The Ugly Truth

The body’s capital


in Archive


This is the story of two sisters. One sister is blonde and beautiful; the other is dark and dowdy. The lighter sister has the appearance of an angel, and the world is kind to her. People give her what she wants without asking any questions — all she has to do is wish. Things do not come as easily to the darker sister, who spends her life in the shadow of the lighter. Struggle and resentment has turned her sour; she mumbles and grumbles and plots her revenge. The two sisters’ lives are as different as two lives can be, all because one was blessed with beauty and the other was cursed with a more commonplace visage.


  • Erotic Capital: The Power of Attraction in the Boardroom and the Bedroom by Catherine Hakim. 304 pages. Basic Books. $26.
  • Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women by Michael Gross. 576 pages. It Books. $16.99.
  • Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model by Ashley Mears. 328 pages. University of California Press. $26.95.

No, this is not a fairy tale — at least not one written by Grimm, Andersen, or Lang. This is the story of Isabelle and Pamela, two anecdotal women from Catherine Hakim’s new book Erotic Capital: The Power of Attraction in the Boardroom and the Bedroom. Hakim uses the sisters to illustrate why the beautiful are more successful in life. Erotic Capital is causing quite a fuss in the United Kingdom. The Guardian alone posted three flabbergasted responses to Hakim’s theory that erotic capital is the quintessential asset that a woman possesses, and that it has the power to either activate or negate other qualities such as intelligence and social status. Hakim, a sociologist who graduated from the London School of Economics, begins her book by laying out what we think we already know: The beautiful have an easier road than the ugly. That people think better of the attractive, and give them more money and more love and more opportunities. That the world the exceptionally attractive experience “is a warmer, more friendly, helpful, welcoming, benign, and easy place to live than the world experienced by ugly people.” It is what follows in Erotic Capital that troubles.

Hakim’s story of the two sisters is not a fairy tale; we know this because of the kind of advice Hakim gives to Pamela, the brunette who eats her feelings. Fairy tales are all about good advice. Scholars such as Marina Warner, Maria Tatar, and Marie-Louise von Franz decode the stories for us, explaining that fairy tales were often vehicles for guidance and warnings for girls, as their road was generally the harder one. The fairy tales told a girl what to do if she found herself accidentally pregnant. (Visit the witch: She has herbs in her garden.) What to do if her mother tries to kill her. (Be resourceful: Shove her in an oven.) What to do if she is too beautiful, too fragile, or too observant. And as for the too ugly, she had best make herself as wise as possible, otherwise no one is going to give her anything.

Make oneself wise? Hakim has no time for such advice. Hakim is solely concerned with building erotic capital through the creation of glamour. If you are born deficient in your looks, you must work even harder to construct an illusion of beauty. The face and body you are born with make up only one of the six identifiers of erotic capital Hakim identifies (erotic capital being why Isabelle’s life is so easy). She can exchange her natural erotic capital for a raise at work, for a more attractive boyfriend, or for a better table at a restaurant. Pamela could make up the difference — well, let’s be honest here, she could try to make up the difference — by utilizing the other five erotic assets — sex appeal, liveliness, social skills, sexuality, and skills of self-presentation — all of which Harkim argues she can learn in order to compensate for any physical issues. And she should, because otherwise Hakim can find no reason for anyone to listen to Pamela. Harkim’s advice is to be a belle laide, “someone who is ugly but becomes attractive.” Luckily, there is an entire industry devoted to the creation of the belle laide, from self-help books to volumizing mascara, Spanx, rhinoplasty, stripper aerobics, Botox, kegel weights, and selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors.

This is where I come out as an ugly girl. At 15, I was a girl divided. My walls were decorated with pages ripped from magazines, with photos of pre-surgery Courtney Love; the awkwardly gawky PJ Harvey; Tori Amos; Not a Pretty Girl’s Ani DiFranco; Babes in Toyland; and all kinds of strange, fierce women and girls. But under my mattress, I stashed my secret copies of Mademoiselle alongside shoplifted Vogues and experimental eye shadow. I had my very own fairy-tale mother who could casually crack jokes about the way I looked, but also a Riot Grrl culture that valued the misshapen. I ultimately felt that I had to choose. I looked in the mirror, acknowledged the hopelessness of my situation, and chose ugly.

It was a relief to fall into that underground, to choose to give myself stupid haircuts and abandon the ability to utilize any of the six markers of erotic capital. Soon I was shaving my head, wearing men’s clothing, and carrying an expression that said, “Yeah. Fuck you, too.” If it’s a fairy-tale world where the beautiful get the princes and the riches and the love and inheritance of their parents, then leave me with my books. The ugly will make herself wise.

This was in the mid-’90s, when the whole supermodel thing was at its zenith. The “trio” of Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, and Linda Evangelista was still displayed on every flat surface. Models were in the gossip columns and on magazine covers. They married rock stars and award-winning actors. They were cast in movies (although that never came to anything good). When Linda changed hair colors, it was reported as news.

In 1995, I must have watched the documentary about fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi Unzipped half a dozen times. This was pre-shaved head, post-“I am just going to wear Army fatigue pants every day for the next two years.” I may have given up on myself, but that didn’t mean I did not enjoy having something on which to sharpen my envy. I watched Unzipped as if I needed a daily reminder that the life of the pretty is unfair. The first time I saw it, I was shocked to discover Linda had as much charm as a two-year-old in full tantrum. She had been my favorite. “Don’t you know you have everything in the entire world?” I wanted to yell at her.

The year of Unzipped was also the year of Michael Gross’s Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women, which became an instant bestseller. I didn’t read the book at the time, but I remember it being displayed in my local mall’s Waldenbooks, which was located next to a clothing shop that sold beautiful clothes I felt I could never pull off. I did, however, read this year’s reissue of the book. You can guess the scandalous revelations it contains without even touching the front cover: Cocaine everywhere. Money laundering and corporate espionage. Male agents, male photographers, male editors, and male bookers who tell the young and naive that the road to superstardom runs through their pants. Girls pimped out by their mothers. There’s statutory rape, drugged rape, metaphorical rape, date rape, and gang rape. Girls go missing. Girls take drugs and leap out of windows. Girls take drugs and shoot the industry men who threatened them. Girls are found murdered and mutilated. Roman Polanski makes an appearance in a room full of drugged, barely conscious 14-year-old girls.

Lest you worry that we’ve turned our fairy-tale world upside down — after all, when a pretty girl smiles, isn’t the world supposed to smile back? — you should remember that the too beautiful have their own category of cautionary tales. The beacon of beauty brings out the wolves. It also awakens envy in the aging mother or step-mother, who will leave the beautiful child out in the woods or send out a hunter to bring back her heart.

It seems a curious decision to reissue Model now. After 1995, the platform that raised supermodels to such great heights began to disintegrate. Perhaps it was decided at the publisher that Model defined an era and is thus an interesting anachronism. Not that the fashion industry has become any less abusive or any more in touch with the real world; it hasn’t. But the supermodel famous simply for being a supermodel is a thing of the past. Actresses have replaced models on fashion magazine covers. The most famous models today are known only within the industry itself (with the exception of Gisele, the Victoria Secret model that men around the world acknowledge in a shower fantasy kind of way). When you hear the name Chanel, you think of the long-dead French designer, not the well paid and high-profile model. Then there’s Agyness whatshername. Coco something-or-other. They’re at the top of their game, and yet the public only has vague notions of who they are. Everyone in the world knew Naomi, knew Christy, knew Claudia and Cindy and Paulina.

Such a shift doesn’t stop legions of young girls from trying to enter the glamorous world of modeling. The quest feels like the extension of the slightly more girlish Disney princess fantasy, in which a man swoops down and rescues the beautiful girl from obscurity and mundanity, taking her on his steed to her happily ever after. We know this because we are on season 17 of America’s Next Top Model. Thousands of girls apply every year despite the show’s inability to produce even America’s Next Slightly Above Average in Fame and Payscale Model. The industry insiders in Ashley Mear’s Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model complain of the model glut, bemoaning that the “supply of bodily capital has swelled in the last two decades, claiming that there are more models and fewer jobs today than ever before.” We can flip through a stack of fashion magazines and never see the same girl. Slack-jawed pretty actresses now populate the perfume ads that made models like Christy Turlington.

And yet here the girls are, lining up and ready to cash in their erotic capital. Mears, a former model turned academic who writes about the modeling industry, states in Pricing Beauty, “It is tempting to think that models are lucky winners in some ‘genetic lottery,’ as though their bodies were superior gifts of nature that automatically receive social recognition… Talent [does not] account for the hundreds of thousands of similarly built genetic lotto winners who will never receive social recognition.” At least not recognition in the form of modeling contracts. There’s no data on whether they get better tables in restaurants.

Thousands of girls are just pretty enough to get fed into the modeling system every year. Mears follows some of them around. Many of them are in debt to their agencies. But they show up in New York or in London, just willowy enough to get a “sure, maybe” and get processed. They get some photos taken to build a portfolio, their name gets passed around, they go on a few go-sees, and they make just enough money to keep believing that the big score is just around the corner. Or they’re dropped without warning from their agency, with no one entirely sure why it wasn’t working. Or maybe they are milling around the opening scene of Gross’s Model, girls “whose names are as yet unknown… They look around wide-eyed at one another, wondering if they’ll be the next big thing, swilling Cristal champagne with a rock star boyfriend. It is… a factory that feeds on young girls.”

Hakim writes, “As the technical aids to enhancing erotic capital increase, the standards of exceptional beauty and sex appeal are constantly raised.” That is true in the modeling world and beyond. When Kate Moss became the expectation, the average working weight for models dropped to an extreme low. Once it was revealed that such a weight could work, it was expected, and then it became the standard. Both Mears and Gross grumble about the impossible weight limit of the modern model, but neither wants to explore how this is affecting the witnesses to the fashion industry, the girls with Vogues stashed under their mattresses. Models carrying a little extra weight on their behinds are lovingly harassed in soft tones until the girls figure out how to lose it one way or another. Mears sees this overtaking the work lives of those who toil outside of fashion as well, painting the model as the first in a new line of “‘aesthetic laborers,’ those workers whose bodies and personalities — the ‘whole person’ — are up for purchase on the market.”

And why shouldn’t we take advantage, with all of these wonderful little Botox and Spanx helpers at our fingertips? Why not be the best that you can be? And by best, of course I mean the thinnest, the most moisturized, the least mobile of facial musculature. Why not manipulate and scheme and deceive and glamour? With so few women of the ’90s aging naturally, and with an even stronger emphasis on perfection for women in the public eye, evidence that this perfection can be refused, and that there are compensations for this refusal, become fewer. Examples of the ugly girl with merit and a voice disappear. I did notice, however, that when Hakim talks of Cinderella, she does so in the Disney mode, as a tale of natural beauty and grace winning the wealthy prince. She doesn’t bother to decode the tale Warner-style, finding messages of the perils of the unmothered, the destructive power of envy, the importance of time spent doing the small, demeaning work and of knowing your shit.

I’m trying to decide who Catherine Hakim is in this fairy-tale world. Is she the wise old witch who dispenses uncomfortable truths? Or is she the Cinderella stepsister who cuts off her toes to cram her foot into the slipper, all the while pretending it’s a totally reasonable thing to do? After all, much of what Hakim says is verified with the briefest glances to our culture and our daily lives. But she is not issuing a warning as potent as those stories about Ceridwen or Vasalisa. She is raining down scorn and pity upon the already maligned. She writes the words “fat” and “ugly” as the ugliest of epithets. “Being overweight is unnecessary and indefensible, on health grounds if nothing else,” she scolds us. The wise old witch knows the power that the ugly and the discarded possess, the wisdom of the orphan, the transformative powers of the fatties. I’m afraid I’m going to have to say she’s the wicked stepsister. And as any good reader of the tales knows, one doesn’t listen to the stepsister. • 30 September 2011