Being labeled as “ugly” is not only personally harmful, but also has social, political, and economic dimensions. The mechanisms behind the verdict is the topic of Moshtari Hilal’s recent book Hässlichkeit (German for ugliness). The Kabul-born and Berlin- and Hamburg-based artist and author dissects the various layers of the phenomenon and analyzes them theoretically, poetically, and visually.
Writer and art historian Theresa Weise talked to Hilal about the ideas behind her book. We are publishing the interview that is accompanied by images taken by photographer Anna Sommer as a part of our ongoing theme on “harm.”
THERESA WEISE What conspires with ugliness?
MOSHTARI HILAL The term “ugliness” provides cover for many synonyms. When I use “ugly” in my book, it could be translated as “hateable.” By this I mean a learned hatred towards a selected group of people that can be recognized by others by external signs. These signs need to be filled with content, insight, an emotion, a worldview, a conception of what it means to be human and who in contrast is identified as less human or a deviation. “Ugliness” by proxy transports synonyms such disgust, terror, fear, annoyance, and divergence. However, who we are putting at the end of those synonyms is a matter of cultural context and socio-political and economic instrumentalization.
TW Does hatred precede ugliness?
MH I assume that hatred comes first, then ugliness. The latter functions like a retroactive and additional justification for hating and a social and visual vocabulary in order to identify who to hate.
TW Who profits from hatred?
MH Hatred includes profitability. In one part of the book, I explain how our capitalistic system will always be geared to derive use from humans; however, bodies, people, and identities that cannot be utilized in this way, so to speak, are kept outside and become the object of hatred. Often hating them allows their exploitation and exclusion and therefore becomes instrumental. They are reduced to the faces of the enemy. I believe that our modern understanding of ugliness is deeply linked to all of this.
TW What are the alternatives to ugliness?
MH My approach to ugliness is based on Gretchen Henderson’s history of ugliness, among other sources. She does not want to simply identify who was considered ugly and what they looked like, nor does she answer the question: Who is ugly? Her focus does not lie with “the ugly” as a group but with socio-political patterns and the conditions that develop around ugliness. Henderson inverts the gaze so that you are not looking at the ugly but at the society that produces ugliness.
TW How can we overcome terms like “ugliness” and “beauty”?
MH My book is not a critique of language. I don’t believe that language is the sole problem. Ugliness is not created by how we use words like “ugly” and “beautiful” but by living conditions and structures of discrimination. If we don’t change the way we act as well as how much we value appearances in our society, new categories by which we judge, hierarchize, and privilege or don’t privilege people will simply emerge – again based on how they look.
TW What does the term “ugliness” imply in your opinion?
MH Ugliness is a catch-all term for all forms of discrimination. Ugliness includes hatred for the poor, for example, hatred for bodies that are considered non-normative because of supposed “illnesses” or deformations; hatred for people that have a different deviant cultures and lifestyles in the context of immigration, exclusion, border politics, colonialism. And then there is the whole framework of gender and sexuality that produces hatred for bodies that are non-binary or outside of the ideals of male and female, or the reproductive use of bodies, such as old and aging woman. The ugly are as unreal as races, but racism and ugliness exist, as in a real experience of being discriminated, devalued and violated.
TW How can we deal with that?
MH The answer isn’t simply self-love or to act as if we could just be more self-confident overnight. Some people may be able to change a few little things and have it directly impact their lives: Shave the legs and do a nose job to be considered more attractive. But there also are people and bodies that lie so far beyond established categories and our notion of normal hat they will always be confronted with exclusion, no matter how confident or submissive they present themselves. That’s why individualistic solutions are not enough, we need collective responses to ugliness: What importance do we give to how people look? How do we want to confront our own fears instead of projecting them on to supposedly ugly bodies? In the book I present different approaches to “beauty” and “ugliness” to emphasize that they are not superficial, but actually deeply embedded within discussions about humanity.
TW What is your attitude toward the term “beauty?”
MH I get the sense that our conception of beauty is very exclusive and has a violent and exclusionary history and logic. The term really can’t be revolutionized, no matter how much we would like to. In the end the concept of beauty always demands comparison and a ranking: Who is more beautiful?
TW Are there alternatives to this idea of “beauty?”
MH I find Mia Mingus’ ideas on ugliness inspiring. She suggests that we use “magnifiscence” to describe the value and appreciation of a person. It’s a term that does not depend on our ability, talent, or looks. There’s nothing we’d first need to prove, to earn and that would need to be evaluated and recognized from the outside, but it’s something that’s simply there by the virtue of our existence. We are all worthy of living and that already makes us valuable. In the book I try to demonstrate other approaches, too, but I’m not out to decide what could be right or wrong. The book is meant to help people to let go of the duality but also polarization of “beautiful” and “ugly.” I’m convinced that the complexity of bodies, life, and human experience cannot be fully understood and described by these two terms and that we are limiting our own humanity but also the humanity of others by constantly applying these concepts.
TW Which scientists and theorists have influenced you the most?
MH Mia Mingus, whom I mention at the end of the book. At a symposium she asked two questions that left a deep impression on me. On the one hand, “why do we fear ugliness?”, on the other, “what can I learn from ugliness?” Then I put these questions to myself again and again, anew in each chapter.
TW Does Mingus have an alternative term?
MH Care. Care for bodies even if they are ugly, and even if we are ugly – even in our most ugliest moments in life, we are worthy of care. Care in that sense is also the antonym to the hateful history of ugliness. While our systems of oppression tried to dehumanize those who were labelled ugly, Mingus suggests that caring for each other heals us from that hateful indoctrination and demands to accept that we are all vulnerable and mortal beings.
TW Who else was important to you while you were writing the book?
MH The theorist and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon. His formulation and definition of self-alienation gave me the framework to seriously consider the burden of assimiliation, dysmorphia and self-hate as the result of cultural imperialism – not only psychologically but also politically. That became the starting point of my book: to take seriously the deep self-loathing created by the virtual concepts or the political realities that surround us.
TW How do you look back on your former self?
MH I have a much more loving and accepting perspective on my younger self, but also present self. Of course, I also was able to work through quite some stuff for myself because I learnt that much of it are images we grew up with and that to some degree I can choose to reject them. I picked up the ideas in feminist and decolonial theory, but ideally, we have family, friends, and lovers that keep helping us to see the opposite of what society is trying to teach us. We are loved no matter what we look like.
TW But we hardly are impervious to ideas of beauty, are we?
MH I still shave my legs and put make-up on, which is to say, I haven’t fully moved beyond our beauty standards. And it would also be a lie if I claimed that the intellectual revision of these terms suddenly eliminated my decade long embodied shame or fear. It still makes a big difference how you present yourself in public and to some degree these are strategic decisions of how far we want to challenge society our ourselves in the day to day. Everybody has a different life and a different body. If you’re not adapting certain cultural codes you might not only get strange looks, but it may cost you a job or lead to more disrespect and violence. That’s why the call to “just be your natural self and stand up for who you are” is a bit naive and utopian. I think the burden of change is a collective one and nothing I would demand of an individual who just wants to reduce psychological stress on their way to work. Even self-acceptance is something I need to demand of myself every day. It’s a dynamic process: today it might only be the stubble on my chin, but at one point I will grow old and have wrinkles and be depending on care-work. My face and body will not remain the same forever and I will have to learn to accept my changing body again and again.
TW What does “poetry” mean to you?
MH In another interview I was asked what I was hoping to achieve by writing a book about ugliness because a lot of interesting literature has already been published on the topic, especially in the English-speaking world. The theoretical part of my book isn’t necessarily original, I in fact learned myself a lot of Black Feminism or Disability Studies. However there are stories that run parallel to the theory and that separate off from them to find their own lyrical language. Lyrical language captures bodily experienced truth much better than any other form of writing. My book includes poems, essayistic elements, anecdotes, autobiographical material, and stories of friends. They are felt experiences, felt truths that shape our dreams, our ideas, but also our bodily experience and they need their own language. They deal with specific shame, an intensive reflection of one’s own appearance within a specific German context, with one’s body hair and profile as an Afghan refugee girl, areas that I felt still needed to be explored further in conversation with theory.
TW Was it important to you to achieve a symbiosis of theory and emotion?
MH I wanted to take my readers along in my research into ugliness, which includes research and theory but also associations, memories, and connections that occurred in my brain. Theory and emotion are equally important and coexist alongside each other in my book because I think this is exactly how we process information and that these elements cannot be considered separately.
TW When did you realize that you would become an artist or that you were an artist?
MH As I describe at the beginning of the book, I already drew when I was a child: for example drawings mapping my ugliness. I’ve always dealt with my life and perceptions through drawing and visual culture. My self-portraits were a way to really look at myself and, in doing so, to enter into a confrontation and find a certain degree of acceptance. I believe that we have more liberties and opportunities to engage with ourselves in artistic language.
TW The engagement on social media is a rather different one after all…
MH Yes, self-representation on social media or in everyday life has other intentions. Perhaps you want to look attractive, sympathetic, or professional. There’s always a clearly defined goal, a role to fulfill. This is not the case with artistic work. Drawings do not come with goals; rather, it’s the process that matters: how to face oneself and recognize what is in front of you.
TW What are the audiences like at your readings?
MH At first glance, mostly young women. I do recognize myself in them to some extent. I was aware of writing a book in which I’d serve as an example for something that touches many people – because most people experience the emotions I write about. It’s overwhelming to see how others recognize themselves in my text. It’s a liberating feeling because sharing the things in the book was connected to a great deal of vulnerability and shame.
TW What did you want to achieve by writing the book?
MH To talk about a phenomenon that – I remain convinced – affects more people than just myself. I think if you start writing about things that make you feel ashamed, they no longer have the same power over you. Just to send everything out into the world once more was liberating for me, but also to invite the readers to contextualise their own fear of ugliness and learn about the oppressive histories attached to it.
TW Were you able to definitively overcome all the topics treated in your book?
MH On days when I’m feeling bad, I do fall back into old patterns or old fears and yet by writing this book I’ve reconciled with most of the things that haunted me like demons or ghosts in my most vulnerable moments in life.