | Time Magazine

“A multifarious book about ugliness, exploring the subject in its multiple forms . . . engagingly written and copiously illustrated.”


“Ugliness is in the eye of the beholder—or is it? Henderson’s book asks this central question and answers it in an engaging and exciting way. Accessible and amusing, you need to read it to find out whether ugliness is only a cultural or a brain construct!”

Sander L. Gilman, author of Illness and Image

Table of Contents

Introduction: Pretty Ugly: A Question of Culture

Ugly Ones: Uncomfortable Anomalies

Polyphemus: ‘A Monster of a Main’
Dame Ragnell: ‘She Was a Loathly One!”
A Grotesque Old Woman: ‘The Ugly Duchess’
William Hay: ‘Never Was, Nor Will Be, a Member of the Ugly Club’
Julia Pastrana: ‘The Ugliest Woman in the World’
Orlan: ‘A Beautiful Woman who is Deliberately Becoming Ugly.”
Ugly Ones: Uncomfortably Grouped

Ugly Groups: Resisting Classification

Monsters and Monstrosities: Bordering Uglies
Outcasts and Outward Signs: Signifying Uglies
Primitives and Venuses: Colonizing Uglies
Broken Faces and Degenerate Bodies: Militarizing Uglies
Ugly Laws and Ugly Dolls: Legislating Uglies
Uglies United? Commercializing Ugly Groups

Ugly Senses: Transgressing Perceived Borders

Ugly Sight: Seeing Is Believing?
Ugly Sound: Do You Hear What I Hear?
Ugly Smell: A Nose for Trouble?
Ugly Taste: Are You What You Eat?
Ugly Touch: Do You Touch?
Sixth Sense: Feeling is Believing?

Epilogue: Ugly Us: A Cultural Quest?

Acknowledgements and Photo Acknowledgements

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