Having been taken with Ugly, an unflinching critique of ‘beauty’ and how we perceive it throughout history, Elizabeth Morris learned more from its author Anita Bhagwandas – a south Wales writer striking out with this debut book after several years highlighting how the beauty industry underserves women of colour.
It didn’t take long for beauty journalist and recent debut author Anita Bhagwandas to join me on a Zoom call before she and I were bonding. Both Cardiff University graduates (Bhagwandas gew up in south Wales), back in the 2000s her first writing gig was courtesy of Buzz, too.
We agreed this felt like a full circle moment: with Ugly, the debut book in question, picking up praise in this publication (“an intersectional critique of the ugly truth behind the perception of beauty,” I wrote in February’s issue) and elsewhere, you’d expect Bhagwandas knows how far she has come from what she calls her “cybergoth” days at university.
Asked to describe her book in three words, she settles on “empowering, shocking, enjoyable” before expanding on this (for my money, those adjectives are valid on all three counts). The aim with Ugly, Bhagwandas says, was for it to be “a sort of uncovering of the truth and a journey along with the reader. It’s almost to give people more information and a bit more of a background to allow them to be more active in their choices and to have a more informed view of what they are doing within the beauty culture that we live in. It’s less about changing your life overnight – that’s unrealistic and sets us up to fail – it’s more about little shifts that make a big difference.”
This aim is matched by the title’s impact. Each chapter delves into a different intersection of beauty standards – from age to body size, race to pretty privilege – and the unrealistic expectations within them. Bhagwandas says she loves a “practical tip”, which was the reasoning behind ending each chapter with a helpful set of questions to take forward. Is there one overarching practical tip someone could take from Ugly?
“To start noticing things. And to be a little bit more – I hate the overuse of this word, but – mindful of the way that you use beauty products, and the messaging that you take in and give out about beauty and what that could mean.”
Ugly delves into the history of beauty in order to find the patterns and underlying factors that influence beauty standards today. One particular point which stuck with me concerned the art world of centuries past, and its approach to depicting quote-unquote beautiful women: often, one artwork would enlist multiple models, and the artists (almost exclusively male) would take the “best parts” of each woman to paint or sculpt. “Sculptors and painters would cherrypick what they thought was beautiful,” Bhagwandas says. “Someone’s always decided what was beautiful for us. That’s how the ideal in cosmetic surgery has been created. It’s as if someone has gone ‘this is the perfect nose’ – which is often a Caucasian one – and then ‘these are the perfect lips,’ and right now that would be fuller lips. It’s cherrypicking things from different people to create this ideal that doesn’t exist.
“The whole point of me including historical research was to show this is happening again and again. Until we know where that comes from and why that happens, it’s really hard to distance and protect yourself from it.”
Having already noticed the book’s undeniable impact on my own everyday life, and with a new understanding of Anita Bhagwandas’ intentions being exactly this, I can’t help but feel Ugly has potential to be a powerful tool in dismantling this repetitious and outdated notion of unattainable beauty.
Ugly is out now via Blink Publishing. Price: £18.99/£9.99 Ebook.
words ELIZABETH MORRIS
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