How far would you go for pretty? The dichotomy of beauty in the uglies series

Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies Series is a trilogy that does a brilliant job of imagining a vast alternate universe, which is wholly believable and enjoyable to immerse oneself in. Yes, it’s a YA novel, but you don’t have to be a broody teen to enjoy the world Westerfeld creates.

I do say ‘enjoy’ the world in a slightly ironic sense – Westerfeld’s society is shockingly three dimensional, paralleling our own and raising uncomfortable questions in the mind of his reader; what does it mean to be beautiful? Does being pretty actually make you happy? If everyone was attractive, what then?

A Bland Plotline with a Tasty Narrative.

The narrative centres around Tally, a pretty average sixteen-year-old with a whole host of problematic ideals, none of them dissimilar to those which exist in our own reality.

She is often challenging to deal with, being perfectly imperfect in her response to the oppressive system operating around her. This system is simple but effective; in short, every citizen must undergo 2-3 operations in their lifetime to dramatically alter their appearance.

These people are separated physically and psychologically from each other; in toddler years children are raised by their biological parents until they are moved into shared accommodation to live until 16, when they undertake the first operation. This operation changes their appearance from ‘Ugly’ to ‘Pretty’, which is the general classification (in colloquial terms) separating them.

The novel does tend to follow the classic YA dystopian formula, with the protagonist starting out as a seemingly unquestioning cog in the ‘regime-machine’ but gradually as the plot thickens and binds itself, she rejects state control. The sort of peripeteia moment is when Tally discovers that the operations not only change your appearance, but your brain, consequently passivizing its victims.

This allows Westerfeld to damn the society he presents. That did annoy me, I found myself wanting a dystopia with a little more flavour, yet the detail which Westerfeld goes to in amalgamating the surveillance-state and his protagonist more than makes up for the rather traditional plotline.

Simple Concept, Complex World.

For a dystopia, it is imperative that a fully realised future is presented. Westerfeld does this impeccably, the detail that is gone to in persuading the reader that this reality could arise is on par with that of The Hunger Games and the Shatter Me series’. Another essential element of dystopian fiction is a contemporary social comment which may or may not be obvious from the beginning. As we meet Tally, we are rather unsubtly shown her dramatically low self-esteem and willingness to be put under the knife and become ‘Pretty’.

There is an interesting dichotomy at work here, as the book is aimed at young people, who couldn’t fail to notice Tally’s poor opinion of herself in light of the cultural ideologies of the society she finds herself in. The reader is urged to critique Tally’s ignorance from the context of her surroundings – people are always going to be more prone to question societies they are not used to, especially if that society exerts excessive control over its inhabitants.

Effectively, Westerfeld has done a lot of the work for us in acknowledging his point. By assuming that the reader would automatically connect the world we live in with that of Uglies, (which they will, as Westerfeld’s universe directly parallels our own) they are urged to examine their own sentiments regarding beauty and perfection.

I’m Tired. And Uglies captured my sentiment…

So, beauty standards. I think I might be just a little weathered by the whole thing. 42% of Gen Z and millennials have followed an influencer they didn’t realize was CGI? I’d believe that. Fake, unregulated diet pills are being endorsed by Amazon and sold to unsuspecting customers? Sure, why not. Worse things have happened. Hell, Amazon alone has done worse.

It’s not that people don’t know the implications of the standards of beauty we put on each other in this world, it’s that the standard isn’t changing. The small voices telling us to reject these standards are just that – small. Figures like Lil Miquela, an AI designed to show the effects of unrealistic body images, captured the ongoing slaughter of positive body positivity. People actually believed a robot was real in the context of social media.

The Social Dilemma does a great job of putting the damage of the beauty standard in social media in perspective; stating that in the US the suicide rate per million has risen 151% in 10-14 year olds in the last ten years. Incidentally, 2010 was a year in which social media became widely available in the US and UK. The rise being so sharp, it is hard not to attribute at least some of this to the astronomical rise in social media use.

Read Uglies when you’re 13, then again when you’re 20.

Originally, I read this series when I was around thirteen, having been recommended it by my mother who has always been a diligent and perceptive book-finder. Being young, I remember enjoying the action, and whilst recognising the inherent problems with Tally as a protagonist, I felt as desperate as she does for her to finally get the operation.

If Westerfeld’s point was unclear before, it was staring me in the face when I read Uglies again. In a world where the Kardashians exist, with the absurd culture they promote, the concept of democratising beauty hit me with one feeling. Relief. And that is what is so uncomfortable about Uglies – I’m jealous of that world. As hard as I try to quell the negative thoughts, there are times I would change my body if the opportunity arose. And in those times, there is a part of me that would welcome a benevolent dictator who could swoop in and give everyone the same, pretty face.

This is of course, pretty absurd of me to say – governments find it hard enough to implement vaccines, never mind industrial-scale plastic surgery. But why do I have that niggling desire to change people’s appearance rather than their mindset?

And this is why I recommend Uglies. Not for being anything near the height of literature, not for being the best plot or even dystopia, but to take yourself out of the context of our world and recognise your weariness. Recognise why, when you read Uglies, you don’t hate the world that you’re given in those pages.

Because that, that might just change your mind-set a bit.

Artwork courtesy of Isabel Armitage