Skip to main content
Select Source:


ugliness The etymology of the word indicates what is at stake: ‘ugly’ is a Middle English (1150–1475) term meaning ‘frightful’ or ‘repulsive’, and is derived from the Old Norse term uggligr. Uggligr is in turn formed by uggr: fear or horror, and the suffix -ligr: like. An ugly body is thus a physical body that induces horror in us. This element of fear is evident in the ugly bodies par excellence: the monster, the grotesque body, and the freak.

Ugliness is conventionally seen as the opposite of beauty, but its modern use contrasts more directly to normalcy. Even though most of us cannot fulfil ideals of beauty, we can still be considered good-looking, pretty, or nice. If we were considered plain-looking or even unattractive, we would hardly be ugly, since we are still within the range of normalcy.

Normalcy as a concept and social standard arose in the early nineteenth century in Europe, and was linked to the development of statistics and the modern, administrative institutions of the state. Until the mid eighteenth century ‘normal’ meant ‘perpendicular’. By 1840 ‘normal’ had become current in the English language as indicating conformity to, and not deviance from, a standard or the usual. ‘Normality’ and ‘normalcy’ appeared respectively in 1849 and 1857.

The French statistician Adolphe Quetelet (1796–1847) contributed considerably to the concept of ‘the average man’, which he defined as ‘an individual who epitomized in himself, at a given time, all the qualities of the average man and who would represent at once all the greatness, beauty, and goodness of that being’. Deviations from the mean constituted, Quetelet observed, ugliness of the body, vice in morals, and sickness in regard to constitution.

An important reinterpretation of statistical distribution was made by Sir Francis Galton (1822–1911). Where Quetelet considered any deviation from the average an error, Galton saw this as mere difference from the mean. The total variation of these differences in the height of individuals in a population, for example, was defined as the normal distribution, also known as the ‘bell curve’. This way, extremes that Galton saw as positive — intelligence, tallness, fertility etc. — would not be judged as errors as they had been by Quetelet. Variation could be ranked.

The statistics founded by Galton and others enabled the rising state bureaucracies to compile inventories of their citizens' different characteristics and to assess the number of able-bodied persons available for the work force, military purposes, etc. Through the concept of the average and the ranking of the variations, the sound body of the population was defined, thus enabling the state to initiate policies that could further soundness and isolate incurably unsound elements — disabled persons, criminals, demented persons — in suitable institutions.

The ugly body is thus a body whose difference from the normal body is turned into deviance. Ugliness can be seen as a kind of stigma — a term originally used by the ancient Greeks for marks made on the bodies of person who were considered unusual, such as slaves and criminals. ‘Stigma’ is now also used medically to indicate visible evidence of a disease. Other kinds of stigma, not all resulting in typecasting a person as ugly, are: disability, membership of an ethnic group, and criminality.

Criteria for specifying which bodies are normal, maybe even beautiful, and not ugly, vary from society to society and over time. Should the body be symmetrical? Should the skin be smooth, scarred, or tattooed? Should the teeth be filed? Western societies celebrate the untouched, natural body, but at what point disfiguration becomes ugliness is uncertain. Is squinting ugly? Is a harelip, a person with eyes of two colours, a missing arm, an abnormal arm ugly? Among various peoples in Africa, scars forming patterns covering large parts of the body are basic to the beautiful body. Another criterion for beauty is found in how the body is cared for, and often concerns health, hygiene, or aesthetics. Is the skin to be oiled or to be painted or neither? How often should it be washed and with what (water, soap, disinfectant)? Should scents be applied? The extent and range of non-compliance necessary for a person to be considered not only not-beautiful, but also not-normal, and therefore ugly, varies.

In Euro-America, which for long has been dominated by the standards and culture of white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant males, a wide range of groups of people have over time been called ugly: for example aboriginal Australians, Africans, disabled persons, Hottentots, Jews, and wrinkled old women (significantly called ‘witches’).

A protest against the enforcement of normalcy can be found in the use by punk and other movements of ‘disfigurement’ of the body — for example by tattooing which is extensive or in unusual places; piercing of eyebrows, tongues, and noses; and atypical hairstyling. These efforts can be seen as attempts to create an aesthetic of the ugly in protest against conventional standards of beauty.

Claus Bossen


Goffman, E. (1963). Stigma. Notes on the management of spoiled identity. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth.
Halprin, S. (1995). Look at my ugly face. Myths and musings on beauty and other perilous obsessions with women's appearance. Viking Penguin, New York.

See also beauty; body image; body shape.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"ugliness." The Oxford Companion to the Body. . 19 Nov. 2017 <>.

"ugliness." The Oxford Companion to the Body. . (November 19, 2017).

"ugliness." The Oxford Companion to the Body. . Retrieved November 19, 2017 from


664. Ugliness

  1. Avagddu ugly child of Tegid Voel and Cerridwen. [Celtic Folklore: Parrinder, 35]
  2. Balkis hairy-legged type of Queen of Sheba. [Talmudic Legend: Walsh Classical, 45]
  3. Bendith Y Mamau stunted, ugly fairies; kidnapped children. [Celtic Folklore: Briggs, 21]
  4. Berchta beady-eyed, hook-nosed crone with clubfoot and stringy hair. [Ger. Folklore: Leach, 137]
  5. Black Annis cannibalistic hag with blue face and iron claws. [Br. Folklore: Briggs, 24]
  6. Duessa witch, stripped of lavish disguise, found to be hideous hag. [Br. Lit.: Faerie Queene ]
  7. Ethel buck-toothed, gangly teenager in love with idler, Jughead. [Comics: Archie in Horn, 37]
  8. Euryale and Stheno the immortal Gorgons; had serpents for hair and brazen claws. [Gk. Myth.: Zimmerman, 114]
  9. Frankensteins monster ugly monster. [Br. Lit.: Frankenstein, Payton, 254]
  10. gargoyles medieval European church waterspouts; made in form of grotesque creatures. [Architecture: NCE, 1046]
  11. Gorgons snake-haired, winged creatures of frightful appearance. [Gk. Myth.: Howe, 108]
  12. Gross, Allison repulsive witch in the north country. [Scot. Ballad: Childe Ballads ]
  13. Medusa creature with fangs, snake-hair, and protruding tongue. [Gk. Myth.: Hall, 206]
  14. Quasimodo Nowhere on earth a more grotesque creature. [Fr. Lit.: The Hunchback of Notre Dame ]
  15. Spriggans grotesque fairies; dourest and most ugly set of sprights. [Br. Folklore: Briggs, 380381]
  16. Ugly Duchess repulsive woman with pocket-shaped mouth. [Br. Lit.: Alices Adventures in Wonderland ]
  17. Ugly Duckling ugly outcast until fully grown. [Fairy Tale: Misc.]
  18. Witch of Wookey repulsive hag curses boys and girls. [Br. Legend: Brewer Dictionary, 1164]

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Ugliness." Allusions--Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. . 19 Nov. 2017 <>.

"Ugliness." Allusions--Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. . (November 19, 2017).

"Ugliness." Allusions--Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. . Retrieved November 19, 2017 from